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Rahman's 'Anthem' Adhyaay
- Sadanand Menon, Chennai

September 8, 2010

This article appeared in Outlook India magazine (Sept 2010)

Anthems are devised to make your spirit soar. When they crash-land, they can also leave you sore. For some time now AR Rahman has been on song. This time the song is on him. His Jiyo, Utho, Badho, Jeeto takes all of 4 minutes and 16 seconds to expose you to the perils of skydiving without a parachute. But then, this is the anthem for the 2010 Commonwealth Games and, like many other things connected with this year's CWG, it is just another kind of cruel sport.

The idea of an anthem for sporting events is arguably to foreground a consistent theme as a focal point of the event and to unify the audiences with the adhesive of a familiar, infectious rhythm. In the present context of a Games mired in debilitating controversy and hint of sleaze, a rousing anthem could have been a talisman to unlock some positive energy.

But the present offering of India's own Mozart, launched with much fanfare on August 23, has left even the Group of Ministers unhappy. That must be the ultimate ignominy - that aesthetic cynicism of such crass proportions can even affect the GoM. Though, one suspects, it was not so much the notations on the music sheet but the notations on the bill that did the damage.

Even as Oscar-hero Rahman was concatenating, at super-speed, his CWG jingle that jangles with some of the most pedestrian verses in recent times, he also fed into the computation a punchy figure of some Rs 1.37 crores for every minute of the song. Total, Rs 5.50 crores.

In 2006, for the inaugural functions of the Frankfurt Book Fair where India was the 'Guest of Honour Country', a proposal by music composer Ilayaraja to present a Carnatic raga using a 120-piece Western philharmonic orchestra, was summarily rejected because of the price tag of Rs 95 lakhs attached to it. But times have changed.

The funny thing about Rahman's Swagatham number this time is that after its recitative first part - with lines as stiff and strangulating as 'Junoon se, kanoon se, maidaan maar lo' - the second performative segment breaks into a beat that sounds like a rip-off of his own composition Ramta Jogi in the film Taal. Obviously Rahman is now famous enough to plagiarize himself and even charge us for it. But the obvious question that needs to be asked is why did he even try? Why did he not simply offer back the same Ramta Jogi (Playboy Ascetic) as the anthem for the Games? The song has all the right foot-tapping ingredients, including oblique references to playful charlatans that would have blended well with the CWG.

Of course, Rahman's anthem cannot be disconnected with the overall plan for inaugural and closing ceremonies of the Games. The fancy committee for the inaugural events has for a few months now been grappling with the logistics of how to present India in this highly televised event. It is a committee in search of a spectacle. The spectacle of a fake, make-believe India populated with Bollywood dancers and swirling silks, crooning divas and simpering starlets. Last time around, they were thinking of making a sound-and-light show with 'Om'.

It is an India that has no specific location on this planet and is far removed from not just the lives but even the fantasies of its people. This is an India that is the pet project of its robber-barons who are enabled, each time, to whisk away some more resources in the name of an abstract nation.

That the vulgar Rs 380 crore budget for the opening ceremonies could not set aside a few crores for a group of poets in different languages to write an appropriate song for the opening anthem tells its own story of gross disinterest even in the context of the indefensible. Instead we have some utterly filmy gibberish like:

Uthi re ab iraadon mein tapan / Chali re gori, chali ban tthan.

The lines, as much as the composition, are stolen from some other context. As we believe are the Games.

Sadanand Menon is a writer and cultural commentator based in Chennai.

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