Culture in the time of the Crisis

Just as Bhimsen Joshi did not stop the storm breaking out then I doubt Zubin Mehta can seal the peace now


The Zubin Mehta concert will be over by the time readers get to see this piece. Some expressed outrage that the event should be hosted at all, others were merely cynical; just a few wondered what the fuss was about. Zubin Mehta is not a household name in Kashmir and western classical music is even less known and appreciated. The setting of the Shalimar garden is better suited to a performance of Hindustani music instead of Beethoven. One informed commentator on Facebook opposed choice of the piece Mehta proposes to conduct.  He wrote, “I heard (he proposes to conduct) Beethoven's 7th-What else? If it had been Beethoven's 5th or 9th symphonies, I would have gone for sure, but given their themes of angst and turmoil, I can see that they would not be picked for Kashmir. Though the 9th resolves the angst in the most marvelous way in its last movement and forms what is probably the absolute crowning glory of western classical music, I think it wouldn't be appropriate while there is still so much unresolved angst in Kashmir. The 9th's finale none the less, presents a beautiful picture of peace on earth and brotherhood of mankind. If it is not yet time for it yet in Kashmir, I hope most earnestly that one day it will be.” The second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony has lifted more Hollywood movies than most can remember, including the Oscar winning ‘The King’s Speech’; when the king finally speaks it plays in the background like a slow victory march.
Zubin Mehta is not quite the right conductor for an occasion like this being an honorary citizen of Israel and music director for life of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. Whatever were the Germans thinking when they hit upon the idea. Back in the autumn of 1989 as events were just building up to the present crisis in Kashmir the Times of India  celebrating 150 years of its founding held a series of concerts in Srinagar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam. Bhimsen Joshi performed at Nishat, Kishori Amonkar in Gulmarg and the Daagar brothers at Pari Mahal. It was a great success, socially at least. But just as Bhimsen Joshi did not stop the storm breaking out then I doubt Zubin Mehta can seal the peace now.
Cultural interventions in political events can serve a political purpose. They can be used as diversions from reality or as a mask for the truth. The Zubin Mehta concert is neither. It is only light refreshment in overwrought times. Neither is the reality of Kashmir hidden from anyone, nor the truth, but surely, if Kashmir can cope with a million plus tourists it can live with a performance of western classical music as well. Last year there was an outcry over the attempt to hold a literary festival, another cultural intervention (one must call it that, not a cultural event) that was feared would disrupt the narrative of Kashmiri struggle. Nowadays it is the narrative that sustains the struggle; the struggle does not sustain the narrative-It used to, but not anymore.
The narrative is both internal to Kashmir and external to India. That is to say, it casts India as the other, including it but only as the villain; and as befits the nature of the discourse sustaining the narrative the excluded other should speak only what he is allowed to speak. This narrative propagated, relentlessly at home and hopefully abroad, is the opposite of India’s own narrative which excludes Kashmiri voices. Neither is entirely accurate.
Following this narrative it doesn’t matter how many Indian tourists turn up, or get married here in staged happening events. What does matter is how the west reacts. Germany is the kingpin of the European Union. The EU till quite recently sympathetically engaged with events in Kashmir; a beautiful prison as one representative described it, empathetically if not accurately. The loss of western empathy was a disturbing development, but it has been gone for years now. And it cannot be recovered by the kind of reactions we see in Kashmir over the Zubin Mehta concert. SAS Geelani touched base with a full recital of his of grievances.  Was it an argument against culture or merely an opportune moment to restate his politics? Geelani’s attitude is however in keeping with his stance, and the Kashmir University Students Union response, that it is an attack on the Muslim faith can be dismissed as juvenilia. The German ambassador did say that it was a purely cultural event with no political overtones. It does no good to their cause if activists whip up frenzy over an ordinary cultural event on the grounds that it supports Indian policy by other means.
To understand the excitement one must first examine the narrative. In its current form it follows closely on events in the early nineties. There was violent conflict, human rights were being flouted, the western community was seriously involved in brokering some kind of deal, the EU was proactive in support of Kashmiri separatism, and, it was believed that Pakistan held a hand in the game. With some tactical modifications the narrative of those times continues to play out even though it has only slight resemblance to the situation today. No doubt warm blooded youth, flock now as then to the banner of hard line separatists. No doubt the intellectual fraternity in Srinagar harks as eagerly as they ever did to refute every assault on their story; keeping the flame burning as it were, fully protected in hearts and minds at least from the gusty winds of cultural divertissement. They will not let the flame die out; the martyrs cannot be forgotten, oppression will not be tolerated. The world may have moved on, but the military is still out on the streets. Everybody else may forget but Kashmir cannot.
It may be disheartening but it is true that Kashmiris, or more correctly Kashmiri separatists have been left to fight their battles by themselves. There is no one out there listening to the narrative anymore except perhaps in the exalted literary circles that inhabit the environs of the New York Review of Books. Ah! Cultural intervention again- Culture both collaborates and confuses; it can take sides but not necessarily the right side. Only a few literati share Kashmir’s angst; politicians everywhere shun the subject, even those in Pakistan. As for journos, the less said the better.
Contradictions about the Kashmir image need resolution. If Kashmir is safe for tourists and pilgrims is it safe for musical concerts, or literary festivals? May Kashmiris watch movies at home on their DVD players but not in public theaters? Does the narrative permit music in the privacy of the home and through earphones but not on the stage? May one celebrate in private only if one wears black bands in public. Discourses have powerful effects allowing what may be said or written, sung or seen. The Zubin Mehta concert highlights, as last year’s aborted literary festival did not, the inherent contradictions of the narrative. Would the concert have been more acceptable if it was not telecast? Is the Kashmiri struggle only a matter of appearances now; all is permitted as long as it is not exhibited! You may do what you like but let no one see you do it!
The Chief Minister was of course only partly right in refuting the separatist claim that the Kashmir issue would be diluted by the concert. “Either their leadership is weak”, GK reported him as saying, “or Kashmir issue is weak to the extent that a musician can affect it through his music”. It was a political taunt but the separatist fear is not unfounded. The conflict has reached a dead end; Kashmir is hardly a conflict zone anymore and it is very far from being the most dangerous place on earth that it briefly was after the 1998 nuclear tests. Seeing, Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky performed in Shalimar might Europeans begin to think that the Kashmir conflict is over? If we feel conflicted we are conflicted and no one should be encouraged to think otherwise. In that sense the concert boycott is a self reinforcing reminder. It is affirmation that the cause is not abandoned. It is drumming up the spirit, rekindling the passion, reigniting the spark! It is notice that the flame still burns.
The trouble is of course that no one is taking notice. If the concert is boycotted it will embarrass the ambassador and as well the country he represents. This won’t help the cause prompting the boycott. Because Delhi played little part in all this it will presumably enjoy German discomfiture. The boycott may tell the world that Kashmiris are still miffed; but the world may well ask, why are they miffed with us? Cultural crutches cannot support weak politics; for both sides. Rebuffing the German gesture in this manner, ill conceived though the concert may have been will generate a counter grievance not sympathy.   

Lastupdate on : Sat, 7 Sep 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sat, 7 Sep 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sun, 8 Sep 2013 00:00:00 IST

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