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Security personnel consider instruments as potentially dangerous, and put musicians at risk of losing them. Photo: Praveen Bajpai/Hindustan Times
Security personnel consider instruments as potentially dangerous, and put musicians at risk of losing them. Photo: Praveen Bajpai/Hindustan Times

Threat to musicians

Shubha Mudgal on why events involving the presence of political bigwigs often turn into a nightmarish experience for musicians

Speaking from personal experience, both in the past and present, large-scale events involving the presence of political bigwigs, heads of local administration, and people holding executive power, often have the potential to turn into a nightmarish experience for musicians. Whether it is a music festival that is inaugurated by an important political figure, or the death anniversary of a political leader at one of the many memorials in the Capital, or performances that form part of Republic Day celebrations, participating musicians and artistes are often made to go through exasperating security routines that cannot help but affect their performances adversely. Although access passes or badges are provided to participating artistes, nothing prepares one for the rude shock of having one’s musical instruments inspected by security personnel at events and venues where manual checks and frisking replace X-ray scanner machines.

On more than one occasion, the officer on duty has stared quizzically at the tanpura, tapped it a couple of times, even plucked the strings and chuckled as I have watched with my heart in my mouth, and then announced that he needs to look inside the tanpura. Distraught at the possible dismembering of an instrument that one holds sacred, cries of protest and explanations that this would destroy the instrument only elicit a stubborn shake of the head from the officer. Tabla player and composer Bickram Ghosh mentions a time when security personnel in Japan—clearly this is not just an Indian phenomenon—drilled a hole through one of his tablas to check on sawdust inside the wooden body of the tabla which they suspected could be explosive material. The harmonium fares a little better, because the keyboard can be tipped open to show the reeds and air cavity. The irony of it all is that politicians with criminal records are ushered in with much bowing and scraping, while the musicians invited to perform at the festival or event end up pleading to be let in with their instruments.

Worse still, security personnel often consider stage monitors a major security threat, and insist on removing them altogether from the stage or its vicinity. Stage monitors, in fact, help musicians hear themselves on stage, and therefore, their absence can create serious havoc in their performance, but all attempts to explain their significance usually fall on deaf ears. In these times of unrest and terror, one understands that stage monitors may appear as menacing black boxes with the potential of being used to house explosives, but it is equally true that they form part of the most basic and essential pieces of equipment for a performance.

Since security agencies often seal off venues several hours in advance of the arrival of a VIP, artistes and crew members have to reach the venue well before time and probably end up feeling exhausted or bored to tears by the time they finally come on stage. If after all that, the VIP in question either holds a loud darbar while the performance is in progress, or makes a noisy exit midway through the concert, after marking his or her presence, the artistes would be well within their right to feel affronted. Needless to say, most artistes say little or nothing in protest fearing adverse repercussions on future concert opportunities. It takes the likes of the iconic Kesarbai Kerkar who is said to have warned no less than Yashwantrao Chavan, former chief minister of Maharashtra, to either sit quietly through her performance or leave before she began!

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

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