On Saturday, 7 September 2013 an event took place in Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir, which is being described as historic, as controversial, as the biggest cultural event in the state for a long time. A performance called the Concert of Peace featuring Zubin Mehta leading the Bavarian State Orchestra at Srinagar’s stunning Shalimar Garden has attracted controversy way in excess of what a musical concert would otherwise.
A spectacular show
First let’s talk about a terrific music show, leaving the politics aside for a while. The setting was spectacular: Shalimar Baug is one of the best known and most beautiful of Kashmir’s Mughal gardens. Newly renovated and restored, the garden was seen in glorious summer garb – the imposing Zabarwan Hills as a backdrop and the Dal Lake near the entrance of the garden.
Then there was the music! Ah the music! It may have been a politically correct move to exhibit inclusivity, but the beginning of the concert featuring Kashmiri musicians playing traditional instruments under the stewardship of Abhay Sopori was beautiful! This was a fusion piece featuring a large segment of the Bavarian orchestra playing in tandem with the Kashmiri musicians. For me this was the highlight – perhaps because I am trained in Indian classical and folk traditions, it was this that touched a chord and I found myself entranced by the melody, the tempo and the unique sounds created by the coming together of two seemingly disparate groups of musicians.
What followed were some of the best and most easily recognisable compositions of Ludwig Van Beethoven, Franz Joseph Haydn and Tchaikovsky – particularly Beethoven’s Fifth at the end. The concert was a veritable musical feast all of the 2000 assembled guests and countless others who watched spellbound as the show aired live on TV.
Why Zubin Mehta’s Concert is significant
One of the leading conductors in the world, Zubin Mehta announced that the concert was the culmination of a lifelong dream. A Parsi born in Mumbai, Mehta may have spent most of his life abroad but he still retains his Indian citizenship and thinks of himself as an Indian first and foremost. That such a concert was held – albeit amidst tight security – in the state of Jammu & Kashmir is itself significant.
The concert featuring some of the best musicians in the world was important because it helped give at least an impression of normalcy in a state torn by strife; with little time for music and culture of any sort. Kashmir’s veritable cultural vacuum is ironical because Kashmir has a strong musical tradition dating back a very long time – it is a unique and vibrant tradition, no matter what religious hardliners would have us believe. It would be a tragedy, a travesty to see such a tradition die out; the concert gave a much needed impetus to culture in Kashmir and Kashmiri music in particular. The fact that it triggered a “protest concert” elsewhere in Srinagar is actually a good thing. Music is once again playing the valley!
The concert was also significant for the publicity it received and for the opportunity it gave Mehta to make some tongue in cheek remarks about some of the privileges that the Kashmiri people enjoyed (under Article 370 of the constitution of India). He claimed that if non-Kashmiris had been allowed to buy and own land in the state, he would have had a “house on a hill here”.
Why Zubin Mehta’s Kashmir Concert became controversial
Kashmiri separatists of course protested against the concert – this was to be expected. According to separatists such as Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who called a day long strike in Srinagar, this was an attempt to “legitimise Delhi’s rule in a disputed region”. Well considering that the democratically elected Chief Minister of the state Omar Abdullah inaugurated the concert, the legitimacy of the concert cannot be questioned. Mr. Geelani is free to have his views; free to protest, but to protest against a music concert seems strange. What, particularly did he think a music concert would do to undermine whatever it is that he hopes his movement will achieve? How is a music concert pernicious to anyone or anything? Why should anyone protest against something with an avowed message of peace?
The fact that the concert required people living around the Shalimar Baug area to return to their homes by 1 PM prior to the beginning of the concert may be something that is admittedly cause for resentment. In the interests of security this may have been necessary. But it was necessary only because most of the concert audience consisted of dignitaries of all types. If it was supposed to be a concert for the Kashmiri people, this was not much in evidence. If the concert genuinely had been for the Kashmiri people, such tight security and curtailments would not have been necessary. Perhaps a concert that was really for the people may have garnered a different response?
Zubin Mehta’s announcement that next time such a concert would be held in a stadium where any Kashmiri who wished could attend free of charge – this is certainly more in keeping with the spirit and supposed aims of such a concert.
By Reena Daruwala