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Music Maestros

By Archith Seshadri and Viren Mayani Email By Archith Seshadri and Viren Mayani
November 2017
Music Maestros

One, known sometimes as the “Mozart of Madras,” is a sensational composer of international caliber, and a prolific source of super hit film songs across all film industries in India. The other is a highly venerated soulful singer and a Padma Vibhushan winner who inspires awe with both his musical talent as well as his evolved being. In these exclusive interviews, A. R. Rahman and K. J. Yesudas talk about their music.

Part 1:
Jai Ho to the Mozart of Madras
By Archith Seshadri

In the quarter century that he has been around, A. R. Rahman has taken the Indian music world by storm, and has also gone international with it. A natural genius, Rahman, one can tell, loves to play with sound, likes to experiment and push the envelope, and yet manages to craft music that wins over the masses. In this exclusive interview, the maestro speaks on his craft, managing audience expectations, and some of the quirkier moments of his multifaceted career.



2009 was the year of the Oscar for Rahman. He bagged two Oscars (left), one for “Best Original Music Score” (Slumdog Millionaire) and the other for “Best Original Song” (“Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire). (Photo: IMDBpro)

It’s been a quarter century since A. R. Rahman arrived with a flourish on the Indian film music scene. His lilting songs in Mani Ratnam’s 1992 film Roja charmed the nation. Since then, he has consistently delivered massive hits in films like Gentleman, Bombay, Rangeela, Minsara Kanavu, Dil Se, Taal, Lagaan, Guru, and Slumdog Millionaire, to name just a few. He has raised the bar sky high when it comes to contemporary Indian music—not to mention what he has done for Indian music on the global stage. He’s the only Indian composer to win the Filmfare, BAFTA, Golden Globe, Grammy, and Oscar awards.

But Rahman is not one to rest on his laurels. He relentlessly reinvents himself, mining gold from diverse musical genres. Classical, Sufi, pop, techno, and folk—he’s mastered them all. What does he have to say about this versatility? “When you follow simplistic rules it becomes boring so you have to find ways to sound new. It’s a challenge and a pleasure,” he observes.



(Left) A still from Rahman’s music video, Maa Tujhe Salaam. Few performances have stirred patriotic fervor for Indians as has this super hit production.

There’s an uncontainable quality to his genius, spilling out and constantly flowing into new areas—he also sings, writes, and produces. A musical featuring his work, Bombay Dreams, debuted in 2002. Rahman has also worked on several music videos—Maa Tujhe Salaam, Pray for Me Brother, and One Love. He also recently released a concert film called One Heart. And, hold your breath, there’s more: “My journey for 25 years has been about composing, but also I’m an educator, I have got a conservatory, and also a school for underprivileged children.”

Slumdog Millionaire wasn’t a one-off achievement. Hollywood has come calling again with director Vanessa Roth seeking his work for a television serial entitled Daughters of Destiny. Says Rahman, “I think music is a combination for me…at the same time, innovation. It’s also about not losing its earthiness, the connectivity between myself and the listener.”

Rahman was in New Delhi recently to promote the IIFA awards which honor Indian cinema on the global stage. He chatted with Archith Seshadri, an Atlantan and a long time Khabar contributor who is currently based in New Delhi as an anchor at India’s new global news channel, WION.



(Left) A still from One Heart: The A. R. Rahman Concert Film—a documentary that takes viewers behind the scenes and into the guts of Rahman’s massive live concerts and the people behind it, including the man himself.


Let’s talk about your film One Heart—what’s the premise?
There are multiple reasons why we made this. One of the reasons is, most commercial movies are with stars and have comedy, romance—but there are no concert movies. That area was for us to take over. When I did this tour a couple of years back, there was this energy because of the team, so I thought I should record this. Once it was edited, I saw it, I felt it was cohesive, and it’s like one movie.

How difficult is it to do a live concert—coming up with a song, a list?
Concerts are very tricky. When you make them as video clips it doesn’t translate well. But in One Heart, the editing is so good. We have the interviews, the intentions behind the songs, and things beyond the concert.



(Left) A live performance of "Jai Ho" by Rahman at the 2009 Academy Awards after party.

How important is it to have songs in multiple languages—Hindi, Tamil, Telugu?
It’s a leap of faith. A song like “Jai Ho”—no one understood anything in Hollywood, but look at it! No one understood “Kolaveri” but they liked the song. Certain things, you can’t go by formula, you have to go by instinct, and that’s what I did. We picked some songs based on the musicality, the way people are performing, the way it is picturized, the way it makes you feel, and when you close your eyes what it does to you … whether the groove, or melody. And we have subtitles!

Recently in London, you had a concert where people walked out and were upset that you had more Tamil songs than Hindi songs. What do you have to say to them about that?
I think [in] multiple languages. In 2000, I remember a concert in New York where we did a 4.5 hour concert—Tamil, Hindi, album songs like “Gurus of Peace.” We came out and people said, what a great concert. Then I see the press reports and they say Rahman’s concert sinks like the Titanic. And I was like, “What? I didn’t feel that.” There’s a perspective for everything and you have to look at the larger picture. Why do they keep calling me back?

At IIFA in New York, we had thousands of people sitting in the rain and watching it, and they respect that. That respect is what makes me go back again, and not about a few people who criticize. I respect them, too, and I am constantly working to find out how to make them happy. It’s not like I am ignoring them. All those 9,000 people who came to London, I want to thank them for supporting us.

Let’s talk about your music and your songs. Do you just wake up and start writing music? What’s the process like, how do you craft and compose a song?
I don’t even know. If I knew the process, I’d be old now. I am always looking for a new process. It could be humming it on the iPhone or on the voice recorder, or if I have a beat I start singing on it. Sometimes I take the harmonium or the accordion to play. Each instrument gives you a comfort zone to play a certain kind of vibe. “Nenjukulle” (from Kadal) was done with the accordion. The more I played, the melody came from that vibe. The sound of the accordion makes you play different notes. What you can play is sometimes hard to replicate vocally.

What about the choice of singer? When you have a song like “Sahana” in Sivaji, and you have multiple singers, do you typically have an idea as the tune is composed that you want Hariharan, Chitra, or Sukhwinder—or listening to it and saying this is who I want?
Sometimes I have a choice, because if the director says it’ll be a big hit, why don’t we use so and so or that particular singer. The director has a choice, too. If we agree with it, then we call that person. Suriya, the actor, wanted Arijit Singh to sing a song, so we had him sing “Naan Un” from 24. He was touring and he was recording in his hotel suite, and we had to give him corrections, and he was kind enough to do so.

Is it difficult to get people to sing songs in Tamil, Telugu, if it is not their mother tongue, and get the diction right?
That is part of my life now. I get blamed and then there are things that work out brilliantly. If you look at Kaadhalan’s “Hum se hai muqabala,” Udit ji [Udit Narayan] sang it. People loved it because of the cuteness even though the Tamil is not perfect. Audiences are smart.



Archith Seshadri (right) conducting this interview with the Maestro.

What happens when you see thousands of people on stage? Is there stage fright, anxiety?
My shows are never easy. When we think it’s easy, we’ll get a call saying our sound engineer didn’t get his visa. There’s a guy who doesn’t know any of your songs, one hour before your show. Sometimes they say your console broke down so eight channels aren’t working. All these kinds of things. Like, oh, it’s going to rain. There was a concert in Malaysia where they said if you go on stage, you’ll get electrocuted and we’ll all die!

In terms of upcoming musicians, composers, singers—people who want to break in—there is so much competition now. What is your advice to them to fine-tune their craft before entering the industry?
Now people don’t just look for a composer or performer, but a full package. You don’t want to take someone [who is] good only in certain areas. As individuals, they should be friendly and not like a diva who wants special treatment. For a new person to come in, [they should] really do their homework, and set their standards really high, whether it’s diction, tuning, or vocal quality.

What about classical training? How important is Carnatic, Hindustani, or Western music? How does that translate into playback singing?
I think classical music is so deep. I first heard Kaushiki [Chakrabarty] in 1998, and look at her now. The more you delve into it, the more beautiful it becomes. Look at Anoushka Shankar—she has matured into an amazing talent like her father. It’s so heartening to see generations of music being passed on to the next and they take it very seriously. She’s got the glamour and presents Indian music to the world. I was very happy to see that.



Rapid fire with A. R. Rahman
Favorite raga:...................................Thodi
Favorite Western band:....................Queen
Favorite male singer:........................Mohammed Rafi
Favorite female singer:.....................Lata Mangeshkar
Favorite upcoming talent:................Kaushiki Chakraborty
Favorite film director:......................Mani Ratnam
Favorite concert city:........................Kolkata
Alternate career:...............................Car driver

Archith Seshadri has been recognized as a Type-A Career Changer by Forbes for his successful transition from management consulting to journalism. After a few broadcast journalism gigs in the U.S., he is now stationed in New Delhi as a news anchor for Zee News’ first English news network, WION.


Part 2:
God's Own Singer
by Viren Mayani

In Atlanta for a fundraising concert, Dr. K. J. Yesudas,
the legendary singer of film songs, and in recent years,
increasingly of devotional songs, spoke to
about his illustrious career, and his thoughts on
religion, spirituality, and trends in contemporary music.



(Left) Yesudas receiving Padma Vibhushan from President Pranab Mukherjee.

He's reverently ​known as Gaana Gandharvan (Celestial Singer)—and rightfully so. Dr. Kattassery Joseph Yesudas, with over a 100,000 recorded songs to his credit in almost all Indian languages, as well as Russian, Arabic, Latin, and English is the only known living singer who has earned three of the highest civilian honors bestowed by the Government of India—the Padma Shri (1975), Padma Bhushan (2002), and Padma Vibhushan (2017).

Born into a Christian family, Yesudas credits his incredible career to his father, a self-taught stage artiste and dramatist who flouted social norms to enable his gifted son to pursue an education in classical music. The discipline and passion he poured into his music paid off handsomely. Starting with Carnatic music, Yesudas trained in Hindustani and Western music, conquering language barriers with astonishing ease and winning hearts with the intensity of his devotional songs.

What sets Yesudas apart from a host of talented singers is his profound sense of spirituality. Here too, his father played a seminal role, inculcating in him a broader sense of faith and respect for all religions and their believers. Imbibing values imparted by great spiritual leaders and being true to one’s conscience—these are the fundamentals by which one must lead one’s life, says this golden voiced singer in all humility.



Dr. K. J. Yesudas (center) with Guru T. S. Nandakumar (mridangam, dholak), Santosh Chandru (ghatam), Shree Varshenee (tambura), and Srikanth (violin). (Photo: Venkat Kuttua)

For more details of this concert, see the report at http://www.khabar.com/magazine/around-town/padma-vibhushan-singer-dr-k-j-yesudas-helps-raise-over-150000-for-sankara-nethralaya


In September, Yesudas flew to Atlanta to help raise funds for the Sankara Nethralaya (Eye) Foundation. Needless to say, the concert was sold out at Lassiter High School’s concert hall. It was a nonstop performance for almost three hours. Right after, audience members broke all protocol and stormed the stage and later the entrance to the green room, either to get a glimpse of Yesudas, force a selfie with him, or to seek his blessings as a seer. At the epicenter of this maelstrom was the man himself, simply clad in his trademark dhoti, the epitome of serene assurance and happy to engage in an unhurried interview.

You were ordained to praise the name of the Lord, as your name suggests. I find that very intriguing. Please correct me if I am wrong​: “Yesudas” is a disciple of “Yesu” (Jesus), correct?
Das” is servant, “Yesu” means Jesus. This is a very rare name that my father bestowed on me. Actually, many great people, great saints have taken birth to fulfill God’s purpose. But if anybody thinks that my father taught me only to respect Christianity, that’s wrong. One may be born a Christian, but Christianity doesn’t state that it is the only true religion.

You have lived up to that name. They say that parents give names with a purpose and you have been such a spiritual figure…
Actually, Christ himself prayed “Father, forgive them.” Who is that Father? That is God. The Bhagwadgita, Quran, Torah or any sacred scripture, they are there only for good purposes. We have to understand this and start loving each other. Gandhi ji is the best model for this. [Sadly] we have forgotten that he is the simplest bhakta we have known.

I learned that you sang for the Guruvayoor Temple but were never allowed to enter it, despite them playing your kirtanas regularly…
Somebody interviewing me was asking the same thing. So I said, look, I will ask you one question, which will give you the answer you are seeking. Suppose I do not convert to Islam, but I say that I respect the religion and wish to go to Mecca. Will I be allowed? They will not let me go! So how can we say that they are wrong?

Actually, anyone wanting to enter God’s premises should be allowed. Not only me, but everybody. But some people are reluctant and want to control access. It’s not good. God created the sun for everybody, not only for particular people … and the rain and the breeze. Everything He created is for all creatures, not just for human beings. So how can one deny that?

I have also been accused of showing lesser devotion whilst singing Krishna kirtanas as compared to my gospel singing! I argued that there is “Kri” in Krishna and “Chri” in Christ, the same phonetic. I do not suggest one or the other is more powerful! I offer my fullest bhakti to both the letters and deeply connect with the other letters. There is no discrimination.

I’ve read there are very few languages that you have not sung in. So how were you able to sing in Latin?
Sanskrit is actually the root language. Almost all other languages are derived from it. The basic laws of language construction come from Sanskrit.

I think our national language should be Sanskrit. Not that I’m against Hindi, it’s very good, of course. The tiger is our national animal and the peacock our national bird. That doesn’t mean we ignore the others. The choice of national language should be in the same spirit. Then people won’t rise against each other. When you compel them to accept Hindi, then problems arise. Sanskrit basically reunites us with a lot of things … our Vedas, our [traditional] medical science, and ancient knowledge systems that our children won’t learn and understand. We stand to lose much.


 Yesudas recently performed in Atlanta for a fund raiser for Sankara Nethralaya (Eye) Foundation. (Photo: Venkat Kuttua)

Talking about losing values, it is difficult to instill rigor in today’s kids when it comes to teaching music, literature and so on. Considering you dedicated three years just to perfect one raga, do you think our next generation will have that kind of commitment to carry forward the torch of classical music? Where is the music of today headed?
People have to realize that. I started studying Carnatic music at the age of five and till now I am a student, I am not a vidhwan (​scholar). I always convey to the public that God didn’t permit me to become a vidhwan, but I am still a vidyarthi (student). I am worried that I am becoming old and have very little time. I have yet to learn so many things.

Children should concentrate on what they have an aptitude for and go about learning correctly. They should invest in dhyaan (concentration) as it is most important for gyaan (knowledge). Practice, practice, and learn properly. These days, anything we try to do is through a shortcut. People think that they can become the best in their field within no time. They worry about why their progress is so slow. That is my basic carry over. Even today, I practice with the same rigor that I did when I was a student.

Of your three sons, only the middle one is engaged in music…
Yes, all [of them] are not connected with music, only one is. And exactly like my father, who also selected me from my other brothers (we are five brothers and one sister and everybody can sing), and saw that I concentrated only on music. The others studied and got jobs. The aptitude is what you have to understand, of the child. Education should be directed toward the aptitude, then definitely success will come your way. For example, if you want to create great political leaders, like our [Abdul] Kalam ji, you have to be selective and also lay the foundation for an education system that will be a breeding ground for such leaders.

You have performed for so many composers from Ilaiyaraja to you name it… You mentioned Ravindra Jain, and many others with reference to their acoustic yesteryear’s sound and its charm.
They used to follow a science in those days, a dharma or rules for sound engineers. They never kept the tabla or rhythms very high … just loud enough to support [the singer]. They would record in Dolby and the sound level would be in perfect sync with the rules. Nowadays there’s a lot of cover up and distraction in music and you can’t even hear the vocals, the language, or the lyrics. In those days one could write the songs, merely from the artiste’s singing. It was amazing.

If you were to give advice to our young artistes…
Sadhana (rigorous training and application) is most important. If you realize that you were made for a particular art, you have to nurture your inborn gift. Then definitely you will reach a position of authority or mastery over it; otherwise you will be zero. You should not imitate—what you are, that you have to realize. Only then will you succeed.



(Left) Viren Mayani interviewing Yesudas. (Photo: ​Mahesh Krishnan)

You have sung in practically every language and for every divinity that exists, from Krishna to Sai to Durga to Yesu…
I don’t think of anything else. This is my dhyaan, this is my life. My wife knows it. I only know and understand that I was born for this. If you ask me about anything else, I can’t do it. God has given me that blessing.

But everybody is uniquely blessed, that’s what we have to realize. We keep thinking about others and what they are doing. No. What is important is what you are doing. That’s the sure path to success and growth.

Viren Mayani is a senior contributor at Khabar, with emphasis on music and interviews of notable folks in music, arts, politics, and more.

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