Thursday, July 7, 2011

Stone Genius: A.R. Rahman

A.R. Rahman

From Hindi disco of the 1980s to Indian pop of today. 

The name A.R. Rahman is near enough to being of the household variety as any other out of Bollywood.  Most of his American and Australian fans only realised who he was when the triumphant anthem Jai Ho from Slumdog Millionaire climbed to the tops of the pop charts from Tucson to Tokyo. But the diminutive musical genius from the city once known as Madras (Chennai, these days) has been in the business of composing some of the most sophisticated pop music even before his ‘discovery’ by the Tamil film industry in 1991.

Born into a high caste Hindu family, Rahman’s parents were involved in the musical side of the south Indian film industry based in Chennai.  As a youngster, Dileep Kumar (his given name), accompanied his father to the studios and played various instruments on some of his compositions.  His father died when the boy was only 9 but he never considered any other profession than the one he had been exposed to by his dad.  In 1988, one of his sisters fell seriously ill and in spite of the family's effort to cure her, her health deteriorated. The family consulted a Muslim pir - Sheik Abdul Qadir Jeelani or Pir Qadri. At first blush, this seems an unusual step for a Hindu family, but when one considers Dileep’s mother had Muslim roots, a perfectly natural thing to do.  The holy man’s prayers and blessings saw the girl make a ‘miraculous’ recovery. In response Dileep, his mother and his sisters converted to Islam and the young boy took the name Allah Rakha Rahman.

Rahman’s musical journey saw him forming a rock ‘n roll band (Nemesis Avenue) with college friends  and recording his first album in English in the late 1980’s.  As is required of all artists, dues had to be paid, and Rahman worked in the jingle jungle writing musical ditties for companies pedaling everything from motorbikes and paint to breakfast drinks and watches.  

He spent time travelling internationally as a member of the great tabla player, Zakhir Hussain’s, band before returning to Chennai. When he won the local advertising industry’s top award in 1991 one of the Tamil film industry’s most famous directors, Mani Ratnam asked him to score his film Roja. In composing the song Tamizha Tamizha which became all the rage Rahman gave the public a  glimpse of the amazing fusion of pop, Western Classical, reggae, rock, and classical Indian music that would make him one of the world’s most imaginative composers. The film won him three awards for Best Music Director.

Since then he has simply dominated the film industry of India like no one before.  He has moved from the southern film industry to the mothership, in Mumbai, but continues to compose an amazing range of music for Indian and western audiences.  He has performed for President Obama, and with Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger. Andrew Lloyd Webber produced his musical Bombay Dreams, which ran to rave reviews for two years.  The accolades seem endless and yet from everything I’ve read or heard he remains a man of great humility. 

Baz Luhrmann, the Australian director, of such musical extravaganzas as Romeo and Juliet  and Moulin Rouge, sums up Rahman’s incredible talent:  I had come to the music of A. R. Rahman through the emotional and haunting score of Bombay and the wit and celebration of Lagaan. But the more of AR's music I encountered the more I was to be amazed at the sheer diversity of styles: from swinging brass bands to triumphant anthems; from joyous pop to West-End musicals. Whatever the style, A. R. Rahman's music always possesses a profound sense of humanity and spirit, qualities that inspire me the most.

I picked up this collection of his ‘Best’ from a friend in Kerala several years ago. The set is entirely from his Tamil and Malayalam films but the diversity, humanity and spirit that Luhrmann refers to comes through strong and clear.  I know three words of Tamil. But this is (honestly) one of my favorite records of the many thousands I am proud to own. 

If you know only his Hindi or recent music or if you know his music not at all, please dip in and discover. You will not be disappointed.

         Track Listing:
01 Baba Theme Music
02 Mustafa Mustafa
03 Shakalaka Baby
04 Kaadhalennum
05 Lucky Lucky
06 Sakhti Kodu
07 Velli Malare
08 Santosha Kanneere
09 Kaiyil Mithakkum
10 Rajyama
11 Kaadhal Vettukili
12 Muthalavanae

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