The Indian composer AR Rahman, recent winner of a pair of Academy Awards for his jaunty songs in Slumdog Millionaire, has over the years demonstrated a keen talent for reaching new, rapidly appreciative audiences.
This talent is typically discussed in reference to his work outside India, which began early this century when he collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the saccharine West End confection Bombay Dreams, pairing reworked versions of some of his most outstanding songs from the 1990s with some of his worst original music.
Since then, his work has featured on Broadway and in Chinese and Hollywood films. All this, particularly the Slumdog Oscars, has made Rahman the first Indian composer to find substantial audiences beyond the already large world of his country’s film industry.
But Rahman’s first, more impressive feat of border-crossing occurred much earlier, when he became the first Indian composer with a pan-Indian audience. So often is Bollywood used as a symbol of the entire Indian film industry that it is easy to overlook the country’s diversity of other regional cinema. Outside Mumbai, other sizeable film industries operate like self-contained planets, producing movies in the languages of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Bengali.
The borders between the four south Indian cinemas are, for actors, directors and composers, particularly fluid; the border between south Indian cinema and Hindi cinema has, because of deeper linguistic differences, traditionally been far less permeable.
Even music, that much-vaunted universal language, sat for long in decidedly regional compartments. The music of the Bollywood and Tamil film industries may have shared roots in the Indian seven-note scale, for instance, but they long ago developed into entirely different sensibilities. In their default modes, they leaned in different directions: Bollywood toward plaintive romantic or existential ballads; Tamil music toward raga-based classical or rhythm-heavy indigenous folk. They used different instruments: the harmonium would have sounded as odd in Tamil music as the veena in Bollywood. The gulf separating these genres was a wide one, spanned only by the occasional work of the occasional composer.
Perhaps work on the bridge that now connects them had tentatively begun in the years before Rahman, but only after he brought power cranes to the job, completed its construction, and made a few sorties back and forth did other composers feel consistently comfortable doing the same.
Rahman’s debut soundtrack, Roja, released in 1992, provides a classic example of how his music functions. A song will start simply, with a spare melody and vocals with power but no apparent ambition to blow the listener away. Within seconds, that all changes. The melody might enter a dense burst of orchestration, or yield to a solo by an unexpected instrument, or somehow reveal itself to be based on a highly classical raga. The vocals might shift colour, from modest to epic, or from normal singing to Rahman’s own free-spirited yodels, or from pristine enunciation to humming.
The rhythm can come out of wood blocks, or steel drums, or something that sounds distinctly like a brass pot being hit with a bunched fist. Mixed together, this reminds you of reggae one minute, Tamil folk the next, then electronica, then south Indian classical – all together in one alluring whole.
Nearly 20 years after that debut, Rahman’s music still sparks interesting (albeit well-worn) debates among music-lovers. What exactly is Rahman’s genius? Does it lie in his arrangements, his meticulous layering of sounds and voices as if they were sheets of phyllo? Or in his generous accommodation of styles, or in his industrious production of catchy hooks? In other words: is he “simply” a technically savvy producer of commercial music? Or do arrangement, stylistic flexibility and hook-production fall legitimately under the rubric of musical artistry, and is Rahman exactly what his legions of devoted fans say he is: a straight-up compositional genius?
Kamini Mathai’s AR Rahman: The Musical Storm refuses to engage Rahman’s influence or the music that underpins it, which makes this first attempt at a biography of the composer a tepid one. This is partly the subject’s own fault. For no discernible reason, Rahman is famously inaccessible; when he is finally pinned down to an appointment, he is roughly as forthcoming about his life and work as a captured spy under interrogation. (There are rules for contacting Rahman, as Mathai, a Chennai-based journalist, quickly discovered: “Do not call him, let him call you. Only SMS or mail, don’t call. So mail and SMS I did. Over and over again.” Nine months later, Rahman called her – for a five-second conversation.) This cult of deep secrecy infects everybody around Rahman, as often happens with men who are the absolute fulcrum of their industry: the creator, preserver and destroyer of employment. Many of Mathai’s sources, anonymous and otherwise, are thus short on details and opinions.
This is, it should be pointed out, of a piece with nearly all biographical projects in India. A majority of the illuminating biographies being written here are of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru – both long removed from this world, their archives and letters bared for an unusual level of inspection and criticism. For most other lives in the public sphere, there are only hagiographies. Authorised biographies are practically dictated by their subjects; unauthorised biographies are platitudinous, scurrilous, or (as in this case) simply boring.
“We don’t preserve our historical records (the reason why so many histories are littered with errors), we don’t want to reveal failure, want to avoid controversy,” the historian Ramachandra Guha once said about the yawning lack of good biographies in India. To this could be added a reluctance to understand how a personal portrait, warts and all, can lend context to one’s work. It is not so much that few Indian authors are adept at biography; rather, few Indian subjects are adept at being biographed.
But with The Musical Storm, Mathai is hardly blameless, especially since the first significant chapter of the book, on Rahman’s boyhood, is so promising and generous with detail. Rahman was born Dileep Kumar in 1967, the second of four children and the only son of Kasturi and RK Sekhar.
Sekhar, a workaholic musician, dominated the studio recordings of the south Indian film industry, serving as the music director’s assistant (arranging and conducting rehearsals, notating music, hiring instrumentalists) on multiple films at the same time. “He never refused work,” Mathai writes. “He would work himself from 7am to midnight, seven days a week, sometimes sleeping just two hours a day. He knew more hours of work meant more money.” Dileep was nine years old when his father died of a stomach cancer that had been ignored for many months – to this day, the family, Rahman included, suspects black magic.
Like a pellet of potent dye, his father’s demise would colour everything that followed in Dileep’s life. Dileep found his calling in his father’s field, mastering Sekhar’s favourite instrument, the keyboard. The family switched faiths (and therefore names) in the late 1980s, because his mother had found spiritual consolation with a Sufi healer when she was combing the city for Sekhar’s cure. When Dileep first paddled into composing, creating advertising jingles, he made sure to bring with him his father’s acute business sense. (Roja was composed almost against his better judgement: “With every jingle I was making Rs15,000, so 25,000 for an entire movie was monetarily not worth it,” Rahman says. “But I knew it was not the same… I knew this was worth the sacrifice.”)
From the start, he decided to credit everyone who worked for him – his instrumentalists, his backup singers, his sound engineers – a practice without precedent in Indian film music. “Perhaps,” Matthai conjectures, “this was because Rahman felt his father never got his due and neither did he, when he was playing for and ghost-composing for directors.”
Roja was released in 1992; by 1995, Rahman was a star, and by 2000, he was a phenomenon. (It is worth remembering, that in India, popular music is actually film music.) He worked with the leading film directors in India, all of whom were willing to troop down to Chennai, wait patiently for him in his studio’s anterooms, and pay him enormous amounts for the privilege. Rahman put out three or four ridiculously successful albums a year, each selling hundreds of thousands of copies, each producing at least two genre-defying songs that fattened the airwaves for weeks on end.
In 2000 alone, Rahman’s music accompanied six films, three of which – Alai Payuthey, Kandukondain Kandukondain and Rhythm, all Tamil – count not only among his best work ever, but also among his most popular. Just recently, a Bengali friend told me that she can still sing the classically-inflected title song of Alai Payuthey despite not knowing the meaning of a single world of the lyrics. It is the sort of anecdote that is exchanged often in discussions about Rahman.
Mathai trudges this spectacular arc with slender imagination; at some point, The Musical Storm becomes just a plodding series of quotes, in either indirect or guarded direct speech. (Over three whole pages, for instance, we are force-fed minor variations of the same platitude: “For Rahman there is nothing but God and music,” as one director puts it.)
There is no observation or native analysis – no attempt, as the prolific biographer David McCullough once suggested, to just “look at your fish”, to absorb and internalise and then make conclusions. Worse still, for a composer’s biography, there is far too little about Rahman’s music or its context.
One glaring example of this deficiency is Mathai’s failure to distinguish Rahman’s music from that of Ilayaraja, the regnant south Indian composer of the 1980s.
Working across the four south Indian States, Ilayaraja established a definitive sound over literally hundreds of films, a sound that every film director wanted and that every south Indian music director aimed to replicate. Its techniques relied upon the Western orchestral model, but its soul was deeply south Indian, oscillating between the region’s folk and classical identities – which is why many Tamil cinema purists still plump for Ilayaraja, but also why his forays into Bollywood were so circumscribed.
It was Ilayaraja’s mould – lush, orchestral, created in performance – that Rahman broke with his electronic sounds, relative minimalism, emphasised solos and computer-aided assemblies. After Roja, Rahman’s sound caught on so fast, and so powerfully, that Ilayaraja lost his dominance over big-banner films within a couple of years and never regained it.
Rahman, meanwhile, moved from strength to assimilative strength. When he began scoring for Hindi films, he learnt to set Sufi poetry to music, as in Chaiya Chaiya, a song of unalloyed yearning from the movie Dil Se. When his horizons broadened beyond India, he began to experiment with rap, hip-hop and techno; Fanaa, a 2003 song set in a nightclub, was a capsule of electronic dance punctuated by sudden knots of Indian classical progressions. Again and again, Rahman gets inside a style of music, examines its machinery, then brings away the important cogs and wheels to use in his own compositions.
Rahman is 42 now, and he has years of composing still to come. Immediately after Slumdog Millionare, rumours swirled that he had been swamped with more Hollywood offers; others claimed that he was planning to stick to film in India. Rahman himself has, characteristically, said little of value about his future moves. There will doubtless be more biographies; an authorised one, structured as a series of conversations between Rahman and the author Nasreen Muni Kabir, was announced soon after the Academy Awards.
But there is already an alternate biography, one far more eloquent than Rahman, residing in his works – in the evolutions of mood and style from year to year and album to album, and in the varying textures he has added to one of the most influential canons of music in India.