THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: It’s ALMOST impossible to envision Madras without the city’s Mozart. A name synonymous with the city, AR Rahman sang his way into people’s hearts and playlists with his raw voice, fierce passion and universal appeal. From creating music that resonates with the city’s spirit to elevating Indian sounds onto a global platform, Isai Puyal (The Musical Storm) as he’s affectionately referred to, remains relevant with every paradigm shift in music over the last two decades.
In yet another creative attempt to add dimension to his symphonies, the composer, now 50 years old, translates the economic phenomenon of demonetisation into a stirring melody. The two-time Academy and Grammy winner recently composed a spectacular 19-minute piece titled The Flying Lotus, performed by the acclaimed Seattle Symphony with conductor Ricardo Averback at the 10th edition of Celebrate Asia (the annual concert that features composers from across Japan, China, Korea and India). The piece is a musical impression of what India was and where it’s headed in the wake of one of the biggest game changers in Indian history.
The magic of symphony Rahman expresses his excitement
over working with the 114-year-old American orchestra. “It’s always a dream to work with a great orchestra like the Seattle Symphony,” he says. “I have worked with many English orchestras, like the London Philharmonic, the LA Symphony and the Washington Symphony. But when they commissioned me for this, I was a bit blank and I didn’t know what to do. For three months I didn’t know what piece I was writing and they were chasing me (laughs).”
To put a date on it, demonetisation
was implemented in India on November 8, 2016. For the maestro, it obviously translated into something musical. “I was quite fascinated by it — the things people were talking, the good and bad. And I thought I could do something around that,” he says. “Centuries ago, great symphonies were written about wars,” he adds, explaining, “Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 was about fate knocking at the door, so I decided to do something like that. I thought, let’s see how I can interpret the whole India Rising concept, and what it’s going through. It’s unexplainable! It cannot be explained in a normal way. You have poor people, middle-class people, rich people and extremely rich people — all in chorus! Each one in their own terms.” Bowled over by the sheer complexity of the concept, Rahman took it as a challenge to interpret that through a symphony.
Trying to fit Rahman’s discography and musical achievements into one list is a near-impossible task. Having redefined contemporary Indian film music, Rahman is one of the world’s all-time top-selling recording artistes, with an illustrious career spanning 20 years. Dabbling in musicals, theatre, cinema, orchestral arrangements and jingles, he explains how different it is to compose music for a symphony and for cinema. “Film scores are very short. It’s only about 2-3 minutes and is like a title piece, for example, in Robot, Taal or The Legend of Bhagat Singh. I have been scoring for the past 17 years with the orchestra and it all started out with his full-fledged symphony orchestra. Now here, there’s no reference point. There’s no film that is going to accompany you.
The music is expressed according to how the composer is feeling. Here we have the choir, some sample voices and a whole orchestral set-up.” Given the moniker ‘Beethoven of the East’, Rahman broke new ground in music and put Chennai on the global platform, collaborating with Andrew Lloyd Webber in 2002, producer of Bombay Dreams, who is reported to have said, “I’ve heard the future of music and it is Indian”.
Bringing it into a local context, what is the evolution of orchestras in India? “Orchestra was the raison d’être for the KM Music Conservatory,” says Rahman. He adds, “We are developing underprivileged children to play strings and brass. And we are also bringing out our first ever youth orchestra next year with our own native kids. Doing such good is the true icing on the cake, I believe. It’s more relevant to them as well. We need more composers in India to think of the future of music, not just film music. And these kids are capable of doing anything!” With ‘become the future of music’ as their core philosophy, the KM Music Conservatory is the first institution of its kind in India, established in 2008, which offers courses in both Hindustani and Western classical music, as well as music technology.