A. R. Rahman or Allah Rakha Rahman was born actually A. S. Dileep Kumar on the 6th of January in the year 1967, in Madras (now Chennai), to a musically affluent Tamil Mudaliar family. The second of four children he had three sisters Kanchana, Bala (now Talat) and Israth, Kanchana being elder and the other two younger. His father R.K. Sekhar was a composer, arranger and conductor in Malayalam movies and had worked under the likes of Salil Chowdhary and Devarajan. His mother was Kasthuri (now Kareema Begum).
Dileep’s baptism in music happened early in life. Dileep’s earliest memories of the studio are with his father. On one of those visits, a music director Sudarshanam Master found the four year old playing a tune on the harmonium. He covered the keys with a cloth. It made no difference. Dileep replayed the tune effortlessly. This impressed the music director who suggested that he be trained in music. Dileep started learning the piano at the tender age of four. He recieved his early training in music from Dhanraj Master.
But he wanted to grow up to be an electronics or computer engineer. He says today, in reminiscence ” I was not crazy after music. I was more interested in technology”. He was first drawn to music strongly when his father bought a synthesiser, one of the very first in film circles then, from Singapore. Till then he now says, “As a child, music seemed to be a means of earning bread and butter. I had no special fascination for it… it was associated purely with work. Yet I couldn’t take my eyes away from the synthesiser, it was like a forbidden toy.” This instrument was an object of much curiosity to the young Dileep and caught his fancy. Dileep used to spend hours experimenting with the novel instrument. This instrument was to shape the future of this child. It was perhaps divinely ordained that the synthesiser would become Dileep’s favourite instrument since it was the ideal combination of music and technology.
Rahman’s early years were one of struggle and hardships. At the age of 9, his father passed away following a mysterious illness with rumours abounding that he was the victim of black magic practised by his rivals. Unfortunately R. K. Shekhar passed away the very same day his first film as composer was released. It was at this time that Rahman’s belief in God first took a beating. Much of his time was filled with hospital visits, pain and anxieties.
It is an issue that Rahman outrightly refuses to discuss even today. After his father’s death the pressure of supporting his family fell on the young Dileep. At first the family subsisted by lending out his father’s musical instruments. At the age of 11, he joined Illaiyaraja’s troupe as a keyboard player in order to earn for his family’s upkeep. He also learnt to play the guitar. Thus Rahman formally entered the world of music. He also began to play the keyboard for programmes on television.
It was his mother Kareema Begum who encouraged him to follow in his father’s footsteps and fully supported him in his vocation. But all this had an adverse effect on his formal education. Infrequent attendance and an unaccommodative management forced him to shift schools from the prestigious Padma Seshadri Bal Bhavan to the Madras Christian College and finally he dropped out of school altogether when he was doing his 11th grade.
He also played on the orchestra of M.S.Vishwanathan, Raj-Koti and Ramesh Naidu and accompanied Zakir Hussain and Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan on world tours. He also appeared playing the keyboard on a few popular music shows on televison like ‘Wonder Balloon’ on the Madras Doordarshan channel. He also supposedly composed a few short pieces of music in Ilaiyaraja’s films, a notable one being the theme music in K.Balachander’s ‘Punnagai Mannan’.
All this experience enabled him to earn a scholarship to the famed Trinity College of Music at Oxford University from where he obtained a degree in Western Classical Music. He came back with a dream to bring an international and contemporary world perspective to Indian music. After he returned, he continued to be a part of various local music troupes.
He was also a part of local rock bands like Roots, Magic and Nemesis Avenue where he performed with his future colleagues like Suresh Peters, Ranjit Barot and Sivamani Anandan. This, he says, was a very valuable learning experience. Thus Dileep came to be totally immersed in music. The only source of joy to him was music, so much so, that friends like guitarist John Anthony would say, “Who is the Prime Minister of India, do you know? Get out and see beyond your nose in Kodambakkam”. But he was not at all sure he wanted to turn professional.
Dileep thus firmly established himself this way and worked for nearly 8 to 9 years with various music directors. He also worked as an arranger for Illaiyaraja, M.S.Vishwanathan, Ouseappachan and Raj-Koti. He has this to say of his stint with Illaiyaraja “Until then I thought you had to drink or take dope to be a good artist. But Ilayaraja was making such beautiful music and leading a pure life!”
” I was under the impression that if its music, whoever it is, they must have some bad habit. When I saw them with drinks and drugs I thought ‘Oh! they are music people. They have to take drinks, smoke and cocaine to get their inspiration’. The man who changed these impressions altogether was only Ilayaraja. He proved that he can make good music without any bad habits! Even now he is an inspiration for me being so religious today.”
But the young and enthusiastic Dileep felt shackled by just plain arranging and could barely withstand the monotony of playing in an orchestra all the time with all his creative urges being suppressed. The kind of sound he liked was already there in fusion – in L. Shankar and L. Subramaniam whom he worked with, and in the then popular ‘Shakti’ group. He played on the keyboard for T. V. Gopalakrishnan and Kadri Gopalnath, with Sivamani on the drums.
He says, “It gave us some kicks.” At this time, Vizi Manuel, the lead keyboard player in Illaiyaraja’s troupe advised him to try other alternatives for pursuing a musical career, like advertising. This was a suggestion that appealed to him and he explored some avenues seriously. The complexes increased. “I thought, what if the film world ends? I learnt driving, so that I could survive as a driver.” The restlessness pushed him into making jingles for ads.
Fortunately for Dileep he soon got his first break in advertising when he was asked to compose the jingle to promote Allwyn’s new Trendy range of watches, in 1987. The ads were a success and Dileep’s work in them was appreciated. Dileep quit playing in orchestras and moved full time into advertising as a few more offers came his way. Thus began Dileep’s 5-year successful saga in advertising where he went on to not only compose more than 300 jingles, but would also be the stepping stone to his entry into films.
Working as a jingle composer not only gave him an outlet to his creative urges but also gave him the much needed exposure to the music industry. The people he came in contact with during his work in advertising gave him a pathway to the film world. During his stint in advertising, he released his first ever complete music album, of Islamic devotional songs, titled ‘Deen Isai Malai’, in Tamil. This was later followed by ‘Set Me Free’, an album of English songs which was the launch album of singer Malgudi Subha, by Magnasound, where Dileep set the songs to tune. Subha had earlier sung for Dileep in many jingles. Both the albums went somewhat unnoticed in the market. He also set to tune the poems of poet-author Randhir Khare.
Around this time, in 1988, one of his sisters fell seriously ill and numerous attempts to cure her failed. Her condition progressively worsened. The family tried everything from medicine to religious methods like havans and prayers in the church. The family had given up all hope when they came in close contact with a Muslim Pir – Sheik Abdul Qadir Jeelani or Pir Qadri as he was popularly known.
The family had earlier gone to the Pir when his father had similar troubles, but were too late to save him. With his prayers and blessings, Dileep’s sister made a miraculous recovery. Rattled by the bad experiences earlier in the case of his father and now his sister and influenced by the teachings of the Pir and the succour that they found in him the entire family converted to Islam. Thus A. S. Dileep Kumar became Allah Rakha Rahman. Today, Rahman says ‘Islam has given me peace. As Dileep I had an inferiority complex. As A. R. Rahman I feel like I have been born again.’
Both his father and mother were believers in Astrology. His mother took him along once to a astrologer to get the horoscope of Bala (Talat) done. She asked the astrologer to suggest an Islamic name for Dilip. The astrologer on seeing Dilip immediately told his mother to name him as Abdul Rahman and shorten it to A. R. Rahman. When his mother asked the astrologer why the other initial ‘R’, the astrologer replied “Give him a name with two initials and mark my words, he will grow up to be a great man”. His mother did accordingly. But the A and R would later become Allah Rakha on the suggestion of reknowned composer Naushad Ali.
In an interview, he was to say about his father, ” My father passed away when I was 9 years old. My mother used to narrate many tales about my father which used to make me very happy. My father was regarded to be highly knowledgeable in music by many people. I still listen to many of the old songs tuned by him. I think that its his enormous knowledge of music that has come down to me by the grace of God”.
When asked what prompted him to convert to Islam, he says “I remember my father suffering. He was taken to eight to nine hospitals, including the CMC hospital in Vellore and the Vijaya hospital in Madras. I saw him suffering physical pain… I remember the Christian priests who would read from the Bible beside his hospital bed… I remember the pujas and the yagnas performed by the pundits… by the time, the Muslim pirs came , it was too late. He had already left us.
After my father passed away, for some years when I was a teenager I believed there was no God. But there was a feeling of restlessness within me. I realised that there can be no life without a force governing us… without one God. And I found what I was looking for in Islam. I would go with my mother to durgahs. And pirsaab Karim Mullashah Qadri would advise us. When we shifted to this house, we resolved to stick to the faith.”
Rahman became a very religious and devout Muslim. After this period his career graph began to take the upward path. More and more advertising offers came his way. In 1989 Rahman was very intent on having an own studio so that he would have dedicated recording facilities where he could not only equip himself with the latest infrastucture but also experiment with music at his convenience. At this time, the Pir came to his house and blessed him saying that he would attain unparalled success. The very next day the Pir passed away.
Thus Rahman decided to establish his studio at the very spot where he had been blessed by the Pir. He called his studio Panchathan Record Inn and it was attached to his house in Kodambakkam. Even today, the first thing that you notice when you enter his studio is a framed photograph of the Pir. The studio abounds with Islamic inscriptions. This studio would later develop into one of India’s most well equipped and advanced recording studios. In his established state-of-the-art sound and recording studio he began experimenting in sound engineering, design and production. He also began a collection of sound samples, creating one of the most comprehensive sonic libraries in Asia.
Continuing with his stint in the advertising world Rahman did a lot of popular ads like those for Parry’s, Leo Coffee, Springz Mineral Water, Boost featuring Sachin Tendulkar and Kapil Dev, Titan, Remanika Sarees, Premier Pressure Cooker, MRF Tyres, Hero Puch, The Hindu Young World and Asian Paints. He also scored the title music for television channels like JJTV, Sun TV, and Asianet. He also scored the music for numerous television and radio commercials, scores for corporate films and documentaries, multi-media audio-visual scores national integration programmes, social awareness and public campaign programmes and international documentaries in many languages.
These scores range from 10 seconds to a complete hour. The jingles that he composed for the Leo Coffee ad starring Aravind Swamy and the Asian Paints ad directed by Rajeev Menon also won him awards and recognition. He also won an award for composing the theme music of the Madras Telugu Academy’s Spirit of Unity Concerts. Later he would say about his stint in advertising ” Working in ads contributed to the precision in my music. In jingles, you only have a few seconds to create a mood, or convey a message or emotion. Jingles taught me discipline.”