AR Rahman is offering namaaz when we arrive to meet him. We are told to wait till the 50-year-old Oscar-winning composer completes his prayers. It’s a ritual he hasn’t missed since he was 23, when he converted to Islam after being inspired by the ideals of Sufism. It is something that takes him both away and closer to his music. “I think what I learned through Sufism was the concept of unconditional love — to people, to your art form. In faith, whatever we have and follow, we are all in unison. It connects. So when we tap into that infinite resource, we excel,” says Rahman. He was in the Capital to discuss The Sufi Route, a festival he will headline in November. It will take place along the ramparts of the Qutub Minar.
Dressed in brown jacket, black trousers and striking canvas shoes, he says he is on a tight schedule this time and will skip visiting one of his most beloved spaces in Delhi — the Nizamuddin dargah. The dargah is also where his qawwali Kunfayakun (Rockstar, 2011)
We meet him a day after his statement responding to journalist Gauri Lankesh’s murder went viral. Rahman had said, “If these things happen in India, then it is not my India”. “I didn’t know her (Gauri Lankesh). I saw the news in the middle of a recording and my musician heart was just shocked,” he tells us. Do the current times trouble him? He calls it a phase. “The Indian mind, I feel, is a beautiful mind. We all grow up with spirituality and empathy. Through Gandhi’s ahimsa we have shown the path to the whole world. Something in this Indianness is and will hold us together. Our leader will reflect who and what we are. Art needs to stay art and away from politics,” says Rahman, whose last few projects such as Shaad Ali’s OK Jaanu!, Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Mohenjodaro and Gurinder Chaddha’s Viceroy’s House/ Partition: 1947 haven’t come anywhere close to the blaze of many from the composer’s arsenal. “The effort is always to deliver my best, to create an experience that can touch people’s hearts,” he says.
In the process of delivering that experience, almost nothing — extreme criticism or praise — has stopped him from experimenting with new sounds and tunes. He finds it funny when many come and tell him about his music taking time to grow on them. “Yup, it’s like a seed. It becomes a full-fledged tree later,” says Rahman with a chuckle and adds that he is joking. He is quiet soon. “Creation is inspired by thoughts that come from beyond us. My father passed away at 43. As for me, after 40 years of age, every day has been a gift. I wonder what can I do with the magical powers God has given me. I try my best to make it work,” says Rahman, who calls Khwaja ji, his biggest achievement in terms of music. “People come and tell me that the song has a higher force. People loved it regardless of communities and that was a blessing. I think it led to the Oscars,” he says.
Rahman was first introduced to the audience in 1992 with the release of Mani Ratnam’s Roja, in which singer Minmini’s softly-delivered Chhoti si asha found resonance with many. At a time when Bollywood music was struggling, Rahman gave several new and memorable sounds — Rangeela (1995), Bombay (1995), Pukar (2000), Dil Se (1998), Taal (1999), Swades (2004), Rang De Basanti (2005) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008), among others. “I don’t know anything. I feel like a blank piece of paper; what comes to my head and how it’s executed, I don’t even know sometimes,” says Rahman.
This year he completes 25 years in the music industry. Winner of two Oscars and Grammys apart from a BAFTA and a Golden Globe, Rahman says, “When I look back, it’s so complicated. I never thought my journey will be like this. It was for music and I was doing that faithfully. But I never thought I’ll get a larger role. It’s been a blessing,” says Rahman.
With his meticulous tracks, he debuted on the concert stage in 1996, and has continued to perform live since. A sombre and emotional performer on stage, often finding refuge behind the piano or the microphone, Rahman, over the years, has become more comfortable. He recently released One Heart: The AR Rahman Concert Film, which shares backstage details on the workings of his elaborate concerts. “I find comfort in studio recordings, composing and creating something new, but there are so many things that open up when you do a concert,” says Rahman. His last big concert titled “Netru, Indru, Naalai” (Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow) in July at London’s Wembley stadium was highly debated on social media for having more Tamil songs and fewer in Hindi. It even sparked off the exhaustive debate about the country’s national language in a diverse nation. “There were 9,000 people at Wembley that day. Probably 50 of them left for whatever reason and this led to the controversy. I have held similar concerts since 2000. Because India is such a complex nation, it works. We are all from different cultures and my concerts are also like that,” he says.
Shuttling between Chennai, Los Angeles and London for his work assignments, he feels India is quite lenient when it comes to work. “Which is good in a way. Abroad, it’s all contractual,” says Rahman. He cites an incident where a Hollywood producer was surprised when he had to leave for the UK to accept a doctorate being offered during the process of working on her film. “I thought she’d be proud.
Instead, she told me not to go. She said if I did, I’d take her movie out of my system. And I was like, wow this is something,” says Rahman, whose upcoming projects, which will find fruition in the middle of the night in his recording studio back home, include Majid Majidi’s Beyond the Clouds, Vishwesh Krishnamurthy’s musical 99 Songs and Shekhar Kapoor’s Little Dragon. “I ask god to take care of my future, so that music keeps flowing. I don’t know how to do anything else,” says Rahman.