His unruly locks fly as gusts of wind blow through them, and his alaaps from Vande Mataram ring out in the stadia. When A R Rahman, musician extraordinaire, became A R Rahman the singer, he met with equal success. Music is the raison etre of his life, so much so that beyond it is a great gulf of silence.

The shell of reticence is difficult to break down as he is a very restrained and self-contained man, with music subsuming him. Many an interviewer has been reduced to wringing his hands in despair (Javed Jaffrey has been one of the casualties). Controversies have their way of doggedly sniping at innovators. But those who dare to break the shackles of conformity have to pay a price.

Vande Mataram, his ode to the nation, came in for heavy criticism from certain fundamentalists for depicting the national flag in a derogatory manner (the instance relates to the flag being allowed to touch the ground). But, says Rahman, Everyone has his own way of offering prayers for the nation.

Popular opinion is on our side, beyond it everything else is irrelevant. The idea for the album was mooted at a discussion between him and Bharatbala, a childhood friend. We wanted a song which would connect with this generation, yet its echoes would reach out from the traditional core of India. As for his unruly locks, it looks like the laidback composer has finally learnt to be media-savvy.

Bharatbala suggested that I cultivate this look and surprisingly everyone seems to have taken a liking to it. But change has been a constant feature of his life. And not only from being Dilip Shekhar, the son of Malayalam film music composer R K Shekhar, who assisted the likes of Salil Chowdhary and Devrajan, to becoming A R Rahman (he converted to Islam at the age of nine after his fathers death).

To date, religion continues to a very private topic, close to his heart but never for public consumption. After his father’s death, the only legacy bequeathed to him were musical notes. By the age of 11, he was playing alongside musicians of the pedigree of Illayraja. He brandished the keyboard as his chosen instrument and composed music like a man possessed. In 1981-82, he set up a light orchestra and played a few jigs, but like the proverbial sponge, he was soaking in a slew of influences, from jazz to classical.

He performed with his band consisting of Siva Mani, the mercurial percussionist, and Prassana and others at the IIT festival too. But the world of jingles beckoned and he started churning out jingles by the dozen, and raking in the moolah. But surprisingly, it’s not the bitter memories of the days of struggle which come forth. Rahman says, making jingles was quite lucrative, but I had my eyes set on being a part of the film industry.

The first break came from an unlikely source. Mani Ratnam, the whizkid down south known for his offbeat themes, asked him to do the musical score for Roja. The film’s music with its patriotic theme resonated across the nation; the songs Tu hi re and Choti si aasha were strong on melody and the voices were embellished by the score.

The refined recordings awoke the stultifying music industry from its slumber. Illayraja, the reigning deity of music, had been making classical-based compositions for years, but the younger generation yearned for the music of the 90s. Rahman’s music bridged that generation gap with contemporary tunes which met with the approval of the traditionalists as well. But Rahman is not one to forget his mentor, Mani is instrumental in my success, he says.

Roja became a phenomenal hit, and the following six years saw him grafting a niche for himself as the R D Burman of the 90s, standing alone atop the peak of creativity. Curiously, very few music directors from Mollywood had dared to to take the plunge in the Hindi bastion, mostly daunted by the linguistic constraints.

But Rahman effectively strode across the border. It was cultural osmosis of a different kind, and the credit for the break in the north-south divide in the music industry goes to him. First came Mani Ratnam’s Bombay, whose songs, despite having been dubbed in Hindi hit the bull’s eye. Another aspect of Rahman’s endeavours has been the use of raw voices and he employed Remo Fernandes (a Hinglish pop singer, at best not comfortable with the nuances of the language) to sing Humma Humma and it became the anthem of 1994, to say nothing of the soft instrumentation and use of children for Kuchi kuchi Rukamma.

Even in his latest blockbuster Dil Se, he used Sukhwinder and Sapna Awasthi for Chaiyan chaiyan number, a difficult choice if you have the industry bigwigs eating out of your hands. He is nonchalant, the use of raw, new voices gives a different persona to the song.

The acoustic touch seems to be back as he used a rabab like instrument in the song. The nightingale Lata Mangeshakar condescended to sing Diya jale, in which Carnatic classical vocals ring out in the background. The first genuine Hindi effort came in the form of Ram Gopal Verma’s Rangeela, with the sensual Urmila Matondkar gyrating to Tanha tanha. The music continued to be a hedonistic mix of beats and computer induced effects.

Gradually, the notes started turning somewhat stale. The spate of Prabhu Deva movies led to the cloning of songs at a massive scale. Didn’t he fall into the rut of beat or rhythm influenced music? He replies with a pensive look, I started doing Prabhu Deva movies and there was pressure to succeed as the songs became a trendsetter.

Gentleman had a light musical score because of Shankar’s demand for something to offset the serious theme and I realised my folly in doing repetitive scores for Kadaalan and other movies to meet the demands of directors. The question of plagiarising rears its ugly head, but he does not have any rancour or bitterness when he speaks of his entire musical score for Gentleman being lifted by Anu Malik.

They imitated Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan too, but now they have run the circle, but it does not really matter, does it? But how about him lifting Ace of Bases Happy Nation for the Indians Telephone Dhun? He gives a wry smile and says, The loop based compositions have a certain sense of familiarity and if it happened it was on a subconscious level.

Frequently the inanity of the lyrics overshadows his music, but he defends himself, the songs are mostly dubbed. But now I am working with lyricists like Gulzar, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Anand Bakshi. Hopefully Subhash Ghais Taal and Govind Nihalanis Takshak will see a sea change in the quality of lyrics.

In fact, Subhash Ghai has spent a lot of time teaching me the nuances of language. The burgeoning music market has seen music companies producing movies to save the exorbitant cost of buying music rights. The stakes are getting bigger and consequently the pressure to succeed is all the more.

In the ultimate analysis, if, despite the hit musical score, the movie flops as in the case of much hyped Jeans, then is there a sense of loss or regret? I usually avoid seeing movies bearing my stamp altogether. It saves one the pain of confronting the thematic treatment of songs. The change ushered by him through use of computers in recording has been found to be debatable. He reacts strongly, We are heading towards the millennium. We have to keep abreast of times.

Now, I can record my music on a portable hard disk and record ethnic music on top of it. He wants music to meet international standards in terms of quality and is also planning a millennium project. It is all hush-hush for now. As ever, for Rahman, the bottomline is that his music should reach out to the soul of humankind and when that is the kind of target you set, the music will have to blow up your mind. 

Published by The Pioneer on December 30, 1998 by Mayank Bhargava