Yet all this celebrity has left A.R. Rahman curiously untouched and refreshingly down-to-earth. On a recent visit to New York, the tousle-haired composer, on learning I was fasting and unable to eat the Indian lunch sitting between us on a hotel-room table, disappeared and came back with a glass of orange juice, which he silently placed before me.
This kind of quiet gesture is not surprising to anyone familiar with Rahman's music, or his Sufi beliefs. A Hindu who converted to Islam a decade ago, his music is inspired by Sufi mysticism, whose message is the universality of divine love. It's unwithholding music: bold, unfettered, attracting listeners with its larger-than-life sound.
Fusing the music of different traditions Rahman celebrates Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, reggae, rock, and Carnatic music. "I feel music and Sufism are connected in a very natural way--it's all about divine love," says Rahman. "Sufism is a way of life, and through it you love God eternally. You don't have any pride or ego. I think that's the core of Sufism. You get rid of your ego. You're almost like a speck of dust, so it helps you control your ego, and you are much more creative. Because He gives it--you don't claim to do anything."
"It is one of the tenets of Sufism to create oneness through music to reach the Divine," observes Zeyba Rahman, chairwoman of The World Music Institute (not related to the musician). "A.R. Rahman uses his creativity like a Sufi mystic, for his music brings joy and celebrates life."
Eight years ago, Rahman was a little-known composer from South India, eking out a living writing commercial jingles and playing keyboard in studio sessions. His first attempt at a film score, 'Roja,' skyrocketed him to fame. After he followed with a soundtrack for the nationalist film 'Bombay' in 1995, Rahman had arrived as the King of Indian Pop.
His music has become a national passion, and an international one. At a concert in Toronto recently, he was greeted by Japanese fans in T-shirts reading "Rahman, Come to Japan!" He has performed with Michael Jackson, and was involved with the Listen project with Peter Gabriel and Sting. He is composing the music for Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical 'Bombay Dreams,' a love story set in Bollywood, Bombay's mercurial film industry, which will open in London next year.
Born A.S. Duleep Kumar, Rahman was born into an affluent musical family. His father, K.A. Sekar, was a well-known music director based in Madras. His death left Rahman, aged 9, with his mother and three sisters to support. He found work as a musician, and although he was talented, having to earn a living at music made it seem a chore.
Rahman remembers these hard times, as well as good times, with calm, accepting them both as the will of God: "When I think I'm doing the action, then I feel the pain. So I get that thought out, because we are not in control of anything. You try hard, you pray--and that's it. It's much more peaceful than thinking you can control everything. Because you can't." But he admits, "My family went through very hard times, and at that time we met Karimullah Shah Kadiri, a Sufi spiritual healer. We found peace and some progress in life."
During this time, his family experienced powerful dreams, which convinced them that God was indeed with them. He says, "When you knock at the door, you can enter only when you get a response. Those responses my family witnessed first hand. That's what made Islam closer to our hearts. It helps us keep our belief in life and goodness." He took on the name Rahman, the first of the thousand names for Allah, when he adopted Islam.
His success prompts him to stay connected to God. Otherwise, he points out, "when you are surrounded by fame and money, then you can go the wrong way. Your faith keeps you focused." Rahman believes that it's all about letting people have their space and living in harmony. He says, "By putting other people down, you never grow big."
This is an important lesson in a country where religion is often the source of rivalry, not humility. Among Rahman's most popular works is his version of the patriotic ballad "Vande Matram." Rahman gave this freedom anthem a new fire and depth for a whole new generation. His music for nationalistic films like "Roja" and "Bombay," which deal with Hindu-Muslim divisions in India, has also deeply touched his countrymen. "You go beyond religion for those films. If you are a fanatical Hindu or a fanatical Muslim you can't do those kinds of films. Even my finding the right people was the will of God."
This Sufi message of love, he points out, is what unites both of India's major faiths. "On a visit to the pilgrimage spot of Hajji Ali, you will find both Hindus and Muslims worshipping there." For Rahman, religion is a family affair. His mother, wife Saira, and their two daughters, Kateja, 5, and Rafia, 2, are as observant as he is.
Rahman's richly melodic score for the upcoming film "Zubeidaa," set in the 1950s, has made the composer nostalgic for the slower pace of the past. The music celebrates the classic scores of those golden days of Indian cinema, with slow symphonic orchestrations and the voice of Lata Mangeshkar, India's Nightingale. "Most of the scripts those days had a completeness to it. Now we are catering to the masses, and it's almost like fast food."
But Rahman is also thinking about the future. Ask him if he thinks he has struck upon a new audience for his music in the West, and he says in his self-effacing way, "Not only for my music, but I think the whole Bollywood thing is opening up." This impish Sufi devotee is blazing the trail.