- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2009

NEW DELHI

The soaring “Slumdog Millionaire” soundtrack’s three Oscar nominations and Golden Globe award marked many Americans’ first exposure to the music of A.R. Rahman. Yet in his native India, the composer has been a national treasure for years.

The composer, 43, has been winning awards since he burst on the Bollywood music scene in the early ‘90s - blending styles rarely seen in mainstream Indian cinema.

Mr. Rahman has composed music for more than 130 Indian films, incorporating jazz, rock, Indian pop and Western classical music.

“He changed the entire concept of Indian film music,” says Subir Malik, another well-known Indian musician, who described Mr. Rahman as “a very, very experimental guy.”

Mr. Rahman, who has a degree in Western classical music from the Trinity College of Music in London, experimented with reggae in his debut film, “Roja.” His first taste of international recognition came in 2001 when British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber invited him to compose the score for “Bombay Dreams.” Mr. Rahman also composed music for the stage adaptation of “Lord of the Rings,” which premiered in Canada in 2006 and London in 2007, but he remained relatively unknown in the United States.

That changed when he won the Golden Globe earlier this month for best original soundtrack for Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire.” Then, last week, he was nominated for three Oscars - best original score and two in the best original song section.

The film tells the story of Jamal Malik, a poor youth who becomes the champion of India’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” television program as he searches for his lost love. Mr. Rahman’s catchy music seems to mirror the unyielding spirit of the Mumbai slums where the film is set.

The two Oscar-nominated songs follow his tradition of mixing globe-spanning styles. “Jai Ho” blends classic Indian pop with electronica and Brazilian-inspired drums. “O Saya” features the eclectic British sensation M.I.A., who co-wrote the song with Mr. Rahman.

Mr. Rahman did not attend the Mumbai premiere of “Slumdog Millionaire.” He was already busy working on his next movie in his hometown, the southern Indian city of Chennai.

The composer, who is known to be somewhat withdrawn, posted a note on his Web site thanking fans for their “unconditional love, good wishes, support and for believing in me throughout.”

“It is an amazing moment,” he told the Hindu newspaper after the Oscar nominations were announced Thursday.

Just two Indians have won at the Oscars so far - costume designer Bhanu Athaiya won for “Gandhi” in 1982 and noted filmmaker Satyajit Ray was honored with a lifetime achievement award in 1992.

Born into a Hindu family in 1966, Mr. Rahman was named Dileep Kumar, but as a 21-year-old, he converted to Sufism, a mystical form of Islam. He changed his name to Allah Rakha Rahman, according to a recent article in Tehelka, an English-language news magazine.

He told the magazine his conversion “was a long process. I was really intrigued by the Sufi thing and had gone very deeply into it, putting aside three hours every day to learn Arabic. I was drawn to Sufism because they have no regulation, no rules, no distinction between Hindu and Muslim.”

As a musician, Mr. Rahman started as a keyboard player with several music composers before coming into his own, composing ad jingles and scores for television shows. He has gone on to sell more than 100 million albums. Indian films are almost entirely musicals, and he has composed for films in a slew of languages.

The Oscar nomination, his fans in India think, will carry his sound to the rest of the world.

“We’ve always known that he’s world class,” says Supratik Sen, a Mumbai-based filmmaker. “Now the world is going to know as well.”

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