CHENNAI: Squeezed between the overpopulated neighbourhoods of Royapettah and Triplicane, amid the clamour of traffic and jostling shoppers, lies a quiet legacy of one of the greatest empires of south India. Amir Mahal. The official residence of the Prince of Arcot. I walk past the crimson walls of wrought iron gates of this 14-acre mansion that reverberates the stillness of a glorious history. Standing on this royal terra firma, I am far removed from the chaos outside, but the sound of melody draws me close to one of the rooms, and as I am ushered in, I find myself surrounded by guitars, drums and other musical instruments. Sitting in the midst of this harmony is the Dewan to the Prince of Arcot, Mohammed Asif Ali, moving his fingers across the keys of a grand piano.
A committed philanthropist, involved in many social, cultural and religious institutions in the country, the Nawabzada dons several hats — quiz master, pianist and composer. He scores music at his professional studio at Amir Mahal.
“With so many cultural events in the Mahal, I was always drawn to music. I started playing the piano on my own at the age of 13. As I did not learn from anyone, I was not bound by rules. When I was 23, I wanted to learn grammar and understand what I was playing, so I took lessons,” recalls Asif.
His inexplicable passion for music was rewarded when Asif’s cousin, renowned singer and song-writer, Lucky Ali, goaded him. “His song, O Sanam, had just released and it was trending on all music charts. Lucky saw my music set up and asked if I would be interested in making a song along with him. That’s when my journey as a professional musician began. We composed Kabhi Aisa Lagta Hai, Ek Pal Me Hai Zindagi and numerous other songs,” says Asif, who has also composed music for a Kannada film, Janani.
Opportunities favoured Asif, moving him closer to his second self — of being a musician. “In 1999, I got an offer for a Tamil film Naalai, which was being made for a South African audience. As I didn’t have a professional recording system, I went to a studio in KK Nagar. The man at the studio played so beautifully that he instantly inspired me. When I asked his name, he said Harris Jayaraj. We have definitely come a long way,” shares Asif, unassuming of his special privileges, honours and courtesies by the Government of India, since 1870.
A believer in following the heart’s desire, Asif made music with rap artist Blaaze (Inquilab released on MTV) in 2013, and partnered with DJ Cary Edwards of Channel V in 2003. He made musical waves on international shores, when he composed a song called Sunrise with Iranian music composer Nader Taghinia in 2000.
The whims of royalty have left no remnants in Asif, who is humbly and deeply inspired by Oscar-winning music maestro A R Rahman. “His music is a trendsetter. He makes sure the sound of every instrument is heard and encourages new artists.”
Our conversation soon veers towards the Nawabzada’s third self — an enthusiastic quizmaster. “The first rule to interesting quizzing is that no one must get embarrassed. To ensure this, I made sure my quizzes are never one on one. Quizzes are a beautiful learning process and when you can’t enjoy, you can’t learn,” shares Asif, who conducts quiz programmes for schools, college, and corporates, and the famous Amir Mahal quiz.
Like music, Asif took to quizzes at a young age. Effortlessly blending his two alter egos in his daily life, the Nawabzada has a word of advice for parents, “Understand what your children want to be and their interests. Do not push a doctor to be a chartered accountant.”