United Nations — August 15, 2016: A.R. Rahman enthralled a packed audience at the iconic United Nations General Assembly Hall with his renditions of Indian Carnatic legend M. S. Subbulakshmi’s music, Sufi songs and the foot-tapping ‘Jai Ho’ at a concert to celebrate India’s 70th Independence Day on August 15th, 2016.
The musical concert, organized by India’s Permanent Mission to the UN with the support of Sankara Nethralaya, an India-based not-for-profit organization, on India’s 70th Independence Day, was a tribute by Rahman to Subbulakshmi on the occasion of her birth centenary. Through the nearly three-hour long concert, Rahman and his troupe performed Subbulakshmi’s music and compositions.
Oscar-winning composer Rahman (49), made history by becoming the only second Indian artist after Subbulakshmi, who had performed at the United Nations 50 years ago. The audience of ambassadors, diplomats and Indian-Americans welcomed Rahman with a thunderous applause and loud cheers as he stepped on stage, dressed in traditional Indian attire.
The world body’s iconic General Assembly hall, from where world leaders address the globe, reverberated with Rahman’s enchanting music. Through his performance, Rahman paid homage to Subbulakshmi, the first musician ever to be awarded India’s highest civilian honor Bharat Ratna. The concert coincides with the completion of 50 years of Subbulakshmi’s performance in the UN General Assembly hall with the support of Chennai-based Sankara Nethralaya, a not-for-profit eye institution.
The concert honoring Subbulakshmi at the UN aims to “perpetuate the memory of not only one of the greatest musicians India had ever produced but that of a greatest soul who lived a life of philanthropy and goodwill for all humanity”, Sankara Nethralaya’s Chairman Emeritus S S Badrinath said.
Rahman, known to be a man of few words, said in the beginning of the concert that he had a long speech prepared but decided against delivering it, letting his music do the talking for him. In his homage to Subbulakshmi, Rahman said she had performed at the UN a year before he was born. “For us, she is a case study” of how a person with humble beginnings can conquer and rise above the caste and class system and become an “ultimate icon” for every aspiring singer.
Her life was the inspiration behind Rahman’s Sunshine Orchestra, which was started about a few years ago and teaches eastern and western classical music to underprivileged children, he said. “Today these children have pushed their boundaries and are almost ready for the world,” he said. “It is one of my duties to come here and celebrate her,” he said, adding that he considers the music legend “God of my culture”.
The concert was a way of celebrating M S Subbulakshmi’s performance at the UN General Assembly hall on 23 October 1966. The first ever musician to be awarded India’s highest civilian honor the Bharat Ratna, Subbulakshmi was invited by the then UN Secretary General late U Thant to perform at the General Assembly, becoming the first Indian to perform there. “It feels really, really good. I think 1966 was just one year before I was born. It’s been 50 years. So, (it was) coming back in a special way to celebrate one of my city’s icons, one of India’s icons- MS Subbulakshmiji,” Rahman was quoted to have said.
A highlight of the concert was performances by students of Sunshine Orchestra, an initiative by the A.R. Rahman Foundation, that teaches music to underprivileged youngsters. “From today, you are privileged, you are not underprivileged anymore,” Rahman said as a word of encouragement to the students as they geared to perform on the UN stage.
Rahman’s two sisters also performed on stage along with noted singers Javed Ali and renowned percussionist Sivamani. Rahman, sitting amid his musical instruments on one side of the UN stage, rendered one soulful number after another as his troupe gave mesmerising performances of Subbulakshmi’s Carnatic music. “Music has given me everything, this is a small thing in return,” Rahman said about the special backup.
To loud cheers and applause, Rahman also performed some of his most popular songs including from movies such as ’Dil Se’ and ‘Bombay’ as well as a rendition of ‘Vande Mataram’ Towards the end of the concert, Rahman and his group performed Sufi songs, including ‘Khwaja Mere Khwaja’, ‘Kun Faya Kun’ and ‘Maula, Maula.’
The grand finale was the foot-tapping song ‘Jai Ho’ from the movie Slumdog Millionaire, for which Rahman had won Oscars and several prestigious global awards. As Rahman and his troupe began the song, several people in the audience broke into a dance.
A Photo Exhibition about M S Subbulakshmi’s life and times is also being held from August 15-19, 2016 at the United Nations. It depicts various facets and moment’s and provides a rare insight to the music legend’s achievements. United Nations Postal Administration issued a stamp to mark the birth centenary of Dr. M.S. Subbulakshmi.
India’s Minister of State for External Affairs M J Akbar addressed the audience, and said, “Music is at the soul of the nation, that is India.” Akbar lauded the significance of music in India’s freedom struggle as well as its role as a unifying power. “Our journey towards freedom is represented by two songs — ‘Vande Mataram and Jann Gann Mann’,” Akbar said. He said that while other countries first formed a nation and then created an anthem, India “created anthems first and then formed a nation”. “Music is the most powerful expression of the soul of India because it inspires that spark of divinity that lives in every human soul,” he said, describing musicians as “ambassadors of God. Every morning in India begins with music. Every morning in every corner in India begins with the music of the Azaan, followed by the music of the Hanuman temple, followed by the music of the Gurudwara and then by the music of Church bells,” he said amid a huge round of applause, adding that one should “thank destiny for making us Indians”.
India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin noted that the UN is observing its 70th anniversary as India’s celebrates its 70th independence day.
“We hope this event will reinforce the belief that diverse cultural traditions reflecting each others values remain relevant to global thinking and the UN,” he said. Subbulakshmi is among the best musicians India has given to the world, Akbaruddin said. “Remembering a legend. Photo exhibition @UN in memory of MS Subbulakshmi August 15-19,” he said in a tweet.
The UN takes inspiration from various contributions made by India to the world, including the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent teachings and the harmony of Yoga, the world body’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. The video message was played during the concert at the UN on Monday.
In his message to India on its 70th Independence Day, Ban said the occasion also celebrates India’s partnership with the UN. India is a founding member of the UN, Ban said and expressed his gratitude to the country for its significant contributions to the world body’s peacekeeping operations. “We are also celebrating India’s strong partnership with the UN,” he said in his message, which he began with a ‘Namaste’.
Closing the concert, Rahman made an appeal for peace saying killing one another will not solve the world’s problems. “…We still kill each other. In my lifetime I want to see a world where people do not fight and kill each other but find better methods to solving conflicts. Let us hope in our lifetime we see this change.”