AR Rahman
AR Rahman, who is often dubbed as the Mozart Of Madras, in conversation with Gulf News. Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/Gulf News

Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman’s all-women Firdaus Orchestra, who will showcase their compositions at the opening ceremony of Expo 2020 Dubai, believes the all-women ensemble is symbolic of women’s liberation and progress.

“We wanted to encourage women from this region … Dubai is opening its arms to different philosophies, arts, music. It’s a sign of liberation and it’s a great statement coming from Reem Al Hashimi [Minister of State for International Cooperation, Director-General of the Expo 2020 Dubai Bureau],” said AR Rahman in an interview with Gulf News ahead of the high-profile opening ceremony of Expo 2020 Dubai.

The ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ composer, who is often dubbed as the Mozart Of Madras and has been a formidable agent of change in the Indian musical landscape, shepherded 50 women musicians from the Middle East to fuse styles and genres. Such a flagship project, that aims at empowering female musicians by giving them a global stage like the Expo 2020 Dubai to express their musical prowess, may help in balancing out the skewed gender imbalance in arts. It's no secret that men in music have it a lot easier than women who had to fight for a place in the musical food chain and to be taken seriously.

Firdaus Orchestra was born after a nation-wide search for musicians who met AR Rahman’s superlative standards and he hand-picked them to form the all-women music orchestra.

“I am like their big brother … Sometimes we need to have a balance in a weighing machine. This could even out all that women underwent for decades and centuries,” said AR Rahman.

The composer and singer put aside two years of his life to bring together this orchestra and spent most parts of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UAE.

But all his efforts will culminate in a spectacular musical extravaganza at this Expo 2020 Dubai. On October 23, his compositions will be showcased at a full-fledged concert by his orchestra, while a slice of it will be presented at the high-profile, exclusive opening ceremony on September 30.

AR Rahman
AR Rahman Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/Gulf News

“The concert will be on October 23 and you can also hear my new composition too,” AR Rahman told Gulf News. Expo 2020 Dubai is one of the biggest cultural extravaganzas and all roads are likely to lead to the expansive pavilions.

“I came here a couple of years back … Since I have a conservatory in Chennai where we teach music to under-privileged children, I have always been interested in such projects. My fascination for Arabic music is evident even in my music made in the past 25 years,” said AR Rahhman. His blockbuster songs such as ‘Humma Humma’ from the film ‘Bombay’ had strong Arabic influences.

“We started auditioning and got this whole team together. The thing with an orchestra is that it’s team work and no one can mess it up … My outlook towards life is now different … Everybody had to be good together and encouraging women from this region felt so good. In some places in the world, music can be a taboo thing,” said AR Rahman.

The musician, who has composed music for over 100 films in various Indian languages and for Hollywood films, was also impressed by the professionalism on display at the Expo 2020 Dubai. He also plans to set up an state-of-the-art Firdaus Studio to facilitate cultural and music exchange between India and the UAE

“All my career, I have been doing things on my own. I am the captain of my own ship. But here it works in a beautiful corporate way. I have learned many things,” said AR Rahman.

He considers the city of Dubai, a meeting point between his aspirations and his intentions.

“And India has such a big connection to the UAE…,” said AR Rahman.

His daughters have also traveled with him to be a part of the Expo 2020 Dubai and he claims that his singer-daughter Khadija is incredibly proud of his endeavour for the world-class event.

“She’s proud of me for doing this … When you look at these women, they could be mothers, sisters, daughters and they come from different places. This is a perfect example of exchanging humanity … Music can be such a perfect meeting point,” said AR Rahman. He remembers the time when he got inspired by his young musicians in his orchestra.

“In the exclusive video we released, the Turkish march came from Siham who played the Qanun [string instrument] and Sahar Khoueiry … I just arranged it … The process was so organic and evolved smoothly… For the past three months, I was constantly jamming with them and it was so collaborative,” said AR Rahman.

The award-winning composer, who has performed to packed houses during his concerts in the UAE, jokingly tells Gulf News that he felt as if the Dubai airport lounge was his make-shift home.

“But meeting these musicians was so cathartic … We lived in a villa and we grew up with them. And it feels good,” said AR Rahman.