The Diplomacy of Kitsch
A German orchestra exports A. R. Rahman's music to… India. What can it mean?
Many of you got a tantalising taste of international intrigue this past weekend, deftly skirting censorship laws and the snaking queues for Oprah’s event like so many Jaipuri Jason Bournes. Meanwhile, in Mumbai—cut to Nariman Point silhouetted at sunset—we witnessed the continuation of politics through other means, more benign than an assassination threat but no less potent.
With its large and talented ensemble and charmingly off-kilter syntax, the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg gave a stellar performance this past Friday in Mumbai. (The show then moved on to New Delhi and continues to three more cities over the coming week.) The entertaining evening showcased not only Rahman’s extensive oeuvre but also the boyish enthusiasm of the man himself.
Pleasing as well was the sight of a major international production professionally carried off. As far as I could tell, the only slip-up amounted to an enormous Rajnikanth joke. In order to demonstrate the power of (his) music, Rahman yanked the soundtrack out from under a clip of Robot, only to find that his own mic had been switched off. The utility of Germans as comic “straight men” in this tableau highlighted an underappreciated national asset.
Beyond serving as backdrop, however, what were they doing here?
The heir to a fabled tradition, the Orchestra Babelsberg argues with its very existence for the case of movie music as high culture. I’m more than happy to accept their contention and take a pass on serious (i.e., of no commercial value) musical projects. If you can sit through a performance of what’s called “contemporary classical”, be my guest. A soundtrack, by contrast, can be a galvanising art form.
At the National Centre for the Performing Arts, it was not. The only passages that seemed to rouse the audience, aside from the stirring instrumental solos, were the montage of music directors past, of which the maestro himself was implicitly the culmination: Madan Mohan, Ilayaraja, Jatin-Lalit, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy (the inclusion of this still-active trio in the rollcall of fogies struck me as a gentle jab, but the hometown crowd ate it up) and R. D. Burman (who oddly received but of course needed no attribution). With the exception of the opening strains to the “Theme from Bombay”, this was the one sequence where one caught the audience humming along to recognisable melodies, like those from Hero and Kal Ho Naa Ho. It pandered, in a word, to coarse popular tastes.
Sadly, the pandering started and ended there. A “Mitwa” movement, a “Rang De Basanti” reprise or a “Jai Ho” juncture never arrived. I did hear a few Airtel errata, though not rendered by the orchestra. The balance of the performance consisted of “suites”: not the songs that make up what we call the soundtrack of a film but a collation of background scores, the underpinnings of scenes.
If the orchestra itself seemed merely part of the staging—nestled as they were in an elaborate set situated halfway between Bollywood item number and starship bridge—the spectators too were props.
For many in the audience—including the person in the seat next to mine—this performance was the first encounter with a live orchestra. There might have been many more such firsts, had the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre’s many empty seats been filled. One can understand the mentality—you can’t let everybody in—and still gasp at the waste of such expense, such preparation. (What is the sound of one hand giving a second, requested standing ovation?) I’d expect a full house, if not out of an Indian sense of thrift, then at least to keep up the illusion that the audience per se is a key participant in this cultural-industrial-diplomatic waltz.
But the sponsors’ dance card, if not the hall, was full. They were on a trade mission, and one with the name: “The Year of Germany and India 2011-2012: Infinite Opportunities”. Numerous paeans to the importance of cultural exchange served only to dance around this central fact. Among them, pride of place was given to the event’s main sponsor, one Andreas Lapp, who mused almost buffoonishly about the amount of money it was costing him. The aim was not primarily to entertain, though it did; it was to persuade India—or a handful of influentials, anyway—that Germany’s commercial interests have a cultural reciprocity as their foundation.
To do so, the lords of diplomacy had to find a suitable totem at which to pay tribute. They lauded Rahman as “the Mozart of Mumbai” and “the Bach of Bollywood” (after a composer who “turned out a masterpiece a week”). This immoderately lavished praise struck me as excessive for an event that had been organised partly at Rahman’s own behest, as Max Mueller Bhavan director Marla Stukenberg mentions in the program.
Beyond the NRI market and a few UK desis who are in it for the kitsch factor, Indian films have little real export potential. Afterwards, over drinks, a friend dismissed Bollywood’s delusions about its global significance—its “soft power”, if you will. But for others, the delusions are useful.
The official display of Germany’s affection for Indian cultural landmarks substitutes for a commercial reciprocity that seems far from likely. In this way, Germany’s projection of itself into the cultural sphere, like the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, is troubling. It is Germany’s trade surplus, after all, that’s responsible for the recent roiling of the Euro. If Germans consumed more from Greece and Italy, the current account deficits of those Southern European countries would vanish. Yet they don’t. I’m no economist, but it strikes me as a dangerous dynamic.
However, not all inter-cultural relationships end in unrequited woe. That’s why the most touching moment of the evening was, for me, not a musical one at all. It was a remark notable not so much for its eloquence as for its understatement.
Between bloviating diplomats and captains of industry, the soft-spoken Hans-Georg Knopp, secretary-general of the Goethe Institut, took the stage. He stated that he had begun his career as a German cultural-civil servant—here, I drifted from his speech to contemplate the measured progress of such a career. I imagined a montage sequence of the young man at his desk working diligently, building a set amid whirling kathak dancers—perhaps a romance—all to the accompaniment of a rhythmic bowing of strings, a phrase of lilting flute. As I was saying, he started his career in Bombay in 1974, after having completed a Ph.D. in Sanskrit. For this, he received a polite round of applause. To return in this capacity was, if I remember the phrase correctly, “quite meaningful” to him. There’s a whole film in the depths left unexpressed. I see it as an Indo-German production. With an Indian soundtrack, of course.