Megha Rao on her new book Music to Flame Lilies, 'art for life’s sake' and the moral responsibility of artists

  • Megha Rao recently published her third novel Music to Flame Lilies.

  • Besides fiction, she also writes confessional poetry and makes surrealist art.

  • Rao has strong belief in the moral responsibility of art toward society, asserting that one must consider the message being spread.

When she was working on her third novel Music to Flame Lilies – a haunting, atmospheric narrative told through strikingly visual, metaphoric prose – Megha Rao learned that her great-grandfather was a practitioner of black magic. She was also inspired by some of her relatives living in the village of Herga in Karnataka, who showered her with fascinating stories about worshiping ghosts through dedicated temples. She describes these stories as being magic realism – composed of magical elements, but set in a real village.

Fascinated, she decided to write a story exploring this setting with the aid of first-hand accounts and cultural research. It culminated into Music to Flame Lilies, the story of Noor whose search for answers leads her deep into the drama and mysticism of her hometown.

 Megha Rao on her new book Music to Flame Lilies, art for life’s sake and the moral responsibility of artists

Book cover of Music to Flame Lilies by Megha Rao. Photo credit: Tara Press.

Before this literary fiction novel, 23-year-old Rao, who is a Mumbai-based writer, poet and artist, has authored It Will Always Be You and A Crazy Kind of Love, both written around age 19 and published by Penguin. On the drastic move from young adult romance to magic-realist literary fiction, Rao says: “I didn’t really have a definite style. I just knew that I was writing and enjoying it.”

The subject of her writing is, simply, anything that’s happening in and around her life. “It could be anything, but it’s fierce and raw, because it’s full of emotion. It’s intense. And I know it’s either very angry or very sad or very happy, it’s just very much. Too much. And I love how it’s too much. It’s very unapologetic,” she says. This rawness is on thunderous view in the confessional poetry she puts out on her social media.

While Rao first started drawing at age six – she used to create comic books, and given the need to fill speech bubbles, started reading and writing too – her pursuit of poetry began only in college. She describes having a rough time, being subject to seclusion and bullying: “I felt so worthless and broken, and I felt like all my self-esteem had been taken away from me.” To cope, every day she would write and draw, eventually putting her poetry up on social media to send her bullies the message that ‘you’ve not destroyed me’.

This experience, however, had “traumatised me to a point where my entire art style changed, it flipped”. She went from being the author of two YA romance novels to writing raw, honest poetry which “was very vengeful, it was very angry, angsty”. This change wasn’t gradual, it was a sudden stylistic switch, which had descended so drastically that she doesn’t recognise her old art. “It’s like two things have changed, the individual and the art. Which is fine because we still have that symbiosis, we have that relationship, me and art. That has not changed, it’s just become very strong.”

About her writing process, Rao says simply, “I just write… It almost felt like purgation and vomiting, like you just spill out these words and then they’re there and you don’t know what to do with them, so you leave them there for the world to interpret, and walk away from it.” Rao writes because she must. “It’s funny because people are like, ‘is this your hobby?’ or ‘is this your work?’ and I’m like no, it’s my survival,” she adds.

Her poetry quickly started spreading through social media, and she was receiving intense messages about how her work had saved a reader’s life. “It was a time when I couldn’t even save myself and people were coming and telling me that I was saving them.”

Megha Rao

Author, poet and artist Megha Rao. All photos courtesy Mehga Rao.

Megha Rao's self portraits.

Megha Rao's self portraits.

She has been witness to art changing and literally saving people’s lives, herself included. “It was an entire community of broken people who just rose with me,” says Rao, explaining her ideological approach to art as “art for life’s sake”. Given this, Rao has strong belief in the moral responsibility of art toward society, asserting that one must consider the message being spread. She defines bad art as the type that “leads people astray or teaches them all the wrong values” and explains her own art as being consciously responsible.

Vincent by Megha Rao.

Remembering Vincent by Megha Rao

Vincent by Megha Rao.

Remembering Vincent by Megha Rao

“To actually guide people and to almost structure their way of living” is what she considers the role of art in a society. “If it moves you, if it makes you feel a certain emotion, that itself is so beautiful. Because as human beings, emoting is probably our biggest superpower”. Even though everyone has the right to freedom of expression, Rao would still categorise reckless art as bad art. “You don’t want children growing up with that and thinking it is okay to be that, when they’re so much more than that.”

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My mother bought me my first razor it was pink and had flowers on it I asked her why must I pull out my hair she had no answer the next day my dad yelled at me because I didn't wear a bra when I went out to the supermarket he said I had to cover my breasts I asked him why didn't he cover his he had no answer my first boyfriend said my stretch marks are shit but my third one said they were a fad come on now make up your mind one day you want Cara Delevingne eyebrows one day you want plus size women like the renaissance paintings I do not exist for your fashion trends one day my arms will go out of fashion my lips will go out of fashion one day VOICES will go out of fashion WOMEN will go out of fashion so please shut the fuck up! Shot by @shivajistormsen art and poetry by @_megharao with our mystery muse.

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Through all her artistic endeavours, Rao has constant inspirations. One of her greatest influences is Sylvia Plath, who introduced her to confessional poetry. “It’s about hanging your dirty laundry in public and that just felt so real,” says Rao about the genre, adding that it was the unapologetic boldness of the form that attracted her. The other is Frida Kahlo, who introduced her to surrealism, and whose artistic quality of fierceness she admires. Among more contemporary influences she names Arundhati Roy and British-Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie. Essentially, she’s attracted to art that’s honest and explores real things without being vague, something she fully embodies in her own work too.

Following this outlook, her latest novel explores questions of identity and notions of reality. Below is an excerpt from the book Music to Flame Lilies reproduced here with kind permission from the publisher Tara Press:

There is so much happening around me, so much dancing, so much of fairy lights and baubles and fireworks. Everything is white and I am floating. Nothing matters except finding her. There is so much to say, so much of catching up to do.

I see just the tip of a red sari. I follow it. Music pours into my ears and I’m suddenly entranced. 

I look inside the well. Noor! This place is so cool, Kirti says. Her mother is standing right next to her and her arms are wide open. Noor, bale, laippula de. Noor, daughter, why don’t you jump?

She is wearing broken bangles and they’re cutting into her wrist. White flowers settle on her long tresses as she calls out my name. I smile and wave at them. I am so happy to see them.

They’re waving back. All of them.

Come on in, Kirti says. This is where we live now. That house was getting old anyway. We can all look after Kalki from down here, he can live a peaceful life if we help him fulfil his life’s purpose.

I pull up my skirt and put my leg over the stone. There is a woman in a red sari standing next to me. It is her again. She is pale like the moon and she is closing up on me. Her hands outstretched, it looks like she’s about to push  me. She is still smiling, still malicious, and for a second I realize that I’ve been trapped.  I look back into the well and Kirti and her mother are both looking up at me expectantly. Her mother looks like Kalki, except that her tresses are long and her eyes are larger. She has her hands held high, like she would catch me if I fall, and in that flash of moment my mind steers back to him. If it was a choice between going back to Kirti and staying with Kalki, what would it be? Whose arms would I fall into first and whose arms would catch me and hold me like a safe locker?

My mind is consumed by guilt. I can feel him inside me, so powerful, and his love so everlasting. How could I even imagine jumping?

No, I cry. Kirti, come out of there.

I am eight again and I am holding her hand and twisting us around. We are spinning, laughing, our hair wild in the wind, slapping against our faces and coursing into our open mouths. We are making mud castles near the river and splashing water on each other. It is running through me, like a film, so unreal, so terribly beautiful, and it is wrecking me. I am crying again. My cheeks glisten tears and I am pressing onto the walls of the well and peering down.

Updated Date: Sep 12, 2019 09:58:00 IST