WAS it necessary to hold the musical event “Ehsaas-e-Kashmir” at the Shalimar Bagh in Srinagar with the Bavarian State Orchestra conducted by the maestro Zubin Mehta? It was and it was not. It was because, having got into it, the prestige of the State of Jammu and Kashmir was riding on it— imagine how the State government and the nation would have looked if, bowing to the protests and threats of separatists, the concert had had to be called off. It probably was because it was a long-cherished dream of the maestro to perform in Kashmir—a wish he had communicated to the German ambassador in India, and the obliging diplomat had promised to make it come true. It probably was because the Chief Minister of the State, ever since he attended a musical concert set against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal some years back, had been entertaining visions of a similar exercise in the Shalimar Bagh where nothing like this had taken place for two decades and a half. It probably was because of the hopeful or blind belief that music would be the unguent for the hurt and the loss systematically inflicted on the people of the valley alternately by the Army and the militants.
On the other hand, this attempt at musical diplomacy had a fiddling-while-Rome-burns edge to it, especially because the audience looked more imported and exclusive than local and inclusive, although Ambassador Michael Steiner insists that, even if security considerations admittedly determined the scale of the event and the composition of those invited to attend, the hoi polloi were present in good numbers. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was more realistic about the nature and size of the audience a performance by a Western classical music orchestra in any case fetches. Zubin Mehta himself had a sneaking suspicion that the audience might not have been quite right and offered to come again to perform in a stadium for the larger Kashmiri public. Meanwhile, the Bavarian State Opera felt short-changed. It had not, its general manager, Nikolaus Bachler, remonstrated, bargained for an “embassy concert” cut off from the local populace. The 80 musicians comprising the orchestra had, in fact, waived their fees in the belief that they were to perform for a cross section of the people. He squarely blamed the “overambitious” ambassador for VIP-ising the event and promised to take the matter up with the German government. The ambassador’s poetic allusion, in his short welcome speech at the event, to Habba Khatoon, the 16th century Nightingale of Kashmir, also seemed oddly misplaced in that it evoked, without meaning to, the grim contemporary reality of the numerous Kashmiri families trying to cope with the loss and separation of near and dear ones. Habba Khatoon, too, was forcibly separated from her husband, Yousef Shah Chak, considered the last independent king of Kashmir, when the Moghul emperor Akbar annexed the kingdom and exiled him to Bihar, and she was left to wander about the valley spouting her poignant verse of loss. The lines the ambassador quoted,
Many nightingales entered the garden
And they had their play
The flowers left the garden
To make way for the nightingales
( And I lost all day on the way —he left out this last line of the stanza),
may only have been meant to relate the Shalimar garden, where the concert was taking place, to Habba Khatoon’s garden imagery. But the poem bearing these lines really has loss as its recurring motif.
My friend , it begins, this youth is loss
I lost all day on the way
Why were we born?
Why did we not die?
Why such beautiful names?
We must wait for the Judgment Day
And I lost all day on the way
The way of the world is a meaningless storm
I invited a difficult fate
And I lost all day on the way …
And so it goes, the lament of irredeemable loss. That is the burden of Habba Khatoon’s soulful song, and it really does not lend itself to the cursory garden analogy the ambassador seemed to make of it. Casual literary or poetic connections and instant metaphors do not sit lightly on the profound reality of Kashmir.
The concert had the trappings of the ritualised grandstanding of a State function. It reminded me, strangely and perhaps unnecessarily, of the days spent as a television journalist with the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) in northern Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. In territory they pretended was friendly but was in reality hostile, the commander and officers of the unit I and my crew were “embedded” in would go about their dinner rigmarole on the outskirts of a jungle, from where they were sure unseen Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) cadres were watching them, with elaborate pomp and circumstance. After rounds of drinks, orderlies would serve the meal, course by leisurely course, to the officers, and the visiting TV crew, seated in a large circle. (After dessert came a tray with quinine tablets, a reasonable precaution in the mosquito-infested swamps.) One would have thought that this was a sitting-duck offer for the militant guerillas. But no, we were assured, this was part of the psychological warfare of making the Army’s imposing, deterrent presence felt.
There was something similarly, unnervingly, pacificatory rather than peaceful about the spectacle of “Ehsaas-e-Kashmir”, even if Doordarshan’s coverage of it was truly impressive. As many as 14 cameras and two outdoor broadcast vans, we learn, went into the high-definition live telecast, picked up by as many as 40 countries. As the orchestra came alive, to the cues of Zubin Mehta’s baton, with the immortal strains of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Haydn, the cameras too swung into a parallel symphonic act, framing the different shots called by the producer in charge at the control console in rhythmic succession, anticipating and second-guessing the musical arrangement and instrumentation sequence with uncanny accuracy.
For the television viewer far from the physical venue, the ehsaas , or feel, was at its best and most intimate in the various rapturous moods of the musicians captured as they coaxed the tunes and tones from their instruments that wove and defined the piece being played. The spell was broken when the shots took us to cross sections of the audience and crane sweeps of the larger setting. It was not exactly a gathering riveted to, or perhaps even initiated to, the music at hand. The attentive, of course, made up a good section of the audience, at least the core of it closest to the stage. Then there were those looking around or sizing up the attentive, there were a couple of yawns in close-up and, on the longer top-angle shots, a restless fringe of people standing or constantly moving about—assumably, policemen in plainclothes and other functionaries—who, overall, added to the restive mood.
True, the restiveness may have been part imagined or fed by what one was hearing from, even if not seeing, outside the strict and controlled confines of the Shalimar Bagh: that Kashmir was shuttered down by a strike called by the separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani to protest against the show; that a parallel event, “Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir”, as a cultural reality check, was happening in the municipal grounds close by; more disconcertingly, that hours before the concert, four youth had been killed by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Shopian in southern Kashmir; and that, away from the State, a festival of films on Kashmir in the south Indian city of Hyderabad had, that afternoon, been disrupted and vandalised by a mob of about 60 men who physically attacked the film-makers present, including Sanjay Kak, Siddhartha Giggo, and Ajay Raina, the co-curator of the festival.
There were far too many Kashmir-related distractions on the same day as the showcased event for one to give it undivided attention unless one was blissfully ignorant or blithely unmindful of what else was going on.
Problematic Zubin Mehta Beyond what was nagging the mind at the moment was the larger question of the politics of music. What was it about Zubin Mehta that an astute and hardly intolerant thinker like Edward Said should have found so problematic that he should think that he, along with other “stars” like the violinist Itzhak Perlman and the novelist Amos Oz, subserved the Israeli public relations cause against the Palestinians? It could not just have been the maestro’s association, as conductor for life, with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. It may have something to do with what were seen as Zubin Mehta’s cheer-leading performances for Israeli troops after the six-day Arab-Israeli war of 1967 or the Yom Kippur war of 1973. It may or may not have something to do with his characteristic brinkmanship—in conducting the Israeli Philharmonic in Tel Aviv during the Gulf War of 1991 when Iraqi Scud missiles were hitting Israel and the audience was required to wear gas masks through the performance; or again, his attempt to play Wagner, anathema to Jews and proscribed in Israel since 1938, with the orchestra in 1981.
Said’s reservations about Zubin Mehta become starker when we remember that the public intellectual, himself an aficionado of Western classical music, went to great lengths to defend his close friend and renowned Jewish conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim’s rebellious act in performing Wagner in Jerusalem in 2001. Writing the same year in Al Hayat , Said compares the outrage and outcry in Israel to what Barenboim did to what Athens did to Socrates “because he was a genius who taught young people how to think independently”, to what the Jews of Amsterdam did to Baruch Spinoza, or the Church to Galileo. In the same essay, Said argues forcefully against compulsive Zionism-phobia by Muslims and the foolishness of Holocaust denial.
The doubts that persist about Zubin Mehta’s musical politics then are largely of his own making. He may have been honest, even if a shade naive and tokenist, when he said he just wanted to perform in Kashmir to the sight of Hindus and Muslims just sitting together. The problem, of course, is not that Hindus and Muslims do not or will not sit together to listen to music. The problem, at least in a good section of the Muslim mind, is that what his music offers with his baton-wielding hand, the record of his politics seems to take away. And it does not do to conveniently or simplistically equate those who would shun the “Ehsaas-e-Kashmiri” concert as, ipso facto , “separatists”. Those who do trip on the fact that when it comes to those who organised the counter “Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir” event, the term suddenly changes to “civil society groups”. The politics of language as much as of music was at play here.