There is something desolate about Dubai at 6 a.m. on a Saturday. The high-rises of Business Bay look like a dinner party after all the guests have gone home, and there’s a strange industrial morning light on the roads. Around the corner from my hotel, I have a meeting with composer and singer A.R. Rahman. I know from previous experiences that early is par for the course with Rahman.

Somewhere in the world there must be a book called ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People’, and in it, there ought to be a picture of Rahman. His story is well known by now. Humble beginnings. A religious conversion to Islam at 23. Rigorous work ethic. Turning point with a film called Roja. Awards, accolades. A quarter-century reign in the music industry. Scandal free. Fuss free. At 51, he is youthful, soft-spoken, features always relaxed yet inscrutable.

He laughs frequently, but only for short durations. Never any exuberant toothy smiles. The only flashy things about him are his shoes, which are black and very punk, studded with silver bullet-like pins.

“I thought I’d work through the night and meet you, but I was really tired, so I slept,” he says. The previous night, he played to an audience of over 25,000 in Sharjah. He’s travelling with about 100 people — crew and musicians. “I love the quietness of night. There are no meetings, so you can work through, have breakfast and sleep. Because I have early morning prayers, I feel like that time between five and six in the morning is very important. There’s great energy in that time. After 8 a.m., I don’t know what to do. Then it becomes this active office time for everyone, so whenever I’m awake people bring me stuff to sign.”

We sit on two periwinkle blue couches perpendicular to each other. It’s very Dubai, by which I mean — new, clean, luxurious. Most of what I’ve seen so far has had this touch of sterile-swank. I had been taken to experience a more regular side of the city in Karama, old Dubai, but compared to the backstreets of Triplicane, even this was sterile-swank. Rahman tells me the first time he came to Dubai in the early 90s, he bought an oud.

He believes the UAE is one of the first West Asian countries to have cracked how to live peacefully, coexisting with other cultures, without taking away its identity as an Islamic country. “It’s interesting, you go to places like Atlantis [a Dubai resort], and you see people in burkhas and bikinis together.”

“What are you writing about again,” he asks. “About the invisibility of A.R. Rahman,” I say. “How you are everywhere and nowhere at once.”

It’s unclear whether Rahman agrees with my hypothesis, but compared to other composers, Rahman is undeniably understated. I’m thinking along the obvious bling of Bappi Lahiri, or even someone less flamboyant such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, with whom Rahman has collaborated, and in whose house, he says, there’s a £15 million painting next to a shoe rack. “The first time I understood art was there. I didn’t know how expensive all these paintings were… Then I started looking at things with a different perspective. It’s not just a painting, it’s what it’s saying, and that helps with the music too.”

This quality of looking is key to understanding Rahman. There’s an expansive eye outward, a protective eye inward. Working while the world sleeps. Sleeping while the world works. “It’s convenient,” he says simply, when I ask why this low profile is important. “And helpful, because your mind is thinking constantly. Sometimes I just do some zikr and numb myself into the oneness of God, which is also beautiful. Not doing anything. Just being in a zone of prayer, which is what’s saving me. Otherwise, it’s crazy right? The worries, the thinking about the world, what’s going to happen. As though I have all the world’s burdens on my shoulders. Do you get that feeling?”

Firing on all cylinders

As we speak, Rahman frequently looks to his phone to show me stills from movies and clips of music videos. He plays something sung by his son. The voice is pure and beautiful. “I did this for myself, but then Mani Ratnam wanted it.” I ask when it will be out. “Oh, that was two years ago. My son’s voice is changing now.” He does an imitation of an adolescent boy’s voice cracking. I apologise for my craters of musical ignorance. He shrugs. He’s always looking to the new. He once described his creative energy to me as a kind of madness — several cylinders working simultaneously to conceive and realise projects.

His latest project is his directorial debut, a virtual reality (VR) film called Le Musk, shot mainly in Rome. “I was possessed. When I think about it, I wonder, really did it happen, did I do that?” There’s also a bilingual film in post-production called 99 Songs, and what he calls his “bread and butter thing,” composing music for other people — Sridevi’s Mom, Shankar’s 2.0, Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, a piece for the Seattle symphony. The list goes on.

“Twenty-five years, I’ve been making music. After a while, there’s a limitation in the vision. It’s the same thing — love song, sad song — and I feel like it can go much deeper, though it’s difficult. The tried-and-tested path is easy and successful, but I want to see what is there other than this? What can you do artistically rather than formulaic stuff. So I’ve been a masochist, a tyrant to myself, trying to see what the possibilities are.”

He tries explaining the latest VR technology to me; how it is a stereoscopic and sensory experience, which includes smell. There’s a full-motion chair, Positron’s Voyager, “It’s like a whole new door opening.” After a while, he gives up on the act of describing. “I’ll show you in Chennai,” he says, understanding that it’s an experience that needs experiencing. He sees technology as something to be conquered. “It should be natural. When you’re making music, you should not ask what does this button do. You should know your key commands, so that part is taken care of and then it’s just your mind and what comes out of it.”

Tech freak

Rahman got his first camera when he was 13. He has since been obsessed with apertures and exposures. Now, he has 45 cameras, ranging from the costliest to the cheapest. In December, when I was performing with the Chandralekha group, he had suggested shooting the dance performance with a drone. Where does this ease with technology come from? “It’s really a fascination that started in childhood. My father was the first one to get the synthesizer in south India, so when he passed away I had all these big toys. Even as a kid, I could play on them, pressing every node and switch. It was like a luxury, a music showroom. So that pushed me to what next, what next. It keeps you alive.”

At this point, a crew of hotel staff is hovering by the door of the suite, wondering if they can lay breakfast out. Rahman nods the go ahead. He tells me being south Indian is key to his identity. He attributes his introverted nature to his South Indian–ness, and also offers it as an explanation as to why he used to wear T-shirts to award ceremonies. “I didn’t know you had to dress up,” he laughs. Tamil, of course, is the base of his musical explorations, but mixed with his eclectic influences and collaborations, he has taken his music far beyond the normally intransigent Vindhyas to audiences around the globe. In life, he may be an introvert, but in work he assures me, he is bandmaster.

Before adjourning to the table where sustenance and caffeine beckon, I ask Rahman whether he considers himself conservative. “Me?” He pauses. “I like to follow the code that comes from generations of faith and culture. I feel it protects us and gives us sanity. So, in lifestyle, I’m conservative, yes, but not in thinking. That was demolished long back, all the walls, because for me, spirituality fuels the thought that there’s no limit. You can do whatever you want, but don’t create confusion in the world. For me, art is something that has to keep challenging. That’s the thing about any creativity. Whether it’s the design of a computer, or a piece of art, or a song, it’s to hide all these complications you’ve faced and make it look simple. But when you go closer you realise it’s not as simple as it looks.”

Article cross posted from The Hindu and is written by Tishani Doshi