Amid tension over attacks on Indian students, a musical superstar wants to help, writes Matt Wade.
Can Bollywood rhythms help soothe international tensions? A.R. Rahman, the superstar of contemporary Indian music who created the Oscar-winning soundtrack for the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire, thinks they can.
As fury grows on the subcontinent over attacks on Indians in Australia, Rahman will stage a free concert in Sydney's Parramatta Park on Saturday to "build a bridge of understanding". Rahman suggested the show as a gesture of goodwill.
"This concert is a statement of friendship, peace and love," he says before leaving for Australia.
Rahman's desire to stage the concert underscores how deeply the attacks have been felt across India. He considers it his "duty" as a musician to help promote understanding between both countries.
"The show is to celebrate … music and friendship. I feel a concert is a very spiritual gathering where people from many different backgrounds can come together doing the same thing. It's a great way to make a statement of love and peace."
Rahman's show, which is part of the Sydney Festival, was announced last August after a series of attacks on Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney. The assaults received blanket media coverage in India and damaged Australia's reputation as a safe destination for students.
Tension has flared again in the past fortnight after the violent deaths of two Indians in Australia, including the stabbing murder in Melbourne of former student Nitin Garg. These incidents have made Rahman's visit more poignant.
He hopes the Parramatta show will help break down cultural misunderstandings and boost the morale of tens of thousands of Indians studying in Australia.
"It's not just the music, it is what's behind the music," he says. "I really hope we get a positive response in Australia."
The celebrated score for Slumdog Millionaire won Rahman two Oscars, a BAFTA Award and a Golden Globe last year and introduced him to a global audience. The film's uplifting anthem, Jai Ho, became an international hit, topping the charts in several countries including Australia.
"There is now more recognition for my work," Rahman says. "I can walk into any studio and talk to any artist … I have the freedom to be more choosy and to express what I want to express in my music."
Rahman has achieved hero status in India and his success is symbolic of a new, more internationally oriented and globally influential India. He has fond memories of playing to packed crowds in Sydney and Melbourne in 2005. "They were some of my best audiences," he says. "There was great hospitality … There was a lot of encouragement and a lot of love so that's what forced us to come back again."
Rahman says about 80 people will be involved in Saturday's high-energy concert, which is expected to be one of the highlights of this year's festival.
"It's a showcase of all the stuff I've done for 18 years … It will be packed with lots of exciting things like video, lights and dance. There are a lot of positive things coming together for this and I hope it's a great success."
Even before last year's international triumph, Rahman had experienced huge success in his homeland where film and pop music merge. He started as a session musician and composed jingles for commercials in his home town of Chennai, formerly Madras. Rahman launched his career as a film composer in the thriving South Indian movie industry which produces hundreds of films each year in languages such as Tamil and Telugu.
In 1992 he gained critical acclaim for his score for the film Roja and was soon writing music for Bollywood and beyond. He has written more than 100 film scores, typically churning out five or six a year.
Rahman's film scores and soundtracks have reportedly achieved sales of more than 300 million, making him one of the best-selling recording artists in the world.
A Time magazine critic described him as the ''Mozart of Madras'' and the magazine included Rahman in its list of the world's most influential 100 people last year.
The 44-year-old's personal story reflects India's religious diversity. Rahman's father, a composer, was a Hindu and his mother a Muslim. He was given the Hindu-sounding name - A.S. Dileep Kumar - but converted to Sufism, a mystical and lyrical form of Islam, in the late 1980s and changed his name to Allah Rakha Rahman.
His music has been deeply influenced by his religious experience and Rahman attributes his achievements to divine blessing. "My whole journey in music … has had a spiritual guidance," he says.
Despite his national and international success, Rahman is still based in Chennai and continues to work on South Indian films. He says that working in the Indian film industry has given him great freedom to experiment. ''I often tell directors I want to do this and they say, 'Yeah, go ahead and we'll make sure it works in the movie.' ''
His tens of millions of Indian fans have now come to expect innovation. "The people of India constantly push me to the edge, asking 'What are you going to do next?', so their interest has pushed me to work harder."
Rahman says Indian classical music has provided a base for his composition but he borrows from an eclectic range of styles including pop, folk, rock and hip hop. "I don't like to get typecast," he says.
Rahman believes the success of Slumdog Millionaire has created a bridge between Western and Indian audiences that could lead more people to explore Indian music. The international success of Jai Ho showed that contemporary Indian music can attract an international audience.
"Indian music has potential to have a bigger impact on the world," he says.
A.R. Rahman plays at Parramatta Park on Saturday from 7.30pm. Gates open at noon, and the venue will be closed when it is full.