'The player defines what the instrument does'

Standing in the lift at DY Patil Stadium with AR Rahman, we were a little surprised and at a loss for words, when sitarist Asad Khan introduced us to him. When we asked Rahman what he thought about this young musician, he looked at us in surprise. “Young? This guy is 55,” he said, his face breaking into a broad smile. Now it was our turn to look surprised.

The playfulness of Rahman — a diminutive looking man — as well as his shyness is very apparent in the first few minutes of meeting him. He is also, literally, a man of few words, as we discovered during the course of the interview. Khan, meanwhile, seemed a jovial, extroverted person.

Not the regular stuff
Rahman and Khan (who is actually 29) started working with each other about seven years ago. Their first collaborative project was for the film Jodhaa Akbar. “I needed a sitar player to do the background score. But I didn’t even know who he was. Someone told me this is Ustad Siraj Khan’s son and that is how it started,” says Rahman. “When we started composing, Asad came in and started jamming with me. I realised he was approaching the sitar differently. He was pushing the limits,” the Mozart of Madras recalls.

Khan recalls an even earlier association with the maestro. “He heard my tapes and he called me for Yuva (2004) and even for Guru (2007). I would visit whenever he would record in Mumbai, which was very rare. But the first project we officially worked was about five years back and that was on Jodhaa Akbar,” he says, adding that he was initially very skeptical about working in films.

AR Rahman at a performance for Germany and India 2011-2012: Infinite Opportunities.  Pic courtesy/ Germany and India 2011-2012: Infinite Opportunities

“After learning under my father’s tutelage and practising for 18 hours everyday, when I began looking for work, I met composers who wanted the sitar to sound traditional and melancholic. So, I wasn’t inclined towards films. When I met Rahman, I started playing the regular stuff, which every composer seemed to want. But he said he didn’t want that. He asked me to play what I liked,” says Khan. “Yes I asked him to play freely. There are certain set ragas in classical music but you can work around them. His innovations sounded good and I called him again for Slumdog Millionaire,” shares Rahman.
It was a first for Khan, because, like he says, “Very few music composers give you that kind of freedom. For Jodhaa Akbar, he said, ‘This is your baby. Look at Aishwarya (Rai Bachchan) and play.’ I couldn’t have been happier,” he smiles.

Sitar for Latika
Talking about working on the film Slumdog Millionaire, Khan says Rahman told him he wanted the sitar to appeal to the youth. “He didn’t tell me he was recording the sitar for Slumdog Millionaire. He only said it is a Hollywood film, so eat well and come,” he says, breaking into a laugh. “When I entered the studio, he showed me a clip of a girl running from CST station and he told me he wanted a sitar to accompany it. I was shocked. A girl running on a crowded station with goons behind her, and Rahman wanted a sitar melody. So we used the sitar in a fast tempo. It usually starts slowly with the alaap, but Rahman uses what concerts end with — the jhaala, which is the fastest piece in classical music,” explains Khan.
“I only asked him to play faster and faster. It worked great,” adds Rahman. Khan interrupts to add, “When we recorded the track and got audience feedback, no one believed it was actually played live. They thought it was tweaked or worked upon in the studio. Nobody uses sitar the way Rahman does.

No one starts pieces on that tempo. Director Danny Boyle couldn’t believe sitar could be used like that. He was very happy, he even said that in some interviews in UK,” says Khan.

Ask Rahman if he was the only one who used the sitar extensively with the piano and made it popular in Bollywood and he says, “I don’t think of it that way. But it is true that the sitar has always been associated with sadness, which is most unfortunate. It is a beautiful instrument and there are people like Khan who play it differently.”

Global appeal
We asked Rahman how the sitar fits into Western music. After all, he has also used Khan in symphony orchestras and Classic Incantations, a tribute by the German Film Orchestra Bablesberg to Rahman’s music in January. “I would not say specifically western music, but I think it has a big appeal. People who are passionate about their music and instrument can change the way it sounds. Look at what U Srinivasan did with the mandolin. It’s the player who defines what his instrument does. Of course there are dos and don’ts of playing an instrument but the player does what he can with it by working around it,” says Rahman.

The duo plans to collaborate in the future, but no one’s giving any details away. Khan says he is just plain grateful to Rahman for the chance he’s been given. “He gave me a chance to play at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in 2010 and that was one of the most memorable events of my life. I think I am the first sitarist in the world to give a tribute to Michael Jackson. I sat next to Herbie Hancock, who is considered the king of piano in the world. I was playing, Rahman was singing to my piece, and Hancock was playing for me. It felt like I was up in the stars. That felt like the most important moment of my life,” Khan signs off. 

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