A R Rahman: From R K Sekhar to Oscar

Oh dear life, what is missing?
Why my eyes are always moist?
Where did you disappear?
Nobody came for me yet
It is already the afternoon
And I am still waiting……

The Pallavi of the song ‘Zindagi Zindagi, Kya Kami Reh Gayi’ from the recent Hindi film Yuvraaj is the most enchanting piece of Indian music I have heard in recent times. It is a Ghazal like melody sung soulfully by Srinivas which reminds you of the pains of life, you have always tried to forget. A Pallavi which is on par with the finest creations of Great Indian composers likes of Salil Chowdhury and Madan Mohan. The magic of A R Rahman is glowing in this song.

When A R Rahman proudly held the trophy of Golden Globe Awards on January 11, 2009 at Beverly Hilton Hotel in California, it was a great moment for the Indian music which got its due for the first time in the international platform. For those who came late, A R Rahman is the first Indian to gain this award after 66 years of its inception! Golden Globe is the most respected international film awards next to Oscars and Rahman won it for his original music score in the British film Slumdog Millionaire.
And now Golden Globe has become the story of yesterday as Rahman being nominated for the Oscar Awards in 2 categories of music. Other than being nominated for the best original score, two of his songs in the film O Saya and Jai Ho will be competing each other for the Oscars in the category of best song. This is the greatest height any Indian ever achieved in the field of music.

Soft romantic melodies, songs based on Indian classical and ghazals, techno songs of foot tapping beats to the current Hip-Hop, Rahman did it all in the Indian film music. He was always in the mode of innovation with various instruments, sounds and voices to create some of the most popular songs of Indian film music during the last 18 years. This award is the due recognition of the versatility and the immense consistency of Rahman’s music from the days of his very first film music album which was released in Malayalam in 1992. The roots of A R Rahman’s musical inheritance are from Malayalam film music.

Kerala’s ‘Gaanamela’ troupes generally have a special character. They always present some of the old Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam film songs on stage. One such Malayalam vintage song sung on popular demand for the last five decades is ‘Chotta Muthal Chudala Vare’ from the film ‘Pazhassi Raja’. This song is one among the most famous early career songs of Yesudas. It is a rare creation of a light melody with deep pathos and delicate arrangements of group violins.

“The next number is the moving patriotic song ‘Chotta Muthal Chudala Vare’ composed by the late Mr.R.K. Sekhar” is the familiar preface with which the song announced on stage. This was R.K. Sekhar’s maiden film song. This timeless melody hit the air waves in 1964, two years before A R Rahman was born as Dileep, son of R.K. Sekhar.We all know that during Christmas seasons church choir groups go around singing Christmas songs. The songs they sing are not related in any way to the church music tradition. These are invariably Christmas lyrics arranged to the tunes of contemporary film music hits. In the early seventies, a Catholic priest by name Father G T Oonnukallil was famous in central Kerala for writing lyrics for such songs.

He had written a song ‘Bethlehemil Raavil’ to the film music score of ‘Vaikkathu Ashtami Naalil’ composed by Dakshinamurthy in raaga Bilahari which was a super hit film song of those days. Later the priest had released an LP Record by setting such songs to freshly composed tunes. In that record, ‘Bethlehemil Raavil’ was recreated in western music style and as a total Christian tune. Sung by Vani Jayaram, the song has become very famous. In the introduction of the record, Father Oonnukallil had praised the creativity of ‘R.K. Sekhar, Madras’ who had composed the music for the album.

I was recently traveling in car with a famous Malayalam film director. He regards himself as an authority on vintage Malayalam film music. He was firmly of the belief that only a Malayalee could compose music true to the spirit of Malayalam lyrics. Devarajan Master is his ideal Music Composer. As the car stereo played ‘Pallavi Maathram Paranju Thannu’ from the film Pattabhishekam (1974) rendered by P Suseela, the director sang along admiringly. When the song ended, he was all emotion as he asked: “Who can compose like Master, understanding the depth of the words in Malayalam?” I told him with due respect that R.K. Sekhar, who composed that song was a Tamilian.

R.K. Sekhar, who lives on in Malayalam film music, had scored music only for 22 films. But he has served as Music Arranger and Conductor for over 100 Malayalam films. Apart from having composed many beautiful hit songs, it is said that his was the genius behind the success of many famous composers and their famous songs. It is said that R K Sekhar had a rare mastery over harmonium. Blessed with a deep knowledge of Indian traditional music as well as western music, he was the music arranger for Devarajan, Dakshinamurthy, A.T. Ummer, M.K. Arjunan and others.

When Salil Chowdhury composed music in Malayalam for films like Chemmeen, R K Sekhar served as his assistant and music conductor. In his early days when Ilayaraja played Combo Organ and Guitar for the songs of Salil Chowdhury and Devarajan, it was R K Sekhar who arranged and conducted it.

R K Sekhar was the son of Harikatha exponent Rajagopal Bhagavathar of Kizhanoor near Chennai and his full name reads Rajagopal KulaSekhar. He started his career in Tamilnadu Electricity Board as an Electrician. But he did not waste much time there before joining Malayalam film music industry as an assistant to composer Dakshinamurthy. R K Sekhar who learnt the grammar of music by and large on his own, garnered the framework of Carnatic music from Dakshinamurthy. It is said that even composers like S.D. Burman, recognizing his talent in arranging music, invited him to assist him in Hindi film music.

After working under Dakshinamurthy and Devarajan for many years, R K Sekhar made his debut as an independent Music Director, composing ten songs for the film Pazhassi Raja. Apart from ‘Chotta Muthal’, the sad song ‘Chirakattu Veenoru Kochu Thumbi’ sung by A.M. Rajah and S. Janaki and the famous lullaby ‘Muthe Vaavaavo’ sung by P Suseela became very popular. The song ‘Saayippe Saayippe Assalamu Alaikum’ proved to be herald of the many Mappila songs that R K Sekhar went on to compose in the later years in Malayalam.

The same year R K Sekhar scored music for the film Ayisha. ‘Muthaane Ente Muthaane’ by A.M. Rajah and P Suseela from that film is a popular number to this day. Ayisha had other popular songs too that came to be known as R.K. Sekhar’s Mappila songs. Another song in the film sung by P.B. Srinivas ‘Yathrakkaaraa Povuka Povuka’ came to be counted as among the best songs of P.B. Srinivas ever.

But R K Sekhar had to wait another seven years for his next film. In this gap, he remained the most in demand Music Arranger and Conductor in Malayalam film music. Unable to find time for even Salil Chowdhury in his later films, he introduced Shyam to Salilda as an assistant. Shyam, who went on to become one of the most successful composers of Malayalam was also a Tamilian. Shyam composed music for most number of Malayalam films after Devarajan. R K Sekhar was Shyam’s friend in times of need and his guide.

At his age of 31, R.K. Sekhar, married 17 years old Kasthuri. Their wedding was conducted in Tiruppathi and they lived in Chennai. Kanchana, the daughter was their first child. Then came Dileep their only son, followed by the girls Bala and Rekha.

Two Malayalam films released in 1971 re-established Sekhar as a Music Director. It was his working with Sree Kumaran Thampi, the famous lyricist that proved to be the turning point. They created songs for 12 films. Sree Kumaran Thampi later remarked: “I might have had a small role in giving Sekhar the self-belief and confidence to compose music again”. Sumangali released in 1971 was their first film together. It had important songs like ‘Ushasso Sandhyayo’, ‘Pulaka Munthiri’ and ‘Maan Mizhigalidanju’. The 1972 film Miss Mary had the famous Christian Devotional ‘Neeyente Velichcham’ sung by P. Suseela.

R K Sekhar had the ear and special talent to recognize the potential of new sounds of music instruments. It was his habit to travel to Singapore to understand the latest trends in music instruments. He introduced to South Indian music the early synthesizers like Univox and Claviolin. In those days only international music bands had them.

Similarly, R K Sekhar had introduced many new singers to Malayalam film industry. Brahmanandan, who had a unique voice and an emotional style of singing was a special person marked for deprivation of opportunities. But R K Sekhar offered him the song ‘Thamarappoo Naanichu’ (Film: Taxi Car) which proved to be a milestone in the career of Brahmanandan. It was a period that showed reluctance to introduce new singers; but R K Sekhar went on to introduce the most number of new talents to the industry. Though many of them could not later achieve fame, fact is that R K Sekhar made the effort to introduce new singers and musicians.

R K Sekhar had composed music for more or less 110 Malayalam songs. Many of them are timeless. ‘Aashada Maasam’ (Vani Jayaram), ‘Ippozho Sukham Appozho’(Yesudas), ‘Manivarnan Illatha Vrindavanam’(Jayachandran/P. Suseela), ‘Ragangal Bhavangal’(Yesudas/P.Suseela), ‘Vellithen Kinnam’(Jayachandran), ‘Janma Bandhangal’(Yesudas) are numbers that immediately come to mind. Chottanikkara Amma made in 1976 was his last film.

A music fanatic and a workaholic, R K Sekhar worked day and night rehearsing songs, arranging music and recording songs without sparing time for either food or sleep. He literally lived in the recording studios with only tea and dry bread for food and an occasional nap. As a result, he contracted chronic ulcer. Finally, he had to move from hospital to hospital for treatment as the disease reached terminal stage. His assistants went and waited in hospitals to write down the music scores as he dictated them from bed, amidst excruciating pain. In 1977, R K Sekhar passed away in his 42nd year. His song ‘Manasu Manasinte Kaathil’ composed for Chottanikkara Amma still holds us in thrall. He died on the day this film was released. His son Dileep was then aged barely eleven years.

Dileep, today famous all over the world as A R Rahman was born on 6th January 1966. Visiting Recording studios in the company of his father remains Rahman’s abiding childhood memory. “The memories of my father remain my inspiration. I have seen famous film music personalities and film directors of those years waiting for my father in the verandah of our house. Father used to work for eight or nine films at a time. I think he died of excessive exertion. Beneficiaries have recounted to me how my father helped them, how he created opportunities for them. I was very moved by all that....”

On another occasion A R Rahman said: “My mother has told me a lot about my father. Hearing them gave me great pleasure. Father was greatly regarded as one well-versed in Music. I listen to his old songs even now. I believe that by God’s grace I have inherited a small part of his great genius in music.”

Dileep had his early lessons and training in music from his father at a young age. In the environs of his home filled with music instruments where his genius must have found its expression. It is recounted how, finding a four-year old Dileep playing a song on the harmonium, composer Sudarshanam covered the keys of harmonium with a cloth. But the child with a great confidence played the same tune again. Seeing his son’s rare talent, R K Sekhar is reported to have remarked: “I have spent all my lifetime as second fiddle. I will be victorious one day through my son.”

Even though Dileep formally trained in music, he did not want to enter the music industry. His ambition was to become an Electronics Engineer. He had said: “I was not fanatically involved with music. I was more interested in technology. When I was a child, I had regarded music only as my father’s daily work which fed us. I was not particularly excited about it.”

Dileep’s interest in music grew in tune with electronic synthesizers his father had bought. In those days the use of electronic music instruments in Indian music was negligible. “I could not take my eyes off those instruments. They appeared to me more as rare play toys that have been placed beyond reach.” Dileep spent most of his day playing with those instruments and that is what shaped his future.

At a young age Dileep went from hospital to hospital with his stricken father. Untimely death of his father deeply affected Dileep’s psyche. He had to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining his family at a tender age of twelve. At the time of Sekhar’s death the family had already spent his meager savings in hospitals and the family had to rent out their electronic music instruments for survival. Dileep went with the instruments as an assistant boy.

He had toiled hard and suffered at a very young age. From the age of 13 onwards he had worked as keyboard player for many amateur music groups. He mentioned once that his very first income from a recording came from composer M K Arjunan, for operating a record player for a Malayalam film song recording!

This period served as a great training ground for him. He played the keyboard for Ilayaraja’s stage shows. He has played for M.S. Viswanathan’s shows as well. Later, he was also part of some western music groups in Chennai. He has participated in the world tour of Tabala maestro Zakir Hussain and violin exponent Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan.

He immersed himself in music and began to regard it as the sole joy of his life. As a consequence he could not continue his education. After changing many schools, he discontinued his studies with the school final. His mother encouraged his activities in the music world that his father made his own. He worked in Malayalam film industry as a keyboard player with Shyam, A T Ummer and M K Arjunan. Dileep also worked as the Music Arranger for Ilayaraja in films like ‘Punnagai Mannan’. We can recognize in the instrumental music of those songs, the uniqueness of A R Rahman.

It was his jingle composed for advertising Allwyn Trendy wrist watches in 1987 that won Dileep recognition as composer in his own individual capacity. He became a full-time composer of advertisement jingles. He composed music for three hundred advertisements in five years. His jingles became famous. He later commented: “Composing music for jingles created awareness in me about the precision in music. In the few seconds given to us we have to create a mood and convey a message as well. Jingles taught me discipline in music.” The signature tune of Asianet was also composed by him.

It was during these days his first music album under the name ‘Deen Isai Maalai’ consisting of Muslim devotional songs was released. He also released an English album named ‘Set Me Free’ during this period. Though it flopped badly, it denotes the international leaning in his music.

In his sorrow-filled days Dileep found consolation in Islamic faith. It is said that in 1988, when his sister was in death-bed suffering from the same disease as his father and all efforts to save her reached a dead-end, a Muslim Sufi Pir saved her. After this event the entire family converted to Islam. Dileep changed his name to Allah Rakha Rahman, in short A R Rahman.

Asked about his conversion, Rahman disclosed: “I was witness to my father suffering from disease. He was treated in seven or eight hospitals. He was in insufferable pain. I had seen Christian Priests pray by his bed-side in Hospitals. Rituals were continuously conducted for him at home. But my father died. After that for some time I believed there was no God. But there was great disquiet inside me. I later realized that life is impossible without the Almighty to manage our lives. I found this truth in Islam. I went to Darghas with my mother as per the instructions of Pir Sahib. We became true believers in Islam.” His mother became Karima Begum. Rahman’s sisters became Raihana, Talat and Israth respectively. “Islam and Sufi faith gave me peace and mental strength. I suffered a variety of inferiority complexes and mental conflicts as Dileep. But as A R Rahman I feel like I am born again....”

This is what he had to say about his entry into the world of film music: “I am not sure why I accepted the offer to do ‘Roja’ film. A fee of Rs.25,000/- was fixed. I could make this amount in 3 days doing advertisement jingles. I might have been attracted by the opportunity to work with Mani Ratnam. For Roja When I placed a bouquet of tunes to choose from, he rejected tunes with overtones of other composers and chose only the tunes that sang my uniqueness.”

As many believe Roja was not A R Rahman’s first released film. As said earlier in this article, it was the Mohanlal-starrer Malayalam film Yodha. The film had a truly Kerala style folk song “Padakali Chandi Changili”, which became an instant hit. But the song ‘Mampoove’ with a soft melody was the best song in the film. This tune was later used for ‘Chevvanam’ song in the Tamil film Pavithra.

Roja was released in August1992. Many doubted the ability of its 25 years old composer. Almost a generation had grown up in the belief that Ilayaraja was synonymous with Tamil film music. But within days of the film’s release A R Rahman became a household name in Tamilnadu. Its songs signaled the beginning of a new era. Apart from huge commercial success, the songs swept almost all awards of that year. A R Rahman became the first Indian composer to win a National Award for his very first film.

A R Rahman’s achievements are countless. They are all before us and singing. But many questions have been raised about his music. Excessive use of technology, overwhelming westernity, repetition of same improvisations, soul-less background music, plagiarism......the accusations is long. But just think, these are exactly the accusations all pioneers who cleared a new path in film music always faced. Nobody can deny the fact that by infusing a unique tonal integrity in every song, he revolutionized Indian film music. His proficiency in uncomplicated light melodies and the total care he invests to extract the best out of his singers and musicians are his unparalleled virtues as a music director.

He liberated the concept of Indian popular singer and their voice profile where the women singers were praised for their vocal sweetness and the male singers for their depth and the larger than life heroes they gave voice to. A R Rahman broke the premise that songs need proficient voices. He brought in singers with unique as well as layman voices. At the same time, we need to remember that it was A R Rahman who brought many trained Carnatic music singers to film music. For him only the sounding of his whole song was really mattered. A new timbre of voice or a new sound always excites him and helps him to layer his multifold sound tracks.

A R Rahman continues to introduce new voices. “Even some of the small mistakes while singing can lend music a rare charm” says Rahman. His own voice was one such virgin voice. His ‘Humma Humma’ and ‘Mustafa Mustafa’ numbers bubble with the enthusiasm of an untrained youth voice. ‘Dil Se Re’ and ‘Vellai Pookkal’ reflect the emotional potential of his voice.

A R Rahman’s genius is not confined only to his visualization of light music tunes and his rare feel for the beats. At first listening many of his songs sound ordinary. But as you listen more and more they grow on you revealing new sounds and layers. This nature is inherent in the period that Rahman has come up. In the good old days when not much sensitive music recording equipment was available, the tunes had to be attractive at once at first hearing. But in this age when compact discs and FM radios rule the roost, we hear the songs again and again. Sometimes the songs that attract us at first very soon lose favour and irritate us. A R Rahman’s songs are different. As we listen to them again and again different facets reveal themselves. Novel instrumental music insertions, unusual harmonies, delicately different rhythm and percussion arrangements, creatively recorded voices are all enables the steady unfolding of his music.

A R Rahman rules the Hindi film music scene for a long time now. ‘Bombay’, ‘Rangeela’, ‘Dil Se’, ‘Lagaan’, ‘Yuva’, Saathiya’, ‘Rang De Basanti’, ‘Guru’…The list of his super hit score in Hindi is very long. His achievements are a big challenge for aspiring music directors. Within the first 10 years of his debut he had won 14 Filmfare awards (Tamil 9/Hindi 5), 3 National Awards, 6 Tamilnadu Government Awards and countless other awards. The recognition that Rahman has won is simply incredible and beyond reach of anyone else currently in picture.

The first film music star from India to attract a huge world wide attention is A R Rahman. He got international acclaim in 2002, when he composed for Bombay Dreams. He also composed the music for The Lord of the Rings theatre production. He has composed the track ‘Raga's Dance’ for the internationally famous Asian singer Vanessa Mae's album. Rahman also composed the score for the Chinese film Warriors of Heaven and Earth in 2003.

In 2006 the super hit Hollywood film Inside Man directed by star director Spike Lee, used his song Chaiyya Chaiyya from Dil Se in full for the opening and ending of the film. He composed the music of Sekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age in 2007. And this year the Golden Globe Award winning Slumdog Millionaire which has already won 6 other prestigious international prizes.

A R Rahman has it all which takes to be the first Indian to bring home an Oscar Award for music.A comparison between R K Sekhar and A R Rahman is astonishing which reveals that A R Rahman is the very extension of R K Sekhar. Experimenting with creative fusion of different music traditions, simple and sweet melodies, continuing search for perfect sound integrity, enthusiasm for electronic music sounds, introducing new voices, working day and night to chisel every bit of music … are all the traits of both father and son.

Like Sekhar, Rahman too basically had an enthusiasm for electronics. This has evolved into attraction for electronic music instruments. Like Sekhar, Rahman too refusing to stand within the confines of his language and tradition, lives in a space that is only unique to music. Where R K Sekhar who has been much ahead of his times failed, Rahman achieved unbelievable success. Can’t help the temptation to believe that, the yearning for success in R K Sekhar’s soul itself manifested like a Colossus as A R Rahman.