What is the best way to write a biography of a reticent, reclusive, shy man? You get the others, more willing to speak, to speak. And in this, Kamini Mathai, the author has excelled. If this biography of A.R. Rahman had a one-liner, it would be ‘ARR as seen through others’ eyes.’ ARR, named Dileep by his parents Shekhar and Kasturi before he embraced islam, may have a different story to tell the world, which may be why he refuted the supposed claim by the book (not made anywhere in the book) of being his authorized biography. ‘The claim that it’s an authorised biography is wrong,’ he said, further stating that he will be writing his own biography (Mumbai Mirror, 10 June, 2009). That we will wait for, but for now Mathai has indeed succeeded in giving us a feel of what it is like to spend some years travelling to reach the heart of Fourth Street, Subrayya Nagar, Kodambakkam, where ARR lives.
Kamini Mathai has used her knowledge of Tamil to get exclusive interviews from the least suspected; like the interview with the old Boologarani in Amman Kovil Street where Dileep’s parents used to stay when he was a child. Rahman’s fans have a lot to look out for in this biography. For those who have been disappointed by Shankar Indorkar’s statement that Rahman makes musicians play without direction for hours, records them and then uses the sound bites (Booth, 2009:290), Mathai reassures us that Rahman does pay each musician over and over, whenever their bites are used.
For those making a cult out of Rahman, this book provides information on how to codify the cult more in their Master’s lines—keep a candle burning by your side, wear green or black, or at least have a patch of it on your attire. If only for these details, The Musical Storm makes an interesting, almost arresting read.
Even when giving insight into Rahman’s perseverance, hard work, faith, love for his mother, the spirituality and passion that infects his music, Mathai has stayed clear of the hagiographical mode. That indeed comes as a relief since the jacket of the book puts off those who are looking for a balanced view on ARR. The front cover has Rahman’s face facing the sky, while the back cover shows him with the Academy statuettes. And with its title. The Musical Storm, the English translationof Isai Puyal (Tamil), the title given to ARR by his fans, one would fear this would be a rerun of all the articles that filled newspapers and magazines following the Golden Globe and has continued well into and after the Academy Awards. Instead Mathai has in store for us several not-so-sweet moments from Dileep’s and ARR’s world. In Mathai’s trail we, for a change, meet those who will not approach him for a favour, nor forgive him… The more self righteous among us will be indignant at the way ARR avoided his Nemesis Avenue bandmates, his constant excuses not to meet people, and a small number of us might indeed be anguished at the little agency that Rahman displays, his mother making most of his decisions.
Mathai has been persevering in her trail of Rahman, and that gives us rich anecdotes on Rahman, some praise, certain others sceptical and certain others sarcastic. Javed Akhtar has been forced to narrate a story for us instead of his memorable lyrics, and a quite filmi one too, all thanks to ‘the wait’ at Rahman’s studio. She is more jovial about the wait at the studio herself, and even more entertaining as she gets into the studio, details that ARR fans will devour to the full One of this is how the composer has a trapdoor to get out of the studio without meeting the expectant ‘singers waiting to be heard, pauper producers waiting for charity, musicians looking for a break, fans wishing for a glimpse’—and this because he just can’t say ‘No.’ Mathai deserves to be commended also for trying to find out the religious backing in Hadith and Qur’an for many of ARR’s habits.
Mathai has dedicated several pages to discussing Dileep’s father, R.K. Shekhar. The early appearance of this section would not have been just a preference for chronology, for, it becomes clear, Shekhar is the hinge by which ARR’s life rotates. The career of Shekhar, for Mathai, colours all that is A.R. Rahman, his life as a musician, his years of hardship, his insistence on getting credited, his practice of crediting others, his loss and reinvention of faith. One can say there is a revelation of ‘known-knowns’ and ‘unknown-knowns’ in Mathai Kareema (earlier Kasturi) is the known influence in his life, but, and this we discover as we progress, we always knew deep within, it is Shekhar who is the phantom presence behind. Shekhar’s position in the studio, as discussed by Mathai, is in the covered keyboards in a corner of the studio gathering dust, his photo hanging behind the composer. Mathai wants to read it as Rahman’s efforts to shut his past out yet the structure of the book casts Shekhar as the central force behind and within Rahman.
Mathai zooms her camera on Rahman on the Academy Awards night, and then goes into a flashback, discussing Shekhar, and then Dileep. The next five chapters are categorized according to the various stages in ARR’s career—his beginnings with Roja, the first National Award, the step into Bollywood, and then of the time when the doors of the world opened to ARR. ‘Faith’ the ninth chapter,discusses that which has now become inevitable in any discussion on ARR—his spirituality. ‘The Wait’ is about the sights, sounds and stories in and around Rahman’s studio. ‘At Work’ and ‘At Home’ give us insights into the man himself, his style of working and his relationships.
However, because of Mathai’s dedicated work, one hoped for more from her. It might be the limitations of the genre, but one wished there was more of an analysis of ARR’s style, its evolution from Roja to Slumdog Millionnaire and the changes in the market demands. One also hoped that Mathai had characterized ARR as a man of the times, or may be, the right man at the right time. Even when Mathai tells us time and again how Rahman is always the first one to bring home the latest innovations in music technology, she forgets to mention how this was possible made by globalization. Globalization, as a phenomenon of improved communication,increased transportation and multiculturalism, has played a major role in rendering possible a remarkable person like Rahman. Booth (2009) tells us, for example, how Ramesh Iyer, guitarist, had to build his first instrument in the 1970s because of import regulations. ARR’s style of work would have been impossible to conceive in Ilaiyaraja’s time. Similarly, one would also expect at least a cursory mention of the arrival of World Music in the West and the market logic which governed it as also of the trends set by those like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, from whom Rahman had taken lessons. The NRIization of Bollywood, so vital to the music industry, too remains unmentioned. Similarly, those who are familiar with Rahman’s life would also look for details like the Unnikrishnan debate, i.e. the debates which followed ARR’s casting of Unnikrishnan, then a purely classical singer, for ‘Ennavale’ in Kaadalan. A discussion on music styles would have also given us insights into the adjustments made by ARR when he composes for a Rajnikanth movie. Instead all we have is just a passing mention. The ‘funding fundamentalists’ controversy in Rahman’s life merits more detail.