Hubert Burda Media

The Musical Maverick

Even with numerous awards and accolades, A R RahmanN remains just a humble man who wants nothing more than to give back.

He first rose to fame in Bollywood for his work on the hit Tamil movie Roja before going on to impress international audiences with his film score for the acclaimed blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire. Now a Time‘s World’s Most Influential People-listee with multiple Grammys and Academy Awards to his name, Chennai-born Rahman may be described as the world’s best known composer of his generation.
Yet despite an immensely illustrious career that spans two decades, the 47-year-old is a down-to-earth father of three and noted humanitarian who goes out of his way to reject the many hyperbolic nicknames — such as “God of Music” — that the imaginative press corps delight in coining just for him.
“I don’t like [being called] ‘God of Music’ or ‘Mozart of Madras’,” he says of the most oft-used of monikers with a laugh. “The purists see Mozart in a different way and I don’t want people in the future to say ‘how can he call himself Mozart?’ when I never did call myself Mozart!” he explains. “So sometimes you have to say [to the media]: ‘Don’t do that.’ Because I’m different — I’m a film composer, Mozart is a classical composer.”
Having reached the pinnacle of musical success, Rahman also founded the KM Music Conservatory in 2008 to provide young, aspiring musicians with the platform to further their musical education.
How would you describe your musical influence?
I grew up with very different influences. I grew up with classical music, Chinese music… all because my father kept playing these records. [Even as a young composer], there was nobody telling me: “You should do this, you shouldn’t do that.” Never. Except in Hollywood, sometimes they will say: “No, don’t go with that instrument; use this instrument!”
How did you enter the music industry?
My father [R K Shekhar] was a composer. When he died, my mother wanted me to carry on in his place. The aura of what he left was fantastic. People used to constantly talk about him.
Was it difficult to fill his shoes, then?
I never thought about it. By the time I entered the industry, there were already many new developments — midi, synthesisers and all that combining music and technology. Also, my influences were different. I learned classical music, then I played in a rock band, then I studied Indian classical music. But I don’t [necessarily] encourage people to [explore as many genres] as I did. My life just took that [direction] and the dots all connected later. But I think that’s what makes each person extraordinary — their own experiences.
So what inspires you as a composer?
Music itself is an inspiration. Since I work in movies, half the job is done. You have a script already. You have things coming from the set-up, where the scene is situated…all that is inspiration.
What is your philosophy towards composing music?
For me, I want every song, every work of mine to be something I’m proud of. Sometimes I work on songs for three months, sometimes even eight or nine months. Because if you’re not satisfied with what you’re doing, people are not going to be satisfied. That’s one thing that has stayed with me in my 20-over-year career. One question I always ask myself is: If I were not a composer, what would drive me to take that CD and pay for it or download it?
So what is your favourite instrument to use in compositions?
I don’t have a favourite. The player is more important than the instrument. For instance, the Chinese instrument Erhu. A great player can even play [Western] classical music on it. I once bought an Erhu and for one of my musicians back in India and she learned Indian rumba on it.
You’ve involved your children in some of your works before. So what kind of role did you play in their musical upbringing?
They’re learning instruments, but very slowly because they get pampered a lot and I don’t like that. When I was learning the piano, the teacher used to hit me on the knuckles. Now they’ll call the cops because it’s child abuse! But I’m not strict with them. I just want them, probably, to attend my music college one day. Everyone is made up of a different soul. But you need to educate them musically too.
You’ve achieved everything. What inspires you and challenges you, still?
For the past five years I’ve been developing the college. It’s what drives me to do all this — concerts, more movies, more compositions. It’s to fund the college. Just passing through the college feels so good. It’s a breath of fresh air; you see all those faces, willing to learn, coming from different parts of India…I’m also looking at students coming from Singapore and Malaysia.
If you were not a musician, what would you be?
I was thinking about exactly that last week! Maybe a scientist. It was not my favourite subject in school, but I am very fascinated by innovation and technology.
A R Rahman’s Infinite Love concert will be held at The Meadow, Gardens By The Bay, April 30, 2014.