Ashanti Omkar catches up with the prolific film composer AR Rahman about his recent projects, the all-female Firdaus Orchestra and a new platform giving a boost to independent South Asian artists
AR Rahman (photography: Ashik Mohammed)
Three decades of composing music for Indian cinema, two Grammys, two Oscars, a BAFTA and an honorary fellow of the Trinity College of Music: AR Rahman has become a household name. But Rahman’s larger legacy in music goes far beyond his compositions. Mentoring an all-woman orchestra called Firdaus (meaning ‘Paradise’ in Arabic) in Dubai has taken up a huge chunk of his time recently, and he’s also joined hands with British Tamil rapper MIA and Canadian start-up Maajja to uplift independent musicians in an ever-changing music business landscape.
Rahman’s main project, the Firdaus Orchestra, began their concert journey with a bang. Their inaugural concert, in October 2021 at the postponed Dubai Expo 2020, saw them share the bill with Andrea Bocelli, Ellie Goulding, Hussain Al Jassmi and Lang Lang. The live event was also streamed via YouTube globally. Playing a mix of Rahman’s own music with well-known Western classical pieces, women from 23 nationalities, aged 15 to 55, took to the stage. “The aspiration is to become one of the most cutting edge orchestras,” Rahman enthuses. “We have our own state-of-the-art studio, which allows the orchestra to work digitally, plug into film studios, and collaborate with musicians globally.”
Women from this UAE region have often been misconstrued in popular culture, so the visual of an all-female orchestra, with a woman conductor, Yasmina Sabba, is a rare sight. Rahman explains how the project took shape: “It was the highly-acclaimed film director of Elizabeth, Shekhar Kapur, with whom I worked on Bombay Dreams, who introduced me to Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimi [the UAE’s minister of state for international cooperation] and the first thing she asked was whether we could form an all-female orchestra. I called one of my associates from Berklee College of Music, Mayssa Karaa, as artistic director and we started finding talent from Syria, Lebanon, Oman, Iraq, Croatia, India, Armenia… It was a rigorous process to find musicians who could switch genres. Dubai is leading the way for many nations in a positive way, in terms of how they approach art, thus rewriting the history of the region in recent times.”
High levels of perfection and unison were showcased in these performances at the Dubai Expo; the opening ceremony concert was spectacular, with laser lights and the orchestra dressed to match. Performing on Arabic and Indian instruments such as oud, ney, qanun and sitar, they blended the Western classical style with the improvisation common in Indian forms. Rahman joined them on stage with an original fusion composition, one of many he’s composing for them, adding ambient soundscapes to the texture. A Hindustani classical ensemble and Western classical soprano singers served up a complex tarana (a style of composition invented by Amir Khusrau featuring Persian and Arabic phonemes) with the orchestra as the show’s grand finale.
“There are so many narratives about women in the Middle East, and Firdaus helps break the shackles and all the doubts about playing music on stage. The orchestra itself is very progressive, and are an example of tolerance and acceptance as they all come from different cultures, and they’re playing together towards a higher ideal. We’re just scratching the surface of possibility right now.” And those prospects are endless, as this has been set up as a legacy project of the Dubai Expo, with recordings, tours and collaborations, once the pandemic settles.
Women fighting for their rights to express themselves is a topic close to Rahman’s heart. His daughter, Khatija, a 25-year-old singer who runs his charitable foundation, has been at the forefront of social media battles for her Islamic dress code. She performed ‘Farishton’, a Sufi song in ‘Raga Pahadi’, with Firdaus for the Children’s Day event at the Expo. “Khatija faced a lot of backlash for her personal choice of wearing the burqa, and she’s handled it all. I’m proud of her. My parents created a lot for my sisters and I, in music, and I want this to continue through my three children.” His son, AR Ameen, has sung some viral hit pop songs, while daughter Raheema is an aspiring poet and an electronic beatmaker.
His support of independent music and musicians stretches beyond his family. Over the years he has worked tirelessly to broaden his output and he encourages other musicians to do the same. “In India, it is film music that mostly gets promoted, and its fate is in very few hands when it comes to commissioning and payments. Many musicians give away their copyright. But the independent scene is growing, and getting that into people’s listening devices is important. Beauty is created by beautiful minds who may not be popular. Getting them to shine, and giving their philosophy and tunes a spotlight, is something I’m keen to champion.”
To this end he’s recently joined forces with MIA and music aficionados Noel Kirthiraj, Sen Sachi and Prasana Balachandran who run the independent label Maajja in Canada. The new initiative is a platform for South Asian independent artists, offering support to counteract the inequalities of the industry. They also launched YAALL Fest, an online music event with performances and talks, which will eventually yield live events. It was MIA who suggested the name, based on words from her Tamil background: Y stands for yatra (journey), A for adhi (beginning), A for agam (inside), L for lokam (world) and L for latchiyam (ambition).
“Maajja is trying to push these boundaries that the industry has, and to celebrate the culture. The stories have to change, and we have to inspire each other. I love the idea, and look forward to seeing it come to life,” he says.
Several South Asian and diaspora independent artists are already involved. Big names, such as Indian film composer Santhosh Narayanan along with Rahman and MIA, are mentoring newcomers via the project, while Maajja is working directly with both established acts – such as Arivu, who has a folk music background but is a formidable rapper and songwriter, Australian Tamil singer Dhee, Canadian Tamil rapper and singer Navz-47, rapper Shan Vincent de Paul and Canadian Tamil LGBTQ+ hip-hop duo Cartel Madras – as well as newer artists, including Shilpa Ananth and MS Krsna. The platform allows artists to explore their cultural heritage in music, without the interference that regular labels impose on their musicians. The sounds that emanate from the project are a mix of mainstream, South Asian classical instruments, lyrics from ancient languages and complex rhythmic structures which come from Karnatic and Hindustani music.
In a full circle from his musical Bombay Dreams with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Shekhar Kapur two decades ago, where underrepresented South Asian culture was given a strong spotlight, he’s back with Why? The Musical, launched at the Dubai Expo. His mission is to bring Indian culture to the fore, and create spaces for talent to shine. “I’ve got two Oscars at home, but I want my brothers and sisters in India and the diaspora to also get this kind of international acclaim. I’ve been going to music and film festivals, and seeing how we can educate the world about Indian culture. This in turn will get rid of any misunderstanding and hatred, especially as we see people’s dislikes and likes online, starkly, in today’s world. Art can change this, and our culture can gain respect.”
This interview originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Songlines magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today