Meet the reclusive managers, technicians and singers who make up Team Rahman.
NOEL JAMES, MANAGER
Over two decades ago, Noel James was playing the piano as a lounge musician at a hotel in Chennai when a certain jingles composer walked in. “Rahman heard me play and asked if I was interested in working with him.” James agreed. That was the beginning of a partnership that has lasted to this day. James has since grown to become Rahman’s manager and chief public relations officer. He occasionally assists the composer in stage shows and handles much of his coordination — with musicians, clients, talent and even the media. The road to Rahman, it could be said, goes through James.
Born and brought up in Mumbai, James got hooked to music at an early age. After graduating from Loyola College, Chennai, he got a degree in violin from the prestigious Trinity College of Music, London. “I played in a band called Jumping Jewels, handling the vocals and guitar. That was before I went solo,” he says. He worked part-time with Rahman initially but became a permanent member of the team, singing the jingles and helping him with production.
Being Rahman’s manager has meant that James does not get much time for his own music—except when he plays at church. He has no regrets though. “God sends messiahs to earth, whether it is Jesus Christ or Prophet Mohammed. It has been quite a while since He sent someone. I believe A.R. Rahman is such a messiah who works through his music,” says James, for whom familiarity has only brought more appreciation towards Rahman, the musician and the man.
T. SELVAKUMAR || MANAGING DIRECTOR OF RAHMAN’S MUSIC SCHOOL
In the early 1990s, when Bollywood was just beginning to rave about a phenomenon, A.R. Rahman met music programmer T. Selvakumar in Chennai. Both were musicians trained in the alchemy of sound, both shared their hopes of setting up their own studios one day. As Rahman’s stock rose in filmdom, Selvakumar notched up a reputation in the Indian music industry as a master technician. Soon, he got into the business of supplying high-end music technology equipment. “That’s when our acquaintance changed to friendship,” says the man who has helped Rahman set up his many state-of-the-art studios. To him also goes the credit of setting up the first and only Apple-certified music, special effects and film editing technology training institute in the country.
Selvakumar was one of the few people who knew about Rahman’s dream of setting up a music school. “He wanted to start a school of music technology but I insisted he couple it with teaching.” One day in 2007, Rahman decided that the time had come. “And when AR wants something, he wants it right away. He asked me if I would manage it for him and I didn’t see why I should refuse him,” he says.
A regular day at the school sees Selvakumar taking classes in audio and video technology and ironing out numerous administrative hassles. He also continues to deal in Apple equipment. Whenever the company launches something new, Rahman is his first client. “AR’s one of the two most tech-savvy musicians in India,” he states, proudly. Who’s the other? “You wouldn’t expect this: Ilaiyaraaja.”
DEEPAK GATTANI || CONCERT MANAGER
Behind every power-packed Rahman concert is Deepak Gattani and his team at Rapport Global Events. “We manage his live entertainment business but the relationship isn’t a client-service provider one,” he says. Gattani first met Rahman through singer Hariharan, another client. Since that meeting, he has handled all of Rahman’s tours and performances, and more recently, has been managing Rahman’s endorsement portfolio as well.
Whenever Rahman is in Mumbai, Gattani finds himself seated next to him. “But being with him doesn’t mean that he’ll talk anymore than he usually does,” he says with a laugh. “His concerts have to be technically high-end, with something different each time. Working for him means making no mistakes and planning in advance.” Gattani is dogged by international clients’ proposals for Rahman concerts after his Oscar win. But, as of now, his priorities lie with organising Rahman’s first-ever live concert in Kerala, scheduled for May.
S. SIVAKUMAR || CHIEF SOUND ENGINEER
A novice who had just finished a diploma in sound engineering in 1992, S. Sivakumar got his first break when he was appointed assistant audio engineer at a reputed studio in Chennai. The designation was deceptive. The actual work assigned to the young man was to stand and wait in the machine room and change tapes once each roll was over. Then Rahman happened. “I had been working for about six months or so when A.R. Rahman came to the studio to do the mixing for Puthiya Mugam. He wanted an assistant and asked my seniors if I was interested. That was 15 years ago and I have been with him since,” he says. A native of Thanjavur, the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu, Sivakumar is now one of the noted names in sound engineering in India, the main man behind Rahman’s AM Studio and his chief sound engineer. He has worked in all Rahman films since Gentleman in 1993 and was a part of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Bombay Dreams.
According to Sivakumar, Rahman’s contribution goes beyond just transforming film music in India. He was also the first composer to include the names of all those who worked on the project on the audiotape/CD jackets — an acknowledgement of many backroom operators like Sivakumar, who would otherwise be invisible to the world outside studio walls.
K.J. SINGH || SOUND ENGINEER
He doesn’t sound his age and Rahman thinks the sound engineer’s voice bears a hint of a European accent. “He keeps teasing me that he’ll soon find me a voice-over project overseas,” says Singh with a laugh. But the camaraderie between the two took time to develop. Singh says when he first met Rahman five years ago during a concert, the composer would just stand next to him without saying a word.
“He’s shy and doesn’t waste words. There have been times when I would turn to find him standing behind me for 10 minutes! It felt strange, but later realised that’s how he is,” says Singh. “But once he gets to know you better, there are no reservations. You’re family and he’s open to sharing all his knowledge.”
The technician has done numerous Rahman concerts and films, starting with Rang De Basanti and recently Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na and Delhi-6. The two were first introduced by the latter’s chief sound engineer, the late H. Sridhar. Rahman noticed the two friends shared a good wavelength and often brought them together for his projects. “I think AR noticed how seamlessly we both worked. If both Sridhar and I had handled a project, one could not make out whether a track was managed by him or me. Rahman made good use of that.”
Based in Mumbai for a decade now, the sound engineer likes to explore new talent and, at the same time, work with the old. His clientele boasts of names like Hariharan, Indian Ocean, Rabbi Shergill and G.V. Prakash, Rahman’s nephew. Singh is most looking forward to his trip to Chennai next week. He is determined to make the maestro throw a party for each award he has won for Slumdog Millionaire. “He can space out the parties but he can’t escape them,” he says with a wink.
SRINIVAS || SINGER
In 1988, a chemical engineer travelled to Chennai from Coimbatore for a day so that he could sing for Ilaiyaraaja. It broke Srinivas’s heart that he had to lost the opportunity to a throat infection. But another southern genius’s success gave him hope and he approached Rahman soon after the success of Roja. Rahman took a liking to Srinivas and asked him to move to Chennai. In 1994, Srinivas shifted base and started lending his voice to advertisement jingles and devotional albums.
It was only in 1996, that he gained recognition with the song Manna Madurai from Rahman’s Minsaara Kanavu. Then came En uyire in Mani Ratnam’s Uyire (the Tamil version of Dil Se), which was his first big hit.
Now a big name down south, Srinivas has since worked closely with the composer. “I never knew I could compose, but watching A.R. inspired me. He’s in a different world altogether when he works. And to him, work on a song only begins once he’s composed it. From there, it evolves with his many editions and improvisations,” he says.
Of late, due to his busy schedules, Rahman has entrusted Srinivas with the responsibility of supervising the vocals during recordings. “Many would find it strange and menial but it’s an honour to help him out,” says the singer who has to take out time from his packed schedule of recordings and reality shows. “But AR is always a priority over others.”
RAQEEB ALAM || SINGER AND LYRICIST
His story is straight out of a Bollywood flick: playback singer and lyricist Raqeeb Alam was born into a family of teachers in Bihar but books held no charm for him. Instead, he spent all his waking hours listening to music or singing. While in college in Chennai, he became a part-time singer. It was during a show that he met lyricist P K Mishra, who liked him and introduced him to AR in 2002. But when he met the musician, he got so nervous, he “couldn’t sing beyond a line.” The two, however, kept in touch.
Once, Rahman was scheduled to meet Deepa Mehta for a session for Water. Sukhwinder Singh, who was supposed to write and sing a song for the film, had left for Varanasi because of an emergency. Desperate for a replacement, Rahman called Alam. “I wrote 10 mukhdas of which they selected one and then I wrote the whole song,” he says. After its recording, political controversy delayed Water by four years. “But the patience paid off. The song got good reviews when the film released and was later nominated for an Oscar. I didn’t win the award but had won AR’s confidence.”
Alam has since written and sung many songs for Rahman, primarily the Hindi translations of his Tamil albums. His most memorable is Ek mohabbat, which Rahman sang for the campaign to include Taj Mahal in the Seven Wonders Of The World project. The latest feather in his cap is Ringa Ringa, which he wrote for Slumdog Millionaire.
VIJAY MOHAN IYER || LABEL MANAGER
It requires some amount of prodding to get him talking. Vijay Mohan Iyer, who manages Rahman’s K M Musiq label, prefers to remain behind his idol’s shadow. “I’m sure you can skip writing about me. Why not write about AR?” he repeats after every question. But here’s the story: The Mumbai boy first met Rahman on his 18th birthday in Chennai. “But nothing worked out in terms of music. I returned, got back to studies and took up a job. One day, eight years ago, I found myself seated next to my idol on an eight-hour flight to London,” he says.
They got chatting and struck up a friendship. “The desire, of course, was to work with him in some way or the other. I guess persistence pays. One day, he just asked me to meet up and briefed me about a project he had in mind; and that was the K M Musiq label.” Iyer has held his dream job for three years and he didn’t mind uprooting his life from Mumbai to a laidback Chennai. “I missed the city but AR’s is a different world.”