He smiles his benign smile and shows relief that there is no camera in the room. So, we sit down for an old fashioned print interview where he converses on topics closest to his heart – music, spirituality and philosophy. The maestro spoke to me a day before his concert at the Dubai Expo that was a major hit. The next in line is the much awaited Why? The Musical, created by Shekhar Kapur and music by him.
Do you find music closest to divinity?
I think the music is such a complex thing that if your mind is wavering, you are done. If you are creating a symphony for instance, you have a hundred musical instruments and you have to carry all of them in one song with multiple things happening. I arrange my song myself and so the entire song comes under one source. So, the one-ness of the mind is so imperative to music.
When I am traveling or rehearsing and one goes into a zone where there is a unity in your mind, you feel that there is a space that connects you to the divine. So be it musicians who practice Hindu, Muslim or Gospel music, the closest path is the path to experience something that is outwardly There is a soul connect completely.
Do you use the same formula for film music?
There is always an attempt to derive the music from the higher source and one tries hard. And I tend to gravitate towards that space. But music is like penance. Sometimes you reach there, sometimes you don’t. Ishq Bina for example had a qawaali and bhajan feel to it and some other songs too. One aspires ( Laughs). The real joy for anybody is the mind. Happiness comes from the mind. You might be the best in the world but if your mind is messed up, you cannot enjoy anything. You might be sitting in the costliest car but your mind is thinking about mortgage, tax to pay or that someone will attack you – is that enjoyment.
How do you protect your inner space?
The foundation of spirituality and philosophy is how temporary life is. Good people die, so do bad people, so do the beautiful, so do the ugly. When life is so transient, why bother. So, things are chilled out when you think like that. This is the basis of peace. Fame is temporary, so is pain. But how do you nurture ambition within all this. Ambition is a result of people’s love towards your work. You want to give them an experience they haven’t had before. You have a responsibility towards that love they shower on you. Life is to live and to give and that makes you who you are.
Hariharan jee told me that what you see about AR Rahman is just a tip of the ice-berg. He works immensely behind the scenes?
That is so kind of him. The process comes from the experience of learning and unlearning, whether it is arrangement or composition. Sometimes, the mind tells you I forgot to do this or that, so the working behind the scene helps. Sometimes it is just the vibe and you know it is right.
Poet and lyricist Irshad Kamil and you performed together recently during the promotions of Atrangi Re?
Even though Urdu or Hindi is not my mother tongue, there is a fascination towards it. A simple line in urdu appeal to me or falls flat. The vibration of the sound of the word is very different than Tamil so I try to grab it there. Sometimes I use the same formula in Tamil, to grab the vibration of the word. We had a good jamming session.
During your concerts, when you perform to your sufi numbers, the energy changes magically.
Yes, that creates another magic. Whenever I do that it gives us all a great sense of joy that is vast and abundant. Spirituality is free for everyone. You can just close your eyes and you are connected to the universe. It brings a sense of unconditional love and surrender. The deep feeling when you are singing a bhajan, gospel or a qawwali zones you out of the earthly realm. I always feel that let us do something special instead of doing it for the sake of it. Also, the bar is set so high of this genre by artistes such as Hridaynath Mangeshkar etc that is it blasphemous to not attempt something spectacular.
But we have seen the amalgamation of sufi poetry, music and philosophy in a modern setting. Rockstar for instance?
Rockstar wasn’t work. We were just enjoying the process. Post Oscars, the expectation were very high and we decided to not do something usual. Between Imtiaz Ali and me there was a great synergy of give and take. There was no ego there like I had experienced in the last two decades where the directive was to follow the brief. Here we were all seekers. Now it is more about travel, the search within and seeking. Each director be it Imitiaz Ali, Mani Rathnam, Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra or Aanand Rai triggers something different within me.
Are you happier the way all your songs are picturized. Can you detach from a composition at all?
I am not that commercial minded when it comes to story-telling. Sometimes the song with dancers are part of the screenplay like Aanand Rai does – a song that take the narrative forward. And is some movies, the song just appears like an item song. I want to be as naïve as possible in this respect and don’t want to get smart. If I knew the formula, then my creativity wouldn’t thrive. If I knew that there was a formula that works then my mind would be trapped with that hook word or a tune. So, there wasn’t another song like Sadda Haq or Phir se Ud Chala. When you go off-track, you experiment and come up with a whole new thing. Sometimes if you get too experimental, you might lose the connect. That is why when it is a film, there are people to tell you what works and what doesn’t. in Thalli Pogade, for instance the word comes at the very end. And we did a whole version where we start with the word but it didn’t work. So we went back to the original. It is quite a unique song that way.
Do you see that a song has its own destiny?
Yes, it does. While making it, you know something is happening. So, I tell the producer, I would need some more time. It happened with songs such as New York Nagram or Taxi Taxi, and Talli pogade. Sometimes your instinct takes over.
How do you dissociate with a song you have created?
I let it go. If I was attached then I wouldn’t have made not more than 5 albums. As for remixes, I stand by fans who believe that why corrupt their memory of a song that they love. Remix is an art and it depends on what you take to remix. Don’t take something very recent.
If you went back to the masters from Bollywood, who would you have to loved to record?
Mohammed Rafi saab anyday. I have been lucky to work with Ashaji and Lataji. In fact, I secretly recorded Lukka Chuppi with Lataji. It was designed for me to sing with her.
Films on music you have enjoyed watching
The Sound of Music, West Side Story, Mughal e Azam, Alaap (Yesudas sang all the songs).
Has an actor inspired to create a song in a certain way?
Dhanush has a way of using English and Tamil in his mannerisms , so the songs that I have composed on him might have that effect. Even Rajni sir has this uniqueness. He has these quotes and one-liners and they are so powerful. Even Singa Penne picturized on actor Vijay is like him – he has a certain energy about him that I have tried to capture through song.
You have said that when you mentor, you learnt too. What did you learn from the Firdaus gang?
They are perfectionists and usually are so musically literate that they keep the score in front of them and can read off them like a newspaper. Most trained musicians do that. But these girls asked me to give them some more time and they played without the score in front of them. They internalized it. That was very touching.
Tell us about Why? The Musical!
Why? The Musical will follow the story of a curious young girl and a wise old man in a dynamic spectacle that will take audiences on an incredible journey of discovery, while also instilling empathy towards our planet and inspiring action to create a cleaner, safer, healthier world. The show, which aims to stir visitors’ emotions and draw on a childhood thirst for knowledge, will include seven of my compositions, two of which were launched on 22 December during my concert at Expo 2020. Lyrics have been created by Sohaila Kapur, Dana Dajani and Shivang, with Artists in Motion leading the production.
The musical features more than 100 dancers, musicians and performers in a 45-minute production that includes stunning visuals on the world’s largest 360-degree projection screen. It showcases the vibrant and burgeoning arts scene of Dubai and the UAE, and exemplifies Expo 2020’s role in promoting creativity and fostering global cultural cooperation by bringing together the best storytellers, composers and creatives from across the planet. “Wisdom starts with curiosity and, together, they provide hope and inspiration for a better future.”