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‘The Flying Lotus’: A.R. Rahman’s new sound of reality

Symphony orchestra meets demonetization in this composition

A.R. Rahman performing in New Jersey in July. Photo: AFP
A.R. Rahman performing in New Jersey in July. Photo: AFP

What do we make of A.R. Rahman’s 19-minute piece The Flying Lotus? The overture to the composition, which he has produced in collaboration with the Seattle Symphony, is an almost mournful cello. Before you know it, it has segued into something stirring and dreamy, like a theme from a Hollywood fairy tale. And after a short dramatic passage accompanied by choruses, as if ushering in a scene change in a Broadway musical, it goes back to the cello.

Nothing, though, is as dramatic, and unexpected, as what we hear around the 11-minute, 30-second mark. We hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi, soon followed by journalist Arnab Goswami. Modi says, “Bees December tak mujhe mauka dijiye mere bhai (Give me a chance till 20 December)". Goswami says, “Digital economy will take this country forward." Among several voices, a distorted one repeats “Cashless" on loop. All this while, the orchestra is playing; the 19-minute composition is broken into eight individual pieces—including one titled Demonetisation 2016—that make up the album, also titled The Flying Lotus.

What is Rahman suggesting? Is it a grand, orchestral glorification of demonetization? Could the lotus hint at the ruling party’s symbol? Or could it—with its unlikely juxtaposition of the classical elegance of a concerto and the crudeness of TV news and populist speech—be a cheeky artistic statement on a controversial topic?

There is also the matter of the timing of the track’s release, almost two weeks before the release of his latest soundtrack for the Tamil movie Mersal, which ran into trouble with some members of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Tamil Nadu, who wanted scenes criticizing the goods and services tax (GST) removed from the film. About The Flying Lotus, he was quoted in an IANS report as saying: “...This is not about me making a judgement. How would I know about something so big? But I know what people are talking about, the Chinese whispers, the good and the bad...."

It’s both classic Rahman and Rahman trying out new things: his love for lush orchestration combined with the YouTube mash-up culture. The Oscar-winning composer has never been obviously political. And in this regard too, there seems to be a marked difference in the sweeping, feel-good patriotism of the Vande Mataram (1999) days and a more realistic approach; early this year, he crowdsourced the lyrics for an updated version of his 1994 hit Urvasi Urvasi, which have a couple of lines on demonetization and US President Donald Trump, among other things. He is currently co-writing and producing his first film, 99 Songs.

The Flying Lotus, then, could be seen as a sort of avant-garde opera which tries to capture the zeitgeist. We are all ears.

The Flying Lotus is available on Apple Music and Google Play Music.

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