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#India – Zubin Mehta and the unequal music in Kashmir

Sadanand Menon

The maestro’s performance in was more akin to Nero fiddling as Rome burned

There is a delightful story I heard in the mid-1980s from a prominent economist from Chennai who happened to be then ’s executive director-alternate at the World Bank. He said at their previous board meeting, members were asked to consider an extraordinary proposal from the colourful Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The proposal was for a scheme to bring peace to the strife-torn West Asia for which he required some small change amounting to (if I remember right) $500 million.

‘Peace vibration’

En-route to developing and packaging Transcendental Meditation, Mahesh Yogi now claimed to have perfected the mystical art of levitation. He had further calculated that every individual who levitates generates a specific quantum of ‘peace vibration’ or ‘a coherent world consciousness’ around him — which he called the ‘Maharishi Effect’ — having the power to irradiate and envelop everyone in the neighbourhood with peaceful thoughts. So his plan for West Asia was simple and ingenious. Transport 250,000 of his followers (he called them ‘Yogic Flyers’) to Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and, at a given signal, make them levitate simultaneously. The tidal ‘peace wave’ thus cumulatively generated would be so powerful as to instantaneously flood the region awash in peace, with warring nations melting down emotionally and helplessly falling in love with each other. Needless to say, as ever, the unimaginative and stick-in-the-mud honchos at the World Bank just turned up their collective noses at the proposal and refused to give peace a chance.

I was reminded of this while listening to and reading the surfeit of gurgling ‘peace-prose’ of conductor , German ambassador Steiner, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and the scores of TV anchors and print-press editors who all seem so collectively determined to make peace at any cost in Kashmir. The single-minded purposefulness of it all reminded one of Albert Camus’s vitriolic jibe at such cultural aggression as “the essential before the massacre.” It was as if, overnight, some magic formula had been discovered for Kashmir which needed to be delivered at all cost. Maestro Mehta said, “Don’t underestimate the power of inner peace that brings to people all over the world.” He even chose to speak about “the inner peace that soldiers felt in Sarajevo” when his orchestra played amidst the devastation there.

Can there be any quibble over this? Why, even the musical horn of a passing truck brings peaceful thoughts, not to speak of a 108-piece orchestra. Even a tone-deaf person would admit that the harmonics of music can help soothe frazzled nerves. But I doubt how many musicians would concede that ‘peace’ is their primary business. Music is an agonising quest for unattainable goals that, in fact, leaves the musicians themselves in considerable distress and pain. There is the insightful story of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, founder of the Kirana Gharana. Towards the end of his life, when asked why he — considered the badshah of ‘nishad’ — so resolutely practised the ‘ni’ swar for hours every day, had exclaimed, “ Zindagi bhar is nishad ko maanj raha hun, par kambakht haath hi nahin aati ” (Have been polishing this nishad all my life, but I’m just not able to get the damn thing).

For many musicians, and for their audiences, music represents this anguish of an intense, honest search, which is what translates into a kind of palpable equanimity, confronted with the risibility of daily life and its myriad conflicts. Otherwise deploying music to manufacture instant peace merely sounds as daffy as Mahesh Yogi’s flying capers. In this case, they also spent a modest Rs.8.5 crore for this one concert. If long-standing conflicts could be resolved that serendipitously with music, the global military-industrial complex would, by now, have gassed out every musician in the world. All these sentimentalists would need to learn that making music, as Edward Said pointed out, is a political act drenched in the ideology and hegemonic postures of the dominant powers of the State, to go against which merely invites repression.

Just imagine; the annual music season in Chennai presents some 3,000 concerts in about 40 days in December-January. There has been no report of any conspicuous drop in gang wars, murders or caste clashes in the region. There is a regular wafting of ‘divine’ music from the Kamala Nehru Park in Delhi. Gang rapes and communal clashes still happen; not to speak of more serious rioting inside Parliament. The Dover Lane music festival in Kolkata has been unable to restrain the Trinamool and the Left cadres from going at each other’s throats. Why, all the years of Zubin Mehta conducting the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra in Tel Aviv has not yet made a pacifist country out of Israel.

With a heavy heart it needs to be pointed out to the maestro that his performance was more akin to Nero fiddling as Rome burned. Of course, there is no way he could have known that, in the past quarter of a century, the Indian state has turned increasingly assertive against Kashmiri nationalism, dotting the Valley’s landscape with extensive acres of army camps, making the Indian Army the biggest real estate holder in the State. With over 70,000 people killed, over 10,000 people ‘disappeared’ and hundreds of thousands of Pandits displaced, it would be fatuous to imagine the imperious swish of a baton returning comfort to this region. If at all, it only contributed to two weeks of further needless discomfort for people living around Shalimar Gardens, with the security forces occupying their houses and rooftops and subjecting residents to severe search and cordon operations.

Even as the violins and bassoons violas were patronisingly syncopating Beethoven with local instruments like santoor, tumbaknari and rabab, the CRPF thought nothing of punctuating the score with calibrated shots that killed four boys in nearby Shopian. The curfew there is still on. Later it turned out they were just that, local boys. One was reminded of Pablo Neruda, “And the blood of children ran through the streets, without fuss, like children’s blood”. For one high profile editor of the Indian press at least, the only downside in all this was that the Army could not persuade the joyless Kashmiris to keep their bars and night-spots open “to unwind after a long day of hartal.” He obviously was not there long enough to know the difference between a hartal and a military-imposed curfew.

Propagandist kitsch

Of course, Zubin Mehta is no apostle of peace like Mahatma Gandhi. His self-defence was strident and aggressive as he blamed Kashmiris for their troubles. “All these people who scream about Kashmir being an armed camp are in fact responsible for keeping it that way,” he hissed, the C-Major sounding a little off-key. He perhaps did not realise that he himself was performing inside a hermetically sealed army camp that day. What was really saddening was to see music being reduced to such propagandist kitsch. Tendentious work, camouflaged as art, is unable to conceal its own emptiness. Its mushy emotionalism and exaggerated empathy for a confected ‘peace’ can only create an incredulous response. The real work of art during times of conflict is a sign of resistance, not a reinforcing of oppression. How one wishes Kashmiri artists and intellectuals had managed to get to Zubin Mehta before the show and persuaded him to make a simple announcement that he was performing that day for the victimised people of Kashmir. That was all that was needed to balance it out. Like the fiercely independent scientist C.V. Raman did while receiving his Nobel Prize; “I accept this prize on behalf of my oppressed countrymen,” he had barked into the mike.

The ultimate irony in this musical caper will, of course, always be the historic irony of the date. Nothing incendiary was happening in Kashmir at that time and would not have been provoked had this ‘peace concert’ not been invented. But, on September 7, if the great man really needed to prove the efficacy of his genius, he should have diverted the entourage away from Srinagar and headed, instead, for Muzaffarnagar. After all, there too Hindus and Muslims needed to sit next to each other and listen to some equal music.

(The writer is a senior journalist)

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