India Today - - LEISURE - —Amit Gur­bax­ani

You wouldn’t think it, but A.R. Rah­man is a funny guy—at least when it comes to bad jokes. The Mozart of Madras has “a wacky sense of hu­mour”, say mem­bers of his tour­ing band, with whom he just wrapped up the En­core tour, a four-city trek through Hy­der­abad, Ahmed­abad, Mum­bai and Delhi that cel­e­brated his 25 year-long ca­reer. “He cracks crazy jokes,” says 21-yearold bassist Mo­hini Dey, who has been work­ing with Rah­man from the time she was 16. “At the Global Cit­i­zen (Fes­ti­val) show (in Mum­bai in Novem­ber 2016), peo­ple were scream­ing for Cold­play. When A.R. came on, he said, ‘I know you guys are wait­ing for Cold­play although they are so warm.’ We were look­ing at each other and were like, ‘Oh my god, that was such a bad joke’.”

Along with bassist Dey, Rah­man’s band fea­tures long-stand­ing mem­bers such as drum­mer Ran­jit Barot, gui­tarist Keba Jeremiah, flautist Ash­win Srini­vasan, key­boardist Karthik De­varaj and per­cus­sion­ist Sanket Naik. Among the other char­ac­ter­is­tics and ad­jec­tives they use to de­scribe the mae­stro are “quiet”, “re­served”, “down to earth” and “chilled out”. But it’s his funny bone that both sur­prises and delights them.

Though his gigs may be pep­pered with light­hearted ban­ter, per­form­ing with Rah­man is se­ri­ous busi­ness. Band mem­bers say he pays at­ten­tion to the mi­nut­est de­tail and ex­pects noth­ing less than per­fec­tion. “He knows what he wants,” says drum­mer Dar­shan Doshi. “And he wants it done quickly.” Doshi, a stu­dent of Barot, subbed for his teacher when he was away tour­ing with John McLaugh­lin in the US. “He doesn’t have much pa­tience,” says Dey. “You get three times to get it right, oth­er­wise the part, or the whole song, gets changed.”

A day be­fore the Mum­bai leg of the tour, Rah­man told in­dia today that he has clear-cut cri­te­ria when se­lect­ing mu­si­cians. “I want them to be so good, in­stinc­tive and tal­ented that I feel I should push my­self much more. I have to sing better, I have to play better,” he says

His cur­rent band came to­gether around five years ago, shortly af­ter long-time col­lab­o­ra­tor Barot roped in Rah­man to ap­pear on the sec­ond sea­son of MTV Un­plugged, which he was pro­duc­ing. Hav­ing worked with Rah­man since Mani Rat­nam’s Bom­bay (1995), Barot fig­ured out a way to strip his 25-mem­ber band down to just 10 with­out com­pro­mis­ing “on the emo­tional im­pact” of the songs.

Af­ter test­ing wa­ters at an event at Mum­bai’s Na­tional Cen­tre for the Per­form­ing Arts in 2012, Rah­man and Barot plunged into the gig­ging scene, do­ing a cou­ple of sta­dium shows in In­dia and a 2015 tour of North Amer­ica, which was filmed and re­leased as a rock­u­men­tary, One Heart. Rah­man’s con­certs, as such, are a joint ef­fort

by him and Barot, who plays the roles of pro­ducer, ar­ranger and band­leader. Ac­cord­ing to Rah­man, the rea­son their re­la­tion­ship works so well isn’t just be­cause Barot is an “icon” he looks up to but also be­cause he’s an “evolv­ing mu­si­cian”. “He was a drum­mer, then he be­came a pro­gram­mer, a com­poser, a pro­ducer, he sings,” says Rah­man, who has even en­listed Barot to act in his de­but film pro­duc­tion 99 Songs.

A big dif­fer­ence be­tween the older en­sem­ble and the cur­rent band is a smaller de­pen­dency on pro­duc­tion soft­ware. Thanks to Rah­man’s fo­cus on improvisat­ion, you get much more than just a re­pro­duc­tion of the songs as heard on the al­bum. It’s also why mu­si­cians en­joy per­form­ing with him: he makes sure to show­case their in­di­vid­ual tal­ents in so­los. Then there’s the fact that ar­guably no other In­dian com­poser com­mands such large au­di­ences ei­ther here or abroad, as was wit­nessed at the clos­ing show of his four-city coun­try­wide En­core tour at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi In­door Sta­dium on De­cem­ber 23. “The grandeur, the na­ture of ev­ery­thing is mas­sive,” says gui­tarist Jeremiah, who has been record­ing with Rah­man since 2010. “I don’t think a show in In­dia can get big­ger than a Rah­man show.”

On in­ter­na­tional tours, the band mem­bers hang out with their idol off­stage too. Dur­ing such treks, he of­ten gives them “treats” by tak­ing them to per­for­mances and nice restau­rants, says Dey, who fondly re­calls watch­ing the Blue Man Group with her men­tor in the US and spend­ing qual­ity time with him on a cruise in Auck­land.

They also have a say in the set list. Pick­ing what to play is among the tough­est parts of putting to­gether a con­cert be­cause Rah­man has a reper­toire of over 600 songs. They typ­i­cally fix on “the big ones and the cur­rent ones”, Barot says. “The chal­lenge with A.R. is ev­ery time we go on tour, there’s a new hit you’ve got to in­cor­po­rate,” he notes. If there’s any­body up to the chal­lenge, it’s Barot, who de­scribes the part­ner­ship as “not just my job” but also “a per­sonal jour­ney”.

Rah­man is the cap­tain and Barot the more than able chief of­fi­cer—a re­la­tion­ship that co­in­ci­den­tally, re­flected in the stage back­drop for the En­core per­for­mances, which was shaped like a ship. “It’s the sense of vast­ness,” says Rah­man about his fond­ness of nau­ti­cal mo­tifs and affin­ity for the sea. “There’s a sense of beauty, of spir­i­tu­al­ity.” He might well be de­scrib­ing his mu­sic. Then he punc­tu­ates it with a bad joke: “Ev­ery­one wants a sea-fac­ing apart­ment.”


Pho­to­graphs by RVR16 AND MANDAR DEODHAR

BOM­BAY (1995)

ROJA (1992)

DIL SE.. (1998)

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