A. R. Rahman Challenges Berklee Students to Innovate

A. R. Rahman, the Grammy- and Academy Award-winning composer for films such as Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, encourages Berklee students to experiment with Indian music.

October 27, 2014

A. R. Rahman, the prolific, Grammy- and Academy Award-winning film score composer who has reshaped the sound of Bollywood and risen to worldwide acclaim with scores to films such as Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, shared his insights with captivated students at a master class and interview in the Berklee Performance Center on Friday, October 24 prior to receiving an honorary doctor of music degree from Berklee that evening.

In addition to his scoring work, Rahman is also a heralded multi-instrumentalist, performer, music producer, and songwriter, and he informed the Berklee audience that he will soon add the role of “film producer” to his resume with a feature film slated for release in 2015.

At the master class, Rahman performed music on the continuum (a versatile digital controller and synthesizer), answered questions from students, and spoke with a panel including Berklee voice instructor Annette Philip, cofounder of the Berklee Indian Ensemble; George Clinton and Alison Plante, chair and assistant chair of the college’s Film Scoring Department; and Kevin Doucette ’05, a Berklee graduate who has worked closely with Rahman on several films. The following is an edited and abridged version of Rahman’s inspiring talk.

On learning music and trying new things:

Berklee Indian Ensemble: A. R. Rahman’s ‘Jiya Jale’

“I learn from everyone. Yesterday, I was watching [the Berklee Indian Ensemble] doing different arrangements of my songs and I learned something from that.

Learning should never stop…My mindset was never that I was going to be a permanent film composer. I always thought, ‘Okay, this is the last one, and then I’ll go.’ I don’t know where I would go, but that feeling of liberation—that I could leave—was great until 2007, when [film work] consumed me. And that’s one of the reasons that I switched over in my prime to do [the musical theater production] Bombay Dreams with Andrew Lloyd Webber, which was a huge step for Indian music abroad.”

On his creative process in composing:

“Now, it’s mostly humming into my iPhone because I’m always flying. So I go find a place where no one is there so I don’t have people going, ‘What is he doing?’ But my base is in Chennai and I lock myself in and see what comes out. I have a lot of ideas for a song so I don’t stick with just one. I’ll listen to it and see if it still impresses me.”

On getting started and changing the sound of Bollywood:

“I was playing in a band—jazz, fusion, rock, and pop—and one day, this genius Mani Ratnam came into my life and it was life-changing. He said, ‘I want to hear some of your stuff.’ At the time, my mindset was, ‘Nothing good is going to happen in my life.’ I was 21. So, I played him a tune with an beautiful Indian rhythm and he said, ‘Okay, now why don’t you combine that with something completely different?’”

On finding inspiration:

“There was a period, after Roja [Rahman's acclaimed film composing debut], where I thought that all the music in me had been exhausted—that I wouldn’t be able to compose anything anymore. I was very sure that nothing was going to come…but I’m very grateful that my whole life has been very interesting. If I get bored, I do a Chinese film…Sometimes you feel like you’ve done it all and are ready for death. Other times, you feel like you’ve just started.”

On attending Berklee—almost:

“I was in the backing band for the amazing, legendary violinist L. Shankar and I told him that I would like to go to study at Berklee. I remember he was kind and he brought me the prospectus, and I was all set and I had everything all ready to go. And then Mani Ratnam comes into my life, so it was Berklee or this movie Roja. So, I had to ditch Berklee, but the circle of life is such a beautiful thing, because today I’m here at Berklee and it’s getting completed.”

On dealing with self-doubt as a musician:

“Most of us get confused, even me. When I was growing up, I was playing Rush and Deep Purple. I realized that it’s the energy that we love. But the content should be ours, so why not write about Delhi or Calcutta or things near you? I think you should be proud of your identity and the things within you that are different than someone else.”

On his vision for Indian music:

“Indian music has been conservative, and it could take the mindset of people studying at Berklee to innovate without destroying the sanctity of the music. I would love to see Berklee students studying [Indian music] and making something new from it.”

In wrapping up the session and in response to Rahman’s vision for Indian music at Berklee, Philip responded, “Challenge accepted.”

Watch highlights from a panel discussion with A. R. Rahman: