Kareema Begum, formerly known as Kasturi, is a slight woman, clad in a shiny blue zari-edged sari, every square centimetre of her worn fingers studded with diamonds, her sparkling toothy smile belying the struggles of her past.
A single mother since 1976, she kept her four children together by renting out the two keyboards her husband, music composer R.K. Shekhar, had left her when he died of stomach cancer.
Times were tough and her prodigiously talented son, then known as A.S. Dileep Kumar, was barely 11 when he started performing in public. “It got to the point where I had to go take him out of school every day to take him to performances,” she recalls, speaking in Tamil, translated rapidly by Dileep Kumar a.k.a. Allah Rakha Rahman’s imperious 12-year-old daughter.
“He was in Class X. He told me I should either let him study or let him perform. We had to survive. He had to drop out of school,’’ recalls Kareema. “I will always regret it.”
What kept her going was what gives 43-year-old Rahman strength even today. Prayer and work. Influenced by a Sufi mystic, Karimullah Shah Qadri, in whom Kareema found solace as she battled her husband’s illness, she converted the family to Islam in 1987. That faith drives her son today, with everything from the door to his recording studio to his mobile number bearing the holy numbers 786.
And it is that faith that has seen him grow from the boy who played in several orchestras for a living to now being the man who has conquered the capital of the entertainment world, becoming the first Indian to win the Golden Globe for his score in Slumdog Millionaire. Rahman’s world is as multicultural as it is multiplying.
A state-of-the-art commercial studio started in 2005 forms the hub, a music conservatory with 40 full time foundation students and 50 preparatory students begun last year, is the realization of a long-cherished dream.
A newly launched music label allows him to give a platform to new talent. And his own work, usually composed at night while the world sleeps, in his private studio at his Kodambakkam home in Chennai, reaches newer heights.
What makes him the finest among our musicians (who can go from a Meera bhajan to a Sufi Khwaja mere khwaja in Jodhaa Akbar) also distinguishes him as an Indian.
A devout Muslim, his first public performance was in a church on the keyboard for his teacher, and for many, his best works remain the stirring rendition of Vande Mataram, the flag swaying in the wind in tandem with his hair.
How does he do it? If Rahman is a true believer, who insists that every lyric should be like a prayer, so are those who work with him. Only their faith is in him. Most of them have been with him for over a decade, having known him much before Mani Ratnam’s Roja propelled him to national fame.
Noell James, former singer of many Rahman jingles, has worked with him for 22 years and been his manager ever since he can remember.
T. Selvakumar, a former keyboard player who would source his instruments for him, is now the CEO of the KM Music Conservatory.
Vijay Mohan Iyer, a friend for 14 years, now runs his music label.
Deepak Gattani, introduced to him by singer Hariharan 16 years ago, handles his concert and endorsements.
Liz Cook, formerly with the US Government, takes care of his film work. And yes, two recent acquisitions, the law firm of Collins Long and the agents Sam Schwatrz, take care of the global brand he is becoming.
“It’s not about me. It’s about how as a team we survive and excel. That’s when you can do good things,” Rahman says.
At the centre of this vortex, the star remains calm, trying to meet deadlines, juggling the media’s sudden interest in him, and yes, trying to pray five times a day. It clears his mind, allowing the purity of music to filter in. And what music.
As Rahman has evolved, so has his amazing ability to synthesise sounds, taking Carnatic, Western classical, Sufi, Indian classical, jazz and pop and then putting it all together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle at his Fantome keyboard while the sound engineers burn up the Neve 88R console.
Not for him the rigidity of other music directors who are sticklers for their tune.
His working style is more collaborative, allowing the musicians to jam together and interpret a piece of music the way they want to.
It explains the layers and subtext to his songs.
It’s a process that can take hours, and the comfortable couches in both his home and commercial studios are proof that sometimes the waiting directors do wilt and just crash out.
Stories about his late nights are legendary though director Rajiv Menon says it is simple. “I once asked him, why don’t you work in the day? He said he would, “only the sunlight hurts his eyes.” More precisely, says Menon, it probably echoes his apprentice years, when he would play in various orchestras in the day and compose advertising jingles during the night. It’s when he made lasting friendships, from percussionist Sivamani to his CEO Selvakumar. It’s also the time he played in five rock bands.
Everything changed when Mani Ratnam asked him to compose the soundtrack of Roja. The 1992 film was as controversial as its music was outstanding. For Rahman, every achievement since pales in comparison. It ricocheted him into a league of his own, an exclusivity that was further enhanced when Ram Gopal Varma asked him to compose the soundtrack for Rangeela in 1995
Over the years, Rahman has tried to work only with people he understands. From Ashutosh Gowariker to Aamir Khan, Subhash Ghai to Shankar, Mani Ratnam to Shyam Benegal, he works where there is a relationship. “I only work associate people I want to work with. The energy has to be right,” he says. “It’s almost like a friendship. It can’t be that they commission me and I give the music and they go.” As Gowariker says: “Rahman really blossoms when he is given more information about the script, the song, the characters, the settings. Whenever I complete a script, my first phone call is to him.”
But make no mistake. Rahman is no solemn proto-philosopher trapped in the ivory tower of his soaring creativity. He keeps an open house, with his private studio and meeting rooms on the ground floor, his mother on the first floor and his family on the second floor.
His wife Saira is a shy, retiring sort but his three children, Katheeja, 12, Raheema, 10, and Rumi, 5, more than make up with their boisterous natures, playing noisily next to their father’s reluctant fancy buy, a BMW 5 Series. “For many years,” grumbles Selvakumar, “he was very happy to be driven around in an Ambassador. I had to force him to buy this.” Hot idlis (or tiffin, as his oldest retainer Swami Durai says to all hungry visitors) are always on offer as is coffee on tap from two machines. “For the first two weeks of our arrival in India,” says American Joshua Pollock, one of eight westerners who teach music at the KM Music Conservatory, “he even fed us every meal every day.”
If making music is his primary talent, his ability to spot talent is not far behind. Whether it is in choosing the faculty for his school or the singers for his soundtracks, Rahman has an unerring eye. It’s not just that he has built a voice bank from all over the world categorised according to their genres.
But it is also that he listens, choosing Rashid Ali, a guitarist he heard at a concert for the Gujarat earthquake in London, to sing the soulful Kabhi kabhi Aditi in Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, or Kavita Baliga who teaches Western vocals at the conservatory and found her way into Guzarish in Ghajini.
There are moments of doubt though and it’s then that Rahman heads off to Andhra Pradesh to meet his spiritual guru, Arifa Malik. “It’s good to talk to someone who is disconnected from all this. Who shares good things with the world,” he says. It’s probably the same urge that sees him dashing off to the nearest dargah in Chennai. “He has earmarked a few across the city,” says Selvakumar, “depending on where he is.”
He is his own worst critic. As he says: “I need to approve my own work. You can go wrong even then. You have to keep an open mind and take inputs. Often you don’t have time.” Like the master of Slumdog Millionaire. They we were mixing it and literally uploading straight on to the Internet for the US release to meet the two week Oscar deadline. “We worked 20 hours for three days, sleeping for just two hours. In fact we even got a lot of abuse from the US guys. But yesterday it’s No. 1 in the US digital downloads. Whenever there is too much trauma, bad pressure, it always pays off, ” says Rahman.
But he is firm that music should bring a positive vibe to the listeners. “People should feel uplifted.” He is an astute businessman as well, insisting wherever possible that he retain publishing rights to his songs. He is the face of Airtel, for a reported contract of Rs 1 crore every year, has a strategic partnership with Nokia for projects with a common vision and also popped up as a celebrity judge on 9X’s Mission Ustaad last year.
As he signs papers close to midnight in a day where he has done 20 interviews, back to back, he talks of being introduced at a Los Angeles party to all the music heads of the big Hollywood studios. “They were all familiar with my music,” he says, with just a tinge of surprise. And then he adds with typical understatement: “Offers could come.’’ They always do.
Published article from India Today