In a spell

The high decibel music in the Shalimar garden did not trigger a lot of media interest across the globe, it led to a series of embarrassments to the people who were so supportive to the cause of performing arts, reports R S Gull.

Suzain, son of Neelofar of Shopian at Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir. Pic: Bilal Bahadur
Suzain, son of Neelofar of Shopian at Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir.
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Thanks to German ambassador and his Ehsaas-e-Kashmir, said one of the civil society activists, Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir was an astounding success. “Since police restricted access to people to the venue (Municipal Park) on September 7, we are under tremendous pressure to create a DVD of the event,” the activist said. “It (event) is already a brand and the people are so keen to watch and keep the records of what happened.”

The civil society members, being increasingly projected as separatists by a section of non local media, are in the process of creating this volume and formally releasing it later this month. “We are honouring all the 25 artists who performed at the concert for free enabling us to have the show at an expenditure of less than Rs 50,000 which might be a record in itself,” said one of the members. “The show proved a milestone in the history of Kashmir because it helped the civil society reclaim part of the life that is otherwise being controlled and dictated by the establishment.”

Many people who watched arguably the most contested event in the recent history believe that the two events helped market each other in such a fashion that TV screens were split and people saw the two realities of Kashmir – one live from Shalimar and another from Municipal Park.

Both the events had highly restricted attendance. People in-charge of the Zubin Mehta show literally picked battles with people over the invite. Apprehensive that somebody might create a scene as the show was broadcast live to a larger audience abroad, security officials cancelled invitations to 300 students at the last moment. “It takes one hothead to let off one pistol shot which will not necessarily have to kill somebody but to make news,” Chief Minister Omar Abdullah told a Western reporter on the eve of the concert. “We don’t want anybody to be able to distract attention.”

But when the security set up gained the confidence, they permitted everybody – from the sentry’s manning gates to the gardeners and traffic cops, to listen the Beethoven by one of world’s most respected conductors, considered to be Israel’s cultural ambassador. The numbers jumped from scheduled 1500 to 1900 and finally are being stated to have been 2700!

This was despite the fact that Zubin and his art is Greek to Kashmir. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah rightly put it: “I have had people ask me for passes and then ask me, ‘What sort of songs does Zubin Mehta sing?’”

It was the same restriction at the Municipal Park. Till 2 pm, police did not permit even drinking water into the park. For most of the day, as a police truck blocked the road and discouraged people from getting near the venue. Here the reason for doing this was to ensure the gathering stays manageable. Police succeeded in doing so. Parting shots came slightly later when a commoner in Lal Chowk was fired at!

But getting Zubin Mehta to Srinagar within six months of a controversial hanging, had its own risks. There were reports that the show was forced upon state government but credit goes to Omar Abdullah for correcting the record by publicly admitting that when ambassador Michael Steiner revealed the idea to him, he was thrilled. Omar was sure what the event is going to be a success. He candidly told the New York Times: “It (concert) puts my state back in the spotlight, for better or for worse.”

After a long time, Kashmir was briefly back to the world news mill. As the foreign media started going door to door to update their Kashmir knowledge, many thought it was a ‘blessing in disguise’. Even a middle rung German diplomat was heard requesting a fellow passenger to suggest him some books that will help him understand Kashmir better!

Not many people know that the concert created a situation that almost everybody faced the music. Whoever was involved in the concert had his bit of embarrassment to share.

Take the case of ambassador Michael Steiner who successfully sold the idea, a ‘Zubin dream’ that resulted in the most controversial art event in the history of Kashmir. He faced his first dig at the hands of maestro Zubin Mehta right at the start of the concert.

“Let us be honest, ladies and gentlemen,” Zubin started amid applause. “By coming here with this great orchestra, and these wonderful soloists who will perform for you this evening, there are those who we have hurt inadvertently. But we only want to do good. And I promise next time, let’s do this concert for all Kashmiris, in a stadium. We don’t want only a select few.”

It was an indictment of the ambassador and the state government. Members of the opera had detected the gathering was exclusive.

Hours before the concert start, general manager of the Bavarian State Opera Nikolaus Bachler talked to New York Times almost on similar terms.

NN Vohra, Omar Abdullah and Steiner at Zubin Mehta’s concert
NN Vohra, Omar Abdullah and Steiner at Zubin Mehta’s concert

“We were expecting to play for the people of Kashmir in the spirit of brotherhood and humanity,” Bachler was quoted saying. “But the organizers have turned this concert into an exclusive, elitist event for a selected, invited crowd and this understandably became a political issue, which is a pity and against the aim of art.”

Bachler was more harsh in his reaction to Reuters. “We were misled by the German embassy. We will raise this issue with the German government that art can’t be exploited by anyone, be it governments or by embassies or any political groups,” Bachler was quoted saying by the wire agency. “The musicians, all the 80, waived the fees for Kashmiri people and not for an elite event. We didn’t waive the fees for an embassy concert. Be sure this will be an issue in Germany.”

Regardless of what happened in Shopian, moments before the first string of the violin was touched, Omar had a different kind of embarrassment. In his speech, he read the famous couplet that is synonymous with Kashmir beauty: Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,

Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast. He credited Amir Khurso for this couplet which sent people in a tizzy in the audience itself who believe it is emperor Jehangir who said it.

So many believe that the couplet neither belongs to Jehangir nor Khusroo. For the first time when this couplet was heard was when Shah Jehan put this couplet on the plague of the Red Fort. Literary historians need to investigate if this couplet has some Kashmir connections!

People associated with the concert intimately had their own moments of embarrassment. Congress’s state president Prof Saif ud Din Soz was a facilitator of the event. He had arranged the first meeting between ambassador and the local writers. Regardless of the outcome of that meeting, Soz was fuming after the concert was over.

In Shalimar garden, Soz was seen boiling in anger. Reason: he was expecting to have his seat in the first row. But the organizers had seated him in 14th row!

A sitting MP, a former union minister, head of the coalition coordination committee, state congress president and a facilitator for the concert, Soz thought it appropriate to leave the venue instead of staying at a distance from Zubin’s stage. It was his family that counseled him to stay back and soothe his nerves. Later, he boycotted the dinner that Omar hosted for the opera.

Soz stayed out but there were people keen to break the toast with the Bavarian opera at the SKICC dinner. The entire team of Soz-o-Saaz, the folk artists that performed with Zubin at the beginning and the conclusion of the concert was on the gate.

Credited for the fusion Haftrang (seven colours), the only attraction that invoked the local interest, these illiterate artists who followed verbal directions worth 36-pages of notation which they can not read, had gone for the dinner along with other artists but were disallowed.

“It was heartbreaking when we were stopped by the security,” Munir A Mir, one of the members of the group said. “Those carrying beige envelopes (invites) were allowed in. We were wearing I-cards only.” The role, however, did not apply to the Soporis – the father and son, who took the honours for the performance. Son Abay Rustum, however, has admitted that it (denial to the only local ingredient of the concert) was “not in good taste” and he felt “insulted”. A newspaper quoted Sopori saying: “I didn’t want to make an issue and put the image of our state at stake before foreign musicians.” All the clever men have done it in the history – eat the insult and keep the head clear!

However, the most shocking part of the revelation was that the state government had driven the local artists in a truck. “While members of Bavarian State Orchestra were ferried in BMWs, Kashmiri folk musicians were asked to reach the venue in a truck carrying their instruments,” Indian Express reported. This speaks volumes about the state government that was speaking so high for the respect and freedom of art when the controversy over the concert was in sharp focus. The government actually does not think, singers, playwrights, musicians and others artists have any significance unless they do not work for the court. Even after that they can not be counted as bourgeoisie.

Post-insult, Chief Minister hosted a tea party for these 15 folk artists along with Sopori!

At the peak of the opposition to the concert, noted singer Waheed Jeelani had thrown his weight behind the show. “Art, culture and theatre are noble fields. They shouldn’t be influenced by politics and vice versa.” Jeelani was quoted saying. “If Zubin Mehta is unwelcome here, how will they welcome us in Europe?”

While on his way to London, he faced his music: of the six members of the troupe, only two were allowed by Britons.

As Jeelani flew out for the Lutan Mela to London, vocalist Usha Khar, tumbakhnaer player Imtiyaz Malik, rabab specialist Ghulam Mohammad Lone and sarangi player M A Bhat were in the Kashmir house watching Zubin on TV.

“We were treated like animals at the British embassy, every day we had to go and wait there for hours,” Imtiaz Malik was quoted saying. They approached state government for intervention only to be told that the entire government is busy with Ehsaas-e-Kashmir.

At the end of it, their plea was simple: “We are in Delhi at our own costs, could somebody get us our passports back?” Jeelani had his own criticism for his opportunism as the members said he should have stayed back with them and not flown out in protest. In London, Jeelani recruited a Sikh from a Gurdwara to help him showcase Kashmir music! Now local artists are comparing why Western art forms are rich and impressive. “Zubin flew with 100 artists, arranged BMWs and five star hotel for them and we are struggling for visa as our leaders know the art of how to hire surrogates and promote Kashmir culture?” an artist who was denied the documents said.

Rabab player Lone stated clearly that Jeelani “gave hype to the concert for his personal gains”.

But Zubin is a towering personality, his Tel Aviv connections notwithstanding. But while talking here and there in anticipation and after the concert, the legendry maestro had his status dwarfed in Kashmir (dubbed as the lost tribe of Israel) for his lack of knowledge and understanding on Kashmir. He even accused Kashmiris of not paying the tax!

Kashmiri folk artists at Zubin Mehta’s show
Kashmiri folk artists at Zubin Mehta’s show

Days ahead of the controversy and soon after the concert, he repeated his belief that he wanted to “bring Hindus and Muslims together (in Kashmir), to have one-and-a-half hours of inner peace and spirituality.” This essentially means he believes Kashmir unrest has communal roots.

Chief Minister was apprehensive that invoking Zubin’s Israel connections would become a problem in Kashmir. A top civil society activist said they deliberately skipped invoking Zubin’s zionist connections.

But Zubin had his own way of telling his influences of a long association with the state that Muslims are uncomfortable with. He talked of “settlements” and praised Delhi for not doing that. “If India would have allowed settlements here since 1947, they would have ruined this place,” Zubin said. “I’m very much tied to the state of Israel but I am against their policy of settlements in Palestine.”

Zubin said musicians are not politicians who can change boundaries. “Let (us) have another way, a spiritual way and I think yesterday there was a beginning of some process of healing because Hindus and Muslims were sitting together in complete harmony. Healing and harmony are the two most important factors that we are striving for.”

Zubin does not see the possibility of art separating from politics because “all my life there has been politics in art”. He wants another invite for another visit to Kashmir. But who will bell the cat?


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