Unchained melody: AR Rahman discusses his new platform, maajja
“The commercial music industry needs to take more risks,” says composer AR Rahman. “There is a set of commercial expectations in Hindi movies especially. The vibe, the movie, the song… sometimes it’s savage, the way it’s done. They could take more risks with the box office not being a priority for OTT platforms and should go much deeper into our roots of music and find new ways to express the tradition.”
Rahman, 54, has been both part of that industry, and a catalyst outside it for nearly three decades. He wrote his first tune on his father’s harmonium at age 5, was performing in a professional orchestra at 11 and began his film career at 25, with Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992), for which he won the first of his six National Awards.
ALSO WATCH | AR Rahman on his new music platform, Maajja
A golden streak followed, with Bombay (1995), Rangeela (1995), Lagaan (2001), Rang De Basanti (2006), Jodhaa Akbar (2008) and Rockstar (2011), among others, and a parallel track in Tamil cinema that included films such as Iruvar (1997), Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa (2010), Kochadaiiyaan (2014) and I (2015). In 2008, as part of the Danny Boyle crossover film Slumdog Millionaire’s series of wins, Rahman won two Academy Awards, two Grammies, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and international stardom.
Through these decades, he was also known for seeking out fresh talent to work with. “Most composers have their regular singers, but Rahman has always scouted for new voices. He had a young Baba Sehgal and Shweta Shetty sing Rukmani Rukmani in Roja and a relatively unknown Sukhwinder Singh sing Chaiyya Chaiyya for Dil Se [in 1998],” says Archisman Mozumder, a musicologist with the infotainment platform Rewind.
In 2008, Rahman founded the KM Music Conservatory to train aspiring musicians. A year later, he started Sunshine Orchestra, offering free musical training to children who couldn’t afford it.
He’s now turned his attention to the struggling South Asian indie artists. He and a trio of Canadian entrepreneurs — Noel Kirthiraj, Sen Sachi and Prasana Balachandran — have launched a platform called maajja (apparently derived from “Majestic”), promising “creative liberty” and “global reach” to independent musicians.
As things stand, there are platforms that aspire but struggle to enable artists, Rahman told Wknd. “There are a lucky few who benefit from the system and rise to great heights, while others continue to struggle.”
Maajja seeks to bring data and resources to bear on this problem. “The industry must support itself. We often say it but we don’t really do it. Any successful entrepreneurship or idea needs to be able to generate money and it needs to be interesting,” Rahman says. “The music market is very segregated and we don’t know who is consuming what. Our aim is to unite and create a new ecosystem with deserving talent, good production values for content and a robust platform to showcase it.”
Any artist of South Asian origin or catering to an audience in South Asia will be eligible. Aspirants will be able to sign up on the website and reach out through social media or email demos of their work. “It’s not surprising that Rahman is launching a concept like this. He is one of a very few musicians in the country who could breach the north-south industry divide,” says Mozumder. “Rahman successfully took Indian fusion to the world too.”
“Maajja will be giving a window of hope to indie musicians in the country. People won’t be discouraged to participate in counter-culture. That’s a huge thing,” says Tenma, a Tamil indie musician and co-founder of the band The Casteless Collective who is also associated with the new initiative.
Rahman, the Sufi-loving BTS fan with his finger on the pulse of the youth, says he essentially wants to make it easier for other music lovers to make their career dreams come true. “To come into music is not easy. It takes a lot of courage,” he adds. Plans for a major music festival to follow the announcement of maajja have been delayed by Covid-19, but it was time to launch the initiative and move towards the festival. “Creative collaboration was the most powerful response to the pandemic,” Rahman says.