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Learn English with A. R. Rahman. Join us for an inspiring conversation between A. R. Rahman and L. Subramaniam. Discover the journey of the legendary composer A. R. Rahman, from his early life influenced by his father’s musical legacy to his revolutionary approach in the music industry. Understand the philosophy behind his minimalistic yet profound music style and his vision for the future of Indian music and culture. Dive deep into the experiences that shaped one of the most iconic figures in contemporary music. Tune in to learn from Rahman’s life, his challenges, successes, and his continuous quest for musical innovation.

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A. R. Rahman: Your best success comes after your greatest disappointment.

Your best success comes after your greatest disappointment.

A. R. Rahman


L. Subramaniam: It’s a great honor, privilege and pleasure that you’re doing it for Lakshmi Narayana Global Music Festival. And really I can’t thank you enough. You, the very first film itself, you know, you became the most famous music director instantly. After the first film, then in Hindi, Roja. After that, you know, Slumdog Millionaire, which brought not only loyalty but also to India, two Oscars. Can you tell what was in your mind when all these things happened all of a sudden?

R. Rahman: As you know, like, you were also a neighbor when my parents lived in Mylapore. And you talked about my father a lot. So I think my father, I’d set a very high standard as a human being. The way he was non-stop working for the family, you know, because he wanted to get a house for us. And he overworked, spoiled his health. So when I came in, after he passed away, my mother said, “Music is your life. What your father did, so take it up.” For me, the first 12 years of my life was, the whole childhood had gone. Age of 12 to 22. So there was a kind of rebelliousness, like, I don’t want to work like my dad, who worked, you know, day and night. And he lost his health and he passed away. So that gave me the thing that I should do quality work and do less work intentionally, so that I can have a life, I can learn from life, and experience the beauty. Because studio life is always like 7 to 1, 2 to 9, 7 to 1, 2 to 9.

You become a slave to it. And it’s a trap which you can’t get out. And I was seeing that people had lost their zest for life. And they were like machines. Oh, there’s money coming in, so let’s work day and night, day and night. Something told me there’s much more to life. And while working, I wanted to learn more. I mean, like, people are paying me to learn. That’s been still there, you know, that when I work, I want to learn more, I want to explore more. So that if I feel excited, the audience is going to feel excited. So that started from my first movie. And that worked out because the sense of inquisitive curiosity actually brings in interest for anyone. So the music has curiosity. It asks questions, it answers questions, it takes you. And we’re trying to find another realm for them to, you know, it’s not just notes. It’s creating a mood, a feel, creating something which is, which they can be transported from the mundaneness of life. We all live in mundaneness, but I think music, when you go into it, we don’t see the time stretches. And that stretching of time and that happiness which we see in an audience, you know, the eyes which has so much love, so much enthusiasm, so much of expectations from the eyes is what I think drives me. So from the first movie to now.

Subramaniam: Fantastic. But when you change the whole style of composition in the movie, which completely changed the whole thing, all of a sudden, they used to record with a lot of people in the studio, and live takes and, you know, 100 musicians, 50 musicians. But you brought much more access to the public, but using almost like a minimalistic approach with beautiful arrangements. How did that thought came to you?

R. Rahman: By the time I came in, the equipments which are very expensive, like, you know, magnetic was 23 tracks. So we used to record Telugu movies and, you know, maximum they would have eight tracks for Tamil recording or Telugu or anything. I had a 16 track because I came through jingles. I got interested in jingles and I was setting up a jingle studio, which had 16 tracks. And I said, I have 16 tracks. There’s a luxury so I can do so many things which normal, you know, composers that time could not. They didn’t think about it. They thought, no, we won’t get the depth, need of these big machines. All the big machines become smaller. So I was lucky. I was in the transitional period of technological change, which helped me a lot, gave me a lot of time to experiment, a lot of time to fail so that nobody knew my failure. They only know my success. The failures are within the box, within the studio. Oh, this is, we come back again and we try again. We come back again, we try again. So that freedom is what I got from having a home studio. You’re not being judged, you know, like 70 people are not watching.

The orchestra wasn’t watching. Oh, the director didn’t like what he did. The, you know, the producer didn’t like what he did. He rejected it. So there’s no gossip. There’s no need for any validation from people are watching spontaneously. But there was time incubation and, you know, within the studio, there was peace, there was freedom. And that freedom actually brought in, I said, why can’t we do this? Why can’t we do it in studio? Why can’t we do a mix for movies and one for the CD? It doesn’t have to be, I have the time. And I’m, of course, we all need to get money. But beyond money, I think there was a passion. There was something which drove me. It was like… when the West can do it, why can’t we do it? When we listen to their music, why can’t they listen to our music? This is the question I was constantly asked, why? And then why became better production, better quality, better distribution, better transfer, better mastering. And that still drives me. Sometimes, you know, I see that our movies go till the Oscar. They don’t get it. Wrong movies are being sent for Oscar. And it’s just like, don’t. And we have to be in another person’s shoes to see this side. I have to be in a Westerner’s shoe to see what is happening here. I have to be in my shoes to see what they’re doing. So there’s geopolitics, there’s racism, there’s so many different things. But you’ve done that before. You’ve done, you’ve played with some of the most amazing orchestras and musicians. You all did it before, all of us. So you were asking me the questions.

Subramaniam: But they’re reaching the masses from the first movie. And also with totally changing the whole thing. Whenever anybody starts, they will try to do what is already, I mean, proven success. So they won’t take the challenges to do different things.

R. Rahman: Strangely, there was a denial, not the denial, I think it was like boredom. Like, I don’t want to do this stuff, which everybody is doing. Even if I do one, I want to be happy with it. And I’ll quit. I want to do something which is amazing. So getting Mani ji, Mani Ratnam ji as a mentor and a first director. Because he, I told him my wishes. I told him, this is my foundation. This is my constitution foundation. Which I want great lyrics. I want great production. I want my music to reach all over the world. I don’t want this to be the box. I want the best poetry. I want to produce it in a way where I feel like I should buy the music and listen to myself. If I see it on a shelf, I should buy it. Because I did it for other people. You know, that’s not the right. So he helped me in getting Mr Vairamuthu. He helped me when I was frustrated, when people started confusing me. Oh, what are you doing?

This music people want to listen to. You need to put the same old sound. And suddenly I would call him and say, this is what they’re saying. I said, just don’t ignore all this stuff. This is fantastic. You know, he just gave that encouragement. And my mother, of course. Family was my sisters and mom. I was the only male member at that time. And they were like amazing support. Like a fort. And that was enough. And then there was friends like Rajiv Menon, Thirlok. And so Bharat Bala. So I was working. So working with them actually made me find a whole new world. The younger world, the modern world. Advertising and oh, there’s another life here. Other than the studios, reading cotton, you know, Kodambakkam, you’re working like a slave. 7 to 1, 2 to 9, 7 to 1, 2 to 9. There’s nothing else. Yeah, that changed the whole perspective.

Subramaniam: Who is your, you have like any guru you studied from music or you self-taught?

R. Rahman: Oh my God, so many gurus. Like guru in the sense, if I need to know about, if I know a little bit of Bhairavi, it’s because of your composition, which we played today. It’s a don’t leave me as when I realized, oh Bhairavi, you can play like this. You can change the key, but not changing the notes of a raga. And I kind of took that note by note, slowed down the tape and took… All that stuff. I think one composition changes your perspective about a raga. And that composition of yours with your whole band changed me for Bhairavi, Sindhu Bhairavi. And of course, I have my Jacob Jawan, Dakshinamurthy sir, Moses and Nityanand master who taught me how to hear a note and transcribe it. And of course, we’re all like, we’re all a cleverness of so many, the genius of classical composers, the schematic of Hindustani.

Subramaniam: Also, the other thing is, I mean, if anybody looking at you, they’ll say that you have got everything, achieved everything musically, you know. Do you feel that you have anything left you wanted to?

R. Rahman: Which achievement is a perspective. It’s very subjective. I feel like pulling our people, whether they’re musicians, we all have to pull each other up constantly. You know, it’s very easy for us to go settle abroad, have a nice life, earn in dollars. But then somewhere you’re still not, it’s like oil and water. You know, if you want, I want to feel, I want to see the faces of our people. I want to enjoy my music. I want to take their criticism and I want to learn from them. I want to also teach them. So sometimes it’s fun to do that. And where’s my daughters, whether my son, I think we all feel the same, my wife, my sisters. We all feel that we are so attached to this, you know, the language, Tamil language, Tamil Nadu, India. And also seeing the possibilities of expanding what we could do. There are so many art centers. You played on some of the best, you know, Sydney Opera House and Carnegie Hall and Disney Hall. And where is that in India? And then you feel like somebody’s going to do it. No, it’s me or it’s you. It’s us, we have to do that. We have to do this for a younger generation. We have to put that path. We have to suffer for their enjoyment. I think our rest of our lives should be for the future generation. We’re setting up things for them so they deserve the best. And whatever we’ve learned, I’m pulling you also because I need your support too.

We set up something amazing in Chennai first. You know, where we can have a world-class concert hall, world-class, you know, Opera House, world-class London Western or Broadway kind of thing. So that we can put our own culture. We can have tourism, jobs, and all those people flying in from, you know, America, Singapore to watch this stuff. Why do we go to Broadway? We watch “Lion King.” We watch “Phantom of the Opera.” We watch “Blue Men Group.” What is there in Chennai? There is this hero’s movie, that hero’s movie. It’s fine, it’s beautiful. That gives jobs, happiness. That should not be just the one only way. There should be more ways where people can involve, you know, I want people to say, “My son is acting in Sarapati Garam in Chennai.” “My daughter is acting as Sita in Ramayana.” My, I want to hear that. And in a way where the whole world will be like, because we have amazing talent because KM Conservatory 12 years back and the Sunshine Orchestra. And whenever I sit there, the year end and listen to those kids, I feel like, “Oh my God, they’re transporting me to Broadway. They’re transporting me to London West End and they’re transporting me to Banaras.” You know, Hindustani. So I said, “Why, what are they going to do after this?” Go back to movie singing or go to find collectively something which is fantastic. And that’s when I also realized our talent is so good but we are not giving them the platform to shine.

The platform, you know, when you have, imagine a hundred people together creating a statement, creating a musical together, which is world-class. You know, that people are doing musicals but it needs to be set in a way, I want people to take a flight from London and France and America to see because culture is the most important thing. And we have such a rich culture. And if we present that in our own way, you know, because whatever little I’ve learned from, you know, working with Andrew Lloyd Webber in London West End or working in Toronto Stage or working in Broadway, working in Hollywood, I want to give, I want to bring that back. And I want to bring all my friends back who can create the leaders, you know, like in set design and direction and stage. And so that’s the whole job giving machine, tourism machine, pride machine, you know, cultural pride. So I feel like that’s one of my missions.

Subramaniam: This is fantastic. And also you got into music because of passion also, isn’t it? You are very, very passionate. Of course, even, I mean, I was fortunate to know both your parents and a very, very pleasant memory. In fact, when I was going to college and school, my father used to say, you know, in between time, come and play the violin, make some extra money. So he used to say that because those days, you know, I went to medical college and he wanted to, music was a very difficult profession. Nobody knew how successful anybody could be as a backup. He used to say, “Come, you have a free account.” All those things watching, I will be in the back row, he’ll say, “Come and sit in the front row.” So all those memories, and then later on knowing your mother and how that kind of support and love would have also enriched your life. But would you say that you went to music because of their suggestion or because you also wanted to?

R. Rahman: You know, whenever it comes easy, you don’t even respect it. And I wanted to become, as I’ve told in many interviews, I wanted to, I was very interested in electronics. Fascinated by creating, you know, equalizers. And I used to get the kids and I had a friend called Ganesh Raja and I used to go hang out with him. We would just solder things and I was excited. And I took the course in high school, electronics, like a vocational. But my mom, after three months, one day she came in and said, “This is it, no more studies for you. “You do what your father did.” She was so definitive about it. I was heartbroken. I feel like… you know, those days, like if you don’t study, people don’t know. You know, all that thing was… Then once I went in and started playing, I forgot all that.

Subramaniam: Any future… any advice for anybody who wants to become a musician who has to take up music for anxious?

R. Rahman: I think the most important thing I would say is there’s so many different things which are not done in India. We can get inspired by foreign countries. What did they do? And if you put an Indian perspective in it, it becomes original, right? For instance, we never had a music editor. We never had a music supervisor. The director was doing everything. So when I started working in Hollywood, I said, “Okay, let’s keep it musical.” There’s more jobs waiting. There is a music supervisor. Sometimes women are doing music supervision. There’s music editing. And then we credit all those musicians who were working. Every… From the peon, everybody’s credited. And I feel like they should find their own zone. Nobody’s going to tell you what new thing is there. You have to find, “This is a space nobody’s doing, but it exists somewhere else. So I’m going to be that person in India who’s going to open that.” So whether it’s… There’s so many things. People all… I think sometimes they’re like sheep. Unfortunately, they just follow what’s successful. They don’t understand what is there which is waiting for them. They have to seek something different, and that’ll seek them.

Subramaniam: And today is also your birthday, once again. Wish you a fantastic, long, more glorious, successful birthday. And also, we happen to record together today with your children and my children.

R. Rahman: Grandchildren of yours too. That was unique. Oh my God. To bring them and make them sit was the biggest achievement.

Subramaniam: Anything you can say about the project? About what we did today?

R. Rahman: I think you’ve done it. And I always admire when people remember their parents, remember what they gave. And you’ve been doing it in your father’s name. Also know your two brothers, you know, Vaidehi and Shankarji. The whole family is talented. And that comes from your parents. And you’re honoring them. And it’s a great honor for me and for my family to be involved in what you did. And I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.

Subramaniam: Very, very kind of you to say that. Thanks a lot. God bless.

R. Rahman: Namaste.