AR Rahman, the Mozart of Madras, Wins Heart and Soul of Boston
By Shuchita Rao
INE Music Critic
BOSTON--Boston never saw a more vibrant and colorful celebration of Bollywood film music than on the evening of October 24, 2014. The reputed Berklee College of Music honored the multi-talented Indian music composer A R Rahman with an honorary doctorate. Described by Time magazine as the "Mozart of Madras" and as possibly the most prolific recording artist in the world, Rahman has won numerous national and international awards including the Academy, Grammy and Padmabhushan awards over a career spanning 25 years of composing music for films.
Photo Credit Mike Ritter
The award ceremony by Berklee College of Music titled "Festival of Lights" was held at the historic Boston Symphony Hall. The symphony hall is one of the world's best acoustic auditoriums with the legendary Western classical musician Beethoven's name inscribed over the stage. Proceeds from the event went to a scholarship in the name of A R Rahman to expand educational opportunities for talented and deserving musicians from India to study at Berklee College of Music where Rahman had once aspired to study Jazz music some two decades back.
In an engaging two and half hour presentation, an international cast of artists from the Berklee India Ensemble led by artistic director and Berklee faculty member Annette Philip (a Berklee graduate) treated over two thousand members in the audience to fifteen of Rahman's compositions. The vocal ensemble was supported by a live orchestra led by Berklee World strings conductor Eugene Friesen. Guest artists from India, Bass player Mohini Dey and guitarist Prasanna (a Berklee graduate too) as well as Boston University Bhangra dancers added a unique touch to the presentation with their artistic contributions.. Over 66,000 people watched a live stream of the show, a world record for Concert Window, Berklee's streaming partner. Sponsors for the program included Harvard University South Asian Institute, Women of the World and Priya Samant.
Earlier in the morning, in a free master clinic open to the public, members of Berklee faculty, Annette Philip, George Clinton and Alison Plante and a few members of the audience posed questions to Rahman about his musical journey, the turning point in his life when he decided to choose music for a career, his work habits and the challenges he faced as a song writer and music composer. Rahman advised aspiring song-writers and composers at Berklee to be proud of their heritage and to study the Indian Raga system closely to understand its grammar, structure and nuances. "Once you do that, you should try innovative, out-of-the box strategies while preserving the sanctity of ragas." said Rahman. Rahman's personality traits as a simple and humble devotee of music who enjoyed experimenting with musical ideas from diverse world music cultures as well as cutting edge technology devices shone through the conversation. Short audio and video clips from Rahman's award winning musical scores, a short piano recital by Rahman's staff member, composer musician Kevin Doucette and Rahman's own demonstration on the Continuum keyboard added variety to the hour long discussion.
Some interesting moments in the question-answer session with the audience were when a fifth grader innocently asked Rahman what inspired him to make beautiful music and he replied "Beautiful people like you." There was a moment of humor in a situation when an Indian mother took the microphone and addressed Rahman. "If I have allowed my son to make a career in composing musical score for films, it is because of your success" she said. She then openly asked the celebrity if there were internship opportunities for her son. "Said like a true mother! Where is your son?" asked Rahman. The mother enthusiastically pointed to her shy son sitting quietly in the auditorium along with his classmates.
Photo Credit Mike Ritter
The evening's program was a spectacular production by all standards. A R Rahman's music rooted in Indian traditions and backed by a sizeable live orchestra was brought to life by a and a large Berklee Indian ensemble comprising of musicians, vocalists and instrumentalists from several different countries. The production was aided by a team of talented individuals who specialized in technical direction, sound and light engineering, music arrangement, costumes and dance choreography. A live orchestra comprising of four cellos, two harps, 20 violins and violas, sarod, oud, mandolin and guitar instruments for the string section, mridangam, tabla, western drums, chimes, dance bells and kanjira for percussion section, saxophones, trumpets, trombone, harmonium, flute and piano instruments accompanied a vocal ensemble of Berklee College students. "We have had intense rehearsals for over two months in preparation for this event" said Sarod player Sashank Navaladi who currently studies at Berklee College.
In the opening act, beautiful young women dressed in cream, red and gold ghaaghra cholis holding lighted lamps in their hands made an entrance on the stage to the background score of a melody set to Raag Khamaj. Emcee Chandrika Tandon and Roger Brown, President of the Berklee College of Music spoke about the mission of the college and extended a warm welcome to Rahman.
"Music has a rich history of fostering the next generation of talented composers and performers. Mr. Rahman embodies the spirit of Berklee through his creativity and openness to disparate musical styles that range from traditional to classical and from folkloric to the latest popular music trends. It is a great honor to welcome A R Rahman to collaborate with our students to share his immeasurable talents with all of us" said Brown.
Rahman, dressed in an elegantly embroidered lavender and black ethnic Indian suit joined the Berklee music ensemble and played on the continuum instrument for the first musical offering of the evening. Thereafter, the vocal and instrument ensembles collaborated together to present the Bombay theme followed by several vocal and instrumental music items. The patriotic song,"Yeh jo des hai tera" from the movie Swades was rich in harmony, the energetic "Chaiyya Chaiyya Chaiyya" and "Jiya Jale" songs from Mani Ratnam's movie Dil Se got the audience clapping and participating and songs in multiple Indian languages from award winning movies such as Slumdog Millionaire, Lagaan and Rockstar and Roja were featured . The show concluded with "VandeMataram" song in Sanskrit language with A R Rahman's singing "Ma Tujhe Salaam" along with the entire Berklee music ensemble.
The unique aspect of the presentation was that the choir backed by strings and percussion did more than just sing songs and play instruments. The singers moved about in every new song, changing formations from straight lines to interesting geometric shapes on the stage. Elements of mime, dance, music, recitation of rhythmic syllables and poetry blended seamlessly to create a variety of moods, from the sombre to the joyous through storytelling techniques that provided a glimpse - both into Indian traditions as well as universal human emotions. The stories of farmers in a drought stricken village desperate for rain was told in "Ghananana Ghanana Ghan" and Lord Krishna's divine consort Radha suffering pangs of jealousy were told in "Radha kaise na jale" (movie Lagaan). The story of romantic feelings of the heart were evocatively brought out in "Dil Se Re" and "Tu hee Re" while the Indian tradition of obeisance to Mother Earth was expressed in "Ma Tujhe Salaam". In a departure from the tradition of sitting upright for the entire duration of the concert, string instrumentalists swayed back and forth and clapped hands in Quawwali style to the sufi style rendering of the song "Kun Faya Kun" (movie Rockstar). An interactive exercise with the audience to create sounds of nature such as the whirling winds and incessant rain slowing down at times and gaining intensity at other times proved popular with the young and old. From start to finish, the two and half hour long program succeeded in engaging the audience with Rahman's musical works.
President of Berklee College, Roger Brown, Provost Lawrence Simpson, artist relations and strategy co-producer Clint Valladares were among the Berklee faculty who honored Rahman with a doctorate, noting that he joined a select group of performing and recording artists and educators to receive an honorary doctorate from the institution. Annette Philip, artistic director of Berklee India ensemble asked members of the audience to think of the teachers who had nurtured their interest in music and admitted that A R Rahman was the ultimate Guru to the members of the Berklee India Ensemble. "He leads by example" said Philips.
In his acceptance speech, Rahman said that he missed having his mother and wife with him at the ceremony. He praised the Berklee band for presenting his musical work in a manner that surprised him at his own creation. "They brought out the joy and did a great job with the layering of complex harmonies" he remarked. Rahman recalled the tough decision he struggled with in his early twenties — on one hand he wanted to join the Berklee College of Music as a student and on the other he was given an offer by noted film director Mani Ratnam to compose the musical score for the movie Roja. He chose the latter and commented that life eventually comes around in a full circle. "What a kind gesture to honor me with a doctorate. Thank you." said Rahman in a simple and down-to-earth manner.
President Brown added after the show "Perhaps best of all, the experience for Berklee students, performing in Boston's elite Symphony Hall, to a sold out show, with A.R. himself listening was an incomparable artistic and educational experience. Annette Philip, artistic director of the event and Clint Valladares of Berklee were pivotal in the planning and execution of the event and together, and they are taking the Berklee India Exchange to new heights".
Hans Zimmer, an academy award winning music composer who composed for more than a hundred films made in the United States had once said this about his peer - "In Rahman's music, it is the true soul of a good man that we listen to". To the music lovers in attendance at the Boston Symphony Hall as well as those feasting on the live stream of the performance of Rahman's musical works from around the world , Zimmer's comment struck a chord close to the heart.