There are certain experiences in life that change you as a person and help you grow into a better individual. For me, these defining experiences happened during those years that I was a student of AR Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory.
As I look back on that journey that has evolved me into making music my life and profession I feel KMMC happened a little late in my life but I strongly feel it couldn't have come at a more right moment than this. I had a keen interest in music since childhood, listening along with my grandfather to his thousands of carnatic collections including M.Balamuralikrishna, Thyagaraja, Ramadas, and many Annamayya Keerthanas and instrumentals. I recall composing rough tunes for fun, even before I started learning music formally. But it wasn’t until AR Rahman happened, that my passion for music grew beyond words. I became a devout fan of Rahman Sir ever since Bombay had released. I remember skipping my school continuously to go to the theatre where Bombay was being played just to listen to the music and the background scores. And with each of his releases after that, his music became a daily fuel for me.
I had completed my Engineering degree in Chennai and was working a mundane software job. Of course, my body was there, but my ears, mind and thoughts were just tunes, melodies, rhythm and one man- AR Rahman. So when I heard news that Rahman Sir was going to open his own music school here in Chennai, which offers courses in western classical music, various areas of music technology, instruments, and vocals, I thought to myself, “If I wanted to give my passion for music a chance to grow and give a chance to live my dream-job as a composer, THIS was it.” And what better opportunity to learn at an institution developed by a man who I worshipped and looked up to for so many years. So without hesitation I applied for an audition. Now I wasn’t at all sure I would get in and did not even tell my family or anyone else about applying to the school. I thought to myself by auditioning I would at least catch a glimpse of the school and studio, and if lucky catch a glimpse of Rahman Sir. So I was super surprised and was just in utter disbelief when I got that call of acceptance and my family was even more shocked when I told them that I am going to resign my job and join KMMC. So here I was literally on cloud 9, about to begin a journey that I had only dreamt of all these years.
In KMMC I took western classical vocals and composition as a major with a prior knowledge in carnatic vocals and keyboard. As soon as I entered the conservatory compound on the first day, I could just feel the aura of positive energy all around. The school had almost like a homely and soothing atmosphere with wooden floors and furniture, accented with warm curtains, large middle-eastern rugs, a beautiful grand piano and a picture of Rahman sir's father in the main reception area. More than this it was my fellow classmates from all corners of the world, and the amazing faculty that made those years the most memorable.
Moreover, being part of KMMC I saw Rahman Sir in a whole different light, and my respect and devotion towards him grew to infinite lengths. During the first week he came and interacted with us in person and asked us our ambitions and goals. I still remember when I asked Sir at that time to hum a few lines of New York Nagaram, what he said in response will forever stay with me. He said. "Guys don't stick only onto New York Nagaram, music is beyond the regular commercial cinema. Make your mark, aim at the moon..at least you will reach the stars" .I was amazed at the fact that no matter how busy he was, he used to attend almost every student recital and concert that we used to have at KM. He used to listen to us patiently and give us suggestions, advice and clarifications on any doubts we had with so much patience. And in case he was unable to make it to an event, he used to send us a sorry note. I was just amazed that a man who is such a prominent society figure, a pioneer in popularizing indian music to globally, western music to the east, a musical magician, behaved so simple, so friendly and so down-to-earth. He did not even behave like a principal to us; he was more like a friend and even used to call some of the students with nicknames. For instance, whenever I used to see him, he always used to smile and greet me with a simple ‘Hey, Hi Man’ even before I said anything. There are just no words to describe his modesty and humbleness.
Also to add, there is a government school near the conservatory. KMMC provides free music education to 40 students there, and Rahman Sir makes sure that they are all taught with equal interest and respect like any one of us. Another valuable thing that I have observed is that more than talent, Rahman Sir gives importance to behaviour and character. For example, after one of our outdoor concerts when we met him he told us, ‘I heard you guys did a great job, but yet to know about your behaviour there.’ I was absolutely taken aback and thought, wow this man amazes me each time I am in his presence. And just being in his presence you learn so much about how to better your self as a person, how to dedicate yourself and focus on the work you do at the same time try to think and better the lives of others.
KMMC definitely helped me grow as an individual and at the same time it helped me broaden my horizons as a musician and gave me greater exposure to different styles and forms of music. Meeting and working with classmates and faculty from various parts of India and different parts of the world, gave me an opportunity to come to know different genres of music. My special thanks to Kavita Baliga, who was my vocal mentor. She was a constant support and motivation for me. The techniques she taught me in regulating my vocals from nasal to normal range with so much patience, I will never forget. Also I am grateful to her in choosing me for the KM Chamber choir. These lessons and techniques I still carry with me in any recent work I do. Moreover, the best aspect of KMMC is that with the diversity of students and musical backgrounds they come from, there is constant exchange of knowledge happening throughout of different people’s experience with music of different genres and styles. And we constantly used to have jam sessions where we blend all our ideas and feels of different styles, creating a totally new flavour of music. Ironically, my first full song composition was dedicated to Rahman Sir for his birthday; a song titled Rahe mahan Rahman, which with a team of some of my KMMC classmates, was able to produce and personally present the CD to him. From then on wards, our team started making more and more music. In fact, the entire team behind my soundtrack for PAPPU, including almost all the the singers were my classmates from KMMC. I feel without them Pappu would not have been possible. I feel I was truly blessed to work with such talented people who I considered friends more than colleagues, who I had such good rapport, trust and comfort level with so early on in my career.
My most memorable moments at KMMC:
1. During the beginning days of KM I had performed a western piece in front of AR Rahman Sir, and I was very disheartened when he remarked; ‘Oh you sang in an Indian way of Western’ with a laugh. And then he suggested a few artist and albums to listen to, and how to adapt to the western classical way of singing. Then, after training at KM, I had performed another western piece at the KM Annual Day function, and after that Rahman Sir himself shook my hand and said ‘Hey! Great performance Man!’ I was literally in tears and this was definitely the most happiest moment in my life.
2. The two day recording sessions of choir for the song "Maaralante" from the movie PULI in AM and Panchathan studios. This was the first time I had an opportunity to enter Panchathan(his residence/studio- where the magic happens). The divine essence of the place and spiritual calmness I felt just cannot be described
3. Performing with the KM Choir at the AR Rahman Unplugged Concert in Delhi for Doordarshan's 50 years celebrations. It was an absolute honour and privilege to share the same stage and also learn and watch ARR perform so closely.
4. After coming back from winning the Golden Globes, when the whole world was waiting to wish him. We were so blessed that he first came to meet us and we were the first to congratulate him on his big win, which would soon after become a streak of wins.
So here I am, looking back on this remarkable journey filled with lessons for a lifetime. I can proudly say that the knowledge, experience, and the many musical friends that I have gained in these past 3 years in KMMC cannot match any other formal training one might acquire. I feel very blessed that I got an offer to debut with my music in the recent Telugu movie PAPPU(Thanks to my producers). KMMC exposed me to this wonderful world of music, which I continue to dive into deep and discover each and every day. It has definitely given me a platform to embark on a new journey as a Music Director to explore and give something unique to the industry and to music. I am now eagerly looking forward to making my mark in this industry and hoping that I get some interesting projects and movies to work on.
Thank you Rahman, Thank you KMMC
Listen to Phani Kalyan's song Rahemahan Rahaman at
You can reach Phani Kalyan at
phani dot gangaraju at gmail dot com.