Western classical music

AR Rahman has just produced a criticism-proof 19-minute comment on demonetisation

‘The Flying Lotus’ weaves together samples of Narendra Modi’s speeches and Arnab Goswami’s comments on the digital economy.

The new 19-minute orchestral composition by AR Rahman, The Flying Lotus, is not to be confused with the electronic music producer of the same name. The name, perhaps, hints at the phenomenon that the Bharatiya Janata Party has been in India since it came to power at the Centre in 2014: this deduction is based on Rahman claiming to have based an entire piece on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes on the night of November 8.

Demonetisation, while initially welcomed by some quarters (although economists expressed their reservations), soon turned out to be a taxing move for Indians. ATM outlets remained closed or non-functional, new notes were in short supply, small businesses were in ruins, and militant insurgency showed no signs of stopping as the government had claimed would happen in the wake of demonetisation.

In an earlier interview, Rahman said that The Flying Lotus is not a judgement on the Modi government’s move. “I wanted to do something on what was going on in India during demonetisation and what will happen in the future,” he had said. “It’s open to interpretation.”

In a country where people are quick to stamp their feet and pass venomous criticism on any work of art that lampoons or comments on the government, it is wise of Rahman to express his thoughts about India’s contemporary political climate through music – specifically, a wordless, instrumental, orchestral piece, which is, as the composer said, open to interpretation.

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The Flying Lotus.

Any listener, whether casual or a seasoned Western classical music aficionado, can listen to Rahman’s work and enjoy it (or not) but none will be able to demand that a section of the music be censored, or say the composer lacks an understanding of economics.

Or perhaps, there is no ulterior motive to impute from The Flying Lotus. The 19-minute composition ebbs and rises, has highs and lows, is optimistic and sprightly, and later becomes the sound of impending doom. The album has nine tracks (The Flying Lotus is the final one). Tracks one to eight are The Flying Lotus divided into several sections, with the longest one being the four minutes and 25 seconds long – Demonetisation 2016. Ricardo Averbach has conducted the piece while the world renowned Seattle Symphony has performed it.

World of emotions

The album begins with Tiranga, which adds a quaint note. There is a quiet hope in the air. There may be struggle (the violin piques) but it shall be alright (it mellows down). The track feels bittersweet as it progresses and hints at a tension that is explored in the next three sections, before the pent-up emotion finds release in Demonetisation 2016.

Right after Tiranga comes the short and soft Masoom. It is followed by the loud and abrasive Pukaar that sounds like a call to arms. The string-based vivacissimo composition is halted several times by the choir that even ululates at one point. If Pukaar is sinister, Bechain, the last track before Demonetisation 2016, is titled aptly – the word means restless. It begins with distraught strings and an indeterminate flute section, before giving way to a wholesome sound, signalling anticipation.

Demonetisation 2016 begins with a spring in its step. The string and wind sections, and later a heavy brass section, followed by an all-female choir signal the arrival of a king. Suddenly, the piece is interspersed with vocal samples from speeches by Narendra Modi and Arnab Goswami, among others. As the vocal outtakes pile upon one another (Modi’s “Duniya agey badh rahi hai” or the world has moved on, and “Tees December tak mujhe mauka dijiye bhaiyon” – give me time until December 30, friends. Goswami’s is another favourite from the time – “Digital economy will take this country forward.”) percussion enters and the composition becomes more and more agitated until the last 15 seconds abruptly turn into a quasi-Darth Vader theme, as if it were the soundtrack for a menacing alien spaceship landing on Earth.

The Flying Lotus | Universal Music Group
The Flying Lotus | Universal Music Group

Light sweeps over the debris, as it were, with the next track titled Subah or morning. A rapt string section and a choir hold Subah together, which in turn seems to behold the aftermath of a monumental event. The next track, Manuhaar, is a celebratory piece high on percussion and trumpets. Manuhaar means one’s way of appeasing someone that is upset with sweet words. One could of course, choose to read meaning into the fact that this track comes right after Demonetisation 2016 and Subah.

Between Rahman’s prolific soundtrack work for Indian films and the occasional Hollywood score, The Flying Lotus is bound to get lost and not receive much fanfare. The ones who keep going back to Rahman’s Bombay (1995) theme or his work on the Lord of the Rings theatre adaptation will find much to chew into in The Flying Lotus. Despite its lack of commercial value, Rahman’s imagination and his vision to express his thoughts on what is going on around him through the only means that he is capable of is indeed laudable.The final track (before the The Flying Lotus) is Mustakbil, meaning future. It is the shortest track on an album and it ends on a resounding high. If this is Rahman’s vision of India right now, he may have his occasional doubts, but at least, he ends it on an optimistic note.

AR Rahman at the Jammin Live concert.
AR Rahman at the Jammin Live concert.
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.