Rahman’s musical roots may be traced to his father R.K. Sekhar who was a music director himself. The highly respected singer Yesudas sang several Malayalam songs under Sekhar, something which he would repeat for his son. When Rahman created history at the Oscars, Yesudas promptly said, “Rahman makes music out of silence.”
Rahman took piano lessons at a very young age of four. Five years later, tragedy struck his home when his father passed away. Being the only son could have led to his musical career starting at just eleven. Rahman joined the legendry music director Ilayaraja's troupe as a keyboard player and also accompanied the renowned tabla player Ustad Zakir Hussain on world tours. He dropped out of school by this time.
Rahman’s finally got the opportunity to showcase his talent to a wider audience when Maniratnam met him at an awards function. Rahman was there to receive the award for the Best Ad Jingle for a coffee ad. The ace director signed him the moment he listened to his compositions. The movie was Roja and Rahman became a household name with its release. In fact the Maniratnam-Rahman duo gave movies from down South a new found respect amongst the North-Indian cinema-goers.
For me Rahman’s crowning glory was the National Award (the first by a debutant) and the recognition for the music of Roja. In 2005 Time Magazine chose it as one of the ten best soundtracks of all time. The magazine was all praise for the man behind it, “This astonishing debut work parades Rahman's gift for alchemizing outside influences until they are totally Tamil, totally Rahman.” Slumdog Millionaire took his career to a different level altogether.
We, in India, knew his talent for long and for us it was just a matter of time before the rest of the world would recognise it. Bharat Bala, producer of Vande Matram, echoed the same thoughts after Rahman’s incredible show at the Oscars, “I think his music is truly international as he is able to connect with global audiences, something which no Indian has been able to do.” For Rahman his music is the outcome of a desire to influence the young India, “I wasn't too happy with the I-don't-want-to-listen-to-it attitude of our youngsters towards film music. Why can't we get our guys to listen to our own music rather than to Michael Jackson? I didn't want us to lose the market to the West. The music had to be cool and rooted, and yet had to branch out.” The acclaimed lyrics writer Gulzaar agrees, “Rahman’s compositions are a challenge - because he is innovative and unconventional. His music talks to you and work becomes easy.”
With a Padma Shree, 4 National Awards, 25 Filmfare Awards, 1 Bafta Award, 1 Golden Globe and 2 Academy Awards most people would change in their outlook, but not Rahman. He makes sure that all his artists are given due credit. That’s why you will find the mention of his entire team on the inlay card of an album. I was once listening to the flute player (forgot the name) behind the theme music of the movie ‘Bombay’ on NDTV expressing his surprise when during a show in Dubai the crowd chanted his name. A singer on the same show talked about how he refused to sing a song for Rahman as it didn’t suit his style. A few months later Rahman approached him again for a different song and he agreed. That’s Rahman for you! He holds no grudges.
If music has given him fame it’s his religion which has gives him peace. The transition to Abdul Rahman (he later changed it to Allah Rakha on music director Naushad’s suggestion) from Dileep Kumar took place in 1988. One of his sisters fell seriously ill and all medical aid failed. That was the time when the family came in contact with a Muslim Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani popularly known as Pir Qadri. He prayed for them and Rahman’s sister made a miraculous recovery. Influenced by the events the whole family converted to Islam.
An atheist once, Rahman today, is one of those rare Muslims in the film industry who have managed to strike a balance between religion and work. He never misses his five daily prayers and has been to Haj twice. To him his religion provides a base that keeps him humble, “While praying you attain a certain position, telling the lord that you are the most horrendous sinner in the world, that you must be granted forgiveness and mercy.”
Rahman has a strong belief in Sufism, “I'm a deeply spiritual person. Sufism is about love - love for a fellow human, love for humanity, and ultimately love for God.” He is an outright critic of the extreme means adopted by some Muslims. In an interview given to Arab News he goes at length offering his outlook on the Islamic teachings-
“Muslims should go to lengths to follow the basics, which say ‘be kind to your neighbours, keep smiling when you meet others, pray and do charity.’ We should serve humanity. We should not show hostility toward others, even to the followers of other faiths. This is what Islam stands for. We should present before the world a model through our behaviour, nature and presentation. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) never used his sword to spread Islam; rather he spread the religion through his virtues, behaviour, tolerance and righteousness. And this is what is needed to change today’s distorted image of Islam.”
He rubbishes the rumours that link him to fundamentalism and forced conversion, “How can it be that I provide funds for them (suspected charities), when I have received death threats from the extremist (after he sang and re-composed Vande Matram) and the state government has posted police personnel to guard my residence.” On conversion he says, “When I am not perfect myself, how can I convert others? I follow my religion, let others follow their own.”
Rahman was once asked what makes him click. He replied in all humility, “It is all the will of Allah. I just do my bit and leave the rest to Him. It is He who decides the fate of us mortals.” Sure he does!