Two living legends of music - Sami Yusuf and A. R. Rahman meet up for a conversation. A. R. Rahman shares his journey to Oscar and reveals his spiritual secrets keeping him grounded.
Sami Yusuf - We met in 2006, in London and I had heard about you because you were already a megastar. But when I met you, I instantly became a fan of your character, and it drew me to your humility and this incredible sense of grace. In an industry materialistic in many ways , in an industry that has a lot of superficialities, In an industry where the sacred or spiritual matters are irrelevant or just seen as odd, someone like you who is really at the top in your area as a composer, as a musician, what keeps you grounded? What's the secret?
A.R.Rahman: I think we have to draw a line. I think we all have to be human. When you go for prayer, you don't even know who's next to you. It could be the king or a very, very underprivileged person. But in the eyes of God, we're all the same. It's hard, but that actually nullifies the ego. When you go for prayer or when you are flying on the aircraft, you don't even know who's spiritually rich in that. You could be spiritually poor, and they could be spiritually rich, and I always see people in that context.
I come from a musical family. My father, who got thrown out of his house early in his life. Father and mother, they worked very hard to build a home for the children. He worked so hard, and he fell ill, and he died. It was the story I heard when I was very young. So I saw the rock bottom, and even now it hurts me.
Whenever I'm taking any decisions in life, if I apply for a loan to build a studio or an institution, I always think will I be able to repay it, what if something happens? So this question keeps coming in. Or whenever there are indulgences, the question keeps coming in, like do you really need it? So this is a line, again, you've got to draw. I tell my kids, it's not just because everybody's doing something, you have to do it, you have to do a reality check.
Second, When I was discovering spirituality and Sufism when I studied more in-depth into it, I found it's about nullifying your ego. And that is esoteric for a lot of people, but when you go deeper, there's a beauty in it.
At the same time, while you are at your professional work, you cant say I am modest and let me do an okay song. You have to have an ego there, and you should say that I'm going to make the best of the music from what God has gifted me. Let me bring up all the stuff which he gives me and show it in this song. You have to take it that way and bring it to your work, which is very beautiful. But as a person, there shouldn't be any ego. You have to keep it down. This is what I learned in life. It's like a battle to Balancing it all.
Then the idea of remembering death. These days so many political leaders are worshipped as a god. And when they die, they're gone. When you look at Michael Jackson, who was the pinnacle of any artist, one day he's no more. His aura lives on, his inspiration is lives on. So I would say these things, maybe helps me to stay this way, and also the blessing and prayers of my mother, Prayers of my fans. And the love of brothers like you.
Sami Yusuf : Tell me, do you still have the passion that you had at the very beginning, is it still there?
A.R.Rahman : When I started, I didn't even know that I would fit into this one. I had the talent to sustain. When I did the first movie, even the composers that time would do 30 movies a year. They would have a whole band, day in and day out they would be recording songs and other stuff. And Mr. Mani Ratnam who is like my mentor and brother, when he introduced me, he found something in me. I just surrendered, I worked for six months to one year, nonstop doing just that one movie. Left all the jobs, I didn't have money for petrol. I literally, sometimes didn't go out in the car, because I didn't have, like 3,000 rupees or 4,000 rupees. I left everything because I wanted to keep my mind very pure. So that happened. I didn't know that it would be so successful .we believed in it, we enjoyed all that stuff.That was my first movie.
Then I didn't know that I had anything else left in me. I was exhausted. Next movie comes in, and the next director comes in. He gives another script, and then he has another lyric writer, so something else comes up. Then I have decided this was a cool thing. You don't have to take the burden all yourself, because when you work with a team, the vibration and the nuances change. They make a lot of decisions, and you get the name. So that happened. it kept going on. And knowing me, that I get restless after three years. Then Hindi happened.
And then Bombay Dreams happened with Andrew Lloyd Webber. He is like my western mentor. He still calls up very fondly. Then 2006 was a dry time. Because I was disoriented, I was in London. When I came back, there was this, you know, you learn something new and then you have this old self. And so now you're kind of mixing both. And by then, Slumdog Millionaire happened.Later, two Oscars, Grammys everything happened., i didnt wanna go back and do the same thing again. These five songs, and it's great, but that's the only way it reaches millions of people.
Then I used to have to take these long flights to LA. Monthly four trips to and fro. So I started writing stories, I said, nobody's making musical stories so let's think about it. And if we fail, then that's fine.Then I took some workshops in Hollywood and made some friends and, because I'm an academy member there, I had access to a lot of good things.
And you know the school, which happened in 2008, educating the locals and giving back whatever I learned. That completely changed me,
because you don't want to be a retired person where kids looking up to you. You have to keep walking, running. And that actually kind of in a way propels me to work harder. If I make bad music, they're going to get, so that pushes me.
It shows that you're not just a remarkable musician, you believe in giving back, which is what remains afterwards. ?
A.R.Rahman: You're not going out of the way to do that it's just like a small step for me. And so my family supports, my sister runs it, my mother is an inspiration again, for that. And all those lovely people working out there, beautiful team.
You are actually a school yourself. I was with an engineer once. We were in Asia. The engineer was trying to show me his work, and I realized there's a whole generation of people who are literally copying you. They're copying your sound, right? How do you feel about that?
A.R.Rahman: I wouldn't say copying. I think they're discovering themselves. I could see that initially. You know when I hear the radio, I feel it's so good. The sound is great, and they're focusing on the arrangement and sound. You play a western radio and then hear an Indian radio, Indian radio sounds more exciting now. There's so much variety, eclecticness, than just a same monotonous, EDM, or one kind of style playing.
I want to ask you one more personal question about you, and then I want to go a little of philosophy and spirituality and other things.You won a double Oscar for a hit movie in Hollywood. Which was an incredible achievement, I don't think people really understand how big of a deal that is? Tell me about, because you also gave a very interesting speech. I remember that speech. Tell me about how it led to that. The leading up to it, how it was and how you felt and all the different emotions.
A.R.Rahman:In 2000, when I went to London, it revealed to me a whole new world.I love London. If you sit there, the aura sort of makes you feel you create something extraordinary because you have all these people,
And so that's a great thing.And then you realize the value of art, where you stand as a composer. You might get all the adulations, but where are you? If I can gauge myself, where I am. Do I always feel that? You know, sometimes, most of the time, the best music is the music when you don't exist. And you have the almighty, becoming your sound. But whatever explanation I give to it, there's, when you lose yourself, and then you become the art. And sometimes you, there are certain portions
of certain things, which I feel like, wow when I heard it back. In India, Every time they would send a film, maybe Lagaan got nominated, Salaam Bombay.So, not in one per cent thought that I would get an Oscar.
I was always praying that somebody should get in and make these people happy. You know it is a very pure intention. And even when Danny came and gave me the DVD and said, I want you to do the music, not even one per cent. And when I did the cues, not also like 0.0001% I thought.
But you know that destiny plays a very different way of looking at things.
What do you think about the state of the world at the moment, from a spiritual point of view?
A.R.Rahman:I think if you just put everything aside and then listen to your heart,What does the heart say? I keep saying this, because, the truth is in the heart. There's an ancient poem, saying that you can break a Masjid, can break a temple, break a church, but don't break a heart. That's where God resides. The limited knowledge we are foolishly trying to make each of us unhappy and make feel that you are not good enough, and we are good enough, we are rich, you are poor, we are talented, you are not. all that stuff comes in, but like a lot of French people, I met. They have this beautiful answer. My assistant, Vivian Jacks, she was an intern. Later, she won a Grammy for Slumdog, sound engineering. So I keep asking her, and she was a perfect mirror for me. I asked her once, what do you want to become? And she said I wanna be happy. Thats it.
You can be happy with $100, you can't be happy with probably a billion dollars, because you have so much pulling you from being happy. The less you have, probably the more you are happy. A decent amount, just to have a family.I think that is probably the foundation of spiritualism.But you know what, if given a choice, I would be that.
But then if I buy, I can do things for other people, and so I have to put on these roles, these hats and start doing things. Because I can do it at the position, I am in by the grace of God. And recognizing something which is beyond, it'd be foolish not to recognize it.The word G-O-D, is it bothering for you? But then in whatever you imagine it, you have to surrender to the bigness of all the stuff. It might take like, billions of lifetimes if you are given to understand, or you could just take a second, if you get the blessing, to understand everything. The deepest thought about the renunciation is, when you are chasing something, it never comes to you.
When you renounce it, it comes to you, but then you don't need renunciation after that. So can you do, can you renounce it, is the task?
If you are so lustful about anything, it'll never come to you. And after that, it'll come to you and then you don't care. Because you know that you could live without it.