I still cherish the time I played my song Maa tujhe salaam… to cwhen he had visited my studio in Chennai. He loved my singing and offered many kind words on it. If he were alive, I’d love to play it for him again,” reminisces AR Rahman, who was recently in the city to promote a documentary titled Bismillah of Benaras, based on the Bharat Ratna-honoured shehnai player.
The film is directed by UK-based Nasreen Munni Kabir, who also authored the book, A R Rahman: The Spirit of Music that released this summer. Rahman mentions, “After watching this film and witnessing Bismillah’s austere life, your perception of him will change.”
According to the Oscar-winning composer, the ‘guru-shishya parampara’ (teacher-student relationship) that is the underlying crux of Indian classical music is largely absent in Bollywood and contemporary music. “I don’t think anyone has gratitude like that in contemporary music. It’s like the murshid and mureed (teacher and disciple) in Sufism. It’s not just the passing on of knowledge, but of the spirit too,” Rahman says, adding, “I remember learning my first Carnatic music lesson from my father’s teacher. He taught me one varnam (carnatic song) and said, ‘That’s it, I think you’ve learnt it all. You’ll become a composer.’ The next day, I signed up for the music of Roja (1992),” he smiles.
Rahman believes that only Indians can understand the core of classical music. “Spirituality is hardwired into us, and that’s the reason we can connect with classical music. We get gooseflesh when we hear a particular raag (melody), and different raags evoke different emotions. I don’t know if it’s relevant for a foreign audience,” Rahman says. Likening Bismillah’s relationship with Benaras to his own with Chennai, Rahman signs off laughing, “You know what they say about the English and why they colonised the world. It’s the same with Chennai and me. If anything, it’s driven me out, and that’s why I’m making music across the world.”