Rahman @ 25: Keeping The Faith

Faith is a strange thing, which Rahman has in god and his audience in him. There is little on his face that can speak of his laurels. No expression of self-love, self-regard not even self-satisfaction. All one notices is a permanent rendition of an almost Buddha like calm. His music has been doing something similar to millions for 25 long years.

Prarthna Gahilote | Sept 08, 2017

For a whole lot of people, his music makes it easier for them to connect to their god. But when A R Rahman strums the strings of his soul, what he churns out is the sound of the elan vital itself. Many define it as ‘pure music’, but for Rahman it is almost like delivering a prayer to the lord. No wonder, shoes are barred from his studio, simply because music is spirituality for him and the spiritual must not be sullied with shoes. Rahman’s approach to music is not about him being the creator, but about handing over what god wants him to convey through his strains.

Perhaps why, god himself chooses to unleash his joy when Rahman is to perform. It is then following some strange coincidence that every time Rahman performs, the heavens pour waters from above. Ask singer Hariharan if you don't believe this. He has a string of experiences to narrate. Top on his list is a concert in Bangalore where people refused to leave their space even as they braved torrential rainfall. “Bangalore was epic,” says Hariharan. Adding, “we saw the rainfall and thought we could never perform that evening but the audience wouldn’t leave.” Singer Kailash Kher, a co-participant of the same experience adds, “it rained so hard that night that even the stage had blown off.” The audience stayed on.

Perhaps in keeping with this continuity, in New York, on July 14th, the IIFA awards weekend when Rahman grouped up with his musicians and guest artists to present a performance, the shiny bright New York skyline shrouded its skies in darkness. Dense water laden clouds first threatened to pour all morning and then opened up as afternoon approached. The day after the concert, the sun shone bright every day without fail. But how could the rain gods fail Rahman when he was to perform? After all, they have been keeping him company since childhood. Rahman’s first experience of attending a concert, as a child, was listening to an African band called Osibisa performing live in Chennai, in knee high slush.

The morning hours of the IIFA Rocks concert day were allotted to a detailed sound check. But there was little of the sound check that could actually happen. That schedule went in technicians clearing the stage off water and upturning stage lights, pulled down through remote controlled levers to empty themselves out.

The meteorological department had forewarned the MetLife stadium in-charge and Rahman's team that the concert would be called off if the promised thunderstorm arrived in time. A ticket buying crowd of 50000 was expected to turn up at the same place they had seen U2's Bono perform the concluding concert of their tour sometime back. In the evening, the audience sat covered in white raincoats refusing to leave their chairs despite the rain. Rahman’s music had them spell bound and rain could not be enough of dampner to take them away from the stadium or look for cover. Such can be the magic of a Rahman night under the open skies.

For a man entrusted with such heavy responsibility, Allah Rakha Rahman is a man of light bearing. Twentyfive fine years of super successful music, two Oscars, two Grammys, the Golden Globe and BAFTA award, he is still light-footed like a child who has just learned to walk. On stage during performances and beyond it, Rahman walks almost as if he floats on hope coming from deep depths of sorrow. There is little on his face that can speak of his laurels. No expression of self-love, self-regard not even self-satisfaction. All one notices on his face, is a permanent rendition of an almost Buddha like calm. Could that be the afterglow of the music that he creates? Perhaps.

It is difficult to spot A R Rahman on stage where every ‘nobody’ can run the risk of considering himself a ‘somebody’. You have to ask for him. Someone points in a direction where all you see is a huge piano and few technicians around. You ask for him again and are given the same direction. The non-descript Rahman sa’ab is crouched behind the piano, carrying his giant stature just as casually as one would carry his own skin.

Dressed in a plain white shirt which seems cotton, he has a faded pair of maroon pants on and oddly enough a muffler. He sits there on the edge of the piano stool almost nervously. Acclaimed artist after artist, who Rahman has called to be a part of his line up for the evening, queues up to greet him. He sits there, gingerly shaking hands and catching a quick quiet word. If he is excited, there's no telling so. Nervous, maybe? No one has yet been able to say. No emotion betrays his face. For a man of music its surprising that he has such few words to say, except in his notes. For Rahman’s own silence leaves everyone including musicians guessing what might happen on stage next.

On stage, Rahman’s security flags down any cameras that present themselves to document the sound check on film. Only the official camera persons are allowed clicks. The guest artists flitter themselves out, some sitting on wet empty chairs meant for the evening audience. Others fill in green rooms to wait out their turn. As the sound check proceeds, Rahman himself disappears for a while for his afternoon prayers.

Faith is a strange thing, which Rahman has in god and his audience in him. Reason why despite the Tamil songs controversy, that followed his London concert on July 8 2017, the audience refused to buy an excuse or a tirade against Rahman to stay away from his New York concert. Certainly, a befitting reply to rabble rousers. Rahman had been criticised, mostly in the virtual world during his Netru, Indru, Naalal (Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow) concert at the Wembley stadium for performing more Tamil songs. Many on social media had claimed that the audience, disappointed at not getting a good enough dose of Bollywood masala which they had expected had walked out of the stadium as Rahman was performing. Much later when asked about it by an Indian news channel, NDTV, Rahman had simply said, “we tried our best,” and drowned the controversy with that one sentence. The anger against Rahman carefully crafted on social media remained limited to where it started, the digital space and angry TV studios. In person, the only outpouring Rahman witnesses is love.

Backstage, singer Mika Singh engaged in an affectionate conversation with fellow singer Mohit Chauhan is said to have himself requested an inclusion in Rahman's New York outing. Rahman’s team had not approached him for a performance but Mika Singh ensured himself a berth when he heard about the tribute concert. In his own words he “could not have missed this chance.” Still high on the fact that he got to playback, ‘Heer toh badi sad hai’ for Rahman two years back, he says, “that one song has helped me make more money at concerts than the makers may have made through the whole film.” Looking at Chauhan he adds, “It’s a Rahman number after all. And paaji you toh got 10 songs in Rockstar.” Mika Singh had sung ‘Heer’ for a Ranbir Kapoor starrer, Tamasha, a film by Imtiaz Ali in 2015. Four years before Ali chose ‘Heer’, for his film, he had partnered with Rahman in the path-breaking Rockstar that sailed through the box office only on Rahman’s lilting music. Mohit Chauhan, the voice of Rahman's Rockstar is in New York for this tribute concert, for his own reason: He can never say no to Rahman. Singer Hariharan affirms he can find no reason to miss a Rahman concert, every time he is called to perform. While for singer Kailesh Kher, covering a distance of over 12000 kilometres, from Mumbai where he is based to New York is worth it, even if he is slated to sing just one song in Rahman’s concert. Such is the exalted position creative entities in music have offered to Rahman.

AR Rahman and Ranbir Kapoor at the 2011 Rockstar Live concert in Mumbai.

This one rare time, Rahman known to be travelling with a 100-odd crew for his concerts, is travelling with a small entourage. Except the very gifted percussionist, composer and arranger Ranjit Barot, there aren't many easily recognisable names in his band. Barot, also musical director for Rahman’’s live shows is scheduled to fly off to LA the very next day after Rahman’s concert to work on his own album with Bruce Swedein, the sound engineer famous for his genius in Michael Jackson’s 1982 release Thriller. He says of Rahman, “in my personal musical journey there have been a few people that have helped me shape my approach and philosophy towards music. AR is one such person. Someone who gives of himself to music completely and shares his rapture with others unselfishly. This is the only way to be.”

At the Rahman concert, Barot is fully in control, working with ease with brilliant back up musicians and vocalists hired in the US. Rahman’s New York concert then is not just a celebration of a quarter of a century full of brilliance from the Mozart of Madras but a little more significant than what one sees with naked eyes. If you look closely, goras playing every note of a dark skinned Indian to perfection is a delectable delight in the fast skewing cultural fabric of Trump's America. It is almost a sign of Barack Obama's grace of the US of lore where equality preceded all virtues.

If these musicians had put in hours of labour into perfecting this sound, no one is told. A whole lot of things had already gone wrong for the big night. The sound engineers who had rehearsed with Rahman for the show were not given visas. All of them had to be replaced by those who hadn’t rehearsed. The rain finished the audio system at the concert venue and even the guest artists who had been put on stand by for rehearsals on arrival in the US did not find the opportunity to do so. Rahman himself is surprisingly going into the show without even one rehearsal with his guest artists from India. He usually puts in three to four days of full rehearsals with his band before they take stage. For someone ignoring the Tamil fire on its tail, till after performance perhaps (his first reaction to the controversy came after the concert), Rahman must be a gutsy gamer. That's not what even the grand old dames of rock and roll, Rolling Stones, 73 and 74-year-old Keith Richards and Mick Jagger have known to have ever done. In the 50 years that the Rolling Stones have clocked with over 2000 concerts, Richards and Jagger are known to have never gone on stage without rehearsals. That then, must underline something about Rahman's sheer genius.

At 50, Rahman has already spent half his life composing spell bounding music for films. He may have another 25 years to catch up with the Rolling Stones in terms of performances but he has enough trophies in his back pack to hang his boots when ever he wants. And it’s not just crowns that Rahman has collected, his range in music and understanding of film music, has established crooners and composers baffled. Film directors swear by Rahman’s understanding of not just technology but even films and film scripts to an extent that he can actually add to a film’s strength. He is so educated in cinema that no Rahman film can be accused of mismatched music or a half baked job. For film directors, hiring Rahman is not just money’s worth but actually getting tailor made harmonies that weave themselves into the screenplay.

Film makers go to him, braving his idiosyncrasies because they are sure his music will lift their film beyond commercial success to eternal acclaim. Subhash Ghai, they say, found it strange to be waiting outside a composer’s door post midnight for a session for a film but went along because he knew he was onto something special. After all he had waited long for Rahman to finish his ongoing projects and start with him. Ghai’s Taal, released in 1999, sold 10 Lakh cassettes in two days. TIPS Cassettes and Records Industries bought the music rights for an astounding 5 crores and found it difficult to meet the initial orders. Except the national award that went to Ismail Darbar for Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Rahman walked away with every film award there was for Taal, that year.

At 50, Rahman has already spent half his life composing spell bounding music for films. He may have another 25 years to catch up with the Rolling Stones in terms of performances but he has enough trophies in his back pack to hang his boots when ever he wants.
Imtiaz Ali often narrates that he was given hours long recordings by Rahman over email for Rockstar and was asked to choose what he wanted from it. Would a music composer really leave it to his director to organise and arrange his music? Would he allow the film director clipping and chopping and pasting together what he thinks is useful without the music director looking in? Perhaps when you are A R Rahman you concede that space because a snip here or there wouldn’t really take away from the brilliance of his music. Any which way you look at it, it remains just that: Ablaze. Clearly, in the tentative world of films, one thing is a perennial guarantee: If it is an A R Rahman film, at least the music of the film will be remembered forever after, even if the film itself doesn’t do well commercially. For film directors, USP has remained a tag synonymous with the Mozart of Madras ever since his first film.

In 1992 when Rahman broke into the scene with Roja, his first foray into film music, it wasn't a planned move. He did the film for a lark only because he wanted to produce good music for someone who appreciated good sound. That connoisseur of music was Mani Ratnam who liked the first notes that Rahman had sent him so much that he landed in his house the next day to hear more of the same. Rahman had been given 25000 rupees as fee for the entire soundtrack, a paltry sum compared to his fee for ad jingles that he had been making then. The quarter of a lakh rupees is what he could have earned in three days. And then Choti si aasha, the first song to be composed for Roja took the world by storm. It’s lyrics, "aasmano mein udney ki aasha, chaand taaron sey milney ki aasha" have since come to define much of Rahman's own flight into the sky. It was also the song and project that required Rahman to give up his seat at the Berkley School of Music in Boston, US. Twentytwo years later that same school was to give Rahman an honourary doctorate, a masterclass and a scholarship in his name. Six years later when Ratnam made Dil Se, the film crashed at the box office but Rahman’s music established him as the invincible tunesmith that Indian films had ever seen. Venus, the music company that bought its rights, started with an initial run of 2 million copies taking it up to 6 million. Rahman’s music found the film the unique distinction of being the first Asian film to enter the UK Top 10.

Percussionist Ranjit Barot, ARR and Mohit Chauhan at a concert.

Breaking conventions comes easily to Rahman. When he debuted in the film industry he changed the very sound of music in the films. He changed traditional tuning patterns, broke the structure of compositions and introduced technology in the creation of music that was unimaginable. He even managed shifting the centre of hindi film music from Mumbai to Chennai and in doing so blurring the great divide that existed between north and south India, its films and music. No wonder, Rahman is a milepost in Indian film music.

Rahman’s film music has seen such love that it is impossible for even his playback singers to name one song as the “best” Rahman ditty. Fans find that to be an absurd question. But a bit of that may be solved on September 1, 2017 with the worldwide release of One Heart: The AR Rahman Concert film. In India the film releases on September 7, 2017. The biographical documentary features 15 of his most popular songs and marks 25 years of Rahman in showbiz. It also has unseen footage right to his early renditions and detailed interviews with the composer/ singer himself. The proceeds from the concert film are to go to Rahman’s One Heart Foundation which has been created to look after aged musicians and their families. In a film industry that doesn’t take much time to forget success stories of the past, the One Heart Foundation would be a one of its kind initiative and a rare gesture of kindness.

Not for Rahman, though. Philanthropy and otherworldliness come easily to Rahman. He prays before every session, never misses his namaz, lights an orange candle before composing or recording, one after the other till he finishes the session. Those who have visited his studio in Chennai speak about the mound of orange wax on his table which comes from the candles that he especially brings all the way from Ajmer sharif dargah, where he is a regular visitor. Just like the Nizamuddin auliya dargah where the wee-hour visitors can find Rahman sitting quietly on the floor in a corner, rejuvenating his connection with his god. Few outside of the dargah administration know of Rahman’s visits post midnight or at dawn. Just like very few know of the amount of charity Rahman does. For years, he has quietly been feeding thousands of homeless on a regular basis through langars with organisors given strict instructions that his donations must not be mentioned to anyone. He’s known to have gifted the faithful “haj trips” through his staff without letting the hajis know. Members of his office mention trips abroad where shopping in Apple stores, Rahman is seen buying Ipads and Macs in bulk to give away to people not in his immediate circle but who may have met him someplace and asked him for one, once. A favourite story of his management is of a man in a store in the US who followed Rahman around asking him for an Ipad. Rahman did not say anything to the man and kept himself busy looking at things he wanted to pick. But just before he left the shop, Rahman told his manager to add an Ipad to his cart and give it to the guy trailing him.

Rahman’s tech-savviness is held in awe by his colleagues and film directors both. He’s someone who rips apart every device he is given to understand how it works and then puts it back together again. He knows his keyboard that he first composes on, inside out. There wouldn’t be one key board that he owns that he hasn’t seen the insides of. Clearly he knows every latest technology in sound engineering that has ever been invented.

Yet when A R Rahman composes he never forgets that a song must first have a soul. And it is this soul that he never misses. It is this soul that one finds in Deepa Mehta’s 1947, Earth, a film on partition where Rahman sings his own composition, Eeshwar Allah or Khwaja merey khwaja from Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Jodha Akbar and even Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar’s Kun Faya Kun.

Musicians Yesudas and Vishal Bharadwaj have called Rahman a “genius” in interviews. So has Shankar Mahadevan of Shankar Ehsan Loy fame. Percussionist Sivamani has attributed his fame and stardom to only and only Rahman. But that then would be true for the whole range of singers and musicians that Rahman employs to deliver his music. Music composer/singer Vishal Dadlani had once described Rahman as an encyclopedia on production.

Many say he composes and mixes the singer’s voice with a basic rhythm track and then goes on to add music making improvisations and innovations to what he finally wants. His musical influences don’t define him. Instead he defines them. So if Rahman decides to base a song on a middle eastern style or south American, he makes it Rahman school of Middle Eastern music or Rahman school of South American music. The same goes for Sufi music which undoubtedly no one can do better than him, anywhere in the world. Music stalwarts consider Rahman a path breaker, trend setter, trail blazer who is not fearful or mindful of either trends or commercial viability of his music. Rahman adds character to music and music as character to films.

He is known to give what he creates and creation is not something he is known to compromise with. Even in the face of criticism. At the core of his music lies an Indian-ness which has now come to be defined as the Rahman school of music. The western influences in his music do not sink the Indian, possibly because he savours working with his own people.

A R Rahman at the sound check of the IIFA rocks concert in New York in July 2017.

Rahman is a phenomenon not because of how commercially successful his music has been but because he makes every listener, very singer, every musician feel themselves. He helps them delve deep within and connect with something that can be termed god, soul or the recesses of one’s own heart. His music has layers which peal off one by one when played on loop, making it an eternal entry on every playlist. There is after all, so much more to discover every time a new discovery is made in the arrangement.

Naturally, Rahman is every playback singer’s dream come true. Those who have sung for him hungrily wait for another call. Those who have got a call from his office for a rendition can’t forget it. Others who haven’t, wait for it, as a milestone reached. Singers in Rahman’s studio are given full freedom to sift through every possible variation and Rahman records it all. Mohit Chauhan can’t forget the experience of recording Rockstar for Rahman. He says, “Rahman sa’ab would record the songs himself. There would be just him in the studio working on the console, Imtiaz and I. He would let you sing the way you wanted and from his console tell you that he had got what he wanted and now one could jam.” It was this jamming that resulted in the laughter included in Rahman’s Delhi 6 chartbuster Masakali, an idea improvised on spot and introduced in the song by the singer and retained by the composer. For many that became the distinctive feature of the song but for Chauhan it etched Rahman’s greatness who wasn’t insecure about his melody and allowed the singer to experiment with what he had created. Says Chauhan, “brilliance doesn’t come in close cut square boxes. No one understands that better than Rahman sa’ab which is why he is who he is.” Adding, “he makes you feel like singing and going on singing. What you hear on the headphones transports you to another world. Sometimes it even scares you but takes you somewhere else.” That ‘somewhere else’, is an uncommon impossible practice in contemporary Bollywood, chained to the pressures of commercial success.

But then Rahman is different from average Bollywood. Even in his wicked sense of humour. When Rockstar’s headliner, Sadda haq was recorded quietly in the wee hours by Mohit Chauhan in Imtiaz Ali’s presence and Rahman’s absence, Rahman is said to have kept that final take asking Chauhan, “what? Are you afraid of me to record perfectly behind my back?” During the recording of another hot seller from the film, Jo Bhi main, in Rahman’s still being finished studio in Mumbai when a perfectly functioning bulb started flickering suddenly, Rahman is known to have said, “what’s happening? This bulb just got possessed with your singing.”

On two other occasions Chauhan recalls being left speechless by Rahman’s wit. At the Rockstar concert in 2011 in Mumbai while rehearsing Nadaan parindey on stage, jut as the lyrics, “sab karam ke kapdey mailey hain” came up, Rahman had told Chauhan, “when this line comes you can tear your clothes on stage if you want” and laughed. In New York, again this July, in the green room, Rahman while updating Chauhan on how his two songs for the evening would travel from one to the other, said, “from Nadaan parindey we’ll go into Sadda haq and just before we finish Sadda haq we can both box each other.”

He makes you feel like singing and going on singing. What you hear on the headphones transports you to another world. Sometimes it even scares you but takes you somewhere else. - Mohit Chauhan
On stage though, Rahman is a transformed man. There is no personal halo thrust upon the performance, nudging guest singers to the periphery. In fact, Rahman maintains such a low profile that he mostly sticks to his place behind the piano that he plays through the concert. If you were sitting at a distance from the stage there is every chance that you wouldn’t even notice Rahman at his own concert even on the life size LED screens put up on the sides of the stadium. You’ll look for him because you can hear him but he will not engage in banter like other artists, almost in a Bob Dylan way.

There’s no attempt to hog the limelight. There’s no long winding introductions for fellow singers. There’s no glorifying back stories about songs that they present together. And more importantly there’s no mention of, “when I did this.” On stage, Rahman let’s his guest artists be. They can sing, dance, engage with audiences and pretty much do what they want. For his part, Rahman introduces the artists in one line either from his piano stool or at times gets up to take the spot just one step ahead of his stool. At no point does he shove himself centre stage. So when Jonita Gandhi and Neeti Mohan, two regular acts in his concerts worldwide, step up, Rahman allows them to be up front in their designer gowns. Even actress Aditi Rao Hydari, making her stage debut with Tamil hit Vaan wasn’t guided or over shadowed. When Hariharan is invited to play his part, Rahman sticks to playing the piano as he does when Kailash Kher and Mika Singh take the stage. He only briefly leaves his place as the piano man when Mohit Chauhan sings Nadaan Parindey, straddling the stage with Chauhan.

But even this time, Rahman doesn’t dictate the stage, moving ever so softly around a dancing Chauhan ensuring there is no real head butt or “boxing each other” as he had earlier suggested. When Mika Singh starts crooning Heer, the LED screens on stage light up with bright motifs from trucks in Punjab. In his quintessential style Mika much like Kailash Kher address the audience directly, calling out as they enter and leave the lap. Rahman remains on stage as artist after artist performs and disappears in the wings. Some one in the crowd bellows, “Rahman, I love you,” carefully choosing to do so when the applause has died after a song. An embarrassed Rahman responds to him with just two words, “thank you” only after he is forced to acknowledge the fan’s repeated declaration of love echoing through the stadium. The audience breaks into a collective laughter and a resounding cheer. Rahman resumes his recital. The audience falls silent to drift into timelessness.

Simply because Rahman's music is ageless since it gives his audience a sense of discovery, where each layer is a world in itself like waves in the ocean. Incidentally, One Heart has shots of Rahman wading through sea water with only the crashing of the waves serving as its musical backdrop. There is nothing you can do to not dive deep in Rahman’s music. There is a hopeless enchantment when he composes or performs, almost like an induced hypnosis. The spell of which can only break with another Rahman composition.

In 1992 when Rahman first challenged the order of conventional Indian film music with Roja, he reversed many long established prescriptions in the music world. It took the Time magazine 13 years to name Roja’s music as the “10 Best soundtracks of all time, but by that time, in 2005, the Rahman sound had been established worldwide.

In Rahman’s own words there can be no true music without heart. That evening in New York, what Rahman offered to his audience was all heart. Clearly, if in days, there are day dreams and then there are those others, days full of dreams, for Rahman believers the IIFA Rocks concert was a fulfilled day of dreams.

(Author tweets at @prattyg)

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