Oscar-winning Indian musician A.R. Rahman may be most famous for composing the music for the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire but he was already well-known in India and among the Indian diaspora for his songs in Hindi and Tamil. During his career, he has successfully collaborated with a number of international artists including Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger and Australian Kylie Minogue.

A.R. Rahman is in Australia as part of the Asia TOPA festival and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra will be performing some of his greatest hits on February 16. The concert will be led by UK conductor, and longtime collaborator, Matt Dunkley with A.R. Rahman appearing as a special guest.

“It’s very exciting, I’ve always had very fond memories coming to Australia, whether it was Sydney or Melbourne,” he says. A.R. Rahman wrote the music for the song Chiggy Wiggy which was performed by Australian singer Kylie Minogue for the Bollywood movie Blue. He also counts Australian film director Baz Luhrmann among friends. Rahman last performed in Australia in 2010, just after the attacks against Indian students took place in Melbourne. At the time he said he never considered cancelling his trip Down Under despite what had happened. His concert was free and it took place in Parramatta Park in Sydney with more than 60,000 people attending.

Rahman feels that people need to be reminded about love, and music is a powerful tool to use to do that. “Music I think doesn’t say it explicitly but you can feel it. You can feel the empathy, you can feel that we’re all united.”

Despite his many successes in a career spanning more than two decades, A.R. Rahman cites his work on Slumdog Millionaire as one of his most memorable collaborations. “I was lucky with what I was doing at a point where the world needed again, you know some… hope and Slumdog Millionaire came as that. Also because I was working with Danny Boyle… he’s a very musically-oriented guy and so we gelled very well.” Rahman won two Oscars, two Grammy awards and a BAFTA for his music in Slumdog Millionaire. A.R. Rahman has produced songs in English, Hindi, Tamil and many other Indian languages. He agrees that music is more powerful than language.

But he also says is constantly looking for solutions to reach his different audiences who speak different languages. “Language also [has] a problem because… there are many people who don’t speak English. Even if you take north India, south India. I’ve been doing music [for] both of them for ages so my constant challenge would be what would work both ways. “Which song I write [for] south India would work in north India?”

A.R. Rahman started out writing jingles but his big break came when he was asked to compose music for the 1992 Tamil film Roja.

“I think coming from a musical family, I started working from the age of 11, 12. The first 10 years seemed to have gone very slow, then it seemed to have gone very fast.” “My mentor Mani Ratnam gave [me] my first movie and [we are] still working together. It’s so nice to work with people whom you’ve started with, and still have respect for each other.”

Rahman is also known as the ‘Mozart of Madras’ among his fans. Madras is another name for Chennai, the south Indian city where he grew up. Born Dileep Kumar, A.R. Rahman converted to Islam and changed his name to Allah Rakah Rahman. He says he did this when he went through a very turbulent period in his life. “As a family we were going through a crisis… you know, floating in the sea. So we met a Sufi teacher who influenced us and our life changed. The whole understanding of life changed.”

“Enlightenment which came after the Sufi knowledge which came to me is still very useful. It makes me spread the hope and love which is what it says. It’s a part of Islam but a mystical part of Islam.”

Sufi music has been a big influence in some of his more recent work such as Kun Faya Kun from the 2011 Bollywood movie Rockstar and Khwaja Mere Khwaja from the 2008 film Jodha Akbar. “I think I’m a big fan of any music.

The music comes from [the] inner conscience of man whether it’s gospel or whether it’s opera, folk melodies of Ireland or African music from Mali or Senegal.” “These all come from the innermost purity of man. So Sufi music is very similar. It takes you to a trance which… transcends the religion language.” Rahman is often credited for integrating Eastern classical music with electronic music and world music.

He says as a child, he wanted to be an engineer as he was fascinated with electronics. But his mother told him to follow his father’s footsteps and become a musician. In 2003, Rahman wrote the music for the Chinese film Warriors of Heaven and Earth using the influences of Chinese and Japanese classical music. The humble and unassuming star hopes that music continues to promote love and peace. “I think this is the time to not enhance aggression and separation but to enhance love. Use your mind to create bridges. Use your mind to awaken people in not being racist or not being judgemental about any community.”

Article Published by Shivali Nayak for Australia Plus. Image Credits to ABC: Jeremy Story Carter