Dilani Rabindran



“Rahman’s Rising Stars” Part 1, AR Rahman, KMMC


On October 24th AR Rahman will receive an honorary doctorate from the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston. Rahman’s immense contribution to Indian music is well recognized through his many awards and accolades, but his contribution to the future of music is perhaps best evident via his KM Music Conservatory (KMMC) in Chennai. Established in 2008, KMMC is responsible for the development of musicians who are already making names for themselves in both local and international arenas and are equipped to advance Indian music in signature Rahman style, fusing genres from all corners of the world. In honor of ARR’s latest honor Behindwoods columnist Dilani Rabindran caught up with some of Rahman’s top students, in a 2-part special, to find out what it’s like to work with the living legend and how they feel ARR is leaving his impact on musical history via KMMC. 


Can you tell me about your musical background and how you joined KMMC?

Aashima Mahajan: I was always keen on learning music but because I was from a small town there were not many teachers from whom I could learn. So after my 12th standard I began distantly learning from ‘Prayag Sangeet Samiti’ which was associated with the Allahabad Classical University, while I was doing my full time [University degree], and I did many solo shows and even won many competitions, like Jammu Singing Star. But I did not know about Rahman’s school until I saw ‘Sa Re Ga Ma’ in my second year of college where they mentioned it, so then I thought ‘Okay that’s the calling, after my graduation I want to go to KM’, but I had to start preparing for my MBA right after [at my parents’ request]. I had my audition for KM over Skype, in secret! I didn’t tell my father that I was auditioning for this institute, until I got the results. My father supported me and I came here instead of going for my MBA. So shifting from my studies to music was a difficult process but I always wanted to do this and I have no regrets about it.


Aditya Gadhvi: My family are folk singers of Gujarat and my great grandfather was a poet, so writing poems, and sahithya is also in our blood. I became interested in learning Indian Classical music and joined the famous Saptak Institute where I learned music from Ustad Shoukat Hussain Khan for 2 years. Then I participated in this reality singing show on Gujarat’s ETV, “Lok Gayak Gujarat”, just to test [my own abilities] so I really did not expect to win the show by audience vote like I did! After that I travelled [around Gujarat] giving folk shows, but I wanted to learn more types of music so I found out that the best institute to teach all genres of music was KMMC. I did not have any knowledge of Western Classical music when I auditioned so I was really nervous. I ended up singing Gujarati folk in front of our Western faculty!  


Aryan Shekhar: I was a dancer and a fan of Michael Jackson and [felt compelled] to learn music and compose songs that would help make my moves better like his! My father wasn’t ready for that, so he didn’t know when I began learning music. I joined the Royal School of Music and learnt Piano, and then Hindustani vocals. I then came from Kolkata to Chennai to join the School of Audio Engineering (SAE) to learn music production, but the day I entered Chennai my uncle told me there was a school run by Rahman sir. The KM [audition period] had not yet begun but I asked for a chance because I had travelled such a long distance. They asked me to play some of my compositions on the piano and then tested my singing...and after [deliberating for] a few minutes they said “okay you’re selected” and I was like “What?!” And my parents were very supportive, even going so far as to sell major assets to help pay my school fees.


How has KMMC expanded your multicultural musical development thus far?

Aashima: Foundation is a basic course in which you are given a glimpse of knowledge of musicianship, sight reading, keyboard skills, sound engineering, history of and practical western & Indian classical there are about 7-8 subjects and you are given a glimpse of everything! After Foundation you choose what to specialize in for the diploma stages and I have become a major in OPERA music! Before KM I was only generally aware that Opera existed!


Aryan: In Foundation I learned various aspects of composition from different genres, from Celtic all the way to Neosoul! So that has made my composing stronger.


You have all recorded or performed with Rahman sir. What is working with Rahman sir like from your perspective? What was the most memorable time you worked with him?

Aashima: So since I have done so many choir recordings with him I remember only some of names of the movies, for instance, Jab Tak Hai Jaan & Kochadaiyaan. The most memorable [or indicative] experience I have working with him though was for a project in which we had to sing like witches! He needed all sorts of scary voices and Rahman sir himself came for that recording and trained us to be scary! He began going “Okay so sing like ‘Ooooh! Yeahhhhh!’” in this strange, screechy voice! He made all these noises and taught us that “there should be a scary expression on your face, because only then will you be able to show [the expression] in your voice.” A lot of the times it’s his sound engineers who are in the studio with you because he is somewhere else, but when he is there you learn so much within 5 minutes alone!


Aditya: I am in the Sufi Qawali ensemble in KMMC so last year we went to Dubai for a show and Rahman sir was present so he heard my voice there and then called me to sing a few lines for Lekar Hum Deewana Dil. I got a call from his studio at 12 am midnight! He wasn’t even in Chennai, but he guided me over Skype from Mumbai!


Aryan: After I posted a few compositions on SongCloud in various genres I received a call to join in on work with him at the studio, so I slowly began doing background vocals for his movie albums, like Mariyan. But the first song I helped produce for him was a surprise - I was called to the studio about to learn that we were recording Rahman sir’s own voice for a Sufi Kalam from his forthcoming album!  From these producing experiences I have received many opportunities & was even called to compose the music for a Nepalese movie called “72 hours”.


You have also been composing music for advertising. We all know Rahman sir got his start that way so did you seek any advice from him?

Aryan: During the foundation course we had a meeting with him so during question period I asked him “Sir when you used to make jingles, where did you get your ideas?” and he said “when you mix Indian Classical and Western music and even other genres it will give you a new flavor and you need to just keep trying that rather than doing the same stuff that everyone else has done. That’s what makes you unique.”


Through KMMC you’ve all got some great chances to work with major artists and musicians, can you tell me who your most memorable collaborations were?

Aditya: I got a chance to sing in a movie called KamaSutra 3D with music by Shrijith & Sachin; they contacted our faculty from KMMC and auditioned a few students and selected me. A week after I recorded 2 songs on the album we heard the album had been shortlisted for Oscar nominations! At the age of 20 I never even expected that I would get a chance to sing a solo song in a movie, but then to have my work shortlisted for an Oscar was just unbelievable.


Aashima: Working with Sukhwinder Singh for an Ambani concert run by Rahman sir was a really pleasant experience. We had a jugalbandi with him, so he sang something & I had to copy! Of course I was not able to do even 10% of what he was doing! But Sukhwinder sir, having over 20 years experience in the field, acknowledged us all saying “I don’t know what I am doing up here right now and for you to copy me like that at this stage? Thumbs up to you!”


How do you think KMMC and Rahman sir are contributing to world music? How has your life changed since joining KMMC?

Aashima: All other music conservatories in the west teach only Western classical or whatever the genre in their country is, but here we get to learn Indian classical, Sufi music (Qawali), Western classical music, contemporary music... the variety of what we get to learn here is sometimes so huge that we are sometimes confused about which genre to focus on! And we have teachers from Germany, the US, Kenya, Belgium, and France, like my vocal teacher, Gilles Denizot, who has had the experience of working with some of the biggest opera artists in the world! They belong to so many different areas of the world that we get to learn many different cultures! I never in my life thought that I would sing Opera with so much interest. I was barely even aware of that genre and within 2 years it has transformed my mind so much that I can’t sleep without listening to it! Also, I am a dramatic soprano so I have learned acting, event management and even costume design skills via the Opera concerts we hold. So it is not only world music that we are learning, it is world culture.


There are many opportunities! Some of my friends who have gone to Middlesex University are there performing Opera! An Indian opera singer is a brand new thing that never existed before KM. And some of my friends – Akshay Sharma and Jithu Bass - have actually composed opera in Hindi! They performed it for Rahman sir and he really liked it. Opera has been a part of history in so many countries for ages in European languages, so it was hard to relate to an Indian audience. But now our students are working to transform that art form into Indian languages using Indian mythology, because it is easier to relate to a new form of music through something which you already know. This is just one example of how I think we learn international music through KMMC and are using it to contribute to society in our own country and even all over the world.


Can each of you describe AR Rahman in one word?

Aditya: For me AR Rahman is “Sufiism”, or rather the perfect definition of ‘Sufiism’ is AR Rahman.

Aryan: He’s like that part of music we can’t quite define, so “undefineable”!

Aashima: I have 2 words for him! – Intense and Spiritual.


Can you tell me briefly what you’re working on right now, with or independent of Rahman sir?

Aditya: Like we said, at KMMC we hear and learn different genres and what we can do is contribute our own specialty, so some of us are fusing various types of folk music (Gujarati, Rajasthani, etc) with other genres and calling that project “FOLK BOX” and promoting it on social media to enlarge our audience.


Aashima: I am presently doing live shows wherever I am invited and am working with the KM musicians on these shows. I am also collaborating with a friend who’s Mumbai-based on my own compositions and some covers of classic songs. And of course I am continuing on my training of Indian & western classical training both, and there are few Tamil films & documentaries that I am recording for, by some newer composers like Saran Raghavan. One of the documentaries I recorded my voice for, Nalladhor Vennai,  was actually screened at Cannes and I am now collaborating with him on a Thamizh album. 


So AR Rahman is receiving an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music in Boston on October 24 which is another prestigious honor for both him, and the school. Would you like to say anything on behalf of KM students to him on this occasion?

Aashima: I would like to thank AR Rahman sir for building this institute in the way that he has. I would really like to thank him for getting us such amazing teachers in every subject; they could work anywhere in the world but he has brought them here. He has chosen the best staff, best equipment and now he has even given us this beautiful building! So I would really like to thank him for the effort that he has made to build an institute like this. We can see the potential of the students at KM and the school will outshine a lot of famous conservatories in just a few years.

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