As Germans flew Zubin Mehta to Shalimar, it triggered a counter-concert in the heart of the city that authorities reluctantly permitted. The two concerts told two different stories of Kashmir to a cheerful and a grieving audience respectively. R S Gull argues the historic events marked the beginning of a battle over space that can become shriller in coming days.
It was a grand show if not a huge audience. The Mughal garden of Shalimar reverberated with a mix of music from East and West. With millions spent by Germans and 26 other sponsors over 7076 kms separating Munich from Srinagar to help Zubin Mehta realize his dream of conducting in Shalimar, he was very honest in his observations. He said he saw ‘quite a few Kashmiris’ in the estimated 1700-odd audience. Next time, he wanted to have a concert in a stadium and get all Kashmiris for free.
The concert Ehsaas-e-Kashmir started with fusion – a mix of the two systems of music from Europe and Kashmir and concluded with that. In between the Bayerisches Staatsorchester (Bavarian State Orchestra) played Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Joseph Haydn, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Beethoven whose lone opera is a musical homage to and a request for freedom and justice – composed in wake of French Revolution, was played twice. The local audience related with the fusion – Haft Rung, that was composed by Santoor specialists father and son Bhajan Sopori and Abhay Rustum.
In the audience, there were many people who knew the notes and were in trance. Some of them had flown from abroad. There were diplomats, tourists, elite, industrialists and the entire police and civil administration bureaucracy. To the dismay of the organizers, not many people from Bollywood had come.
What mesmerized everyone present was Shalimar’s beauty which looked stunningly and impressively great. With clean paths, manicured lawns, active fountains and an imported lighting systems, seemingly the garden had started living again.
Never ever has Kashmir hosted a show that had such a huge number of performers (between 100-150), was so capital intensive (between Rs 50 and Rs 100 crore), requiring such a massive investment by way of security (hundreds of cops and paramilitary men were on tenter hooks for last one week) or was watched by such a huge audience across the globe. Again it will be a record that a select audience of less than 2000 people were invited for the 90 minute show! For all practical purposes, the Ehsaas-e-Kashmir (the feeling of Kashmir) was ‘mother of all shows’ that Kashmir witnessed over the years.
For months, the state government was working on repairs and renovations of the 1619 AD Shalimar garden that emperor Jehangir laid for his queen Nur Jahan. The picturesque postcard garden that has attracted generations from across the world had already devoured more than five crore rupees when it was handed over to the Germans for creation of a huge stage for Zubin Mehta to conduct BSO of Germany.
Under the watchful eyes of engineers flown from Berlin, scores of non-locals were engaged to raise a huge 3500 sq ft stage, just in front of the spot where Jenahgir and his queen might have been overseeing the Dal lake centuries ago. Set up on two huge pillers, the prefab stage had a single girdle to take care of the light and sound systems for the September 7 weekend show.
INTACH that supervised the repairs and reviewed the temporary pre-fab structure had inspected the site and believes there was nothing wrong that can impact the heritage site, under consideration with UNESCO for a certified World Heritage Site since 2010. “See, if you have a huge number of people getting into a garden which is otherwise fragile, it will have an impact.” INTACH head in state M Salim Beg said. “I did not see any permanent damage but the actual situation will emerge once the concert is over.”
On the eve of his departure to Srinagar, Zubin was bestowed Tagore Award for Cultural Harmony. There, he stated that he did not choose Kashmir but Kashmir choose him.
But people aware of the concert are surprised over the spin that the master performer gave to the controversy. It was his keenness to have a concert in Shalimar that in 2007 Zubin had approached the family of pharma major Cipla (one of the 28 sponsors of the event) in 2007. “One of their family members had approached Srinagar with a request but there were no takers then,” a knowledgeable person informed Kashmir Life.
In July 2012 when Steiner presented Mehta the Commander’s Cross of the German Order of Merit in New Delhi, he told a reporter: “I wish one day I could play in Kashmir. I will cancel every appointment to come and do that,” It was this statement that led Steiner to assert that he will
lobby with the Indian government to make “this dream of Zubin Mehta a reality.” Zubin has visited Kashmir with his family in the 1970s.
Mandarins in the MHA were perhaps aware of the consequences the concert can have in Kashmir. Twice, informed sources said, the idea was politely turned down by the MHA. “As the pressure mounted, the idea was approved and New Delhi became part of the programme,” informed source said.
Preparations for the event were going on for months and it was officially declared a week ahead of the event. The concert, according to German ambassador, was intended to give “a message of hope and encouragement to the people of J&K”.
“This is a wonderful cultural tribute to Kashmir and its warm-hearted and hospitable people,” Michael Steiner said. “Music is a universal language. With the magical power of music, crossing geographical, political and cultural borders, we want to reach the hearts of the Kashmiris with a message of hope and encouragement.”
“I have been asked by people why to hold the event in Srinagar. It was easy to do it in Mumbai or in some posh area of Europe,” ambassador told reporters in Srinagar. “I tell them that I am doing it in Kashmir exactly for the reasons you want me not to.”
Prior to the formal announcements, Congress state president Prof Saif ud Din Soz had arranged a meeting for a number of writers, intellectuals, poets and civil society members. Notes of dissension were registered in this two-hour long meeting. Individually, ambassador had met many others including noted poet and Gyan Peeth recipient Rehman Rahi. In fact, the brochure of the event that was distributed to the guests – with a departing chocolate, carried a translation of his poem. But Rahi boycotted the event saying it was untimely.
The concert divided Kashmir. Those supporting and opposing the show, held their grounds for what they believed in.
Separatists and the civil society arguments revolved round two things.
Firstly, as Syed Ali Geelani stated, Kashmir being a disputed territory, an international event would be taken supportive of the status quo. “We wish Germany should play a responsible role and stay away from any such move that may affect the cause of the Kashmiri people,” Geelani said. “In 1983 people opposed the one-day international cricket match between India and West Indies and they have similar reservations with regards to this cultural event.”
Geelani, who has not been permitted to move out of his Hyderpora residence for a very long time now, also wrote a letter to German Chancellor asking her to advise her ambassador not to go ahead with the show.
Secondly, the civil society activists asserted that the message is aimed at conveying a message which is unreal. That was perhaps why they asserted the state establishment is trying to overwrite a narrative which is alien to the ground realities. Khuram Parvez, who heads Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (KCCCS) and was the spokesperson for the counter-concert Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir (the reality of Kashmir), said the event is using music as propaganda.
“The concert seeks to dilute the reality of J&K and promote an image of a peaceful and normal Kashmir,” Khurram said. “The pain, suffering, courage and bravery of the resistance will find no place in this concert.” As the organizers of Zubin show asserted the event was for Kashmir, Khurram deflated the argument by offering the demographies that make the audience: Of 758 invitees from J&K, he said, only 102 are supposedly “unaffiliated civilians”. A University had sought permission to 230 of its students for watching the show which was rejected by the state government. At the last moment nearly 300 invitations were cancelled.
Initially, the establishment was a silent partner in the game. It had handed over the Mughal graden to the Germans and would only stay guard. As the voices against the show became shriller, it turned the state into the main actor. With a world acclaimed artist in the state, it could not have avoided to stay neutral.
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah who visited the venue twice to inspect the preparations said music was part of the Kashmir culture. Disagreeing with the argument that concert can impact the status of Kashmir issue, Omar said: “Either their leadership is weak or the issue is weak that a music concert will affect the status.” If a musician can change the nature of Kashmir issue, he said, then it won’t remain an issue anymore.
But his brief speech at the concert was not so impressive. Starting with Amir Khusro’s (which is actually said by Emperor Jehangir) famous couplet (Agar Firdous Barouyay Zameen Ast, Hamien Ast-o-Hamien Ast-o-Hamien Ast) about Kashmir, Omar said the beauty of the place is a reality and an irony. “The reality is its God given beauty and the irony is how man has conspired to turn it into a living hell,” Omar said. “Tomorrow when the sun rises again it will rise on the land that has seen pain and suffering, a land that is yearning for peace.” Praising him for his attire – the Kashmiri Khan dress, on the occasion, even his officers regretted his failure to mention what happened in Shopian a few hours prior to the start of concert in Shalimar. “It obviously is offensive that he said he will jump to host another such event if there is an opportunity,” one officer quipped. “Given the controversy over the concert, this line could have been avoided. After all, democracy is about people.”
The major argument with the government for the concert was that it will get Kashmir in sharp focus for a large audience and it can do wonders for a place that has a good tourist economy. Sections within the trade, especially the hospitality sector argued that it will help market Kashmir better as the show is being beamed live to scores of countries that is home to high-spending tourist. It will also help neutralize the negative advisories that various Western nations have issued to their citizens against visiting Kashmir.
But both the sides missed the larger point that actually led to a whisper campaign against the event on the streets. Commoners believe that New Delhi flew Israel’s cultural ambassador to its vanquished state of Kashmir to celebrate its victory. “Primarily, it (orchestra) is Greek to us and then it has strong links with Tel Aviv,” says a university student Abdul Hamid. “No saner policy maker in any democracy will get a person with strong Israel links to a Muslim society and call it a celebration.” Already, Kashmir has remained rife with rumours about collaboration between Delhi and Tel Aviv on counter-insurgency.
The establishment will conveniently be able to push forward the argument that Kashmir is intolerant. It, however, will not be able to hawk Talibanization to the larger audience as Omar’s aide Tanveer Sadiq was heard claiming on various TV channels. Geelani, despite being a firm believer against music, did not superimpose his belief over the cultural traditions.
As the controversy over the concert touched its peak, ambassador Steiner wrote an open letter to the Kashmiris. “This concert has the potential to make the world look at the complex realities of Kashmir: its breathtaking beauty as well as the many challenges you, the Kashmiris, face in daily life. I am well aware of both. Therefore, our commitment goes well beyond music,” he wrote.
Watching the audience – especially the diplomatic personnel, reacting to the happenings they saw in few days, it was clear that they were keen to know more about Kashmir. They were inquiring about the ‘problem’, massive deployments on the roads, “why only pro-government people in the concert?” and why a separate concert somewhere in the city? The killings in Shopian – of the four dead two are civilians, hours before the start of the concert, reinforced the larger reality that Kashmir is far away from the peace. To prevent people from creating a larger crisis, Shopian was put under curfew. Two batons were in action at the same time –Mehta to make lives of Kashmir ‘better’ and police to batter them down south.
Hoards of media personnel who had landed in Srinagar in anticipation of the event took Srinagar dateline back on the front pages. After a very long time, even Geelani was seen quoted in certain international publications. At the last moment, an international TV channel used more footage from municipal park than Shalimar.
There is possibility of Zubin concert triggering a response by encouraging many youngsters choose music as a form of communication. The visit of Junoon amid resistance from separatists encouraged youngsters to sing, rap and jazz. That is perhaps why the concert is being termed as blessing is disguise.
But people who know Kashmir for a long time, say the alternative concert is just “beginning of the start”. It is battle over space and salvage the narrative from getting diluted or dominated by the state narrative – something that has been happening in Kashmir over the years. Abdul Rashid, a school teacher said the fall in violence has freed the civil society from being dubbed as saboteurs. “Now everything seems to be challenged by the civil society,” Rashid said. “It could be Zubin Mehta today, it will be Tosamaidan tomorrow.” Governing Kashmir will be more difficult in coming days.