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A Samman for Rahman
B S Prakash

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July 06, 2006

A R Rahman was waiting backstage and appeared sweet, modest and patient as he chatted with the stagehands around him. He was to be honoured shortly and both of us had been told by the organisers to wait behind the screen as they got things ready.

I looked around at the frenzied preparations. A group of wildly enthusiastic students were getting ready in the wings in various costumes to do their version of Chaiyya Chaiyya. Many were Indian looking, but some were obviously American, others we were told were Pakistani or Sri Lankan, and some were Chinese or Korean. They couldn't hide their nervous anticipation even as they got ready tugging at their salwars and stealing glances at Rahman standing serenely on one side.

Rahman being honoured or eulogised is frequent, I suppose. But this was at Stanford University, one of the most prestigious and affluent universities in the world, with only a small sprinkling of Indian-American students, not with a preponderance of them. It is just too expensive, I gather.

Stanford is known for excellence in engineering, sciences and design, but it was the humanities and the music department that had come together on this occasion to organise a South Asia music festival. In a stroke of genius they had made honouring A R Rahman a part of their programme. This had ensured an overflowing auditorium, oodles of excitement and an electric atmosphere in the auditorium.

As the official Indian representative in these parts I had been invited and thus had the privilege and the opportunity of interacting with the maestro and being a part of the excitement. And to top it all, I had also been asked to share a few thoughts with the audience.

As I thought of what to say -- and I had been told to speak very briefly about India's culture and identity -- what I was witnessing around me stirred me. I looked at Rahman once again with curiosity. Here was someone so much at ease with his Tamil identity -- he conversed in Tamil with his friend Ganesh and earlier I had heard him hum a Tamil song.

I knew that he had not only been brought up and inspired within the Tamil milieu but had his early musical successes there. It was the association with Mani Ratnam that had brought him to the Hindi movies, and what an entry that was! Soon he had become an all India sensation and a toast of all of Bollywood.

Not limiting himself to films, he had gone on to compose new music to old patriotic songs including Vande Mataram, capturing the national imagination in an altogether new way. From local to regional to national.

Showcasing Bombay Dreams

A few years more and Andrew Lloyd Webber was inviting him for the international debut with Bombay Dreams on the London [Images] stage. Just another year or two and here was Rahman composing music for parts of the Lord of the Rings, for Chinese and Japanese films, as well as getting other offers from Hollywood.

From national to global, another leap, and all in an easy transition while not losing any of the original roots. I thought of all this as we waited and chatted a little.

My thoughts then turned to another aspect of this Indian celebrity and his identity. To the aspect of his faith, sometimes a contentious subject, which he never talks about. His biography reads, however, that he was born in one faith and a family crisis made him turn to another, making a Dileep Kumar, an Alla Rakha Rahman.

His music is inspired by folk tunes, melodies from Carnatic ragas, the Sufi traditions, and many other strands. How remarkable, I reflected. Musicians, Bollywood stars and cricketers are the three categories who truly blur all the conventional dividing lines in India. The Khans constantly become Kumars in the film world even as the Amars become Akbars. Here was a living example of an Indian transcending the linguistic, regional and religious divide -- I made a mental note.

As I looked around, I was struck by another amazing facet of Indian identity in an age of globalisation. These were young students, often wrapped up in pop or rap as delivered through their I-pods. Here at Stanford, many of them were second or even third generation Indian Americans, but not just them, others from Pakistan, some Chinese as I said, and quite a few Americans. And yet, all of them had embraced Humma-Humma, were dressed in lungis or sarees and were as enamoured with Rahman as our college kids would be with Tom Cruise [Images].

'India everywhere,' I thought remembering the slogan used at the Davos by our corporate crorepatis. Just as the Richard Geres and Will Smiths are lionised in Mumbai, Shah Rukh [Images] Khans and Aishwarya [Images] Rais get drooled over in America, and not only exclusively by Indian audiences.

It was particularly fitting though that Rahman was illustrating this facet of Indian presence on a global platform that day. For, he is a truly global spirit who embraces influences from everywhere while making them his own. He is also the pioneer in adopting technology for his music, someone who took Tamil music to the digital age very fast. A fusion of classical and the contemporary. How fitting then for him to be recognised by Stanford, in the heart of the Silicon Valley, I thought.

We had a typically American academic introduction to Rahman's music. A brilliant young American researcher Natalie Sarrazin, whose deconstruction of the elements of Bollywood was revelatory, launched into a dissection of the elements of Rahman's music and how he had changed the standard idiom of the Hindi film music.

She showed with video clips, how prior to AR of the 1990s, the predominant sound in Bollywood was that of film orchestra, treated by the listener as a background sound that was easily dismissed. The listener's focus was on the flowing melody and text.

Rahman changed the sound, utilising new musical idioms that can be understood by Westerners and Indians alike, she said. The changes included disregarding old musical codes, layering instruments one at a time and using an almost minimalist approach to placing each sound thoughtfully and deliberately on a blank canvas.

Example: Before the advent of Rahman it took a hundred violin plaintive strings to show the impending romance; a whole huge orchestra swept up emotions. Rahman had changed that. He had made street sounds respectable, made you listen to a single beat say the rice husk being pounded, to natural sounds of daily implements and so on.

Natalie illustrated all this with bits and pieces from movies old and new and it was like a university class with a difference: familiar images from Raj Kapoor to Anil Kapoor [Images] and tunes from Taal [Images] Se Taal Mila were the subject of the discourse.

This too was India taking its rightful place in the discussions on pop culture, I thought. If there are PhDs on popular culture, on Woody Allen [Images] and Madonna [Images] and there are many, it was only right that there were now serious students of Raj Kapoor and Rahman.

By now I had plenty of interesting things to say on Indian culture in a globalising world. The time came for me to step up on stage. What did I actually say? Nothing. As I looked at all the expectant faces, sensed the excitement, almost physically felt the impatience, I luckily had an epiphany. I realised that I was an obstacle, a distraction.

Sense dawned on me that when an auditorium full of students have come to listen to A R Rahman, Wisdom lies in not trying to sound wise. My brevity bordering on virtual silence with only a sincere salutation to the magician/musician was much applauded.

B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at

B S Prakash

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