Chinese rhapsody

"WHY ARE you writing about A.R.Rahman now? Has he done something new," somebody asked. Well, one does not always need a reason to write about him. This time, the National Award-winning composer has been in the news for taking the Chinese by storm by composing music for "Warriors of Heaven And Earth", a Chinese/English costume drama about the ancient Silk Route. The background score (with one song) for the film will be released in India as soon as the Tamil and Hindi versions of the song are ready.

Just wait at Panchatan Recording Inn, his studio-cum-residence in Kodambakkam, and you get an insight into the life and times of the man. There are people, including director Khalid Mohammed, waiting in the courtyard. A TV camera crew is getting organised for a shoot, while an office boy walks from room to room, fanning a pot of smoking incense.

In the background, a man is heard on the phone asking for the price of a blues harp! In the middle of all this, Rahman's daughter is seen flitting in and out before finally deciding "to go upstairs." Well, the place has a definite character. Just like A.R.Rahman. He's an Indian all right with a sensibility of a world musician. And he's as friendly as ever when you meet him, after almost a year. Clad in black churidar kurta, and his trademark hairstyle still in place, Rahman tells you, "I give interviews when I want to chill out!" Excerpts...

On the Chinese project: The head of Sony Classical Music, whom I met in London, suggested that I do a project for them in the Western Classical mode. I was supposed to work with Joshua Bell, violinist (of "Red Violin" fame). It was while working with him that the Sony chief suggested I take up the Chinese film. I felt this was a better route to take instead of directly jumping into Hollywood. I met the director He Ping in January this year. The recording: Originally the music was supposed to be recorded in Beijing. But because of SARS, we moved to Prague. At that time, I was busy wrapping up "Boys". So much so, just three days before I had to leave, I realised I had not even started composing! I finally began work only in Prague. That too without the director, who could not get a visa. Fortunately, we worked on alternate days. So I found enough time to compose. Also, I was not doing five things at the same time. It was focussed work.

The compositions: What's interesting about the music is it's completely acoustic! I have mixed Chinese, Turkish and Indian sounds as the film is about the Silk Route. I wanted to give the Chinese something they had not heard before, while retaining that international flavour. We have used a Western orchestra and rare instruments such as the Armenian duduk. Looking back, strangely, the first three records I owned were a Chinese one, a Jim Reeves and one by a brass band!

The style: It is a departure from electronic sound, all right. I have always been passionate about Western Classical. I must admit that for the first time, when I heard my music played by the orchestra, it sounded exactly like what I had in my head! I found the whole experience liberating. What's more, what would usually have taken me about a month to finish took just three days!

Reactions in China: (The film has been released there) It has been very encouraging. The Chinese media has been particularly appreciative. Some of them, who saw the film without the sound track and later with it, said the music lifted the film to a different plane.

More Hindi than Tamil films on hand: It is not a sudden shift. If you see my work over the last 10 years, the sound tracks that really made a mark in Tamil have been with directors like Mani Ratnam, Shankar, Kadhir, Bharatirajaa and Rajeev Menon. Other than that, even when you worked very hard, it went unnoticed. Therefore, I do not want to take a risk because of time constraints. To fill the lacuna, I hope to translate some of my Hindi songs into Tamil and release them as albums without associating them with any film.

The Symphony: The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has commissioned two works. One is an orchestral reworking of the themes from my various films, which is likely to open in March 2004. The other is a symphony based on "The Conference of the Birds" by Farid Ud-Din Attar, a Persian Sufi. The story is about birds and music, and I thought why not take up the challenge. It may be premiered in September next year. Here I would like to add that unlike in the West, we Indians are not too proud of our heritage. There's so much of Indian art that goes unnoticed because too much importance is given to films.

Bombay Dreams, the Broadway version: We are planning to add three numbers and take away three. The script is undergoing some changes to cater for the American audience.

Comment on the music industry: I think at this point, things are looking up. In 1999-2000, the business was overvalued by 40 per cent and exaggerated prices were being paid for film scores. So, when the market actually slumped, the scenario seemed worse than it really was. As for FM, I think it's great. But how to use it as a marketing tool is something we are still exploring.

His daughters: Well, I'll know in another year if they have any inclination towards music. They are seven and five. I think the younger one is showing some interest.

The future: I am looking forward to some rest. There's a lot of travelling in the future. Lots of projects on hand and so little time.

In fact, as we leave, a little bird tells us that yet another major musical might be in the offing!


Chinese rhapsody

M.F. Husain's "Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities"

A.M. Ratnam's "Enakku 20 Unakku 18"

"Taj Mahal" (IMAX)

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's "Black", "Bajirao Mastani"

Shekar Kapur's "Paani"

Shyam Benegal's epic "Netaji"

Ketan Mehta's "1857/The Rising"

Subhash Ghai's "Homeland"

Ashutosh Gowrikar's "Swadesh"

Mani Ratnam's bilingual (untitled)

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