Gotta give it to A.R. Rahman. The man with the Midas touch seems to weave magic wherever he plays and the audience is left in awe of his genius. Recently, the Oscar winning composer A.R. Rahman’s music of universal harmony blending traditions, time, faiths and languages soared through the United Nations General Assembly chamber, a venue known more for cacophonous discord.
At a concert to mark India’s 70th Independence Day, Rahman’s apt tribute to legendary M.S. Subbulakshmi, the “Queen of Music”, on the occasion of her birth centenary brought 21st pizzazz to the Classical and traditional, upholding the sacred even as electronic music and a kinetic backdrop transcended centuries.
With this, Rahman, 49, has become the second Indian artiste after Subbulakshmi to perform in the General Assembly hall.
The unity in diversity that is India was weaved through the concert, starting with Sanskrit and Tamil devotional hymns in Carnatic tradition and seamlessly moving to music in a popular modern, Hindustani and qawwali styles, and on to soulful Islamic songs, ending finally with a resounding “Jai Ho”.
This spectacle of India presented in music proclaimed a universal message to the world in the wood-paneled chamber transformed for a day from a platform for dissensions to a music hall where Hindu and Islamic voices were raised together in pleas for peace.
The backdrop shifted from temple-like scenarios and Islamic structures and timeless motifs of scenic beauty and shimmering light spectacles that reflected the music.
India’s Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar reflected on this as he spoke before the concert. In India, he said, the day starts with the ‘aazans’ from the mosques, ‘bhajans’ from temples, devotional songs from the gurdwaras and hymns from churches.
During the freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi started his meeting with the song, “Ishwar, Allah, tere naam”, he recalled.
“Our freedom lay in music,” he said, recalling that the freedom struggle started with the song “Vande Mataram” and India is represented by that and the National Anthem, “Jana Gana Mana”.
Unlike most countries that get an anthem after attaining nationhood, India already had an anthem before Independence, Akbar said.
The concert, with the audience overflowing in the three-level chamber, enchanted the international audience.
Panama’s Permanent Representative Laura E. Flores re-tweeted Akbar’s remark: “Music is what links us as individuals to eternity” and said she expected a “fantastic” evening.
David Roet, Israel’s Deputy Premanent Representative, tweeted the music was “amazing”.
It was “mesmerizing” and a “magical treat”, Britain’s Deputy Permanent Representative Peter Wilson said.
In a video message before the concert, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon celebrated the 70 years of India’s participation with the UN that started even before it became Independent.
He said Gandhi’s message of non-violence inspired the world body.
He also hailed India for being the top contributor to UN peace-keeping and for spreading the message of yoga.
Rahman’s ensemble of almost 50, including the Sunshine Orchestra, reflected what Indian’s Permanent Representative Syed Akbaruddin said was “the journey of a billion people” as India progressed since Independence.
In a stark contrast to the modest group of five accompanists of Subbulakshmi in the original concert 50 years ago, this year’s performance with the large multi-religious ensemble, the techno music, the video, show lighting the background and the eclectic repertoire could be viewed as a timeline of the nation’s progress.
His Sunshine Orchestra is made up of what he said were underprivileged youth, whose talents he burnished to shine on an international stage.
A highlight of the concert was the ‘thaniavarthanam’ or Carnatic percussion solo, with cymbals, drums rather than the mridangam, and small earthenware instead of the ‘ghatam’ that evoked audience participation.
The concert was organised by India’s Permanent Mission to the UN with the support of Sankara Nethralaya, an India-based civil society organisation.
At the end of the concert, Rahman made a plea for peace, calling on the world to “find a better method to solve conflicts”.
“Let us hope we will see this change in our lifetime,” he said.