HT Brunch Cover Story: A R Rahman is so much more than just music
The Oscar- and Grammy-award winning musician has some very strong ideas on how to revive India’s classical art formsUpdated: Jul 12, 2020 14:34 IST
It is 5.20 pm on a balmy Tuesday evening in Mumbai, and I am a little fidgety as Tamil songs play in the background: I’m trying to calm myself for an interview with AR Rahman by listening to the music he’s made. Soon his manager patches me in and I am exchanging pleasantries with the Grammy-and-Oscar-winning composer.
“These are challenging and shocking times but we need to carry on,” Rahman says, in a composed manner. “My kids are saying that I deserve this, being locked up with them. It’s so funny,” he laughs.
I cannot help but join in, and with this, he has put me to ease at once.
“It is funny because I have always been able to work with my family around, especially as my studio is right in my backyard,” Rahman chuckles. “I’m always thinking about them, even when I’m travelling. But when I’m away, I forget that for them, it’s life without me. Now I’m here with them, which can get very intimidating, so they just go and lock themselves in their respective rooms.”
Sitting at home and producing music has been a rather spiritual experience for Rahman. One, he was able to observe Ramadan with his family, something he hasn’t been able to do for years. Everyone sat together and broke their fasts together and ate, and it was a joy.
He hasn’t only been hanging out with the family and making music. Rahman has also spent the lockdown talking with musicians from across the world. He recollects a conversation with music composer Andrew Lloyd Webber about how everyone now has the time to talk to each other, and invest in what they really want to do.
“Billie Eilish recorded music with her brother in a bedroom studio. Covid-19 is reinventing how we make music!”
“I think it is an interesting situation where people are happy,but everybody needs their space too. I try to get some of my friends from Hollywood to just talk and converse about movies and stuff,” Rahman muses.
However, his voice drops as we discuss the economic impact of the pandemic and he cries out that he was “shocked!” when he heard about Cirque du Soleil, one of the world’s biggest entertainment companies, filing for bankruptcy there. It is not only the big names, but smaller artists are also suffering, acknowledges Rahman.
“Some of them are not well, some are older and have bills to pay. When they do not have work and the scenario is already so dull, it is disheartening to see,” he says, as he divulges that he has been collaborating with several foundations to raise funds for them. On the flip side as an artist, he adds, it is a good time to introspect on the inner self and catch up with one’s soul.
“I think there never was a time to practice just being,” he says thoughtfully.
With so much suffering now, Rahman says, life is all about perceiving whether a glass is half-empty or half-full. Nature is rejuvenating herself, he comments. “It is almost like nature telling us, ‘You guys stay inside and don’t pollute. I’ll take care of myself.’”
Millennial musical choices
But everyone is a victim now, Rahman adds. I nod in acknowledgement. How has his team been managing without access to equipment, I ask.
“I think everybody is aware of, you know, recording at home. They all have a laptop or an iPad or even a phone, and they just need to add a mic. The biggest stars who have won the Grammys, for instance, if you look at Billie Eilish, she recorded music with her brother in a bedroom studio. Covid-19 is reinventing how we make music,” he says.
I’m taken by surprise at the mention of the 18-year-old Grammy awardee who has lately been on the top of the music charts in the West. So I ask: Do you always look out for young musicians and see what they are doing? Is it your way of being proactive in the music scene or are you just interested?
He laughs. His knowledge of Billie Eilish, he confesses, is due to his son, Ameen.
“When we went for the Grammys this year, we saw her sweep the awards and then when I met Bono (Irish singer-songwriter and lead vocalist of rock band U2), he also kept commenting on her technique of singing,” Rahman says. “You can learn from anyone. You can learn from a child or a teenager...knowledge is not limited.”
Collaborating with other musicians virtually must be a challenge, I suggest. In March, lyricist Prasoon Joshi had collaborated with Rahman and other music artists to release an album as a fundraiser for Covid-19. What did that experience teach him?
“There is a stigma around being a professional musician. People say with pride, ‘My son is a doctor’ but you don’t find them saying, ‘My daughter is a musician’.”
“Having no physical collaboration legitimises a new way to work. It shows that not everyone needs to go to a place to do things they can do at home,” he says. A Zoom meeting with Prasoon Joshi and some back and forth with the lyrics and tune resulted in the antara of the song – with some help from his daughter, Khatija.
“Before, we would go to a recording studio and we would need a bunch of mics so we could properly record, eliminate the noise, etc. Now we can do anything. It’s all possible. Which is why people are now proactive. Now everyone’s like: ‘Oh, you won’t give me a chance? I’ll do my video with you.’ It’s great!” he exclaims.
Meanwhile, classes at K M Music Conservatory, the school of run by Rahman in Chennai, have gone online.
“I feel that this is also a lesson: if human beings are united, then nothing can shake us. Everybody contributes to something and it makes a difference to the world, even though we don’t know it at the time.”
Rahman’s many roles
Rahman was once a man of few words. But he seems very comfortable in this interview. What has changed, I ask.
He laughs. “We all gain some experience. I’ve worked with nearly three generations now, starting in 1982 and seeing the ’90s, then the 2000s and now the generation of the 2010s. So, things change. But values don’t change, you know. Ultimately, our emotions speak to us. Musicwise, too, certain things like melodies and what touches you do not change. The approach to the ideas matters. Like this (articulating his thoughts) matters, because today sound is a form of emotion and thinking.”
Over the years, Rahman has mentored many young musicians. Whether it is his music school or giving new singers their “big break,” he has had a role to play in a lot of lives.
“There is a stigma around being a professional musician,” he says. “People always say with pride ‘Oh, my son is a doctor, lawyer, engineer.’ But you don’t find them saying, ‘Oh, my daughter is a musician’, with the same pride. But music gives beauty to people and a sense of peace and security.”
Having started his career 28 years ago without necessarily bowing to big music production banners, Rahman claims he was “very lucky” to have begun at the right place at the right time!
“I think everything is done for a reason. The past five years have been a certain kind of energy. Energy of shortcuts and remixes, and all that stuff. Remixes are fine, it’s not a bad thing but you can’t take something which is not yours,” he says. “People with power should have more responsibility. I might be quoting Spiderman but I believe people should bring beauty into society.”
Hope is where the heart is
This is why it baffles him that India pays so little attention to its classical music. “You go to Europe and when you listen to BBC Classic FM station, they say: ‘World’s best music, Classic FM.’ But we are always apologetic about our [Classical] music. The moment you present something with pride, you create a taste for something beautiful,” he says.
This is one of the many things he would change in the world of music if he had the power to do so. “And, as I earlier said, there needs to be responsibility with power. Those people with power must say, ‘Okay, I’m doing this 10 per cent for money and 90 per cent for reviving culture.’ Reviving the energy of the foundation of music is important. Our dancers and classical musicians get more audience and fame abroad than in India. The new generation is good, they are multitalented and they need a place. Art collectives need to take this forward. So, it’s important for each metro to enrich and immerse the audience,” Rahman says. Eloquent!
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From HT Brunch, July 12, 2020
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