Everything is political. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novel Pather Panchali (Song of the Road), even as it presents the story of a world of beauty and violence, innocence and its grinding loss surrounding one family in the early-20th century rural Bengal, is a lyrical indictment of the pre-Nehruvian India and the way its people were left to fend for themselves.
This was not something lost on many Indian critics of Satyajit Ray’s cinematic adaptation of Bandopadhyay’s novel. The West Bengal government had demanded changes in the ending of the film so that it gave out a more “positive message". Ironically, it was Jawaharlal Nehru’s intervention that led Ray’s film to reach the Cannes Film Festival in 1956.
In an October 1980 piece titled “What does Ray portray in the Apu Trilogy?" in Probe India, the actor Nargis Dutt, then a member of Parliament, spelt things out to an interviewer: “...when I go abroad, foreigners ask me embarrassing questions like ‘Do you have schools in India?’ ‘Do you have cars in India?’ I feel so ashamed, my eyes are lowered before them. If a foreigner asks me, ‘What kind of houses do you live in?’ I feel like answering, ‘We live on treetops.’ Why do you think films like Pather Panchali become so popular abroad?... Because people there want to see India in an abject condition. That is the image they have of our country and a film that confirms that image seems to them authentic."
While a nominally “apolitical" movie, based on a nominally “apolitical" novel, becomes surcharged with politics, the glorious music of Beethoven, Haydn and Tchaikovsky performed by Zubin Mehta and the Bavarian State Orchestra on Saturday at the fantastic Shalimar Bagh in Srinagar transcended politics—as it did a plethora of other things including Srinagar traffic and a general disinterest in Western classic music per se. But Beethoven’s Leonore Overture and Fifth Symphony, Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major formed just the kernel of an onion covered by layers of politics, layers that were made political not only by those who were against the concert for a multitude of reasons, but also by its organizers and many of its supporters.
If the concert was confined to Germany’s “cultural diplomacy", then investing it with what German ambassador to India Michael Steiner described as “the potential to make the world look at the complex realities of Kashmir" made the event nothing less than political. If Saturday’s extraordinary performance was held in, say, Hobart, would the world via television have been politely goaded to look at the complex realities of Tasmania?
Okay, all right. Sad, Srinagar is no happy Hobart and the very fact that an “international" musical event was being held in the “international news" terrain of Kashmir would have had a frisson of its own. But the organizers of the concert could have simply stuck to the laudable act of bringing the Mehta-led ensemble to town. Instead, they wanted something more out of the occasion. After all cultural mandarins don’t like performances or works of music, art, films or literature to be their own emissaries. They want a messenger carrying the news of good intentions to run before them.
But to stick to an earlier metaphor, you can’t have your onion and eat it too. If the Mehta concert was pitched as “a mobilizer for more engagement in Kashmir" (Steiner’s words), it only served to confirm the fears of folks, most of them not even residents of Srinagar, to view a concert by one of the finest conductors in the world as, at best, a child’s rattle for tactical distraction or, at worst, a Trojan Horse for turning the Kashmir Valley into a Potemkin village.
Of course, much of the protests were downright silly. That it was an exclusive event attended by the dastardly “elite" should hardly be a cause for sociological sulk. A ticketed gig would have either seen the same sort of crowd that there was on Saturday (minus most of the Delhi crowd) or would have empty seats that would have been filled by token free entrances bussed in from schools. In any case, Doordarshan provided an exceptionally good experience for music lovers who didn’t mind the excessive shots of members of the audience and were more interested in the sound of music emanating from Shalimar Bagh.
Opposing the concert because one believed that it “legitimized Indian occupation" was at least based on truth, although one can well argue that the telecast of the performance actually reminded many who had forgotten of “Kashmir" as a news dateline and underlined the friction of watching a world-class event taking place there on television and reading on the Internet about four people being killed and another injured by paramilitary fire in Shopian district a few hours before the same world-class event.
Being against the concert because Mehta, the music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, is perceived as a representative or votary of the Israeli state that “torments Muslims in West Asia" is as ludicrous as opposing Pakistani or Sri Lankan cricketers from participating in Indian Premier League matches because of them “representing" the machinations of Islamabad or Colombo. The fact is that the music was pretty much a footnote to the overwhelming sound. If instead of Mehta performing Beethoven et al, David Guetta had been pumping out a remix of Honey Singh’s Lungi Dance at Shalimar, there would have been no difference at all to the nature of the protests, fallout and debate swirling around any European government-organized “Get A Feel For Kashmir" concert.
When one message is externally imposed on any artistic endeavour, however well-meaning it may be, it invites counter-messages wrapped in the foil of critiques. If the Mehta-led Bavarian State Orchestra’s concert in Srinagar had not been wrapped in swathes of “window to Kashmir" nonsense, the concert could have got the attention for what it was: a superb afternoon of Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky in the park. The subtext could have been a quiet one suggesting that in all the mess that Kashmir has seen and continues to see, there are some pleasures it still possesses and which can come its way. And not the bugle blast in an interlude that it was made and encouraged to become.
Indrajit Hazra is consultant editor, Hindustan Times. He also writes a monthly music column for Rolling Stone India.