Coming into her own: Khatija Rahman on music and the art of giving

As the Trustee and Director of Outreach Programmes & Global Initiatives at the AR Rahman Foundation, Khatija Rahman is associated with various social impact projects. She’s also a well-known musician and recently collaborated with rapper Arivu on Sagavaasi.

Coming into her own: Khatija Rahman on music and the art of giving

Wednesday February 22, 2023,

6 min Read

For Khatija Rahman, charity has always begun at home. As the trustee, director of Outreach Programmes & Global Initiatives at the AR Rahman Foundation, she remembers her grandmother keeping a pot of water outside their home for people to quench their thirst.

“She would never let anyone leave without drinking at least a glass of water. Everyone in my family is like that, including my father and mother. These small acts of kindness inspired me,” Khatija Rahman tells HerStory.

An acclaimed musician in her own right, Khatija Rahman is closely associated with the day-to-day running of the AR Rahman Foundation. As a school student, she volunteered with the Little Flower School for the Blind and later with Adyar Cancer Research Institute and as a Youth Red Cross Volunteer. Both, she says, were learning experiences that have held in good stead.

Social change and impact

Khatija Rahman

Khatija Rahman

Khatija Rahman’s passion for social change extends to different areas.

She explains, “I am passionate about working with youth. We have the Sunshine Orchestra that started in 2008 with a few students and now has expanded to Nagaland.”

A marquee project of the AR Rahman Foundation, The Sunshine Orchestra enrols economically underserved children with an aptitude in music. They are provided free musical training, and once they are trained with the right skills and are confident enough, they are groomed to explore opportunities and build careers in music, as teachers or performers. Since its inception, the Orchestra has adopted over 100 students.

Khatija Rahman also speaks of The Brass Ensemble that was started in 2016 under Lisa Sarasini, a trombonist. Traditionally, brass playing has been a male-dominated profession because it’s also physically tough. She is proud that girl brass players in The Sunshine Orchestra are breaking stereotypes and building a new narrative.

The foundation started its first outreach programme in 2018 at General Cariappa School, a government-aided school in Chennai.

“Our senior students visit the school and teach music to the students. We have hired them as student faculty, and in a way are supporting them to earn an income and learn leadership skills. Music can help them in their mental well-being and be focused,” she adds.

The AR Rahman Foundation has also initiated the Karunamirthasagaram project, based on the book of the same name, a treatise on Tamil music, written by Abraham Pandithar.

“With this project, we are working on archiving a lot of information, including information on ragas, ancient instruments, and other aspects related to Tamil music,” she elaborates.

The project explores the evolution of Tamil music over 3,000 years, from its classical ancestry, folk to new-age music.

ARRF also supports musicians’ families in times of emergencies. “We are happy to support people around us, in whatever way we can. People know we are there for them,” she says.

Her modesty is what sets her apart. “Everything is run by the team. I am just there to support them in terms of decision-making or problem-solving. I also support them in social media, marketing, and website management.”

Khatija Rahman’s philosophy on giving is quite simple.

“You start from being nice to people in your own home, your friends. If your friend is running a small business, support that. I would start with my own fellow artists, by supporting their work. That’s also giving back. Be nice. At the end of the day, when I am gone, people should say, ‘she was never a nuisance’”.

She’s currently happy with the pace at which projects at the Foundation are moving along. “Only for the Tamil music research project, we need to take in more volunteers to scale it,” she says.

Life and music

Khatija Rahman

For Khatija Rahman, philanthropy and her life as a musician go hand-in-hand. She made her debut at the age of 14 under her father’s music direction in Enthiran with SP Balasubrahmanyam.

She says, “I had my cycle test the next day and refused to go at first. My mum told me, ‘you better go and sing’. I skipped the test and went and sang Puthiya Manidha for Enthiran. It all happened quickly. I even sang the song in three different languages.”

She took an eight-year break focusing on studies and volunteering before she returned to music, once again.

Khatija Rahman has collaborated with Irish rock band 'U2' on 'Ahimsa' and with Grammy award winning musician Rickey Kej on 'Ilteja'. Her music single, Farishton, has won her worldwide recognition as well.

Her recent collaboration with rapper Arivu for Coke Studio Tamil’s Sagavaasi has already clocked more than 15 million hits on YouTube.  

“It was a different experience–Arivu communicates very powerful messages through his art, and I’m glad to sing the lyrics he has written. Like the song, everything coexists and that’s need of the art.”

Was it also important to her that these successes showcased that she could make it on her own?

Khatija Rahman admits she suffers from “imposter syndrome” and constantly questions whether she’s good enough.

“I was in a different space and was thinking how do I expand to singing outside. And then, I got this call. This has helped me with my confidence and I am going to put out more of my work. I’ll just learn to trust myself and in God’s plan,” she says.

When it comes to both philanthropy and music, how has her father inspired her?

“There are certain things that he does, he won’t even tell us. The fact that he has not forgotten the old senior musicians is a huge learning. Also, how he credits everybody. These are huge things to learn from, and I’m glad I have somebody in my family to look up to instead of learning from examples outside of it,” she says.

For Khatija Rahman, life in the present is about going with the flow--both music and philanthropy will go together.  

As for criticism and trolling for her personal choices, she trusts “a safe tribe” who’s always rooting for her.

“I do get disheartened by heartless, vicious comments, but I have to accept them and move on. I tell myself that they are all probably just jobless or have too much time on their hands,” she says.

Edited by Megha Reddy