A R Rahman
Deepali Singh (DNA; August 7, 2018)

Senior musicians admire his vision, younger artistes wish to work with him, but AR Rahman remains as humble as ever. The Mozart of Madras, as he’s often referred to, believes in doing his best, regardless of the results. “If you have an agenda, it influences your art. So, we just have to do what’s right, take the blessings that God has given, and pass them on,” says the musician.

Rahman will soon be seen as the host on Harmony With A R Rahman, a five-episode series on Amazon Prime Video, which explores India’s rich musical heritage through four especially-curated instruments and vocal traditions, and re-contextualises these in modern Indian music culture. He travelled to various parts of the country to meet artistes such as Ustad Mohi Baha’un-din Dagar (Maharashtra), Kalamandalam Sajith Vijayan (Kerala), Lourembam Bedabati Devi (Manipur) and Mickma Tshering Lepcha (Sikkim). He tells us more about his association with the series, his plans for his own production house and his growth as a musician...

How involved were you with the curation of the artistes and instruments?
I think it all came on a platter for me. For the past five years, I have been setting up my own production house — Y M Movies — and these guys beat us to this show. They said you just have to be an anchor. I was pleased with the concept. They showed me these four instruments and told me about the artistes. It’s more about the musicians’ stories, their struggles, conviction and what kept them going. 

What revelations did the show have for you?
Every story is a revelation. The world always looks at what’s bringing in money. These guys are struggling but they are happy because they feel they are doing something right. I’ve tried to interact with them in my own way and show a side that people have not seen or heard, as well as create a complimentary support for them. Also, to show how their instruments could sound with modern music.

So what’s the ultimate aim of the show?
The idea is not that we’re doing them a favour, but that they are doing us one. They are showing us that there is still beauty in the world. They have preserved something, which we could have been lost. These artistes should be celebrated. Also, it could apply to so many things. Somebody might get inspired by this and think, they have taken up music, maybe I could show something similar being done in the field of medicine or arts. I always feel one thing has various influences. 

The digital platform allows for a larger audience to view the series as well...
Exactly. We only see great products from the West, where they show their traditions. Here, the productions are not of the highest quality and people don’t want to watch them. So, now you have mouth-watering quality! You should seduce people with visuals. Apart from me, everything looks very beautiful (laughs)! I didn’t prepare anything but just went with the flow as I didn’t want to intimidate them.

You use a number of Indian instruments, like the shehnai, in your music as well...
All these sounds are embedded in our culture and in our blood. There is a spiritual and biological reaction when you hear the shehnai — of weddings and happy memories. There is a connect that goes beyond words. I use this nostalgia to create an emotional impact.

What’s the plan with Y M Movies?
In the past 10 years, my mind has opened up a lot. Other than being just a musician, I’m also thinking like a producer, a writer, learning about screenwriting, cameras, lenses, CG Motion, etc. I don’t have to, but I want to be prepared if something goes wrong. There is the freedom to learn and re-explore while keeping music as the main aspect. Even during this show, I kept asking the director questions about the shooting process.

So, is film direction the next step?
No, no, no! (Laughs) My son told me twice, ‘You have already got grey hair, I don’t want to see more greys!’ I see this series as a blessing. It’s not very often that these kinds of things come your way. People want a disco or a seduction song or an item number. For a musician to evolve, you need to do much more, though the mediums are few. I would like to create such outlets through my production house.