The rags to riches story of AR Rahman that no one talks about

21st Mar 2017
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To be a champion, I think you have to see the big picture. It's not about winning and losing; it's about every day hard work and about thriving on a challenge. It's about embracing the pain that you'll experience at the end of a race and not being afraid. I think people think too hard and get afraid of a certain challenge.
~ Summer Sanders

Gathering the motivation to work hard is not at all an easy thing. Most of us give up, while only a few take the leap and progress forward. It is no wonder that this set of people go ahead and do the unimaginable, accomplishing what may have earlier been thought impossible. The master of melody, Oscar-winning legendary musician AR Rahman's tale is one in a billion, and that coupled with his great humility is a marvellous source of inspiration to tons of fans and upcoming musicians in the world. This man, who has made India proud with his countless achievements, gathered his motivation from his family's financial conditions after his father had passed away.

Image Source: MTV India

Rahman was born to the then popular musician of the Malayalam film industry, RK Shekar. RK Shekar was a big name in the Malayalam film industry during the '60s and '70s. He was married to Kasthuri, and the marriage took place in the popular religious shrine, Tirupati, of Andhra Pradesh. They had four children, and AS Dileep Kumar, who used to accompany his father to work every day, started learning to play the keyboard at the age of four. Originally named AS Dileep Kumar, Rahman went on to develop a knack for music and playing the keyboard.

Living in a joint family, Rahman and his siblings were pampered by his grandparents. His father was quite a workaholic and used to go to multiple places for work every day. It was when Rahman was nine years old that his father passed away, and the family was forced to survive on the renting of his father's music equipment.

In an interview with Times of India, he once said,

I lost my father when I was nine. My only distinct memories of him are confined to an ailing patient in hospital. It was a mysterious disease that doctors failed to diagnose. In between, my mother sought refuge in spiritual healers. Unfortunately, he was not destined to live long.

The family was devastated, and young Rahman took upon his shoulders the responsibility of supporting his family, both financially and mentally. Starting off as a small-time keyboard player, he was a part of a band 'Roots' along with the famous percussionist Sivamani and his friends John Anthony, Suresh Peters, Raja, and JoJo. Their flair in music was greatly influenced by jazz legends like Chick Correa and the classical music of India. This talented bunch also formed a rock group, naming it 'Nemesis'. Rahman went on to master the keyboard, the synthesiser, the harmonium, and the guitar. However, he was specifically into the synthesiser, for he had started learning it when he was a child, an instrument that his father bought for him.

John Anthony, in a chat with Times of India, said,

The world needs to listen to what Rahman composed for Roots. It was so fresh and international even for those days. It's unfortunate that the world only knows Rahman as a composer, not a performer.

He started his training under Master Dhanraj when he was 11, and also worked in the group of Malayalam composer MK Arjunan, who was a close friend of his father's. Rahman had the chance to go to international concerts and tours with legendary artists like Zakir Hussain, Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, and L Shankar. Despite dropping out of school at a young age, Rahman managed to get into the prestigious Trinity College, London, a part of Oxford University, on a scholarship, and acquired a degree in Western classical music.

In 1988, Rahman's sister fell ill, and soon after her recovery, his family converted to Islam. That was when he switched his name to Allah Rakha Rahman from AS Dileep Kumar. His mainstream professional career made its inception through making jingles for different advertisements. His first gig was with Allwyn watches in 1987, which got him a decent name in the music fraternity. Soon enough, he opened a studio in his own backyard, naming it Panchathan Record Inn. Right now, it is one of the most sophisticated studios in the country. One could say that concentrating on jingles is one of the reasons why he grew as a musician and composer at such an exponential rate. Composing and writing jingles requires a lot of discipline and concentration, through which the exactly appropriate tunes are made, on par with the requirement of the directors and producers. Until this day, Rahman is one of the most humble and disciplined of musicians, which is quite evident in the music that he magically weaves.

Having already worked for plenty of ad commercials by then, in 1991, Rahman was receiving an award for his score in a coffee advertisement. At the award function, he happened to meet the famous Mani Ratnam, the ace film director of South India. Listening to a few jingles that Rahman had made, Mani Ratnam immediately convinced him to work with him for his upcoming film Roja (1992). The film went on to be a massive success, and Rahman's music in it was an absolute show-stopper.

After that, Rahman didn't look back. He worked with top artists in the country, attracting almost every known director. Winning a national award for best music direction with his debut movie Roja itself, he had completely outdone himself with his remarkable skills and exceptional artistic flair. Awards and nominations quickly followed with almost every movie he worked on. Having composed music and sang a lot of songs himself, Rahman is undeniably the top musician in the country.

It didn't take him long to reach out to the international audience. His soundtrack from the Rajnikanth-starrer Muthu was the 'Most popular foreign soundtrack' in Japan. In the meantime, he revamped his studio, Panchathan Record Inn, naming it AM Studios, Kodambakkam, Chennai, which is the most advanced studio in all of Asia.

It was the year 2008 that took Rahman to unimaginable heights when he won an Oscar for his music in Danny Boyle's film Slumdog Millionaire. His fame skyrocketed after this movie, all across the globe, and what still amazes the world is his consistency in making the magical melodies that fetched him billions of fans around the world.

He won billions of hearts when he talked about his mother at the Academy Awards ceremony. Here is the video:

Apart from being a winner at the BAFTAs, Grammys, Golden Globes, Oscars, and plenty of national and Filmfare awards ceremonies, AR Rahman is also a recipient of the prestigious Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shri. He still works with various Hollywood film directors and is the top choice for a majority of film-makers in India.

In a chat with IB Times, this is what he had to say about all the awards and accolades he frequently wins:

I think at every stage, all those things are important. But I think the love and blessings from the fans, that's most important, and that's what keeps you going until now. For an artist, inspiration and encouragement is very, very important. And what happens when you feel the love from the fans, is that you want to do more. You want to make it better and draw on all that you've learnt and go much further.

He is now married to Saira Bhanu, and the couple has three children, Rahima, Ameena, and Khatija. His fan base now cuts across continents and boundaries. His story of how he became an international music icon with selfless hard work, passion, and grit is more than inspirational.

This humble man has already made the country proud with everything he has done so far, and the current generation should be blessed to have lived in this magical maestro's era.

This is what he said about what he learnt from his musical journey:

The greatest lesson? To be self-refining. To be refining constantly, and that would take a lifetime I guess.

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