Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A.R.Rahman- A Musical Storm

A sharp note on the flute. Rhythmic thumping on a dekka (the left piece of tabla). A few twinkling notes on the keyboard. A set of violins play from medium notes to crescendo. Again the twinkling notes on keyboard. A fresh female voice then sings in, ‘Chinna Chinna Asai’ (Dil hi Chotta sa in Hindi).

That was in 1992 and the film was ‘Roja’ by the ace director, Mani Ratnam. The music was different and effect that it created was captivating.

I was in my final MA with a decision to become so many things together; an IAS Officer, a film actor, if not a serial actor, a stunt man, a poet, an art critic. The decision was that if none of these worked out, I should be leaving for some Gulf countries (as many of the Kerala youngsters of that time used to do). I joined the Brilliant Tutorials in Madras (now Chennai) to prepare for IAS exams. I practiced Karate. Sent poems to magazines. Wrote articles in local journals. Got some training in music and in playing tabla.

Then came this music, music with a difference. The record covers and the magazines said that this music was given by one young wonder named ‘A.R.Rahman’.

The music caught us unaware. S.P.Balasubramanyam, whose velvety voice reigned the film industry with that of K.J.Yesudas, found his new avtar in A.R.Rahaman’s music (kadhal rojave- Roja jaane mann). Unni Menon, who was rejected by the Malayalam film industry at that time found his re-birth in Rahman’s music with Roja’s ‘Pudu vellai mazhai’ (yeh hasi vaadiyaan in Hindi). Then came a stream of new singers with A.R.Rahman- Minmini, Suresh Peters, Shankar Mahadevan. Hariharan left his harmonium and sober looks to become a rock star. Our own rock star Remo Fernandes pitched into top league with Rahman’s ‘Humma Humma’ (Bombay).

I don’t blame myself for thinking about becoming a musician after listening to A.R.Rahman. But those were private fantasies waiting to be dropped at any moment. So it happened soon. But A.R.Rahman lingered on with his music first, then with his high pitch voice. In 1997, when India celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Independence, Rahman and his advertisement days’ friend, Bharat Bala created history by making the album, ‘Vande Mataram’. Rahman moved from a shy youngster (confused, I should say after reading about him) to an Oscar Award winner (Slumdog Millionaire).

When the Oscar Awards were declared, when the nation erupted in celebration, many were unconvinced. The doubt came from the fact that the music in Slumdog Millionaire was not his best ever. We had heard several original and new songs from Rahman. But Oscar Award committee has different reasons to honor him.

I would have waited a few more years to know more about Rahman had I not chanced upon this biography on him titled ‘A.R.Rahman- The Musical Storm’ by a young journalist and writer Kamini Mathai. Like his music, this biography is also a tour de force. Once I started reading it, I could not keep it down till I finished it.

Reason for this passionate reading is different. Each page in this book made me realize how much the Rahman music is in our lives. And knowing about its making is a thrilling experience. Almost the same feeling that you get when you watch the shooting time comedies by the end of a Jackie Chan movie.

Like many Keralites, I too used to proudly believe that A.R.Rahman was a Malayali (a mundu man- that’s how a Face Book enthusiast once qualified all the Malayali celebrities). This book helped me to come out of that illusionary pride.

A.R.Rahman was born in 1967 in Mylapore, Tamil Nadu, to Shekhar-Kasturi couple. K.R.Shekhar was one of the highly sought after music composers and arrangers in the Tamil and Malayalam film industry. But Shekhar could not establish himself as a music director in Tamil industry. He got that break in Malayalam in 1960s. So many of us thought Shekhar was a Malayali.

Shekhar ghost composed for many directors. As a hardworking man he was running from studios to studio working on 24 x7 schedules. That took the toll of his life. He developed some mysterious disease and when Rahman was nine years old, Shekhar passed away, leaving four children and a jobless wife behind.

Shekhar-Kasturi couple belonged to a Brahmin family and many of the family members worked as electricians. Shekhar too had an affinity for equipments and new gadgets. Rahman, who was born as Dileep, too inherited his family legacy as he could ‘repair’ any musical instruments just by looking and understanding the mechanism of it.

Shekhar too had recognized the talent of his son. But Dileep’s ability was not just in repairing musical instruments. He could reproduce any musical note that was played to him once. His passion was for harmonium and keyboards. By the age of nine, he could play professionally.

Father’s death put the family into utter chaos. With three daughters and one son, Kasturi was finding it difficult to meet the ends. She started renting out Shekhar’s musical instruments that brought some income. But nothing was happening. During her husband’s illness, Kasturi had run to every divine healer available in Chennai. Finally she found solace in a Sufi pir. She and her family was slowly becoming Muslims. They embraced Islam mentally.

At the age of 11, out of necessity, Dileep started playing for recording sessions. He was/is the fastest fingers on keyboards. He could compose, program and arrange music. This shy boy became the talk of the town. Soon Dileep dropped out from school. He started earning for his family by playing sessions, doing jingles for advertisements.

Dileep developed a habit of working at night as he used to spend his day time in session playing. He did his original compositions at night from the home studio by that time he had built. With friends, he thought of starting bands and some of them played for a year and later on disbanded.

When Roja was released in 1992, the family had already become Muslims. In fact, they are not Muslims, but Sufis. When the music of Roja was about to be released, Dileep asked for the change of his name. Rahman came easily. But the A.R was difficult. His mother said to have got these letters in a vision. Now A.R stands for ‘Allah Rakka’ (Allah Rakha).

Now there is no Dileep or that reminds him of Dileep days. He is A.R.Rahman. He wants himself to be a complete Sufi. He does not sing or compose vulgar songs. If at all there are vulgar suggestions in the lyrics he asks the lyricist to remove it. Rahman was not sure of his voice. Hence, when he sang for the first time (humma humma in Bombay Tamil original), he switched off the lights in the studio to not to face anyone.

Rahman composes differently. He samples out sounds from various instruments and mixes them in his computer. He gives total freedom to singers and musicians to improvise to the maximum and none knows which one of their versions that Rahman would finally choose/use.

May be his father was not acknowledged as a musician in his lifetime, but Rahman makes it a point that each and every musician is acknowledged in the CD jackets. The musicians started getting a face with Rahman. He pays each and every musician regularly even if their piece is used in his composition for a couple of seconds.

Rahman is famous for his late arrival. But the movers and shakers in the film industry are ready to wait for him, not for hours or days, but for months in one go.

This biography reveals the world of Rahman for us. What Rahman is like as a person? How does he treat his celebrity status? How does he live his social life? How does he take criticism and controversies? How does he take success and failure?

For Rahman, God comes first. Then, mother. Without mother, he is nothing, Rahman says. That’s why he sang in Vande Mataram, ‘Amma tujche salaam.’

Written in clear prose pepped up with lively narratives and subtle humor, this biography by Kamini Mathai is not meant for portraying Rahman in golden terms. She becomes critical and probing, when it comes to the whimsies and fancies of Rahman. Kamini has interviewed so many people associated with Rahman during his Dileep days to A.R.Rahman days to the world music celebrity ARR.

When you read a good book, you touch the heart of the subject and the author. Here when read this book I touch the hearts of A.R.Rahman and Kamini Mathai.


gitamathai said...

thanks for the kind words so glad you liked the book
kamini's mother (gita mathai)

JohnyML said...

Dear Ms.Gita Mathai,

Thanks for reading and responding.

It is a really well written book.

Kamini can do wonders in future....