Exclusive: AR Rahman on his new venture Maajja, the next generation of artistes and his love for K-pop
"I'VE ALWAYS BELIEVED in the power of indie music,” AR Rahman states. After almost three decades in the industry, the Grammy Award and two-time Oscar winning composer is consolidating his experience and wisdom, and sharing it with the next generation of upcoming artistes to empower them. Maajja, his brainchild, is a one-of a-kind platform for South Asian musical talent and aims to give them a chance to take their music to a global audience, but without compromising on creative control, commercialisation or losing their identity.
“So many musicians begin their journey but unfortunately, not everyone is heard. In this digital age, there should no longer be barriers. Maajja will function with the singular focus of being artiste-centric, and will serve to elevate the world-class talent we have onto the global stage,” says the producer who is revered worldover for the soundtracks of movies such as Roja (1992), Kadhalan (1994), Bombay (1995), Dil Se.. (1998) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Touted to be the next digital revolution in music, the platform has a vision that the industry does not have to be skewed in favour of the labels or the movie producers. One of the platform’s plans for this year is the YAALL music festival that will amplify local talent. Some of the names associated with this festival are MIA, Shan Vincent de Paul and Arivu. We speak to the luminary about Maajja, how he spent the lockdown and how things have changed for the better for artistes today. Excerpts from the interview:
What is your vision with Maajja?
With Maajja, we have tried to crack a sustainable model for artistes. We want to create an alternative ecosystem, another creative universe which can fill the void we currently have. This will also create jobs, fuel tourism and spread loads of happiness. The fruits of all this would be more art centres, more performance halls and more alternate entertainment.
Are young and indie artistes exploited by the industry today?
In the modern world, everybody is smart. There are so many different sources to warn you. Pursuing art and music as a profession takes courage. Most people today are smart, knowledgeable and well-informed. Today we are armed with the tool of social media where things are exposed much easier than back in the day when they could have been brushed under the carpet. There’s no option but to be fair and just; nobody can afford to hide anything.
How important is it to find the right producer or label?
When the right energies attract, magic happens. If the right voice works with the right producer and the right label or the right set of friends even, they can create magic. When you have the right team, greatness can be achieved together, and you shine better, I feel.
How have you balanced commercial demands and your creative freedom?
I think I have taken a middle path of being artistic and also serving commercial needs. So when the opportunity comes, we try and do things that we like — pure expression — which doesn’t have any parameters.
But do you think music is more democratised now than before?
I keep saying that things have changed for the better for artistes. With most of the artistes that I discover, if they came to my studio and we worked on a song, their voice would shine. Without any fuss, we record and there’s no pressure like before. In the ’80s, they had to sing in front of the orchestra, they had to be perfectly in tune, the words had to be clear, the voice had to be great and they had very limited time because recording live was an expensive affair. So that pressure is gone now!
On what basis will you choose the artistes who will be working with the platform?
There’s no singular definition of an artiste. When you hear them or see them you know that this person has a personality or character in their art that grabs you. When it comes to expression, no one can stop real artistes; there are no filters. I feel some people who have not studied music at all sometimes make an impact, while other times, people who have studied music do that. This is the power of human nature, where if they are persistent and gifted, they shine. So we are all open to things. Some-times they take a language and bring a forgotten tradition back; sometimes they play something completely new with their influences.
What do you admire about the next generation?
Lately, I have been listening to a new breed of Indian indie artistes. It is interesting to see them evolving with confidence. There’s a lot of authenticity and originality in our younger artistes — a sense of ‘this is me; I am not trying to be someone else’ — and that is really cool.
Do you believe music can be taught? Or is it something that you are born with?
There’s an old saying that one can only take the horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink. And I have experienced that a lot. Sometimes I have taken people near the water again and again, but the horse runs away! On the other hand, people come in with so much passion that they transform themselves within a couple of years by refining their artistry. I feel that passion and an unending quest for exploring the art is most important. So if a person is ‘switched on’ — they can do wonders!
Was the lockdown a creatively challenging period of your life? Or was it productive?
My studio in Chennai is next to my home, so I have been working from my home since the ’80s — that’s the only way I have been able to balance my professional and personal life… because ideas come at odd hours. During the pandemic, it was very difficult to see people suffering and as part of the AR Rahman Foundation, we helped as much as we could. Creatively, it was almost the same. We worked on a lot of projects and collaborated with artistes from across the world, thanks to the Internet. I feel that the most powerful response to the pandemic was creative collaboration. That was the essence of all our projects last year — from the tech/fundraising initiative Hands Around The World, to the mentorship programme BAFTA Breakthrough India and our new creativity series, Futureproof.
You and Mani Ratnam are an iconic pairing. Can we expect you to work together again sometime soon?
It’s a gift to be working with somebody who you understand and who is also sympathetic to music and your working style. We hope we do that more and more because it is always a pleasure working with Mani sir. I have been lucky that there is a trust element. Whether it is the people who have been listening to my music or the directors I work with, they have trust in me that something good will come, even if it doesn’t sound good in the primary stages. And that is the trust that pushed me to work harder. And it is making me push even harder now. Or maybe it is just an imaginary thing — that people are expecting me to do this. Perhaps I am expecting it from myself. So that keeps me going.
Would you say you are influenced by newer genres, such as K-pop, in your own style? And do you keep abreast of new trends?
I am a big fan of South Korean TV and I have been tuned into the pop culture trends from the country for over a decade. It’s amazing to see how K-pop artistes have been consistently releasing high-quality songs; they have a unique identity, which is also curated very well. Take the case of BTS, the belief and craze that their fans have for them is very rare. Their art inspires positivity. It is an evolved version of pop music, and they do it with class.
Looking back at your illustrious career, which body of work stands out?
I think for any creative person, it’s the process and journey of creating that is exciting. Because if I like something, it puts an end to my quest. I am still searching and I will keep going hopefully till my physical being allows. Because there is an ocean of great ideas out there, but do we have the energy to envision and execute it – that is the real question. When I look back on my journey, I see that every soundtrack has been given equal importance. According to my conscience, I have tried to put equal energies in everything, whether it is a movie soundtrack, an ad, a documentary or a charity project. It’s the same energy. All of it is my work and I am proud of it.