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Ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali. Photo: Deepak Sharma/AP
Ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali. Photo: Deepak Sharma/AP

The Ghulam Ali conundrum

While the posturing goes on, the arts suffer, writes Shubha Mudgal

A strand of irony pervades some of the most stridently debated issues in the country today. Among the issues monopolizing television time is the regrettable cancellation of Pakistani ghazal artiste Ghulam Ali’s concert in Mumbai following a diktat issued by the Shiv Sena. Reacting to the cancellation, the artiste expressed distress because his concert was meant to pay tribute to the late Jagjit Singh, India’s own ghazal maestro, with a cult following across the world. Ironically, Singh was one of two Indian artistes who met senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani, then deputy prime minister, in 2003, seeking a ban on Pakistani artistes visiting and performing in India, as retaliation for Pakistan’s policy of not permitting iconic Indian artistes to perform in that country.

Singh was also reported to have addressed a press conference at the Press Club of India in New Delhi, where he claimed that Advani’s response to his request was “positive". Almost four years to the date from Singh’s death, the Shiv Sena, not the BJP, called for a boycott of Pakistani artistes, including Ghulam Ali’s performances in Mumbai and Pune, on 9-10 October, ostensibly because “we cannot sit and enjoy music in Mumbai while soldiers are being martyred in Kashmir", an NDTV.com report quoted Shiv Sena chairperson Aditya Thackeray as saying.

While several Indian artistes and politicians unanimously denounced the Sena’s stand, an occasional fevered voice celebrated the cancellation of the show. Further, some powerful voices of celebrated artistes remained mute spectators to the cancellation, neither condemning it nor openly supporting it. Could one conclude then that the cancellation had the tacit approval of artistes like celebrated singer-composer Hridaynath Mangeshkar, who joined the Sena formally in 2009? A nod from him or any member of the Mangeshkar family could, I believe, have put the brakes on the Sena’s decision to unceremoniously ban a visiting artiste. But the aatithya, or hospitality, on which India prides itself was thrown to the winds in this instance. The Sangeet Natak Akademi also chose to remain silent, with no condemnation of the incident either officially or by individual artiste members, including chairperson Shekhar Sen, who found time to advise protesting writers and artistes against returning their Akademi and other awards.

The Sena and the BJP are allies, and the former could well have approached the government at the Centre and in Maharashtra not to permit Pakistani artistes to perform here. Let me clarify that I would in principle be opposed to such a move, but if the Sena is offended by Pakistani artistes performing in India, it could have made that known to its allies. I also oppose violence of any kind, but if the Sena wished to use the strong-arm tactics it is known for, it could have taken on the ministry of external affairs, which issued a visa to Ali. But it is convenient for people to pick on soft targets, and for political allies to remain allies, albeit with some veiled threats of parting ways that will soon be forgotten when the two kiss and make up for political gain. And while the posturing goes on, it is the arts that suffer.

I heard once from an event manager and promoter in Mumbai that a mind-boggling 117 licences and permissions are required for a performance at the Gateway of India. Add a few more to that number now, because in addition to the mandatory permissions and licences, one will also have to seek permission from just about anyone who wishes to turn “ban-wallah"!

Shubha Mudgal tweets at @smudgal and posts on Instagram as shubhamudgal.

Also Read Shubha’s previous Lounge columns

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