A.R. Rahman is a busy man. Despite the lockdown, the music director seems to be at his productive best: in the last month alone, apart from balancing out the various films he’s composing for, ARR has also put out (as a surprise) the entire album of his upcoming film 99 Songs, and collaborated with other renowned musicians, entrepreneurs and visionaries globally to launch the ambitious ‘Hands Around the World’ project.
“But I’m still constantly challenged. I wonder about how 99 Songs will open, and after that comes Le Musk (his virtual-reality film) which can’t release unless theatres across the world are equipped suitably.. There are always challenges to face,” he tells actor Gul Panag during an Instagram Live chat.
The Oscar-winner was in conversation with Panag on her ‘Cool Tech’ series, where she invites guests to discuss using technology to economise time and effort as everyone works from home during the lockdown.
Says Rahman, “I’ve worked from a home studio for such a long time, and one thing I’ve realised is that especially when it comes to creative work, you can never force yourself. The biggest idea of your life can come in five mins… or it could take a year. Here are some pointers I always follow.”
Mental and physical well-being takes precedence
1) It’s essential to take care of your mental health. Sleep and eat well (don’t over-eat). Your mind is the most important and you need to keep that clean — or else your work will become a mess. No matter the quality of the tech you have, it should come after the importance paid to your mental and physical well being.
2) Be clean and hygienic, and dress to work even at home in your designated workspace. When I go to my home office even at night, you won’t find me in my pajamas. Even when my family come inside the studio, they dress appropriately. It’s important to differentiate between a home and workspace even inside the house.
3) I keep all phones, ringers and emails off while working. I’ll be in be middle of something and suddenly get a message reading ‘pay your taxes!’ which will totally distract me. I know it’s tough to survive without phones, but just for that one hour, you need to dive deep into your inner consciousness and focus on work with a radar around you. That’s more than enough.
4) Make the above a pattern and get back to people after finishing your work, so they know not to disturb you during such times. A routine is essential. When my kids were younger, it was more difficult because my daughter Raheema would come and fiddle with all my instruments and computers! Now we look back and laugh at it.
5) I like to light an agarbathi or candle sometimes in my workspace. When people come, they feel a vibe and like it a lot. It’s like a shrine; where you work is akin to a spiritual place.
6) I use a lot of tech and devices, yes, but ultimately I understand that my knowledge comes from the collective consciousness, the infinite… we all believe in different things, term it different names, but it all comes from one place. On that note, it’s really unfortunate that we keep fighting over something (God and religion) so beautiful.
Rahman is an Apple fanboy
Moving on to talk about what equipment he uses to work from home, ARR laughed and recalled the times when he used to carry two heavy racks of modules everywhere, and had to pay an extra 3000 pounds if he was flying to transport it. “But now all I need is my iPad. I carry a laptop and keyboard too, and that’s enough for me to work remotely with apps that provide me harmony, loops, tambura, granular synthesis and so on. I sometimes even compose grooves on my iPad and record it on my phone.”
Gul Panag and A.R. Rahman on Instagram
He’s also been featured in Apple’s ‘Behind the Mac’ and says that he’s been using the brand since ‘94: “Everything is decluttered, I don’t have to worry about virus notifications, and most importantly, the apps are all well-tested and there’s no latency with the music. I have a sense of peace when I use the Mac or iPad, and definitely recommend them.”
When questioned about the apps he uses often, Rahman answered that for music, some like iTablaPro, Blocs and iLehra were his favourites, while he also uses Facetune, Netflix, Instagram and Skype to relax and connect with friends or family these days.
‘We need to keep away our vices’
But he’s quick to point out that as much as he’s a ‘tech geek’, it’s as important to detox often.
“These days on social media, people show their anger, frustrations and their inner demons come out because they can’t be caught. I feel sometimes we are moving back to the primal age instead of going forward towards great things. These apps constantly want our attention, and we give it to them.”
He adds, “Remember the story of the sage Vishvamitra and the beautiful woman who lured him? This is not to say that women are bad (laughs). I used that example as a metaphor, it’s important to know how to keep away our vices.”
“The vices, in many ways, have manifested into our behaviour online: Why are we so interested in knowing about who is bashing up whom, who’s been targeted, feeling provoked and responding? Are you proud of yourselves when you look back at what you have posted? What if you get caught one day and lose your job? Rember, the tables can always be turned and God is watching you.”
Rahman also emphasises that it’s important to set an example to children in the family: “Whatever I do, my kids follow it. If I don’t practise something myself, then how can I ask them to be that way? Make your kids into angels, not monsters.”
The composer’s last comment will especially resonate with those who know his stance on religion and God, something he constantly reiterates. He recently also batted for his daughter Khatija’s decision to wear a niqab, and her subsequent reply on social media to those who questioned her.
“It’s a complex scenario we find ourselves in today, we have a sense of entitlement and empowerment on social media, but that should bring out the beauty within us, not the hate. I question myself every time I write something online: Am I posting this for the right reasons? Should people be reading this instead of spending time with family? Even during this lockdown, I shied away from coming on video chats or playing music online… this is the time for you to be with those who love you, and enjoy the precious time,” he smiled.
Empathy is the need of the hour
Finally, when asked for a word of advice he’d like to impart to viewers, Rahman said, “I’m really not an advising kind of guy, I prefer to listen to it instead. But I’ll say this: We need empathy more than ever today. Empathy to look after the people who are underprivileged, finding them and helping them, that’s what humanity is. You get when you give. It may seem silent and peaceful outside, but millions of people are crying. Even a simple thing such as providing a meal or medical help to someone who needs it, will go a long way.”
He adds that he wishes the best for the medical community, and requested people to listen to the government and stay at home. “Let’s pray to God that we get a vaccine soon to end this misery. We also have to learn from this: I’ve never seen the Chennai sky look so clear, I even took a picture to remember it. Maybe this will help us rethink how we construct our cities.”
Rahman concluded wishing ‘Ramadan Kareem’ to the Muslims around the world who began observing the holy month of Ramadan, and asked them to fast peacefully, and added, “Finally, remember what Mahatma Gandhi said: Be the change you want to see.”