For a man who has mastered the scale and conquered the pitch, musical genius A R Rahman remains a man true to his humble roots. In an exclusive interview he talks about the future of classical music and his fight to eradicate poverty. He has lost his boyish looks but none of his magic. When the world first knew of him, with his mop of curls, T-shirt and jeans, he looked like a teenage college student. But his second film ‘Roja’ fetched him the National Film Award in 1992, and thrust him into limelight. In the years since, A R Rahman has scaled heights that no other music composer has been able to match.

He has written music for more than 90 movies. By 2003, he had sold more than 100 million records of his film scores and soundtracks world-wide, and sold over 200 million cassettes, making him one of the world’s top 25 all-time top selling recording artists. He is the only person of Indian descent to achieve this. He also has had a string of international collaborations: with Chinese director He Ping’s ‘Warriors of Heaven and Earth’, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical ‘Bombay Dreams’, a musical version of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ that played in London’s West End and then on Broadway, and for Shekhar Kapur’s ‘Elizabeth – The Golden Age’, with Craig Armstrong. He is known to assimilate diverse elements in his music, from South Asian, Sufi, Irish folk, rock, reggae to even ragtime.

Despite his fames and riches, the diminutive composer who hailed from a lower middle-class family in Madras, has not forgotten his humble beginnings. He shuns any ostentatious displays of wealth or power, makes sure his musicians and collaborators get their fair share and has launched his own foundation with the aim of eradicating poverty.

The celebrated musician is in the country for his third live concert, to be held on April 18 at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium. Dressed as usual in jeans, a cotton shirt, a denim jacket, his hair not as curly as when he first arrived, A.R. Rahman spoke to City Times in this exclusive interview.

Tell us about the A.R. Rahman Foundation. How did it come about?
It got started with the World TB Forum partnership. They asked me to write an anthem about poverty eradication. It was around 2003. I wrote the song. When we released it I thought why not take the money that comes from it and put it in a foundation. I thought let that be a beginning for something else. Though it’s not very active now, the foundation’s main goal at the time was to inspire people to just think about it, to keep the thought in the corner of their hearts, for whatever they could do to change things. Right now, I don’t want money from other people. I’m just putting my own money into the foundation. Very soon, though, we hope to do a lot of things by way of charities.

You are known to work in the night. Does working in the silence of the night inspire you to be more creative?
Before I started working for the movies, I used to work in the studios, from 9am to 9pm, and all my creative work used to be done after I finished working in the studios – at 10 o’clock in the night, because that was the time I was able to think about music. In due course, it became a habit. When I began doing films, I found that space and time to be very creative. But now I work at any time.

You have broken the mould quite a few times in the music scenario. How do you get your ideas?
I try to be a music lover myself. So when I hear a particular kind of song within me, I try to imagine if it’s good or bad, whether it’s simple enough or needs to be complicated etc. So I have to make a decision within me. If you’re a music lover, you’d love to listen to it. Then I think that if I like it, people will definitely like it, at least 10 or 20 per cent or 100… whatever. On the other hand, if it bores me, I’m sure it’s going to bore others. So that way I’m a very harsh judge of my own music. I’ve done certain songs and scrapped them even before anyone could listen to them. So that’s my process of composing songs. It’s like cooking. I must like my own cooking. If I don’t like it, others are going to push it away, too.

What keeps you going musically?
I think in a very harsh world, music is a healer for all of us, because a lot of people act in a very hostile way. So I think it’s a good enough reason. And it is a blessing from God and I keep on playing music.

You have had a number of successful international collaborations, with Andrew Lloyd Weber, with Craig Armstrong and others. Has that collaboration had an impact on your music?
Yes, definitely. I used to often do music without knowing how it was done. Maybe it was a longer process for me. But working in all these collaborations made me kind of learn to do music, background scores etc. in a faster way.

You use a lot of technology, gadgets in your music. There is a school that thinks that using gadgets leads at best to second-hand creativity. Do you agree?
No, I don’t think that is right. See, the main thing about a song is the tune, the lyrics and the emotions it conveys. And there cannot be any second-hand creativity in that. If it’s there, the song will get thrown out. I also discovered that using computers or technology is good for sketching something. For instance, if you have an idea that’s crazy, that’s out-of-the-way and you try it out in front of people, they might start laughing at you. Whereas if you sit alone, you could do that, you could experiment. And if you like it, you could then present it to the world. Otherwise you could just press the delete button. That’s the advantage of technology.

You have done some spectacular non-filmy projects like ‘Vande Mataram’. What prompted you to take them up?
I think films have limitations… in their thought processes, in what they aspire to etc. The needs of films are very limited. And at that particular point I wanted a change. Then I met my friend Bharatbala and he also suggested that I should do something out of films. That’s how we did all the songs: ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’, ‘Only You’ and others.

When you first came your music was fresh but over time it became repetitive. Do you agree? And how did you overcome that?
That’s right. I think what happened was: that’s when I started getting involved in different kinds of projects, like ‘Bombay Dreams’, the Chinese film etc. See, I get bored with similar kinds of projects. When there’re similar types of projects, your creativity goes down, because people have done that kind of stuff and you are not challenged in any way. That’s why when I do a film I want to put my full energy into it and I want to give the results that I have in mind. So I selected a different path and everything solved itself.

How has been your experience with the Mumbai film crowd?
So far they have been very kind to me. I go to Mumbai very rarely but whenever I go there, there is so much love and appreciation. I haven’t had any bad or negative reception or reaction.

What do you think of composers who blatantly steal tunes of others and make music?
That’s not good at all. And they don’t have to. There’s so much music out there. Music is infinite; it’s like an ocean. I can concede that sometimes without your knowledge something could happen; you could end up copying a part or something. But if you do it intentionally, that’s unacceptable.

Are you satisfied with the music scene in India?
No, I’m not satisfied, because I feel in India music should be a separate entity – an entity that commands an audience. Right now, it’s relying in a big way on films. Films drive the music and, of course, vice versa. What I would love to see is a definitive musical alternative. We have classical music but the mainstream audience for it is almost negligible. So I feel there should be channels catering only Hindustani or Carnatic classical music, which is much more superior to film music.

Then how do you see the future of classical music?
Classical music will never vanish or die because it has a real soul and a solid foundation that nothing can shake. And see, many of the youngsters today are singing much better that some established singers. And their background is in classical music, which is a tradition. So, classical music will always be there.

How do you view your fame and riches?
In a way it’s a blessing to get money and fame but I think it is also a test of how attached you are to it. You know, I believe hunger is a very powerful force. Only hunger can make you aspire to new things, send you on a search and push forward. When your stomach is full, you tend to become complacent. You don’t feel the need to go further, to thrust forward. So, I think your mind or stomach needs to have a little hunger. Hunger drives you forward.