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Rahman Is Why I Do What I Do: Sound Artist on Working With Legends

Sai Shravanam, one of India’s top music producers, on playing tabla for Rahman and mastering for Ilayaraja.

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4 min read
Rahman Is Why I Do What I Do: Sound Artist on Working With Legends

Sai Shravanam is a musician, who’s played for scores of ARR’s songs (right up to Rockstar and Ok Jaanu). He’s also the sound recordist for ‘Life of Pi’. He’s the Scoring Engineer (sound engineer who ‘understands’ the nuance of music) for ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’, among a host of other credits in the same movie. He interpreted the music composed by Coby Brown to Indian music.
He speaks to
The Quint, on his experience, working with AR Rahman, Ilayaraja and Santhosh Narayanan (Saala Khadoos, Kabali).

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Sai Shravanam with AR Rahman. (Photo Courtesy: Sai Shravanam)

What Comes First, Comes From God: AR Rahman

I’ve worked with Rahman sir only as a musician. The reason I’ve survived for so long is because I don’t allow these two personas (musician and music technician) to overlap.

I’m a self-taught percussionist. I play the tabla. Think of any of Rahman Sir’s songs with a tabla in them; chances are I would have played the tabla. While working for the movie Rockstar, I was called in for a song. I was waiting for him at the studio when he arrived. Rahman Sir is a man of very few words.

‘Hi’, he said.
‘Hi Sir’.
‘Have you tuned (the tabla)?’
‘Yes sir.’
‘Let’s listen to the song.’
And we listened silently to the song. He then said, ‘Keep it sparse (minimal), okay?’
‘Okay sir’.
‘Let’s go for a take.’

I was shocked. This was the first time I listened to the song. And he wanted me to go for the take. No rehearsal, no practice. Nothing.

During the recording, I played where I thought I should play. Where I expected a certain element to come, such an element was missing, and so I stopped playing, in the middle of the recording. I never shout 'cut' and 'once more' during the recording, unless the composer too wants it at the time. I usually do retakes after the recording stops. And then I continued to play where I felt it was apt.

Rahman sir was quiet for a few minutes. And then he just stood up and went out of the studio.

I was really embarrassed. I didn't know what to do. I too came out, and he was standing outside the door.

I said, 'Sir, I can do it again sir.'

Why?

'I only listened to it once. If I can listen to it again, I can do it better.' (all of my insecurity, you see).

'No, I think this'll do.'

I didn't even have the heart to ask him again. I simply left. Once the music came out, I saw that he had used that first and only take, the one where I actually stopped playing in the middle and then continued when I felt like. I later asked him about it, and he said something that’ll stay with me for life.

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What comes first, comes from God. Everything else that comes after that, comes from you.
A R Rahman
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Sai Shravanam with Ilayaraja and Shivkumar Sharma at the launch event of ‘Swappnam’. (Photo credits: Sai Shravanam)

Ilayaraja is God

The way he creates music or understands it is something no one can replicate. To compose a symphony, he doesn’t need to hear the music, or play it on his harmonium. It’s all in his head! I have mastered many of his songs and albums, in addition to recording them.

I was working on this album called Swappnam. The string section of the orchestra had all assembled.

Ilayaraja came in and said, ‘What are these people doing here?’
‘Sir, you said you’d record the strings today. That’s why they’re here.’
‘Oh!’

He had clearly forgotten this ‘little’ detail. He thought for a moment, asked for a pen and some paper. Started to write. After a few minutes of furious writing, he handed over a bunch of papers and said, ‘get these xeroxed. Give it to the orchestra and let’s record.’

The musicians all received their photocopy. They rehearsed for a bit and then performed the notations. I had tears in my eyes as the symphony unfolded.

In a matter of minutes he had written separate notations for the different sections of the orchestra – the violin, viola, guitars, etc.

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Snapshot

Ilayaraja draws the bird painstakingly, in every detail, and then he sets it free. Rahman starts with a tiny feather, which then expands into the sky.

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Sai Shravanam with Santhosh Narayanan. (Photo Courtesy: Sai Shravanam)

Santhosh Narayanan Knows Exactly What Works

Santhosh and I share a much closer bond. He gives me full freedom to work.
There’s a lot of back and forth about what the song could be.
But he knows exactly what will work for the masses. Sometimes, even when I tell him the song could be done better, he will ask me to go ahead with what already exists. Invariably, he would be right, and the song would be hit.

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What’s exclusive is that I engineer (music) and also play the tabla for Santhosh. It’s like doing both the things I love!

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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