Thousands upon thousands of eager Indian fans flocked to the O2 arena in southeast London on Saturday for a very special celebration of India’s 69th Independence Day.
A true son of India, a source of unbridled pride for every Indian, returned to the O2 after five long years for a live performance and certainly didn’t disappoint.
It was difficult to imagine that the O2 could be so full – every seat in the house was taken and the mostly South Asian audience was as kaleidoscopic as India itself: men, women and children of all age groups and from the myriad different parts of India, united in their energy and enthusiasm for an Indian icon.
Rahman and his troupe’s performance was equally varied with songs from Bollywood and Hollywood as well as numerous genres – jazz, Sufi, eastern classical – presented in Tamil, Punjabi and even French.
The show began with the devotional “Maula Mere Maula”, during which Rahman was accompanied by Bollywood singer Javed Ali. The duo laid the perfect foundation for what turned out to be a larger than life musical experience.
The set, sound and light arrangements as well as technical acumen on display were universally superb.
Then came the unforgettable “Chinna Chinna Aasai” from the soundtrack of Mani Ratnam’s iconic film ‘Roja’, blending seamlessly into “Choti Si Asha” from the same soundtrack.
Then followed “Uyire” from the 1995 hit ‘Bombay’, blending into “Tu Hi Re” and then” Dil Se”; “Kahene Ko Jashna Bahara” from Jodha Akbar, a fabulously choral “Sathiya” and “Tere Bina” from Guru, followed by a string of Tamil songs.
Among the other highlights of the night was a flawless rendition of “O Kadhal Kanmani” and a – surprisingly – discarded song from the film ‘The 100-foot Journey’.
Ever the showman, Rahman didn’t forget Independence Day with a stirring rendition of ‘Ye Jo Des Hai Tera’ complete with a light show which bathed the arena in the colours of the Indian tri-colour.
Rahman and his troupe then presented his latest experimental music, which he has dubbed “Version 0.3”.
Rahman, his singers and drummer wore bands on their hands and moved their wrists, based on which the laptop made sounds of cattle bells, cattle mooing and even the morning call of a rooster.
A Tamil song with these sounds in the background created the ambience of a remote village from India inside a London concert venue. It was wonderfully eccentric.
There is a real deity-like quality to Rahman and the audience’s affection merely adds to that and he responded to that affection with a simple “love you too”.
One magical moment came when he asked the audience to switch on their cell phones and wave them in the air, a truly spectacular moment when the whole arena appeared filled with (rather large) fireflies.
Rahman’s supporting singers on the night were uniformly great.
Among the best was Anneta Philip, the Berklee voice coach, who performed an amazing jazz rendition – with Rahman – of ‘Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na’. Jonita Gandhi too was a treat.
It is perhaps unsurprising too that Rahman surrounds himself with some of the world’s finest musicians, most notably flautist Naveen Kumar and the impossibly young and talented bassist Mohini Dey.
After a humble blessing for the audience, Rahman returned with his troupe for an elongated encore which was an unexpected treat.
Prior to the concert, a video was played featuring some of the biggest names in cinema and music from across the world, paying tribute to the genius of A R Rahman.
On Independence Day, this Indian icon certainly didn’t disappoint.
Here’s hoping that we will not have to wait another five years before he returns to these shores.
The views expressed here are those of the author, an academic and researcher. Main image, courtesy of Nicky Kelvin.