You could say that composer A.R. Rahman’s story began with his first film score for Mani Ratnam’s Roja. But his journey began much earlier, as a boy called A.S. Dileep Kumar who had to give up school to work when his father died; whose life changed at the age of 22 when his mother sold the jewellery set aside for her daughters’ wedding so that her son could buy his first Fostex 16-track mixer recorder. That was 1989, two years before he started working on Roja.
In the latest book on the Chennai-based Oscar- and Grammy-winning music composer, A.R. Rahman—The Spirit of Music—Conversations with Nasreen Munni Kabir, Rahman says: “All those years of struggle, humiliation, being ordered around by other people, seeing worry on the faces of my family, remembering the feeling of being overwhelmed by an inferiority complex, the lack of self-esteem, and even at times, fighting suicidal thoughts—all that seemed to fade away. Sitting in my studio that night, and staring at my new recorder, I felt like a king. The new me was born and the future seemed glorious.”
Film historian Kabir’s book, described as an authorized biography (unlike Kamini Mathai’s A.R. Rahman: The Musical Storm), is a detailed conversation with Rahman, conducted via personal interviews and over Skype, in Chennai, London and Toronto. Kabir took three years to compile these conversations and time, she says, played the greatest part in helping the reputedly reticent composer to open up. “When you spend time with someone, they start to relax and trust you. A.R. is a reserved person, but he enjoys talking and speaks much more than he did when I first met him in 1999. He also has a great sense of humour and is basically an honest person, and doesn’t censor the conversation,” says Kabir.
When she asks him how he circumvents a musical block, Rahman says he turns to the poetry of Subramanya Bharathi (Tamil) and uses “his words for inspiration”. For a Hindi or Urdu tune, he finds inspiration in the poetry of Hazrat Amir Khusrau or Bulleh Shah. So Chaiyyan chaiyyan from Dil Se... was based on Shah’s O tere ishq nachaya kar ke thaiya thaiya and Khusrau’s Ae sharbat-e aashiqui resulted in Ae hairathe aashiqui in Guru.
AR Rahman--The Spirit of Music--Conversations with Nasreen Munni Kabir: Om Books International, 216 pages, Rs495
Another momentous occasion in Rahman’s career was working on Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Even though his tryst with the West began with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams, he acknowledges that winning two Oscars did change things. “In a way they gave credibility to my musical journey, and gave me the confidence to continue trying different sounds. I’m an entity in the West now,” he says.
Following her earlier work, Lata Mangeshkar in her Own Voice (2009), Kabir’s book on Rahman is focused on the insights provided by Rahman alone and on listing his achievements (discography, awards). The two unique elements are the inclusion of sheet music for the theme from the movie Bombay and the title song from Roja as well as a limited-edition CD with eight officially unreleased tracks (only with the first edition).
Kabir is clear that analysis is an intrinsic part of the book. “Analysis is achieved through discussion of process. Ultimately you create a space for him to look at his work in finer detail. I am not a musicologist so (I) can’t pretend to ask specialist questions. Perhaps that is another way for someone in the future to write on Rahman,” she says.
No conversation with Rahman is complete without mention of his mother, whom he paid homage to during his Oscar acceptance speech when he said “Mere paas maa hai”. Kabir asks him why he quoted from Deewar that night and with disarming candour he says “…I thought if I had lost that first Oscar that night, there would be one person who would still love me—my mother.”
And did Rahman ever replace the jewellery his mother sold in 1989? “Yes. Tenfold,” he says.
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