The award-winning music producer talks about grooming India's next generation of musicians and always making music for the love of it.
AR Rahman's musical vision
Although he is an Indian music superstar, it is the music school AR Rahman founded in the southern city of Chennai that is his true labour of love. Nurturing talent in children as young as eight years old is part of the famed musician's goal to spot gifted youngsters and create a strong pool of talent for the country's future.
"I felt a kind of responsibility," says Rahman. "I need to invest energy and my love in creating musicians for the future."
The musician was in Dubai last month to promote his concert this Friday at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium in Dubai Sports City. He will land in the city earlier, though, to attend the opening ceremonies of the Dubai International Film Festival, where he will receive a lifetime achievement honour.
While his country has "singers in every street", many of them performing the Carnatic, or classical Indian music variety, the future lies in Indian cinema, he says.
"Film music is going to be one of the biggest industries of the world, and then you will want an orchestral score like John Williams has done."
He was referring to the film composer Williams, who has scored music for blockbuster movies such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman, ET and Jurassic Park.
Rahman founded the KM Music Conservatory two years ago to fuel this vision, with a long-term goal of creating a respected Indian orchestra. Presently, Indian composers travel abroad to record with orchestras. While there are several music schools in India, Rahman spotted the gap by offering an education in both Indian and western music and providing a technical foundation.
The school teaches western and Hindustani classical vocals, piano, violin, cello, percussion, guitar and the Indian instrument the tabla. It offers preparatory programmes, diplomas and provides aid to underprivileged children.
He said the challenge was cobbling together a dedicated string section.
"I had very good friends who said, 'Yes, you can do it', and this was one thing I was willing to even fail in," said a determined Rahman, 45, who has won two Oscars, Grammy awards and a Golden Globe two years ago for his soundtrack for the award-winning Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Danny Boyle.
"A Chennai Philharmonic Orchestra, yes! As long as we have the violin. You can play a piano - anybody can hit a note and it will sound good. But the violin - that's the toughest, and for an orchestra it's important to have a strong string section. Right now we have kids of eight to nine years who have been learning for two years; we picked them very young."
The school is part of his endless quest to spot fresh talent. He is known for giving newcomers big breaks in the competitive Indian movie industry.
"When I came in, there was the same kind of singer singing for every actor; it was because of their extraordinary talent, their gift from god," he said. "But I took on the burden of trying to launch certain new qualities. In some people I helped give them a new nuance; I was willing to take that risk. You had to be patient and the directors also trusted me. Some singers took three to four days for a good performance."
Having opened up the industry from the stranglehold of a few famous singers, Rahman says it is overcrowded.
"Now it's such a big clutter," he laughs. "Just anybody sings and it's done just like a fad rather than with dedication. Songs don't have an identity and you feel, 'Who just sang that song? He sounds like someone else'. I was always very particular that singers should have a unique identity and if that comes through, then people would love them."
Rahman's commitment to newcomers could stem from the struggles he has faced.
Then called Dileep Kumar, he began learning the piano at age four. But after his father's death, the pressure of supporting the family fell on him and he toured as a keyboard player with various groups.
He later turned to Islam and became known as AR Rahman. In the late 1980s he moved to advertising and composed hundreds of jingles. A chance meeting with the famous Indian director Mani Ratnam gave Rahman his first break in the 1992 movie Roja.
That blockbuster was followed by a string of hits through the rest of the 1990s in Tamil and Hindi-language films such as Bombay, Dil Se, Taal and Lagaan.
The combination of mysticism and power in Rahman's lyrics and his melding of classical notes with soul and folk have catapulted him to the international stage.
He worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber on a West End musical called Bombay Dreams in 2002. And Rahman has collaborated with a variety of other artists. Most recently, he released a song with Mick Jagger and his "supergroup" SuperHeavy called Satyameva Jayate or The Truth Triumphs.
Among his big projects for next year is a DreamWorks animation film called Monkeys of Mumbai.
Despite the aura surrounding his visit last month, Rahman appears unfazed. Last week, he watched patiently as 10 Dubai-based singers sang a Bollywood hit as part of a contest for his concert here.
"Words cannot express how I feel to sing in front of a living legend," said Jibran Raheel, 23.
The Pakistani expatriate and the contest winner works in a courier company.
"It's my dream come true. He is the world's best."
But Rahman has also faced criticism recently for what some say is his failure to create a more original sound.
He shrugs this off, explaining he stays true to his music.
"They [audiences] expect a certain quality from me and I do my best. I do what excites me and that used to be what they liked. I never do this as a job, I do it for the love of music."
- The AR Rahman - Live concert is on Friday at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, Dubai Sports City. Tickets are available at Virgin Megastores in Dubai and Abu Dhabi
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