It's difficult to get A R Rahman out of your head. No, you needn't be a die-hard fan, though it's impossible to imagine how anyone with an iota of music sense and a fondness of music can ignore what this music director creates. And if proof of popularity can be gauged by what airs on music channels and radio frequencies, Rahman's body of work is for everyone to hear and see.
There's Tuhi re, that haunting melody from Mani Ratnam's Bombay that will invariably figure on a late-night radio programme. The mornings, by that yardstick, will have radio sets blaring with Rahman's latest hit, Pappu can't dance, from first-time director Abbas Tyrewalla's film Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na.
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So, obviously, there's no ignoring Rahman, I suggest, while a colleague shakes his head unconvincingly: "There's no longer that magic in Rahman. He's sounding repetitive." My instant reaction to the comment is to remember Rahman's own reaction to the same comment in a music magazine, "Give me an example of how and where I've sounded repetitive."
The reporter of that magazine had lost the round to Rahman who incidentally had also mentioned, in the same interview, that every single melody that goes from the music director's studio is precious, with hours of team effort and thought that go to create the songs.
On a short trip to Delhi for endorsing a reality show on bands that has been thought out by music and production company PhatPhish, Rahman agrees to meet us, but not before extracting a promise out of us: "Not the usual round of questions, and not too many questions, please." I almost sense his unhappiness when he proceeds to take a look at my list of long questions and, often, I find him peering suspiciously to take a look at them.
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"How many more to go?" he wonders, when I joke about not even having begun the real round of queries. The thing about Rahman, which he admits too, is that he's not inherently comfortable meeting the media, answering questions or facing the arc lights unnecessarily. So even as I prod him, urging him to say something more, hoping to hear about his music, about himself, he grins, bears it, but doesn't go beyond that.
Dressed in a smart, brown jacket teamed with a pair of well-fitted jeans, Rahman, however, does smile when we talk about how a completely media-shy person like him has associated himself with reality shows, television programmes and other PR exercises in recent times. The latest role he's acquired is that of promoting The Big Band, an initiative with PhatPhish that will be telecast on Doordarshan and will include bands from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka.
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Why is he increasingly associating himself with television? "It stems from all the negativity that is around us. The idea," he says, "appealed to me almost a year ago but it took time to get formulated." Rahman says that he loves being a part of this idea especially because it will be presented as a travelogue through his eyes as he journeys across 15 Indian cities to scout for new talent. "I find we are living in such violent times that it becomes almost necessary to break the clutter, to get associated with products that can offer hope, that can offer a sense of melody...a harmony," he says.
Maintaining harmony -- that's precisely why, he says, he appeared on another television show some months ago. "It was sponsored by the UN and the idea was to bring four sets of musicians who could, with their original compositions, reach out to the masses and connect and talk about issues related to female infanticide, illiteracy, poverty and hunger.
But isn't it ironical that glamour is used to actually address such issues? He laughs, "It is, but you see, music is all that I know. I do believe that melody can reach out and make hardened criminals laugh or cry. So in that sense," he shrugs, "why not use it as a medium?"
Rahman feels that the new generation of aspiring musicians and singers are only too lucky. "When I formed bands in my college," he says, "when I was associated with music as a means to earn a living, there were people who laughed at me, my own family (and I come from a musical background) was so jittery about my future."
Today, he feels that sounds are changing, music directors are willing to push the creative envelope and listeners too are getting inspired. He cites his own forthcoming film Yuuvraaj as an example. A film where he's teamed up with Subhash Ghai, the sound, says Rahman, actually brings in live orchestra and a local Austrian musical flavor. "It's like painting a huge canvas with colours of my own choice," he grins.
That he loves sitting in his studio in the dead silence of the night is folklore in music circles. Is it true? "It is," he laughs, "but you have to realise that music is meditation for me. I can't fathom a life without it. It's all that I know." The violent times that we're living in, he says, do concern him and, to an extent, his work. "Every time I create a melody I wonder if there is a way this song will reach out and prevent a bloodbath," he adds. Rahman does agree, however, that it's during his recording sessions that he can't tolerate being disturbed; "family, friends or the media, I don't like anyone interrupting me at all," he adds.
A master of perfection -- as he's usually described -- Rahman admits that brickbats and criticism, even if they affect him, leave him unfazed. "I see a lot of trash come out in the market, but you can't help it beyond a point. I know my work and if I feel satisfied, if album sales and if listeners are tuning in, I suppose I'm doing fine." And recordings for films, he says, completely depend on the project and his own bent of mind. "I've done projects which have taken me three years to complete," he says. Predictably, he's excited about his forthcoming projects too: Aamir Khan's Ghajini, Dilli 6 and Yuuvraaj, to name just a few.
Whether music defines Rahman, or Rahman defines music is a question that many of his fans would love to answer. For now, the music maestro continues to be -- what else? -- on a song.