Days of our Lives!

July 1, 2012

Book Review: A.R. Rahman: The Musical Storm – Kamini Mathai

Filed under: Books — Santhosh @ 4:46 AM
Book Name: A.R. Rahman: The Musical Storm
Author: Kamini Mathai
Genre: Biography

It actually took me some time before I connected what I thought was a cheesy little tagline, “The Musical Storm“, with the “Isai Puyal A.R.Rahman” that we’ve grown up with. While the music has quite obviously been a pretty significant part of my growing up, I should confess that I’ve never really known much about the man behind it. To that end, this book was excellent in throwing light on Allah Rakha Rahman.

There is sufficient content on the family background, the childhood, and the context and setting of Rahman’s life and music. The section on his early professional life, starting as a sessions player for Rs.50, moving on to an in-demand keyboard player, his budding love of technology, his acquaintances and first forays in composing was especially fascinating. For example, I never knew that he was preparing to move to USA to study music at Berkeley before Roja came calling. While I’ve listened to his early pre-Roja works hundreds of times, I’d never known the setting or the people behind them, which this book helped illuminate.

The book also throws sufficient light on his faith, conversion to Islam, his style of working, his character and modus operandi, etc. I’d known that his mother had a major part in his life, but this book also showed the context and relationship over the entire period of his life, in a comprehensive and in-depth perspective. There is even a cute anecdote about how an expectedly very shy Rahman was taken to meet Saira, the girl he would marry, and when Saira started off by telling him she loved all his songs, he was very relieved to be talking about music rather than anything else.

More than anything, I loved the sections that speak about how Rahman works, how he starts, the rituals he performs, the perfection he chases, the childlike enthusiasm, the childish unprofessionalism, how he encourages and develops the new singers and new sounds, his love of experimenting, etc. There are also anecdotes and background stories about how the music was developed and composed for a few movies.

There really isn’t much first-hand information though, because getting to meet and then making Rahman speak really isn’t easy. So the effort in collating all this content from older articles and interviews, speaking to those who’ve worked with him, and his other acquaintances, is commendable. However, I also felt that quotes from everyone who’s had something interesting to say – fact or fiction, observation or perception – had been extrapolated and exploited. The way Ilaiyaraja has been portrayed, I wonder if the first half of this book couldn’t have been titled “The Boy Who Composed”. Ilaiyaraja is depicted almost as the Voldemort-like tyrant who never allowed any musicians, singers or technicians to express themselves. At more than a couple of places, the book even talks of how the industry was hoping for someone to “overthrow” Ilaiyaraja. Also, director Kathir should seriously be considering suing, SPB comes across as a bitter old-timer, and the Tamil film industry has wrongly been shown as having been overshadowed by A.R.Rahman.

Where the book let me down very badly was in the writing and the even worse editing, especially considering the brand of the publisher. In the rush to cash in on the Oscars fame and the suddenly open international market, the overall quality takes a back-seat. While the chapters are well conceived as an overall structure, there just isn’t any sensible organising done within and between them. There are ridiculous repetitions where the author talks about something like it’s the first time she’s mentioning it, and the overall feeling is that each chapter has no idea what’s in the other chapters, and in some cases even an individual page doesn’t know what’s in it. It’s almost as if different editors worked independently on each chapter based on a common source material, never coordinated, and were also sufficiently absent-minded themselves.

Something else that grated quite a lot was the entire feel of the book. While I do understand that Penguin was looking at an international market to the sell the book, the entire feel was like reading an article on the New York Times India blog, where things are stressed that little bit more, native idiosyncrasies are explained in a patronizing voice, and needless explanations are given repeatedly regarding anything India. It’s like if the Steve Jobs biography had “the western American state of California“, “the IPod, which is a device to listen songs on“, “Bill Gates, who is the founder-chariman of Microsoft“, etc., every single time the words were required to be used. Frankly, I thought it was ridiculous when I read “the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu“. In fact, until I came to know when writing this review, I honestly thought the author was actually a North Indian who’s visited Tamil Nadu just for this book, given her choice of words, knowledge and inclination.

My Rating: 3/5. Overall, the information presented is commendable, while the presentation is shoddy. The book comes across as a business decision and not as the definitive, passionate one that is waiting to be written.

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