I have been a Rahman fan ever since Roja’s music (dubbed in Hindi) hit my ears. With a marvelous debut, Rahman literally made critics the world over take notice of the new maestro in the making. Roja earned a slot on Time magazine’s top 10 best movie soundtracks of all time, with a critic making special mention of Rahman’s ability to shorn all influences in his music till it sounded “totally Tamil, totally Rahman”.

If Rahman’s music in Roja won me over, his subsequent projects further cemented the admiration. What never ceased to surprise me was his acumen in handpicking singers to render his compositions; it was as if the singers themselves were discovering their full potential anew. Baba Sehgal in ‘Rukmini Rukmini’ (Roja), Kavita Krishnamurthy in ‘Kuchi Kuchi Rakamma’ (Bombay), Asha Bhosle in ‘Rangeela re’ (Rangeela) Udit Narayan in ‘Ae Ajnabi (Dil Se…), Madhushree in ‘Kabhi neem neem’ (Yuva), Daler Mehndi in Rang de Basanti, the list is endless.

But what’s all the more admirable about the ace musician is his ability to get top-notch renditions even from greenhorns like Naresh Iyer or Benny Dayal. And this has been the case since Roja; Minmini’s unhindered vocals in ‘Choti si asha’ and Chitra’s sensual vocals in ‘Yeh haseen wadiyan’ felt like a whiff of fresh air after years of listening to Bollywood numbers rendered by a handful of female crooners.

I guess that’s because the ‘Mozart of Madras’ (a sobriquet from Time magazine) is an accomplished singer himself. Bappi Lahiri, who sang for Rahman in Guru (‘Ek lo ek muft’) rates ‘Khwaja mere khwaja’ (Jodhaa Akbar) as his personal favourite from 2008. Sonu Niigam, who first sang for Rahman in Daud (‘Shabba Shabba’) has an interesting take on Rahman’s singing.

“Every voice is a reflection of the soul it belongs to. ARR is a very good soul, and his voice reflects his goodness and peace (sic). He’s never claimed to be a technical vocal wiz kid, but his choice of songs for himself is appropriate to suit his voice and style. The good quality in his voice is that he sounds equally good in songs with both Western and Sufi flavour,” Niigaam remarks.

Along with their regard for his work, people who have worked with Rahman also unanimously agree on one thing: that Rahman is one of the finest human beings they have met. Recalling his first meeting with Rahman, Kailash Kher says: “I was very excited at the prospect of meeting the A R Rahman, and was pleasantly surprised to know that he’s a very humble gentleman. In the shallow world of tinsel town, he’s one of those rare genuine souls.”

Nigaam agrees. “Very few people know that ‘Guzarish’ (Ghajini) was originally sung by me two years ago. Later, the lyrics were changed and since I was in US then – my wife was due to deliver there – Rahman re-recorded it with Javed Ali. By the time I returned, the song had already been shot. But Rahman realised he’d done something wrong, so he sat me down and apologised, and hoped I’d understand. He didn’t have to do it, but that made me respect him all the more. What’s more is that he retained my humming in the song as a tribute to me. That’s Rahman for you.”

This, coupled with his child-like enthusiasm, is what most people identify Rahman with. Adds Shreya Ghoshal: “Rahman Sir is a kid at heart, and probably that’s why he can make such music. It’s fun to see him come up with fillers for his songs. We were recently recording a song that needed a filler, and he added the word ‘Wasabi’. We later told him that Wasabi is actually a pungent-smelling Japanese veggie, but that didn’t bother him as it sounded good with the song! So what if we mentioned a pungent smelling veggie in a romantic number? The sound is all that matters to him. He’d say ‘bahut khoob’ to that.”

With such an impressive body of consistent good work, it is little wonder that everyone from Shah Rukh Khan to Sivamani awaits his work. As Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle recently said in a press interview: “He (Rahman) is the equivalent of Beyonce Knowles and Michael Jackson… The nation is devoted to his music and yet he’s so grounded…he’s a beautiful man.”

Bahut khoob Rahmansaab!