TOP FIVE HITS THESE SOUNDTRACKS ARE PART OF EVERY RAHMAN CONCERT
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.”
GIVEN HIS FOCUS IMPROVISATION, YOU GET MORE THAN A REPRODUCTION OF AN ALBUM SONG
DIL SE.. (1998)