Coming from south India, he says, he lived in a shell. But A R Rahman has broken many religious and linguistic barriers since. Now he is on a spiritual journey, inspired by Sufism. In an interview on NDTV 24 X 7’s Walk the Talk, Rahman tells Shekhar Gupta, Editor-in-Chief of The Indian Express, about his inspirations and influences, and what gives his music that haunting, searching quality:
A R Rahman, or Allah Rakha Rahman, you are one of the most-loved practitioners of syncretic Indian music. You are always producing something new, whatever you do, and something that we always love. Now you are starting a journey of spirituality. This place, the Dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, Ajmer, then is a nice venue to be doing this interview.
Yeah, we are lucky to be meeting at this place, where lots of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians all gather to get spiritual experience. I’m glad you’re here.
I remember one of your songs, near Haji Ali, it had a line—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isaai…
I think Sufism in India was created for this kind of togetherness of all religions…
And then, if you look at the great Sufi minds, they in fact embrace all other festivals. Holi, for example. And I know that now you are learning from Amir Khusrau a great deal.
You always have to learn, otherwise you can’t survive.
So when did your journey of Sufism start?
It started when I met Karimullah Shah Qadri, peersaab for my mother and me. He was treating my father when he was ill. He’s a spiritual healer and we went through a lot of spiritual experience. And then when my father died, after 10 years, we met him again and then he brought us into Sufism.
How is Sufism different from classical Islam?
Actually Sufism is not different, it goes one step above. It takes the Shariat—we practise everything, we pray, do namaaz, fast and everything—but we go into this world where we want only God’s love. It goes beyond it. If you take religion, it’s like an outer garment. If you don’t understand it, the soul of it…the soul of it comes from Sufism. When you know Sufism, you know what is underneath, then it’s all about love.
Is it how Sufism is able to embrace people from other religions? A person can be a Hindu, Sikh, Christian and still follow Sufi saints, and he may not even be very religious.
Sufism follows the route of every religion. (It believes in) tauhid, the oneness of God. If you say one particular God created everything, then another God did not create another human being, from another religion. Sufism believes every human being in the universe is created by one God, so that element of unity is there already in the hearts of people.
Are you ever conscious of the fact that you have a Muslim name and that all of India loves you. In fact, you are one of the two great—if I may use that expression—great national heroes who happen to come from the Muslim minority: President Kalam and you. It also so happens that both of you are Tamil. Does it put some weight of responsibility on your shoulders?
It does when you say it in that angle. But you can look at it in the simple angle, that you have to lead a life that you have started, and carry on like that, not get carried away. Because the world some day sees you as big and then suddenly small. So you have to have self-esteem, you have to have an inside space to realise that you have to keep walking.
But you get so much affection…
Yeah, of course, I love all that.
But does it make you feel more responsible, that I have something more to deliver?
It does actually. When we were coming here in the car, my mother had a banana. She was about to throw it on the road, and I told her don’t do it, they will have a photograph—Rahman’s mother throws banana on the road.
Tell me a little bit about how your music has evolved. You have always picked folk themes, Sufi themes, tunes from the Middle East.
I believe that music, again like religion, is about melody, and melody is the soul of music. And if that soul is set right then it can have different garments, you can have different arrangements. It can become like Western music or Indian classical or anything like that. We’ve embraced so much of Western classical music. Our old composers have taken Western themes and made hit songs…
There are lots of them. But even if you take Sound of Music, Doe a deer, it’s a Western musical but it’s become like the nursery rhyme of India. Every child knows it. When we did Vande Mataram, the melody was done in instrumental. From France, America and from the UK, everybody asked ‘What is this?…It’s so healing’. So it doesn’t have to be that Indian music is like that and Western music is like that…
Can you tell us about other melodies that have become recognised around the world because they were great melodies, and among people who cannot understand what these were about?
There is another thing—the rhythm of Punjabi music. That’s become very hot now. Indian melody still has to get its due. I mean it’s getting there, if you take Bombay Dreams or songs of Indian composers…there are a lot of examples.
But is there anything like international melodies, themes that are recognised around the world? Like Lara’s Theme…
Exactly. If you take themes like Macarena, Lara’s Theme, Dr Zhivago…they have become part of our culture also.
You don’t have to understand what the song is about, what the words are, it goes beyond that. Like Love Story.
Music has the extraordinary power to cross across. Though it’s a cliche, it’s proved true again and again.
How did Vande Mataram happen?
Vande Mataram happened because after five years of film music, I got really bored. I was doing movies, movies, movies. And then I wanted to do something that was close to the Indian people—all communities. I met Bharatbala and Mehboob, and he wrote Maa Tujhe Salaam, the song on Sony. Then the 50th anniversary of India and Pakistan, the Independence anniversary, happened. It was a very memorable experience. I can’t tell you how it felt.
Did it give you that emotional high?
Yeah. A couple of weeks back I was in New York for the Grand Marshall, the New York Independence Day parade, and I sang the song. Muslims, Hindus, all kinds of people were there. Pretty exciting.
That’s the fascinating thing. Until you did this, no one understood the meaning of Vande Mataram as also Maa Tujhe Salaam. It’s just a simple translation.
It had to happen that time, it happened. No explanations.
But it needed the power of music and the power of your creativity to do it.
I think also that when something happens musically or otherwise, it happens with the power of God. Nothing happens without the power of God.
But when you did Vande Mataram, were you conscious of the fact that the whole idea had been politicised over so many years?
I didn’t know a thing actually, I was very naive. I’m glad I was. For me, Vande Mataram was a song that connects all of us. If people politicise and make it vulgar, it’s their fault.
You are glad that you were not conscious about the dispute around the original song, for had you been, Maa Tujhe Salaam may not have happened?
Not like that, but it would have been different. What it is now…it happened that way. Because we have hadees of the Prophet—Tere paeron ke neeche jannat hai (Paradise lies at the feet of the mother). Mother can mean my mother, my motherland and can mean God also.
Which in effect philosophically means saying the same thing.
It is how you understand it. You take it as an object. You call God also mother because he was the creator. In the Koran it says God is 70 times more compassionate, more caring than your own mother. So it mixes a lot of things…it mixes nation, God…
But Vande Mataram was always a source of politics, Muslims objected to it. But when you sang it this way, everybody not only loved it, they sang it. Did that surprise you?
There are so many things that surprise me, but I still go on.
But how did that happen? How did you de-communalise this idea?
Nothing, we all had good intentions. Bharatbala had good intentions, his wife had good intentions. We did it on the anniversary of India’s Independence. So it all fell into place.
In fact, you sang it at Delhi before all the ex-prime ministers. But how strongly patriotic are you? What do you feel when a war like Kargil breaks out?
I feel sad when a lot of things happen. I felt sad when Gujarat happened, September 11, in Bengal when there were floods, the Gujarat earthquake. I felt bad when Tamils got kicked out of Bangalore.
But are any of these inspirations for your music? Like Tamils getting kicked out of Bangalore, the Gujarat riots. Because a lot of creativity is inspired by adversity.
The Tamil stuff inspired a song in the Tamil version of Roja. About faith, not losing faith in humanity.
So that was inspired by the anti-Tamil riots in Bangalore, but I’m sure the song was an equally big hit in Karnataka. The way I see it, you have broken two stereotypes. One is the religious stereotype, with Vande Mataram, and the other is the linguistic stereotype. Because you are a Tamil who makes music in Tamil as well as Hindi, and who is loved equally in Tamil as well as Hindi. Have you ever looked at it like that?
Only recently, after people said that I have never seen a person from Tamil Nadu go and survive in Bombay. But I don’t feel that. People in Bombay love me. We don’t see that kind of discrimination.
We talked about things that make you angry. You are also a deeply spiritual person. When something like the Gujarat riots happened, how did you feel? When people come and tell you that we are from the minority and we may be targeted. Do you feel insecure, do you ever worry?
I felt very unfortunate as I was in London at the time. So it reinforced my determination to come back to India, more than staying abroad. So I shortened my trip and returned. I felt I had to go through that and not escape it. And I firmly believe that everything, good or bad, has to come with the permission of God. He is the healer, the ultimate healer. If you throw hatred, you get hatred back; if you throw love, you get love back.
You once said that in order to create a good composition, a good musician needs to be able to create a vacuum around his mind. How do you do that? Does the spirituality help you?
It’s not a general statement, it’s about me. Others have different ways of creating music.
But you can do this?
Yeah, because of Sufism. I create a vacuum with a lot of zikr. Get everything out of my mind, even myself. I get myself out and then the music happens.
How are you able to pick up so much from all over? For example, a really big hit like Chaiyya Chaiyya was drawn from Thaiyya Thaiyya, which is Punjabi folk-cum-Sufi from a fairly ancient period. How did you do that?
It happened when Nusrat (Fateh Ali Khan) died. I felt inspired by Punjabi spiritual music. I asked a friend in Bombay to tell me of some lyricist who could write Punjabi. So he sent me Sukhwinder Singh. That’s when I met him for the first time, when he was writing lyrics for Thakshak. I asked if he had any Sufi line, he said he had Baba Bulle Shah’s Thaiyya Thaiyya. And then we just approved a song. We played it with Mani Ratnam and he loved it. Gulzar saab changed it to Chaiyya Chaiyya.
Did you listen to the original?
No, never. It was a completely new interpretation.
In fact, if I listen to any of your compositions, I know this is a Rahman composition. So your style is new, you’ve picked up from all over and yet it’s distinctive. How do you do that?
I don’t know. I think the intention is to have tauhid, oneness. These are all ways to pick up. And whatever has to come, comes. Sometimes it doesn’t reach the potential it should.
Which are your favourite compositions so far? I know it’s like asking a parent which one is your favourite child…
Each film has one, I guess. But if I feel satisfied, it may lead to complacency.
Name me some.
I still like my first film score—Roja—and…some compositions of a Chinese film which I did last year, most of the Mani Ratnam films I have done, Taal…
Of movies that we know, name me five that come to your mind…You sometimes say the best compositions are the ones that you struggled the most doing.
In Saathiya, there was a song that was too slow. So we added that section, saathiya, saathiya.
This mixing of something from the Middle East, something from deep Punjab, something from southern folk music, how do you do that? Do you remember all this or do you have a library?
It happens if you have an exotic colour for your stuff. People get intrigued and then listen to it. Because when I get intrigued, I feel that people will get in. It’s just me travelling all over to find something and I’ve still not reached the destination. So the search shows in my music.
Who has been your biggest influence? Mani Ratnam, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Andrew Lloyd Webber…?
In Sufi music, it would be Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The kind that I am right now doing, which is so full and different, came from Mani Ratnam’s intentions. In north India, Subhash Ghai introduced me to Punjabi music.
Did you compose much with Nusrat? In some ways he was so much like you. He brought in Western speed or taste to Sufi music.
I wanted to learn from him. I went to the hotel where he was staying—Juhu Centaur. He taught me a qawwali, the first and last. Then he recorded Chanda Suraj, from Vande Mataram. Then I went to Lahore for a day and recorded.
It’s tragic that someone like him died so young.
But we still have his music which will live with us forever.
So from Mani Ratnam to Nusrat to Andrew Lloyd Webber, whatever learning you are doing now—Bombay Dreams, Lord of the Rings…
Coming from south India, everything was in a shell…I was doing Malayalam, Tamil music; moving to north Indian music, getting introduced to a lot of things I did not know; slowly moving to London, now the USA. I take time to settle down, and sometimes I ask where am I, what am I doing? Sometimes it zaps me out. Still surviving, I guess…
Still very much an Indian at heart and increasingly Sufi now…
Yeah, yeah very much so.
Is that the area of music and life we see you evolving into now—spirituality, Sufism?
It’s not that. If you listen to my music carefully, it has something in it that even people who listen to it say takes them into another zone. I don’t know what it does.
Is that the vacuum you talked about?
Maybe. It’s the interpretation…