September 19, 2016 - 3:37pm
A day after Eid, India's most globally recognized name in the field of music today was being awarded an international honour for the preservation and creation of Asian culture - the Grand Prize of the Fukuoka Prize, awarded annually by the Japanese city of Fukuoka.
At a point of time where the ISIS and Trump grab headlines alternately, the soft-spoken, reticent man who embraced Islam in his youth and has spent 25-odd years working silently and skillfully spoke of the challenges of embracing modernity while retaining one's culture, and of how the world is being torn apart today. Delhi Times attempted to engage him thereafter, prodding him to elaborate, and asking if voices such as his should be staying quiet in today's times.
Excerpts from a conversation where, just like in an engaging soundtrack, AR Rahmanfrequently stops and leaves silences for you to absorb the tune he's playing:
You've made a few points in your speeches and statements at Fukuoka, and coincidentally they're in the week after Eid. You spoke to students and made a point that it's difficult to retain your culture while embracing modernity today. Later, you began to make a point, a half-sentence - 'the world is being torn today' - and left it there. But while saner voices such as you often leave it there, halfway, are the softer, nuanced voices in art and culture in Islam being drowned out by the shriller, more radical voices? In your case, of course, the question is literal as well as metaphorical.
(Quiet for a while) Every decade has a phase. Every 30 years... every religion or race gets confronted by situations because a few elements are creating chaotic stuff. Right after Indira Gandhi's assasination, you remember, the Sikhs... (quiet). This is probably a recurring 20-year thing which is happening. I feel that the more it happens, the more good things should be done. When bad things happen, a lot of good things should be done, to outnumber the damage caused.
I just did a movie called The Viceroy's House. It's Gurinder Chadha's movie and talks about the Partition - why the Partition was done, even before it actually happened. It was all planned. And it reveals very classified information, that makes you question if a million people were killed for no reason.
But politics is not the artist's zone. The duty of an artist is always to take people to another space, and music has the capacity to do that without drugs and vices. And that's what we love about poets and musicians, and even movie stars and movies, and I'm a part of that. The more negative things happen, the more I want to just go into the zone and make people experience my world.
The dichotomy between the Aurangzeb model, in which music is haraam, and the Sufi model in which music is the enabler to take you to the Supreme - how does somebody in your domain handle the reconciliation?
I don't know. It's more about convenience sometimes, you know... (silence) I don't want to get into religious aspects and doctrines and all that stuff, but I'll narrate a recent example. I recently went to Medina for a pilgrimage because my mother was ill. I had a mannat and I wanted to go. I have a friend (there) who invited me to his home. His mother's from Medina, and his brother is an Imam. At his home, after we had food, the brother asked him, so what does your friend do? And he said, he's into music. The Imam instantly had a smile on his face, and said, oh, music is, in a way, the language to reach God. And he is from Medina, he's an Imam in Medina. I was stunned, I was expecting him to frown, to change his expression or... (but) nothing like that happened. So when people look at things like that in black and white, they are perhaps just being safe in analysing something that is very complex. It is very complex, but it is also very beautiful.
I come from a traditional music family - my father was a composer, so I'm following my family tradition. And the beauty of Sufism is, in a way, strangely connected to music. So for me (the connection between these two) was very fine (laughs).
Was Sufism your introduction to Islam?
Yeah. Even now, I just cling on to only that. Cling on to that because not everybody gets that. It doesn't compromise on the basic values of humanity, and it doesn't move away from the main doctrine in any way. But it's probably a Level 2 of understanding, or Level 3 of understanding. Because everybody is on surface level... (silence) and the ultimate quest for anyone is to find the next level of knowledge, which is lost, unfortunately.
It's almost a cliche now for SRK to keep saying that I just have to go to the US for immigration to beat the stardom out of me, because the moment you have a surname... When you go to perform in the UK, do you ever have that sort of a vibe from fans or from the system?
No, never. Never. And in my heart, I want to serve humanity. And there were no questions of agenda or anything in my mind. All the people who work with me are from many different religions. Some people drink, some are vegetarians, some are Brahmins, some are Christians; so it has been that kind of a vibe for the past 20-25 years, and I love that! You should never force yourself on other people. Or you should never let other people force themselves on you. I deal with Americans and the British, and I don't make them uncomfortable, I think, and they don't make me either. It's the way you handle life. I've seen many people who drink, and then, I've seen people who've stunned me, like European composers who say, 'Oh I don't drink', 'I'm vegetarian'. You don't expect that from, you know, a European composer... so it's not a question of my beliefs, your beliefs, and all that, unless you make people feel that way.
For you, your faith is a matter of choice. Like for Adnan Sami, his nationality is a matter of choice, not birth - it's an informed choice rather than something you were born into. In that sense, you're better placed to have a viewpoint in times of conflict, aren't you?
For me, I think the teachings, or whatever we learn, should be reflected in your character, in your work, in your soul. Not just by the looks or what I speak or anything. I keep telling my children the same thing. The goodness of what you learn should come from your deeds, not from, you dressing a certain way, or looking a certain way. That doesn't matter.
Shouldn't people like you necessarily be more vocal? Don the people who can explain the softer, more nuanced side of issues speak less frequently, and the shrill voices speak more frequently, as default?
The problem is, the moment you get into the frontline, of doing all this, you lose what you're supposed to do, your music. I don't have enough time for music alone, and I'm also writing a script. And it's not my job, I don't have to deal with politics and hatred and all that stuff. My job is to entertain and play beautiful music, and my spirituality comes into music, my spirituality comes in my words, whatever I say, and the way I behave with my colleagues. That's it. And that is important. The most important thing is to keep doing good things. Because there are many good things which everybody can do, whether you take Muslims or anyone else, and they are doing it. Some people are doing it silently, I've seen many people like that. I've met the Nawab of Arcot, his son was telling me that their family has given out land to thousands of temples and churches. Nobody knows about it. They quietly do things. So, some of the prejudice is from half-baked knowledge, I would say. And I would say the media can also help a lot in countering the bad with the good. Not just polarizing... (silence) everything should be known to people and let people make their own judgment, instead of we telling them what to believe.
Over the past few years, is our cinema industry getting slightly divided around political or ideological lines? Some cinema people are very vocal and consistent in representing political views.
It's, I think, emotional outpour rather than politics... because everybody has to see everyone, somewhere we all have to see everyone (if we are working together in this industry). And if we are in that (edgy) mode, I don't think we can work. And that's the truth. Because somewhere, everybody is connected.