The year 1992 revolutionised Bollywood music — in terms of composition scheme, arrangements and the entire soundscape in general — with the release of Mani Ratnam’s Roja. While being a Hindi dubbed version of a Tamil film, Roja was a revelation and made people take notice of the actors Madhoo, Arvind Swamy — and the young music composer A.R. Rahman. Since then, with every film, with every album, Rahman has progressed to a stature that probably no music composer in India ever has.
Now the double Academy Award-winner is all set to make his debut as a host with the Amazon Prime Exclusive, Harmony with A.R. Rahman. It features him interacting with four musicians from four different parts of the country— Maharashtra, Kerala, Sikkim and Manipur; understanding their art and then collaborating with them in a grand finale as part of the five-episodic series that is expected to begin streaming from 15 August.
Rahman, throughout the series, will be seen meeting Ustad Mohi Baha’un-din Dagar (Mumbai, Maharashtra), Kalamandalam Sajith Vijayan (Thrissur, Kerala), Lourembam Bedabati Devi (Imphal, Manipur) and Mickma Tshering Lepcha (Western Sikkim) who are the doyens of traditional music forms of the geographic location that they belong to. While Dagar’s expertise is the Rudra Veena, Vijayan is a noted Mizhavu (a percussion instrument) player. Mickma is a popular musician in the Himalayas known for his deft renditions on the Panthong Palith (wooden flute) and Bedabati Devi is a gifted vocalist who renders compositions of the almost-vanishing folk music form Khuilang Eshei.
In a group interview, Rahman interacted with journalists in Mumbai and shared his experience of working on this upcoming show. The media-shy and often-reticent Rahman, surprisingly, was at his candid best during the media interaction. “I am not the traditional anchor; don’t set high expectations, please. I am not (one of) those who would say, ‘Aah! O lovely… look at the trees, look at the food here…’ and things like that, I am not that charming. In my own way, I’ve had these beautiful interactions,” he says.
Explaining more about what he does on the show, he adds, “I wouldn’t know anything. I would just know that I will be dressed up, go there, sometimes be driving a car, or a cycle and sometimes be flying a drone…So they (the makers of the show) just captured whatever I did — crazy and novel stuff. The one thing that we really wanted to do was to take these instruments and put them in a very contemporary perspective. How else can they be used? (It was) not like I give them four chords and we start improvising on it. I didn’t want to do that; I wanted it to be dangerously improvised, where even if it goes completely wrong I knew I could fix it later. It was more like, do whatever you enjoy, I will be a fly on the wall listening to you, but I also have something which won’t disturb you in the process.”
B Kandaswamy, joint managing director of Kavithalayaa Production Pvt Ltd, one of the co-producers of the show, explains why Rahman was their best bet for the show, which marks the production house’s debut on the OTT platform. Ever since the company was founded by the Tamil filmmaker and writer K Balachander in 1981, Kavithalayaa has backed some of the biggest Tamil films and launched some of the most iconic film stars of south India. It was in fact, the same production company that also launched Rahman with Roja.
Kandaswamy reveals that the upcoming Amazon series was born out of an idea to do something in the area of non-fiction music. “We figured that the best thing to do in that direction is to look for our rich musical heritage. There is still around 35-40 per cent of India’s music that is still struggling to be heard. We also knew that if there’s any possibility to bring those unheard sounds to the attention of the whole of India, and also the whole world, then we needed a platform like Amazon Prime with its wide reach and we also need a name like AR Rahman. Only then will people sit up and notice.” Adding on Rahman’s anchoring bit, Kandaswamy said, “I am very proud to see him where he is today. We launched Rahman in Roja, back then in 1992. And now we are launching him as a host and anchor with Harmony.”
Apart from exploring and bringing forth the lost and nearly-obsolete music of different regions in India, the show also enabled Rahman to bring out the stories, anecdotes pertaining to both the art and the artistes. “We wanted this series to be intriguing, interesting and not boring as these are instruments that are off the radar and we are bringing them to the fore. There is purity, honesty, there is a legacy that we intend to bring. They have a certain legacy and we just had to take it and make it shine. It is like storytelling, like a movie; you go and see their lives, each fascinating in their own way,” explains Rahman.
While Rahman is a public figure, he isn’t new to the limelight. But for the four artistes, who feature in this season of Harmony, it was (if not for all of them) their first rendezvous with the global audience. When Kandaswamy was asked about how the series developed from its conception to its execution, he talked about three primary criteria that helped them sift through all the possible options and zero in the final set of musicians. He says, “The stories of these instruments were really a crucial factor; if you have a riveting story which could engage a potential audience then it works for us. So in all, the basic factors narrowed down to (firstly) the fact that these musicians had a mastery over their (respective) instruments; secondly, they had wonderful stories around these instruments; and lastly, they were able to narrate the same in front of the camera, without any difficulty.”
Rahman is always known to go beyond the formulaic, run-of-the-mill style of music composition by introducing various sounds and processing them in order to bring something new on the table. From experimenting with diverse genres like classical, rock, jazz, folk, western in India, to making the world dance on ‘Jai Ho‘ from Oscar award-winning Slumdog Millionnaire — Rahman has constantly upped the ante and has brought Indian music to a global stage. For him, every day, every album comes as yet another exciting day and he doesn’t really dwell upon expectations or audience pressures. “If you have a greater intention about humanity and art etc, then you don’t have to worry about all this. You just do your thing. From the beginning days, it was only about going further and further so that I don’t get bored; I get bored easily because the mind starts predicting everything and then that comes into the art also.
During the interaction, the “Mozart of Madras” was also asked possibly the most pertinent question — whether he feels that the state of music in India, is deteriorating or not. He quickly puts forth his opinion on this saying, “I don’t think India’s rich musical heritage is dying, only the exposure is dying. People love traditions and it is beyond anybody’s money or power. It (music) is the lifestyle of so many people. What we see exposed is this big splash of Hindi movies and Tamil movies. It does not mean that all this (traditional music) does not exist. It is taken by families who create this legacy. It is their soul. It is not dictated by money. It is a redeeming factor in their lives.”
Rudra Veena maestro Ustad Mohi Baha’un-din Dagar belongs to a lineage that spans eight generations. Having been born and brought up in Mumbai, Mohi Baha’un-din was exposed to various other forms of music — from western, jazz, pop, country, metal, beatboxing — but he chose to devote his life to the Indian classical genre. With so many years of experience and a musical heritage to his credit, the Rudra Veena player compliments Rahman for maintaining his freedom, patience and humility throughout the course of this series.
“Rahman is not at all Bollywood, he is what his music is; he is more about the art. In our conversations together he talked about what he would do and what I would do. I had already told him beforehand that I come from a certain tradition and no matter what I won’t break the tradition. He was like, ‘Not a problem, you do what you want to do, we will work around that.’ He gives freedom to the artist to do what they want. He is not asking us to be what he is; he is asking us to be who we are. That is the best we can do, we can’t be somebody else. Then he would just sit and observe and start playing around with it.”
“He has a knack of pulling people together and bringing them together in a larger singular form and bringing something good out of it. I think it is really difficult. From his music to ours, chorus, violins, drums, arrangements etc, everything — he was always there, totally aware; it was a learning experience and a lot of good energy,” says Mohi Baha’un-din.
The same opinion is seconded by Sikkim-based musician Mickma Tshering Lepcha, who along with his band Sofiyum has been performing Lepcha music in cities like Gangtok, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and other parts of India as well. Mickma plays Panthong Palith, a wooden flute belonging to the Lepcha tribe of the Himalayas. This flute has five holes (including the mouthpiece), as opposed to the traditional or rather more popular version of the Indian flute which has seven holes, thus it has a very distinct tonality.
Talking about his experience of working with the maestro, Mickma says, “Rahman has great knowledge of music. I respect him tremendously, just as he respects all artistes. If I open up to him he opens up and tries to incorporate our stuff with his own. That gives us enough space to bloom.”
“If a name like Rahman’s is associated (with) trying to bring traditional music forward and give it more publicity, then on the wider platform, I am sure a lot more people will listen to him than they do to us. That would make a lot of difference and we would have a wider range of listeners as well. This sort of reintroduces the people to what their cultural roots are, that’s what we gained from this collaboration —a sort of recognition and relevance. And with Rahman picking it up, people would definitely think,’It is something important, let’s pay attention to it,'” adds Mohi Baha’un-din.
Mickma also strongly feels that this artistic endeavour with Rahman will open “more doors, more opportunities” for their music and their people in the future. “It is very obvious that things will get better, I think positively that way. Personally, for me, I have already established my space in my locality, my community in Sikkim. People know me as I have been performing there. People are happy that we could collaborate with Rahman saab, the master of music. That’s very encouraging and people are saying positive things about us,” he says and adds on a hopeful note, “What I see for my culture in the future is that it will (live) much longer.