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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 February, 2004, 01:04 GMT
Bollywood music maestro speaks out

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News Online correspondent in Madras

These days, India's top film composer AR Rahman is hardly ever at home.

Still from Lagaan
Films such as Lagaan have confirmed AR Rahman's appeal

After selling some 100 million albums and composing the soundtracks to more than 50 Bollywood films, Rahman is determinedly going global.

The shy, reclusive 37-year-old jingle-maker-turned composer has ruled Bollywood with his robust tunes.

His catchy music fuses traditional Indian sounds with western classical, reggae, hip-hop and mystical Sufi rhythms.

"I am going to be out of India for at least four to five months this year to devote time to my international projects," Rahman told BBC News Online in an exclusive interview.

Rahman, who wrote the music for Andrew Lloyd Webber's West End hit, Bombay Dreams, is tweaking some tunes and writing "two to three" fresh songs for the Broadway version of the musical - set to open in New York in April.

"The songs will make the musical more familiar [to] American audiences who might not be so clued into Bollywood," he says.

Conductor's baton

From New York, Rahman will move to Birmingham to conduct the world-famous City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO).

Rahman says he will conduct two 90-minute concerts with the CBSO.

AR Rahman in his studio
The melody remains the core of the song... No melody, no song... I don't think rap can sustain a two-hour musical
AR Rahman

The first concert will be a classical pastiche of the Bollywood work which has made him a household name in India - with scores from such hits as Lagaan and Roja as well as pieces from Bombay Dreams.

The second concert, he says, will be an original orchestral piece based on The Conference of the Birds, a literary classic by the 12th Century Persian poet, Farid ud-Din Attar.

"It's something totally different from what I have done before. It's going to be bigger vision, bigger sound," says Rahman.

Tolkien project

The composer says he feels "capable" of conducting a celebrated orchestra after working with the Prague Film Orchestra last year while creating the score for a Chinese film.

Warriors of Heaven and Earth, directed by He Ping, is a "supernatural film with a lot of Chinese classical and interesting Oriental rhythms," says Rahman.

AR Rahman
Rahman with the leads from West End hit, Bombay Dreams

Rahman is also hard at work on a raft of original songs for the 8m West End version of the Tolkien epic, Lord of the Rings, scheduled to open in spring next year.

For this, Rahman plans to collaborate with Finnish folk group Varttina on some "14-15 songs", mostly in English and in the Elvish language Tolkien invented for the epic.

Then there is the tune he is putting together for pop violin diva Vanessa Mae.

Rahman says he met Mae in 1999 while playing at a Munich concert in honour of Michael Jackson.

Indian epics

He has not signed on for any Hollywood films "though I had a couple of proposals", Rahman says.

Rahman says he will do the score for the new film by Shekhar Kapur (of Bandit Queen fame) - a futuristic tale about water shortage in urban India.

He is also currently working on four big Indian films - including much-hyped epics on the freedom fighter Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and on the 1857 Indian mutiny against the British.

Mostly though, Rahman says he is doing more "orchestral, international" work.

Yet his small, functional studio-cum-home in Madras' busy cinema district hardly has the trappings of a top composer who has gone global.

Hollywood quality

A sound technology fiend, Rahman holes himself up in his studio most of the time composing music.

A bouncy trombone track plays again and again as I wait for him to emerge.

"We make quite a lot of noise in this neighbourhood," says a studio hand.

Rahman says he put on six concerts in India last year to raise money to build a third studio in his house which, he promises, will be "as state-of-the-art as it gets."

"It will enable me to compose Hollywood film scores, if need be, on the same technical quality and level."

These days, Rahman says, he listens mostly to western classical composers and to qawwali - the music of mystical Islam, preferring these to modern pop idioms like hip-hop, rap or techno.

"Ultimately the melody remains the core of the song. I have to have a melody and then maybe can put it on a hip-hop hook. But no melody, no song," says Rahman.

So would he be brave enough to compose a rap musical?

"Eminem could make that best, isn't it?" he smiles. "But I don't think rap can sustain a two-hour musical!"

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