It couldn’t have been easy— this transformation from a painfully shy south Indian boy-man to a free-hug endorsing 43-year-old composer and singer who can capture the imagination of a packed stadium. A.R. Rahman has never been as self-assured and easy on stage as he was on 31 May, entertaining a whopping 40,000 fans at Pune’s Balewadi stadium, a venue that hosted the Commonwealth Youth Games last year.
Live act: 40,000 fans attended the Rahman concert at Pune’s Balewadi stadium on 31 May.
The man works hard at his act, I find, when I sneak into the 7-hour rehearsal that begins sometime around midnight. The stage is buzzing—musicians tweaking their gear, dancers stretching and singers humming to each other. Conductor Srinivas Murthy, the seniormost member in the troupe and the man to be relied upon throughout the show, looks wired and is positioned to the left of the stage, next to flautist Naveen Kumar, who has worked with Rahman since Roja (1992). Beside them, at the extreme left corner, is Kabhi Kabhi Aditi singer Rashid Ali tuning his guitar alongside guitarist Sanjeev Thomas, who adds his rock cool to the show. Singers Benny Dayal (the versatile vocalist who delivered the hit Pappu Can’t Dance Saala), Raja Hasan (the riveting performer from Bikaner on SaReGaMaPa Challenge 2007), Shweta Pandit (Jatin-Lalit’s niece, who sang Bandhne Lagi from Naach) and Suzanne D’Mello (Mumbai’s jazz circuit will recognize this silken-voiced singer of Latika’s Theme) chat away on the right of the stage, near the wings where I stand. There’s also a DJ console right next to us and this is the first time a DJ will mix Rahman’s music live on stage, so I’m curious to know what tricks he has on his table. The percussionists—one on the pads and the other on an acoustic kit—are on the far right of the stage. There are thousands of bulbs stuck into steel bowls that have been glued on to the stage. It’s a unique idea, looks hilarious up close and I’m not sure about its visual appeal.
Suddenly, everybody’s looking up at the highest level on stage. Rahman is in. He’s speeding on the Grand Boston Piano on stage and ends with a cue to Hariharan, who croons Tu Hi Re in his honey-glazed vocals. Hariharan and Rahman walk down to the first level on stage and the singer breaks into an impromptu Marathi dialogue with an invisible audience and fools around for a bit before it’s time to take position back on top of the stage. Rahman pulls off a fantastic surprise by including an old diamond in his set list—a Khamosh Raat from Thakshak sung by Roop Kumar Rathod, a richly textured ballad that will go down as a classic.
But what takes my breath away is the sitar- and guitar-fuelled Jaage Hain Der Tak from Guru with Rahman on vocals. The composer makes up for the absence of the throaty choir and elevates the track to its dramatic heights with jangling power chords by Thomas on guitar and Asad Khan on sitar. Khan, who was edgy and crabby till the track began, gets his due—several appreciative nods from Rahman. There’s a sense of wild abandon and the pint-sized composer in black jeans and a tee takes off his denim jacket and is bouncing onstage. After the troupe has run through the track once, the composer improvises on an interlude on the keys, played by the talented Stephen Devasia, a Palakkad-based keyboard player who has begun working with Rahman recently. Rahman makes short work of the improvisation but there’s a dramatic change in the sound—you at once imagine the last shadows of night making way for daybreak in the cinematic rise and fall of the arrangement. But there’s no time to dwell on this sudden burst of inspiration. There are a dozen or more tracks to run through, with 30 tracks finally making it to the set list.
Rahman next tackles the hydraulic stage set-up designed to make a grand entry from below the stage. He needs to stay about 10ft above the ground on the elevated platform and sing Dil Se, a track which requires all the gut he’s got. An unsteady Rahman keeps at it like a man possessed, and by the fourth run, he’s a powerhouse on stage, back to catching the stray off note, a tiny missed beat and fine-tuning every nuance of his set, downing cups of tea with his team to keep going.
The composer turns his attention to The Wandering Souls, a group of young Rahman fans and musicians from Pune who organize Rahmania concerts to celebrate his music. Onstage is a group of drummers who play the marching drums to a percussion-driven medley, including Azeem-O-Shan Shahenshah from Jodhaa Akbar and Veerapandi Kotayile from the Mani Ratnam thriller, Thiruda Thiruda. After one round, Rahman chats up the 24 drummers, who are clearly not used to such late nights. “Enjoy your performance, play with more attitude,” he says. His tone is friendly, and after another round, he sends the group packing, with a “You’re tired. Get some good sleep.”
At about 5am, when some others show signs of wilting, a rare sight unfolds. Rahman sits down on a mattress that has been hurriedly brought on to stage by the crew, folds his legs beneath him, wears his prayer cap and begins singing Maula Mere Maula from Delhi–6, playing the harmonium to tune. His eyes shut out the world and the track absorbs him. Raja Hasan, who takes on main lead, keeps looking towards Rahman eagerly for approval and is visibly relieved when the track ends. Next, Rahman moves on to Khwaja Mere Khwaja from Jodhaa Akbar with the same intensity. The crew looks on in awe as Rahman loses himself in music as a devotee would in prayer.
Towards the end of the rehearsals, the DJ on stage begins playing his mix, which is mostly instrumental patches from Rahman hits with some classic scratch sound effects. Just as the first rays of light change the colour of the sky, Rubaroo plays off the mix—it’s a surreal coincidence, and a lasting impression for all those who’ve always associated the track with sunshine. And it’s a wrap.
But nothing prepared me for the real show in the evening. The multi-level stage, the massive LED screens, the visuals and the lights made for a spectacle that no international concert in the country has witnessed so far. The crowd is emotionally charged and bellows when rapper Blaaze, another old collaborator of Rahman’s, makes an appearance in all-black with a blingy cane in hand. Murthy leads the bombast of instruments, Rahman emerges out of the womb of the stage and the stadium explodes into a collective howl. After a euphoric Jai Ho performance, he says into the mike: “It has been my dream to perform in Pune. It’s finally come true.”
It’s unusual for Rahman to bring in this element of intimacy with the crowd, but it’s working like magic. I remember the Unity of Light concert in Mumbai back in 2003—he let the music do the talking, but performed with the same burning ferocity, except with his eyes closed and head raised to the skies most of the time. His sincerity is astounding— even when he goes up to two persons in the audience and asks them who they love and hate the most, or whether they love him. Of course the audience, which has never seen this side of him, is in shock. And then he goes on to shock some more when he speaks of how he composed Rehna Tu on a flight. “It’s written for the character in Delhi-6 who nobody wants because he’s half Hindu and half Muslim. For me, it’s about loving someone for who they are. I wrote it for myself,” he says, following it up with his trademark chuckle.
And it’s not every day that you get to see Lata Mangeshkar laughing at “Rahman sahib” because he was made to wear the Pune topi (cap). Nor do you get to see Rahman candidly admitting that “all of us are shivering on stage because she’s in the audience”. Of course, there are glitches—the entire opening verse of Genda Phool is inaudible due to some technical snag but the crowd hardly notices. Pandit, who renders the track, hits a shaky patch but picks up remarkably in Ringa Ringa from Slumdog Millionaire.
But every little and big detail— the fire dancers, the cutting-edge animation that ran in the background, D’Mello’s trill, glass-shattering Enya-meets-Mariah Carey vocals, Tanvi’s hip hop wizardry, the unplugged medley by Hariharan, Rathod and Ali, which showed the audience some bona fide balladry, and the Jai Ho finale with fireworks transported the audience to an other-worldly place. Some call it Rahmania.
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