August 29 2015
He is among a handful of musicians recognised the world over and as he made a rare concert trip to London, our correspondent looks back at a day at the O2 devoted to the ‘Mozart of Madras’…
By Suman Bhuchar
ONE OF THE HIGHLIGHTS of the Asian entertainment calendar was definitely the recent concert at O2 by composer, AR Rahman, along with his band and featured musicians and performers.
It was reported as his first concert in the UK for five years.
The whole thing was billed as an ‘event’ since the date coincided with Indian Independence Day (August 15), and the BBC Asian network broadcast from the O2, playing music and there were a few food stalls.
It all began with a screening of a new documentary on AR Rahman called “Jai Ho”, directed by Umesh Aggarwall, and made by the Public Service Broadcasting trust of India . It was well made, but there were a couple of inconsistencies.
One was the moment where the playback singer Alka Yagnik was talking about when she was first asked to come and sing for a composer called ‘Rahman’ for his first film, “Roja” (1992).
She consulted the well-known Bollywood playback singer Kumar Sanu and asked him whether he had heard of this new kid on the block.
“Never heard of him,” came the reply, and as such, Yagnik never took up the offer – a regret she still feels today.
Nevertheless, the director then omitted to tell us who the lucky singer was – maybe he thought, everyone watching the documentary would know – but why should they?
I have since checked and discovered that there were several playback singers on the Tamil version of the film, so I can understand his quandary at not naming one.
The other gripe, was when they talk about the Sufi master who Rahman follows – they show him laying a chador on his mazar (mausoleum) but we don’t get his name.
Such clumsy omissions are noticeable in what is an otherwise an excellent documentary, giving you an assessment and evolution of Rahman’s career, intercut with a very open interview with him. Other luminaries including film directors Mani Ratnam and Ram Gopal Verma, legendary singer Gulzar, poet and Bollywood script writer and lyricist Javed Akhtar all appear and give their assessments on working with Rahman.
They talk about his musical style; how it has changed the way music was composed in Bollywood and his general contribution to the broad Indian film industry.
It also includes interviews with British figures, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Danny Boyle who have both worked with him.
At the risk of sounding vain, I did spot myself for a few seconds hiding in the entrance of the Apollo Theatre, Victoria on the World Premiere of “Bombay Dreams” (19 June 2002) while the cameras are trained on Shah Rukh Khan, as he makes his entrance (I remember the work that went into making that evening run smoothly).
In the documentary, film director Shekhar Kapur talks about his unconventional work ethic and that when Webber first encountered Rahman, he said the man turned his studio into a ‘mosque’, meaning that people had to leave their shoes outside and also work would stop when the very devout Rahman needed to pray.
Webber acknowledges his greatness and his gift for rhythm, explaining that Rahman writes melodies in a way that a western composer can, which is perhaps one of the reasons why so many westerners have wanted to collaborate with him, as well as his innate talent and humility.
Later, at the main event, the concert we had all been waiting for – and after a brief introduction by BBC Asian Network DJs, Tommy Sandhu and Noreen Khan, there emerged the main line up, Rahman at the piano and other performers.
He began with “Chinna Chinna Asa” (or ‘Choti Si Asha’) from the film, “Roja” then moved on to a song from “Bombay” and the admiration of the audience was palpable.
It appeared that the 9,000 strong crowd (not quite full, but full enough) had only come to hear their favourite movie songs being performed by the artist/s on stage and were not really interested in anything else.
There was an element of ‘Rahmantic’ mania (as his followers are dubbed) in the venue.
So for example, when Rahman played something experimental like the track from the film, “The 100 Foot Journey” (although it was not in the final film), and the “Bombay Dreams” song, “Love’s Never Easy” which was adapted from the film “Taal”, the audiences didn’t really react. They just wanted him to perform his Tamil and Hindi film song catalogue.
The second act began with his famous Qawwalis, Kun Fya Kun (from the film, “Rockstar”) along with Javed Ali and Khwaji Ji from “Jodha Akbar”. He also played some jazz. It was a joy to hear Rahman sing as this is such a rare occurrence and he sang several of his film songs, including the Qawwalis and he has a very distinctive voice.
He has also undergone a transformation in that you can see he has tried to overcome his shyness and attempt some ‘rockstar’ type affectations by talking to the crowd with phrases like “How’s it going?” “Are you enjoying it?”, “I love you…” not to mention changing his clothes several times, from wearing a silver jacket with dark glasses to an Indian Nehru type outfit for his Qawwali songs, as well as attempting some lame humour on stage.
In terms of stage craft, it was very simple, with the whole area being taken up by the artists and performers – with the lighting at the back of the stage changing accordingly and there were two screens at either end for audiences to see the close up moments. The evening ended with a “Jai Ho” led encore.
The overall list of artists and musicians were: Javed Ali, Jonita Gandhi, Karthik, Haricharan, Neeti Mohan, Hriday Gattani, Annette Philip, Deepak Gattani (producer) , Mohini Dey, Naveen Kumar, Ranjit Barot, Sai Shravanam, Sanket Naik and Shashaa Tirupati.
I did pop along to the after party in the Brooklyn Bowl (hosted by BBC Asian network’s Raj & Pablo), but I felt listening to DJ sets after hearing some wonderful live music was ruining the flavour of a good evening, so left quickly. I am left with some fine memories and a £10 souvenir programme!
All pictures: Nicky Kelvin