‘Mozart of Madras’ to play The Straz

With his concerts at The Straz nearly sold out, renowned composer A.R. Rahman, two-time Oscar® winner for soundtrack and original song from Slumdog Millionaire (2008) is still an unknown to many, though many recognize his music when they hear it.

So, in the spirit of putting everyone on the same musical page, we’ll provide some background and interesting tidbits about the man known as the “Mozart of Madras.”

Rahman was born in Madras, Tamil Nadu in southern India to Kareema and R.K. Shekhar, the latter being a film-score composer. Under his father’s tutelage, he began studying the piano at age 4 continuing his musical education through college, notably at Trinity College in London. Seemingly staying in the family business, he launched his career composing jingles for more than 300 commercials and documentary scores. He also founded Panchathan Record Inn that would become the most advanced recording studio in India.

In 1992, he composed his first score for a feature film, Roja, winning his first National Film Award as best musical director. He’s never looked back, writing music for more than 100 films, including the politically charged Bombay and S. Shankar’s film Gentleman that includes “Chikku Bukku Raylie,” a popular song and dance sequence. Add to that list other popular Bollywood titles, Lagaan, Kadhalan, Indian, Jeans, Mudhalvan, Sivaji and Enthiran, with the films’ popular recordings selling more than 100 million copies.

He is currently No. 6 on the Top 10 list of the most prolific movie composers of all time.

His music combines elements of Western and Hindustani classical music, Carnatic music and Qawwali style, but it is always evolving. He is forever mixing genres and layering instruments to create something new. His great innovation was to introduce orchestral melodies to Bollywood films that initially were best known for dramatic, slashing violins.

In 2002, at the suggestion of British musical legend Andrew Lloyd Webber, he wrote the score for Bombay Dreams, a colorful satire of Bollywood films, which opened in London and eventually moved to Broadway.

Rahman has collaborated with film directors, poets and lyricists on multiple projects in multiple languages while also launching his own KM Music. Over the years, he also scored several Hollywood films such as Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Couples Retreat, 127 Hours, and Million Dollar Arm and The Hundred Foot Journey the latter garnering an Oscar nomination.

Most recently, he composed “Welcome to Chennai,” a welcome anthem for the 44th Chess Olympiad that is being staged in India now through Aug. 10 to determine the title of “strongest chess nation in the world.”

Beyond the Oscars, Golden Globes® and Grammys® he’s won for his work, he’s also received multiple honors related to his humanitarian and philanthropic work. He has been included on TIME‘s list of the world’s 100 most influential people; Stanford University honored him for his contributions to global music and the Indian government awarded him the Padma Bhushan, the nation’s third-highest civilian award.

While still writing music, he also tours the world performing his music, where audience reviews say he “casts a spell” playing multiple instruments. He appears at The Straz Aug. 4-6. Go to strazcenter.org for tickets.

A.R. Rahman tidbits

  • He hates being called “Mozart of Madras.” Why? Because “Mozart is Mozart, and I am who I am,” he told author Krishna Trilok in her book Notes of a Dream, his authorized biography.
  • Scoring films was never a career goal. Rahman played in several bands in his youth, and he was hopeful one of them would lead to cutting albums, leading to eventual pop music success. The scoring of Roja changed his trajectory.
  • He’s holds himself to a higher standard. Rahman hungers for perfection and puts in the hours to make that happen. According to his biography, he pores over a soundtrack countless times, sometimes just days before a films’ release, to ensure “every note fits.”
  • He takes plagiarism as flattery, using others’ copying of his work as a way to propel his new work. His mantra in music making is “one must move forward to make new tunes, progression, rhythm … never look back on the negative things.”
  • He finds it flattering, if not amusing, that many peers and fans tell him his music was the soundtrack at their weddings or it has frequently been used to lull their children to sleep.

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