Musical genius

Musical genius

against all odds

spirit of music A R Rahman’s biography

So when a book like A.R. Rahman: The Spirit of Music, Conversations with Nasreen Munni Kabir hits the stands, it is bound to create some buzz. Especially so, since this authorised biography takes a conversational format, and you get to hear Rahman’s exact words and thoughts, running right though the book. “I like the idea of a conversational biography because it maintains the voice of the person and his way or form of expression,” says documentary filmmaker and author Nasreen Munni Kabir, author of the book.

About the author

She has written several books on Indian cinema, including Guru Dutt, a life in cinema, Talking Films & Talking Songs with Javed Akhtar, and four different publications featuring the dialogues of Mughal-e-Azam, Awaara, Mother India and Pyaasa. Kabir has also made several documentaries on Hindi cinema for Channel 4 TV, UK, including In Search of Guru Dutt, Follow that Star: a profile of Amitabh Bachchan and The Inner/Outer World of Shah Rukh Khan.  

Kabir interviewed A R Rahman for over four years for this book, “because he is so busy,” she says. The book took shape over 20-30 hours of conversation over phone and in person and was eventually titled The Spirit of Music and launched by Om Books International, under Spotlight, its imprint for cinema titles. It is a narration of A R Rahman’s story, as he sees it, rather than how the writer or the reader sees it.

The four-year gestation of the biography, in a sense, also chronicles the changes — or the lack of it — in Rahman’s inherent personality and values down the years. “Working with him all through these years, I see that he still retains his quietness, the ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and is still never the one to show off,” Kabir says and adds, “He has his pressures and tremendous success, but he wears his success lightly.”  

In fact, at the book launch, after typically thanking his family, friends and his mentors who have helped him in his career, Rahman was moved enough to recall the difficult times he had crossed — when his mother had to sell his sister’s jewellery to buy equipments for his studio. Mani Ratnam, who introduced A R Rahman to the film industry with Roja in 1992, and who launched this biography remarked, “I am a big fan of his music and of him as a human being.” The book also features never-seen-before photos of A R Rahman, including some really rare ones of him as toddler, teen and a young man.
The world has been keeping an eye on A R Rahman ever since Mani Ratnam’s Roja was released in 1992. Its fresh music, fantastic mixing and orchestration had brought to the Indian ear the kind of film music never heard before.

Since then, Indians have been savouring the sounds of his tracks in films like Dil Se, Bombay, Lagaan, Rang De Basanti, Warriors of Heaven and Earth, 127 Hours, Jodhaa Akbar, and of course, Slumdog Millionaire, which won him a couple of Oscars, besides a landslide of other awards that include a Golden Globe, a Bafta, and two Grammys. In fact, according to BBC estimates, 150 million copies of A R Rahman’s albums have been sold worldwide. And despite all this, Rahman has continued to remain enigmatically private. Kabir’s book brings Rahman up close with his fans, and in his own words.  

In the book, Rahman sheds light on his amazing journey that began in Chennai, when he had to give up school to support his family. Rahman’s father R K Sekhar‘s untimely death, when Rahman was just nine years old, meant that Rahman couldn’t continue schooling for long. Narrates Rahman in the book, “My father didn’t leave me a castle or anything. But he did leave me musical instruments. And most importantly, the tremendous goodwill of musicians. Some of the musicians he worked with are still playing with me”.  

Rahman’s childhood

R K Sekhar was a great musician in his own right, and is considered a legend in the Malayalam music industry. Rahman continues in the book, “I didn’t decide, I was forced to (become a musician)… we had to find a way to survive. For the first two years (after my father’s death), my mother managed to run the household by hiring out musical instruments. When I was 11, I started working as a roadie, setting up keyboards for other musicians.” Then, when musicians started to buy their own gear, Rahman learnt to play the keyboard following his mom’s suggestion, and played keyboards in film orchestras and worked as a sessions musician for 10 years. Then, he went on to compose jingles, and later of course, came the chance to score the music for Roja.

Rahman also sheds light on many other aspects of his life — like how he came to embrace Islam, the Sufi way of life, and how Dilip Kumar became A R Rahman. “The truth is I never liked my name.” And when an astrologer (to whom he and his mother had gone to show his younger sister’s horoscope) suggested that Abdul Rahman and Abdul Rahim would be good for him, the name Rahman appealed to him. “Then my mother had this intuition that I should add Allarakha (protected by God), and I became A R Rahman.” 

Then of course, Rahman also talks about the various interactions and the inspiration he has derived from people like Mani Ratnam, Rajiv Menon, Bharat Bala, Shekhar Kapur,  Danny Boyle and Andrew Lloyd Webber, to name a few. But above all, throughout the book, Rahman talks to his fans about his thoughts, emotions, beliefs, value systems and about how he makes music. 

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