AR Rahman
Oscar winner AR Rahman is a proud mentor to Dubai's all-female ensemble 'Firdaus Orchestra' Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/Gulf News

Oscar-winning Indian music composer AR Rahman completes a significant milestone this month as Dubai’s all-female Firdaus Orchestra celebrates its second anniversary, but its star mentor believes they’ve just scratched the surface when it comes to tapping into their potential.

The all-female ensemble, shepherded by Grammy-winning ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ composer, boasts of 55 musicians from 25 countries who have performed at prestigious events, including the Expo 2020 opening and closing ceremony.

“We have not even done five per cent of what I wanted to do,” Rahman — who rose to fame with his compositions for the 1992 Tamil film ‘Roja’ — said in an interview with Gulf News.

“I am still discovering them and the good thing is that the government is hosting them beautifully. All they have to do is come, play, and bring their set of skills,” he added.

On the day of this interview, which fell on World Music Day observed on June 21, his orchestra was spearheading the inaugural screening of the Reinvent Series by Firdaus Orchestra. The 50-minute film, now on YouTube, blended traditional Middle Eastern melodies with four classical and famous pieces by German composer and pianist Johannes Brahms. The Reinvent series is a project aimed at reimagining classical music by infusing it with contemporary elements.

“Certain things have to fall into place naturally and it shouldn’t be forced. Like we did for the Turkish March where the sounds of kanun [the Middle Eastern stringed instrument] and bazooka [musical instrument] resonated well … These sounds of fusion has to come from within because we have to stay true to Brahms, while introducing this kind of music culture here in Dubai,” Rahman said. Their mission is to produce sounds and music that people across the world can enjoy. So what kind of a mentor is he?

“I am not their mentor, they are mine,” he said with a laugh.

“My thing is to select the direction for them. There are various directions you can take, but what’s the priority? And that’s where I come in. Remember, there’s a unique set of people playing it and they are from different traditions. So I want them to be the best, there’s no compromise on that,” Rahman said. Attaining perfection may be a tall order, but this Grammy winner is confident of his orchestra’s prowess.

“It’s all about edging towards perfection. You have to be very patient and this is not just a broad stroke thing. The minutest details, reiterations about constantly excelling and the way we present our music is what matters.”

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Work on an Emirati film

And Firdaus Orchestra isn’t his only artistic mission in the UAE. Very soon, he will begin work on his first Emirati film with director Nayla Al Khaja’s psychological thriller ‘Baab’. Written by Al Khaja and Masoud Amralla Al Ali, the movie chronicles Wahida, a young woman who’s struggling to make sense of her twin sister’s death. She’s plagued by a haunting rhythm in her ears and that’s where Rahman’s wizardry in scoring music for this film will come in.

“I’m fascinated by this project because each culture has its own sets of values, rules, and sense of identity … When you tell a story, there are different ways of learning, adapting … There should not be just one narrative of Hollywood films. There should be a voice from the Middle East in an international market too,” Rahman said. Plus, he’s utterly fascinated with Al Khaja’s body of work and mind.

Nayla Al Khaja AR Rahman-1652344169695
Filmmaker Nayla Al Khaja join hands with Oscar winner AR Rahman for an Emirati feature film Image Credit: Supplied

“She knows so much about this region and its cinema,” he said. “Her industry’s knowledge, in itself, was fascinating to absorb.”

His bond with the UAE has naturally amplified after he began to mould the Firdaus Orchestra.

“The UAE is the centre of the world. It’s so close to India and even if I am coming from the US or Singapore, dropping into Dubai is easy. They make living here easy. Plus, I love the efficient immigration counters out here at the airports,” said Rahman, who shuttles between Dubai, Chennai and Los Angeles for his work commitments.