AR Rahman: “Who are the men to empower women?

Ahead of Expo 2020 Dubai, the composer-director tells us about the mentorship of the Firdaus Women’s Orchestra, harmony through collaboration, etc.

AR Rahman doesn’t stop working. Among a multitude of upcoming projects such as Cobra, Atrangi Re, Ayalaan, Heropanti 2 and Ponniyin Selvan, the composer also collaborated with Expo 2020 Dubai to conceptualize a state-of-the-art music recording studio in the United Arab Emirates, and pioneer of an all-female ensemble of musicians: the Firdaus Women’s Orchestra.

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The ambitious initiative brings together 50 talented musicians from the United Arab Emirates and the wider MENA region to create a unique musical project, mentored by Rahman. The Oscar winner, whose recent outings include 99 songssand Mimi, will also be part of concerts with the orchestra at Expo 2020 Dubai, during which his compositions will also be presented on stage.

Described as a fusion of styles and genres, the ensemble features women of 23 nationalities, aged 16 to 51, with Yasmina Sabbah as conductor. Their music will be inspired by the ancient traditions of the United Arab Emirates region, which used instruments such as the oud, rebaba and darbouka.

From the recent preview of the orchestra that Rahman shared on social media, it is evident that his intrigue for Arabic music (audiences have witnessed this in several of his compositions, most notably Humma Humma) still persists. The composer has been more active than ever during the pandemic – his suggestions for balancing the WFH and paying attention to mental health attest to this – and his quest to push the boundaries remains as fascinating as ever.

Before the Expo on October 1, Rahman talks to us from Dubai about the implementation of this progressive musical project, bringing harmony through collaboration and balancing the experimental with the general public.

Excerpts from an interview:

You’ve always said you earn more when you mentor someone; is this your motive for being part of this initiative?

For me, teaching has always been about learning; when you give, you receive.

The world is in a very divided place right now, and people will always fear what they don’t understand. So when this idea came up, it was a great opportunity to get all these women of different nationalities to work together and create something beautiful. People who watch them will also come from various parts of the world. From Syria and Lebanon to Oman and Armenia, this idea will hopefully be a highlight for people to play music together, bond and build understanding.

How is it different to collaborate with musicians from different cultures and in a country outside of India?

It’s been three months of rehearsing and arranging so far, and we’re also building a studio. I feel in Dubai, everything revolves around progress. It’s a place where I see bikinis and the burqa together in hotels. Everything is so open and free, and nobody controls nobody. The ideology and the plan here are magnificent; it’s a place that embraces everything and everyone, and lets them shine.

Firdaus Orchestra at Terra, Expo 2020 Dubai

The orchestra, of course, is very respectable, and it’s all about talent and expression. There is quality and commitment to their vision, and coming from India, I feel honored to have been invited to lead this initiative. Our first concert will be on October 23 and Firdaus will also be performing in the future.

The word “Firdaus” means something akin to a “garden of paradise”. Why did you choose to name the orchestra like this?

In the philosophical context, music has different connotations in different cultures. In some, they refer to it as the unspoken language of God. In others, they say the music takes you to another realm.

So I wanted to remind everyone that there is a sense of everything that comes to us from the creator. It is also an ode to our mothers in a way; for sons, it is claimed that paradise is under the feet of their mothers.

Finally, it also aims to create a special bond – not religious – because all these women are of different faiths. They can be Christians, Muslims or Hindus, but it is humanity that connects the soul. The term Firdaus seemed very complementary to this ideology.

You’ve always fought to empower women, whether that’s refusing to include derogatory / sexist lyrics in your songs, or defending your daughter’s viral post last year on her choice of clothes. Is creating an all-female ensemble an extension of your ideology?

I must say, well done to Khatija! Now we all wear the burqa sort of with our masks, right? There is so much freedom; I can walk anywhere and no one recognizes me. I guess she’s proven everyone a point after all. (Laughs)

“Women don't need us;  they empower themselves'

“Women don’t need us; they empower themselves’ | Photo credit: ARUN TITAN

As to your question, well, who are the men to empower women, first of all? Women don’t need us; they take responsibility. Today they are world leaders and heads of state. In fact, it was His Excellency Reem Al Hashimi’s idea to create this orchestra, and I immediately accepted because I found the idea of ​​exchanging experiences fascinating.

Read more | AR Rahman: “Even I would wear a burqa if possible”

You know, power allows people to make a decision without considering the other person. This is why the world is going through so many disasters. But I now feel that we are at a point where ultimately people have to listen to the other counterpart.

Do you feel responsible, as a senior leader of the creative community in India, to foster connections with other countries through your art?

Honestly, it happened very naturally. As an individual, I am never threatened by anything. I am still my heart and my path is marked. (smiles)

At this point in your career, do you resonate more with independent projects, compared to the soundtrack you’ve been making for decades?

Not at all! I still adore making music for films. It’s such a great honor for me that I can still compose for films and people still love it. In many places, composers are bracketed or specifically defined by the work they do. But I’m very lucky to be in India, where no one has ever judged me or categorized my music. There is only pure respect all around. I have always used orchestral pieces in my films too, from the moment I did Roja. I’m glad I can continue to explore my work – whether classical or Carnatic – and it’s a blessing to me. This is the greatest gift India has ever given me.

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