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A close, fascinating insight into the life and work of AR Rahman, that brilliant yet reticent composer. Shohini Ghosh reviews.

books Updated: May 06, 2011 22:10 IST
Shohini Ghosh

AR Rahman: The Spirit of Music
Conversations with Nasreen Munni Kabir
Om Books International
Rs495, pp 216

Over the decades, Nasreen Munni Kabir has been archiving the work of, in her words, "history makers" of the Bombay film industry. Her conversations in the publications on Javed Akhtar (Talking Songs and Talking Films) and Lata Mangeshkar (Lata Mangeshkar...In Her Own Voice) have been invaluable to scholars and cinephiles. In her latest book, she presents a series of conversations with India's most visible musical genius, AR Rahman. Recorded over three years starting in 2007, these conversations are perhaps the closest that admirers can get to the reticent and introverted music composer.

Rahman grew up as a loner, who, at the age of five, spent hours in a room playing the harmonium. His father was RK Sekhar, a successful composer, arranger and conductor, who worked in over 100 films and died in 1976 at the age of 43 when his son was only nine years old. Sekhar's death threw the family into a severe financial crisis. His widow struggled to maintain her family by hiring out the musical instruments left behind by her husband. During this time, the family took solace from the spiritual guidance of Karimullah Shah Qadri, a Sufi peer and decided to adopt the path of Sufi Islam. Sekhar's wife 'Kasturi' changed her name to 'Kareema Begum' while her son AS Dileep Kumar adopted the name AR Rahman. In 1990, Kareema Begum sold all the jewellery that she had kept for her daughters' wedding and bought her son a multi-track recorder/mixer.

This transformed the young man's life who had by now graduated from being a sessions musician to a jingles composer.

The year 1991 was a major turning point for Rahman. The eminent filmmaker Mani Ratnam had a falling out with famous composer Ilaiyaraaja and approached the novice Rahman to compose music for his new film Roja. The experience of working with Ratnam opened up a whole new world. So enriching was the process that when it was over, Rahman felt a sense of vacuum. He told Ratnam that he had enjoyed the experience so much that he would never want to work on "another movie or with another director". But Ratnam advised: "No, your music should not be limited to my films or to me. It should be for the whole world." These words had a deep impact on Rahman.

What makes Kabir's book such a delight is that it is replete with fascinating insights about Rahman's music. His fans would be interested to know that in the qawwali 'Khwaja Mere Khwaja' from Ashutosh Gowariker's Jodhaa Akbar, all the different voices on the track belong to Rahman. Another revelation is that the lyrics of this qawwali were written by his "spiritual teacher" (whose identity he refuses to divulge) under the pseudonym 'Kashif'. The haunting track of 'The Bombay Theme' is perhaps the only theme in the history of film music to have been used in four separate films: Mani Ratnam's Bombay, Deepa Mehta's Fire, Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention and more recently, Julian Schnabel's Miral.

Rahman's sources of inspiration are diverse and eclectic. While composing 'The Bombay Theme', he thought of Gandhi's favourite bhajan 'Raghupati Raghav Rajaram' based on Raag Jaijaiwanti. 'The Bombay Theme' was originally composed for a film being made by Suhasini, Ratnam's wife, but once it was composed, Rahman felt it better suited the message of non-violence in Bombay.

Whenever he is stuck for composition ideas, Rahman turns to the writings of the famous Tamil poet Subramaniya Bharathi or Amir Khusrau. Rahman also talks about a wide range of international influences from western classical to jazz, blues and the inimitable Michael Jackson. The immediate beneficiaries of Rahman's global success are not just his family. He has instituted the KM Music Conservatory in Chennai to train musicians to build their lives and careers as music professionals of the future.

Shohini Ghosh teaches at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.

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