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In my sole interaction with A.R. Rahman in his Panchathan studio in 2005, I realised this was a man who would never, ever, discuss how he stitches together his music. After reading Kamini Mathai’s anecdotal biography, I am not wiser. Mathai’s research is extensive: she charts the life of R.K. Sekhar, Rahman’s father, who arranged music for the south’s top music directors; chronicles the impact of Sekhar’s early death on Rahman, who at age nine, armed with a synthesizer, was forced to be the breadwinner and a dropout; she talks to everyone—a watchman at a studio, singers, guitarists, recording engineers, hangers-on at Rahman’s studio. And she quotes the elusive Rahman from cryptic media interviews. The book, in effect, is a string of quotes.
Mathai, not knowing her music, can’t unravel the ‘mystery’ behind Rahman’s music. She wouldn’t know that the song Ottagathai Kattiko (based on Dharmapuri ragam) in Gentleman (1993) is a better-arranged version of Telugu composers Raj-Koti’s Malgudi Shubha number Eddam Ante Teddam Antav (1991). She does, however, say Rahman arranged music for the duo. Rahman, like hip-hop artists, uses digital samplers. Sampling is the using of a snippet of recorded music in a composition of one’s own. Music becomes manipulable. Songs become compilations. Rahman has a great appetite for manipulation of audio fragments. For him, embellishments matter more than the tune—creating a bricolage of unique sounds. Mathai does not know how to unspool this Rahman.