COVER STORY: A.R. Rahman, The Mentor
For the celebrated composer, picking India’s most promising young artists for nationwide talent hunt NEXA Music came from a personal space
A few artists are seated comfortably on the ground while a bunch of them are positioned atop multi-tiered stools. Some daring ones are balancing their carefully crafted stances on high ladders and it’s quite a sight to see. The group of 44 young musicians in an assortment of postures is here to shoot the most ambitious cover for Rolling Stone India yet and the mood is electric with what’s about to come.
Test shots are underway, the set is silent and the musicians are almost statue-still when the large studio door finally creaks open and A.R. Rahman walks in. Dressed in a red-and-black plaid blazer, tie-dye trousers and dark glasses, his entire look screams ‘superstar.’ In the next second, the tower of artists breaks into an assortment of emotions there’s gasping, whispering, loud cheering and eventually, thunderous applause as the Grammy and Oscar-winning composer says hello and joins the group. He casually hops over to his designated spot (a space no bigger than one square foot) and asks everyone how they’re doing. The otherwise boisterous group is at first a little awkward, shy even—they’re all still reeling from the well-known ‘Rahman effect’—but soon enough, a selfie epidemic begins and loud bantering takes over.
The 44 artists gathered around Rahman are part of 24 diverse acts (a mix of solo artists, duos and bands) hand picked by the composer as part of the nationwide talent hunt, NEXA Music. Presented by the partnership between the digital media firm Qyuki and NEXA, it was conceptualized as a unique initiative for independent artists and aims to spotlight creators of English-language original music across the country. The Top 24 we meet at the shoot were shortlisted from over 1000 entries the contest received. Under the mentorship of Rahman and noted composer and record producer Clinton Cerejo, these 24 acts were given the opportunity to have an original track produced at the NEXA Music Lab. The result was a genre-defying sonic spectrum of music that includes power-ballads, bright pop, soulful acoustic offerings, prog-rock anthems and more.
“It was unbelievable!” says Rahman when we ask about the experience of finally meeting the artists whose music he had liked so much. “Being a composer you’re just locked inside a studio… all of these artists were so awesome, so lovable. I want to spend more time with them.” The soon-to-be-announced Top 4 winners will get to collaborate with the mentors to create four more tracks and music videos. The final candidates will also get to tour and perform at 12 live events across India. To serve as beacons for the emerging talent, NEXA Music also brought onboard three headliners, each of them an indie star—veteran rocker Uday Benegal of Indus Creed, singer-songwriter Nikhil D’Souza and playback singer and performer par excellence, Anushka Manchanda.
For Rahman, it was the opportunity to promote an oft-neglected segment of the arts with the help of NEXA Music, which really struck a chord. “India is known for film music, classical music and folk music. But independent English language music is probably the orphaned area, the ignored space,” he says. “It’s so nice to see these kids taking the courage [to pursue music] even though there aren’t enough outlets for them—they’re making efforts to put their music on YouTube, they’re playing indie gigs, all underground. It’s time for them come to the ground and the time for us to witness the magic.”
Cerejo explains that the project has been an eye opener to him in many ways. “When I listened to some of the artists that made the cut, I was blown away by the talent we have in our own backyard. The indie scene has been brewing on slow burn for some years but right now it’s exploding with artists that have a voice. The 24 NEXA Lab artists have blurred genre lines to define what English music in India sounds like right now.” Both Rahman and Cerejo highlight the most laudable bit about NEXA Music—the fact that the initiative chose to invest in original music in English created by independent artists; something that most brands are afraid to do. “It’s rare for a huge brand that has a global presence to go against the grain and create a revival when most everyone else is just interested in what’s already popular,” says Cerejo. “ARR and Qyuki have had a wonderful vision for the indie scene in India and I’m only too happy to help realize that vision through NEXA Music.”
Juhi Mehta, President, Qyuki, who has been leading the project since its inception, feels that NEXA Music has filled many voids for a range of artists. For budding talent, it has equipped them with a top quality audio track and a music video. For experienced yet under-funded musicians, the project has facilitated new connections and opportunities within the industry. She believes that the inclusive, representative nature of the project is one of its biggest hallmarks. “The idea was that we don’t restrict ourselves to a particular genre or a type. We wanted to celebrate the diversity within India,” Mehta says, adding, “And as much as each of the tracks brings out the individuality of artists, there is a consistency in terms of the production quality. It has been a lengthy and painstaking process which has required a lot of investment by way of time, effort and money, but the output has been so promising that it has wowed us all.”
Cerejo concurs: “Bianca Gomes, my co-songwriter, and I have already been writing songs and collaborating with the potential lab winners. They have been writing lyrics to these melodies and the results we’re seeing are mind-bending. I mean, these tracks are truly something the country can be proud of. This is just the beginning of something big.”
A few days after the cover shoot, we have an appointment to meet A.R. Rahman at his Mumbai studio for a one-on-one conversation. It’s around 10 p.m. on a Thursday at the end of an ordinary work day. There is no hustle and bustle of a shoot, but somehow it is a lot more nerve-wracking. We arrive a few minutes before time and get a chance to take in all the positive energy thrumming within the intimate studio’s neon-lit thresholds. It’s comfortable, bright and a tiny reflection of who Rahman is at his core. While we’re waiting, I continue my interview prep, a part which includes (a 15th) look over the list of awards he’s won—two Grammys, two Oscars, six National Film Awards, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, 15 Filmfare Awards and 17 Filmfare Awards South. Not to mention the Padma Bhushan conferred on him in 2010. My brain is melting, trying to comprehend the series of events in my life that led to this interview, when the door opens and he enters. Almost immediately, I feel the ‘Rahman effect’ kick in.
The composer is barefoot, and clad in dark blue jeans and a casual shirt. He greets us with a cheerful smile and leads us into one of the recording studios. The man exudes great energy despite being at the end of a pretty crazy week—in a space of five days, he’d somehow managed to pack in a concert in Dubai, a trip to Tokyo, various other secret assignments and this interview. In between it all, he’s tapping away on his phone, sending emails and approvals on his recent single “Ahimsa” with Irish rock legends U2 (which is to release the next morning) but stays engaged in our conversation, laughing politely at all my nervous bad jokes. The Chennai-based music luminary seems to prefer doing the listening at first but as we keep talking, he reveals a sharp sense of humor that catches me off-guard. He’s a lot of fun to hang out with, generous about giving us sneak peeks at upcoming projects and even a glimpse at a photo on his phone of him with American R&B icon Stevie Wonder. Throughout the two hours we spend with him, I can’t stop grinning.
For most of us Indians born in the late Eighties and early Nineties, Rahman’s compositions are some of our very first memories of music. Right from his legendary breakthrough with Mani Ratnam’s Roja in 1992 to his subsequent award-winning work in films like Bombay, Kadhalan, Dil Se.., Rangeela and Taal, he set a bar no other music director in the country could match. A lot of young Indian people around the world who know his music consider him a mentor even without having ever met him. It’s not just because of his inimitable talent—it is Rahman’s tremendous drive as a creator and his discipline and determination to innovate that sets him apart from the rest.
If we’re talking about Rahman as a mentor, perhaps this is the first point of conversation: being an inspiration to entire generation. How does he feel about playing such a massive role in how we consume and—in some cases, make—music? Does any of it ever ripple back to him or in turn, affect the way he makes music? “Yes, actually,” he replies. He tells me that the idea of finding inspiration in another artist is an integral part of every musician’s journey. It pushes you to be your best. “I mean, somebody mentored me,” he says with a smile. “Many people, I would say.” He recalls how elated he was when one of his mentors, the legendary English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, complimented him once; “He said to me, ‘Oh my God, what a composer you are!’ And you know, it’s sweet coming from someone of another culture.”
“If things are not reinvented and we don’t find better ways to do them, we rot.”
Rahman recounts being invited to Webber’s 70th birthday and sitting between the composer and Elton John during dinner, and his wonder at the entire situation. If he can pass that feeling along to someone who looks up to him, it’s a cycle that continues, a gift that keeps on giving for generations. “It’s so much about learning from what people have given me, and just giving it back,” he elaborates. The key for every artist, according to Rahman, is the groundwork. Do the typical stuff. Get down to brass tacks. Don’t be afraid of clichés. “Because I started with all the clichés very early in my life,” he says. As a teen, Rahman was a roadie of sorts, helping his father film scorer R. K. Shekhar run his studio. After his father’s passing, he eventually entered the film industry himself, taking on grunt work for other composers and artists. “I did all the normal stuff, played for other people for 10 years, and then I got sick of that. So I said I’m not going to do this,” he recalls. “When I got in that state of mind, I started making music. I pushed myself… Even [someone like Michael] Jackson, has done all the ‘normal’ stuff before he got the power and started doing extraordinary things.”
Another tenet: to pursue your dream, you need to reach a point where you cannot be afraid of what other people say. “It’s that fear that says, ‘If I don’t do what they say, I’ll lose the job’. But that’s where mediocrity comes in,” he points out. Creative stagnation stems from not challenging the system. “Because most of them don’t know anything. They just want to follow something else that worked, then copy-paste it.” Rahman says it’s not limited to music—stagnation by not challenging what’s old is common in politics, medicine, art and many other professional fields. “If things are not reinvented and we don’t find better ways to do them, we rot.” The lack of reinvention is something he’s spoken about many times before. In an interview with film critic Anupama Chopra in 2018, he had lamented about how lazy the Indian music industry is, relying on the same formulas again and again. “They act according to convenience,” he had said, further explaining that most music directors settle on working with who they have on hand rather than choosing artists or instruments that fit the bill.
Can the younger generation break the cycle? Rahman feels they’ll need the push to innovate, too. “It’s like, ‘Okay so I’m an indie songwriter. I get a guitar and sing about myself.’ But what’s new about that? Of course, in that there’s honesty and soul, so people love to hear that. But how do you break the clutter? How do you stand out? It is a very important question we all have to ask—even I’m asking myself when I’m doing music—how’s it going to stand out? There is so much going on. And, you know, the question makes you work harder.”
Rahman’s entire identity as an artist is tied to the idea of constantly looking inward, seeking self-improvement and then seeing it emerge in his music. “I think music reflects what’s inside you,” he says after a moment’s contemplation. “And the search for the secret of the universe. I think we’re all searching for that—where are we coming from? Where is the mothership?” Different people seek answers in different ways: science, spirituality, family and, “Love.” says Rahman. “It’s the most clichéd word in the world but still matters, in every second, every microsecond.”
He feels that mentorship, by inspiration or interaction, is about helping trigger that search within themselves. For artists, it’s about how you use the title and the regard you’ve been given to start something powerful and profound. “In a way I think it’s all interconnected,” he says. “It’s about what you do with that role. You find those gems everywhere. Like now, I’m working with Bono—being a musician is how he was able to do so much in Africa.” The Irish rocker is known for his campaigning for Africa and co-founding charitable organizations for the same like DATA, EDUN, the ONE Campaign, and Product Red.
For Rahman personally, doing much more is about finding and nurturing budding musicians, creating an environment where they can learn, collaborate and flourish. It started way back in 2008 when he established the KM Conservatory in Chennai and now continues with NEXA Music. “It’s about using the power of music to do much more.” With this project, Rahman also hopes to realize in some manner his desire to ‘normalize’ music as a career choice. He also feels an urgent need to establish a movement regardless of the result, just so that a precedent is set which instills people’s faith in music. “Even if it about arguing with the parents, you know. If someone wants to be a musician, they can use the example of NEXA Music—that something like this is happening—and the parents might let them pursue it.” It’s about big names like Rahman, Cerejo and more investing their time and effort into this project that acts as a seal of legitimacy. “The middle-class thinking that music will not feed your family, that it’s a bad profession… [that kind of mindset exists] all around the world. But things are changing rapidly. Because of AI and technology, a lot of people might lose jobs or jobs will get reinvented, but creative professionals are going to take off. That’s what I’m hearing.”
He explains that young people now are also more determined to make it in the creative fields, and are coming up with new ways to monetize their art. “So getting a creative job will be individualistic and secure. Of course, a musician’s job needs more imagination.” He admits that NEXA Music gave him a glimpse into that hopeful new world. “To find people who have evolved so much—the thinking, the writing, the kind of originality. It’s fascinating to see this generation becoming so confident.” India is making its mark in the world as a creative superpower and supporting that makes sense to him. “The country’s young… so this is the time to be here.”
A mention of his kids brings us to the final and perhaps most important kind of mentorship: fatherhood. His 16 year-old son Ameen recently made his debut as a solo pop artist with the track “Sago” as part of the Tamil gig series 7UP Madras Gig. His daughters Khatija and Raheema lent their voices to “Ahimsa,” making their big vocal debut, and have other projects lined up. “It’s like a full-time job, you know, giving your kids confidence and making them what they are,” Rahman says. He learned this while working with legendary Tamil film composer Ilaiyaraaja. “His [now famous] sons Karthik and Yuvan would hang out with me and with other musicians even at the age of seven or eight,” says Rahman. “I realized that this man is doing the right thing, where you introduce the kids to [artists.] So then I pulled in Ameen.” The then-six-year-old started his career as a playback singer in the Hollywood film Couples Retreat in 2009. He’s sung for various films since, including the acclaimed Sachin Tendulkar biopic Sachin: A Billion Dreams and the Rajnikaanth mega-hit 2.0. “Ameen always comes and whispers, ‘Daddy, I’m scared!’” reveals Rahman with a fond laugh. “I tell him that nobody is born talented. You have to shape it. If you have a gig and you sing flat, you’ll be humiliated. You must work on it. You should practice and do your homework.”
We move on to discussing what he wants to explore next and Rahman is full of surprises. He reveals he’s done three or four studio sessions with Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan, hung out with and discussed possibly working on something with American R&B icons Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones and is looking at how he can evolve his role as a music director. “I’m constantly working for movies and it’s fun,” he says. “But the next level would be working with film directors directly.” He explains that in the hierarchy of filmmaking, unless it comes from the top level, a music director can’t really experiment with something new. “If the director actually heads the project, like Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) for example. I just dealt with him; I didn’t have to deal with any studios. So we were able to do something new. If you go under studio substructure, they tell you what to do, how you should sound and… that’s too boring.”
While we’re on the topic of collaborations and new endeavors, I decide to touch upon something I’ve been getting messaged about on Twitter since January; would A.R. Rahman ever collaborate with Korean pop superstars BTS? “Why not?” he says, adding that he remembers a certain video of him talking about K-pop at NEXA Music’s launch event in February going viral on desi stan Twitter. When I admit I originally posted the video he’s talking about, he’s really not surprised. “Of course that was you!” he says, raising a slightly accusatory finger at me and then laughing. “What’s nice is for them [BTS] to have a platform on the world stage.” We talk a little bit more about the importance of Asian representation and he reveals that he wants to translate 10 of his songs into Japanese and Korean and work on remaking them with artists like BTS. It could also work vice versa, where he reinvents one of their tracks. Rahman is always open to new ideas and it is perhaps his most winning trait, the key reason for his success.
When it comes to new projects in 2020, he teases us by saying he doesn’t plan anything ahead. I ask him instead about what’s some good advice he’s gotten which he’d like to pass on for people to keep in mind for the new year, and his answer ties our entire conversation together neatly. “It keeps changing,” he says. “Because whatever it was, it gets dated. But I would say you have to practice consciously trying to improve yourself… Every day it has to be something new you’re pushing yourself to learn. I think that’s good advice. Moving towards something good and learning something new every day.”
A.R. Rahman photographed by Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India
Digital Director: Nirmika Singh
Art Director: Tanvi Joel
A.R. Rahman’s Stylist: Shruti Agarwal
A.R. Rahman’s Hair and Makeup: Nandini D’rozario