The Absolutely Remarkable Rahman – India’s music genius hits the high notes

By Arpana, IANS,

New Delhi : Allah Rakha Rahman, simply translated as God Save Rahman. And that’s what India said Monday for the man who became the first Indian to win two Oscars for his score in “Slumdog Millionaire” and for the film’s theme song “Jai Ho”.

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Rahman, credited with taking the Indian sound across the seas, has for long comfortably straddled the worlds of not just classical and popular music, but also Bollywood and Broadway.

A household name in India for his contribution to Bollywood, as well as cinema from the south, he has been the cynosure of all ears since 1992 when he burst on the Indian musical scene with his refreshingly different tunes for the Tamil film “Roja”.

The film was subsequently made in Hindi, giving mainstream Hindi film music a new meaning altogether: the rest, as they say, is history.

He has moved on from being a celebrated composer in India to a global music supernova who has entered the record books as the first Indian to get a Golden Globe, the first Indian to get the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for music and the first Indian to bag a golden Oscar statuette.

With “Slumdog Millionaire”, Danny Boyle’s rags to riches drama based on a book by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, the 41-year-old Rahman has stuck gold – and so has India and Indian music.

The film, which had 10 Oscar nominations, including three for Rahman, won eight Oscars. Two went to Rahman for best original score and best original song “Jai Ho”, which he shared noted Indian lyricist Gulzar.

For India, the “Slumdog” awards story, which some say is as improbable as the film itself about an 18-year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai who goes on to win a staggering Rs.20 million ($410,000) on India’s “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” game show, is not just about the BAFTAs and the Oscars.

It is also recognition of popular Indian cinema in the West that for long has shunned Indian movies as too long and too full of song-and-dance sequences. Rahman’s exuberant score has shattered all those perceptions, and shown that the West likes the sound of India.

“All my life I had a choice between hate and love. I chose love and I am here,” said Rahman after receiving his second golden statuette.

Composing music for British director Danny Boyle was a challenge, said the self-effacing celebrity.

Boyle simply wanted a score with energy and an edge for his film. There was also a twist. The perfectionist Rahman was given just three weeks to plan and execute the score.

“It’s probably one-fifth of the time I normally take. For one thing, a normal film has about 150 cues. But in this one there were only 17-18 cues for me. Boyle uses music very little but very efficiently,” Rahman told IANS.

Like the film’s protagonist Jamal, Rahman’s is also an inspiring story of the everyday struggle for survival that has ended on the glittering red carpets of showbiz.

Born A.S. Dileep Kumar to a Tamil Hindu family, his father R.K. Shekhar, a composer who directed music for Malayalam movies, died when he was just nine. The family was forced to rent out musical equipment. Two years later, the 11-year-old budding maestro joined noted composer Ilayaraja’s troupe as a keyboardist and computer programmer to support his mother and three sisters.

After working with several renowned composers like Zakir Hussain and L. Shankar, he set out on his own to compose jingles and scores for popular Indian television features and has composed more than 300 jingles.

During this period, he also earned a degree in western classical music from the Trinity College of Music, London, and went on to set up his own in-house studio at Chennai, said to be Asia’s most sophisticated and hi-tech studio.

In 1989, Dileep Kumar converted to Islam along with his family due to personal reasons. He became A.R. Rahman.

The Bollywood debut came a couple of years later. And there was no looking back after that.

The musical genius not only won hearts in India but also made a mark on the global music scene.

He got his first international break when Andrew Lloyd Webber invited him to compose music for the Broadway musical “Bombay Dreams”, which won him immense fame.

He also composed for the stage adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord Of The Rings” that premiered in Canada in 2006 and in London in 2007.

Apart from composing music Rahman is also involved in social work. He launched the A.R. Rahman Foundation to tackle the issue of poverty by providing education to the poor and equipping them with knowledge and skills to earn a living.

As the awards pile up, Indians can only say a collective and joyous “Jai Ho”.