Today, everybody considers A.R. Rahman a pioneer in Indian music and musical technique. But what a lot of people either don’t know or overlook is that his father, R.K. Shekhar, was also a very talented musical pioneer.

Rajagopala Kulashekhara Shekhar was born on 7 November 1933, when India was still a part of the British Empire. The country’s states and cities looked different, had different names. And music, as AR himself has put it, wasn’t really a career. Not a respectable, well-paying one at any rate.

Shekhar’s own father, K. Rajagopal, was a school dropout who became an electrician and part-timed as a bhagavathar—composing and singing Hindu religious songs. Shekhar inherited the musical talent. He learnt to play the harmonium from a paternal uncle and eventually mastered the instrument. He was good enough, in terms of both skill and personality, to teach other kids in the neighbourhood even. Shekhar went on to play at Carnatic concerts in the halls of Mylapore in Chennai (then Madras)—the stronghold of Carnatic music. Shekhar was eventually picked up by a famous drama troupe named R.S. Manohar.

RK Shekhar.
RK Shekhar.

In 1959, V. Dakshinamoorthy, a popular composer who worked in the Malayalam film industry, heard Shekhar play and decided he wanted to take the young man on as an assistant. The harmonium, during the period, was the backbone of Indian film music. The music for nearly every movie made at the time was created on this instrument.

Shekhar was eager to get into the movies (unlike his son so many years later) and he was more than happy to grab the opportunity when it came his way. Shekhar eventually became a composer in his own right, an arranger and a conductor. Most of the films he worked on were in Malayalam. He was one of the best in the business.

The few surviving pictures of Shekhar show a rather handsome, clean-shaven man with keen eyes and slick, combed, dark hair—and young, because he never made it past the age of forty-three. His entire musical career, beginning in 1964, spanned only twelve years. In those twelve years, however, the volume of work Shekhar put out is staggering. He composed for twenty-four movies. And he would have done more, even in the limited time he had, if there hadn’t been so many Malayalam music directors around already. Arrangers were what the industry really needed at the time, not composers.

Shekhar certainly wasn’t without skill. He was sought out by some of the biggest names in the south Indian film industry, music directors like Devarajan, Arjunan Master and Raghavan Master among them. Shekhar assisted Dakshinamoorthy, his mentor, who taught him all about arrangement and reading music.

Shekhar, much like his son, was an innovator. He was the first person to introduce electronic music instruments—which he brought in from abroad, Singapore mainly—to South Indian music. He even bought a keyboard with his own earnings. His children were not allowed to touch it, though AR recalls watching, much amazed, as his father manipulated it into making all sorts of sounds. Shekhar invested heavily in all the latest music equipment—a habit AR would inherit.

In addition to composing for movies on his own, Shekhar assisted many popular Malayalam film composers. All told, he worked on over 100 movies before he died. He used to play the harmonium and the piano. ‘My father used to be so busy that he would sometimes do seven or eight recordings a day,’ AR recalls.

Shekhar worked hard. Too hard, his family would later feel. It was work, eat and sleep—and in that order exactly—for Shekhar. The man had little or no life outside of his work. He wasn’t one to spend much time with his family, but he remained a dream assistant to all the composers he worked with by all accounts. He would take the tunes music directors came up with on their harmoniums, give the various members of the orchestra their notes, keep the instruments ready, practise with them till it was time to record. He even sang on occasion and was incredibly resourceful, writes Kamini Mathai in her book A.R. Rahman: The Musical Storm. He could source players of the obscurest of instruments. He was ambitious and curious, much like his son. And he yearned to experiment, to keep growing.

Before long, he was as good as composing for the music directors he was assisting. He was involved in the arrangements and in conducting, very much into improvising and even replacing some tunes with his own creations. However, he never took due credit for any of it. For him, what mattered was keeping his bosses happy and earning, not recognition. Shekhar was unlike his son in other ways too. He was both rigid and short-tempered when it came to his work. AR, even if he gets angry—which he does—will never really shout. Shekhar used to roar. He was a busy man, working with up to four composers at a time, and he was exacting. He had little patience for anyone who fooled around, for musicians who made mistakes or came in late for recording sessions. For him, fun and work did not go together.

‘Rahman always talks about how talented [our father] was and how much he would have grown if he had some more time,’ AR’s elder sister Raihanah says. ‘And so many people benefited from him. He was so respected because he was really a good man.’

‘Maybe it’s the result of everything my dad did, all of his hard work, that I’m enjoying now,’ says AR. ‘All the good karma.’

Excerpted with permission from Notes of a Dream The Authorized Biography of A.R. Rahman, Krishna Trilok, Penguin Random House India.