A.R. Rahman is late. There are no apologies offered as he walks into a hall, shielded by bodyguards, all set to brief us about his five-part docu-series, Harmony with A.R. Rahman, a curated exploration of musical instruments and rarely-heard traditional vocal styles from across the country.

He is an artiste who likes to keep his interactions brief and terse, and I am stymied by the 10-minute interview slot. How does one recap the maestro’s 26-year-old glorious career, starting with Roja (1992) to his guest compositions in Sanju (2018) in such a short time?

Sound of discovery

The show that sees Rahman playing host (for a change), has him travelling to Mumbai where he interacts with Ustad Mohi Bahauddin Dagar, an exponent of the rudraveena and the Dhrupad genre in Hindustani classical music. The composer then visits Thrissur in Kerala to meet Sajith Vijayan, who conducts a Lec Dem (an informal interaction between students and artistes) on the use of the copper drum mizhavu in Kalari and Koodiyattam dance performances. The journey is complete in the Northeast where Sikkim folk singer Bedabati Lourembam shares with Rahman the honeyed notes of the traditional bamboo flute, Panthong Palit, and Manipur singer, Mickma Tshering Lepcha, improvises on Khulang Esei folk tunes.

 

At our interview, Rahman starts off by talking about his upcoming projects, including Kizie Aur Manny, produced by Fox Star Studios, and AR Murugadoss’s Tamil film, Sarkar, and his recent concert in Kochi. “2018 has been fantastic. The Kochi concert was a success and I am now busy with the post production of the upcoming musical, 99 Songs and Le Musk, the virtual reality film I am directing,” he says. The Hindi-Tamil bilingual film is also co-written and produced by Rahman, who has scored music for the upcoming Rajnikanth starrer, 2.0, as well.

As for Le Musk — a multi-sensory film which is said to tease the viewer’s olfactory system — the composer lets on that he has incorporated Mozart’s classical music in it. “The idea for the film came from my wife, Saira, who is a connoisseur of perfumes. She suggested it would be a unique experience to blend my tunes with the pleasing notes of a perfume,” says the Mozart of Madras, a sobriquet Rahman has earned for his symphonic scores.

Rahman makes a clear distinction between the two genres and how he has fused them in an interesting fashion for Harmony… “Western Classical allows little or no room to improvise as music is written and composed according to the musical notations. Indian Classical, on the other hand, accommodates improvisations,” he explains, adding how viewers will discover a new element in the music of his new series. “I wanted to add another perspective to the acoustics — the purest form with a contemporary take on it. Something which is very today — granulation, sample re-triggering, textures and atmospheres to a very pure sound,” he says. The finale episode will offer a modern tribute to India’s diverse musical history and includes a grand performance, bringing together all four artistes and Rahman (see box).

Journey to the East

Speaking about the musical instruments he has discovered as part of the series, he shares, “I have heard the rudraveena and mizhavu earlier, but the two folk forms from the Northeast were new to me. I realised how ignorant we are about that part of our country.” His understanding of the seven states began earlier this year, when Rahman was roped in as the first brand ambassador of Sikkim. “I went to Manipur and discovered so much beauty there — the State has a beautiful soul. What stuck on was the simple lifestyle of the people, their philosophies,” says the composer, 51, who was reminded of South India’s flower garlands on seeing the khada (white silk scarf) used to welcome guests in the East.

Artiste comes first

The series also encapsulates the lives of the musicians, telling their stories. “Each artiste has a wonderful story associated with them. They have collaborated for a musical finale in the fifth episode that was recorded in Chennai.” The instruments featured in the docu-series will be used in his forthcoming scores, he assures me.

“My fascination is not with the instrument. It is always with the player who can turn even a useless stick into something musical. It is how renowned percussionist Sivamani can make anything sound good or how Uppalapu Shrinivas has taken the mandolin and created Carnatic music with it. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who has been a part of my music in films like Lagaan and the recent Tamil flick, Mersal, is another great example,” says Rahman, who is one of the foremost users of the continuum fingerboard, likely to make a special appearance in Harmony. First heard in his composition, ‘Rehna Tu’, in Dilli 6, it was later used extensively in his concerts and subsequent film soundtracks.

Tuning out

As the interview draws to a close, I cannot help but ask him if there is a particular song that plays in his mind to help him sail through a hectic day. “Do you ask a cook what he eats after cooking? He would rather not eat after he has been through the process. It is the same way for music — I like silence.” Perhaps that is the best kind of music for someone as low-key as Rahman.

Article Credits: The Hindu