Zubin Mehta’s concert by Dal Lake in Srinagar has possibly stirred up a noisy hornet’s nest around an artistic endeavour since the Ayatollah Khomeini opined in a fatwa that Salman Rushdie should pay with his life for writing The Satanic Verses. At the time, a famous writer said it was the most severe form of literary criticism he had encountered.
The comment must have taken into account the fact that the Ayatollah Khomeini was unlikely to have read Rushdie’s novel in the original and there were no Farsi translations at the time.
The three organisations that have threatened Zubin’s concert are not, it would seem, objecting to his particular interpretations of Brahms or Wagner. They object to the fact that he is the conductor of the Israeli Philharmonic.
What I advise Zubin to do is to take a leaf out of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in which the mob accosts Cinna and threatens to tear him apart for being part of the conspiracy to murder Caesar.
He protests “I am not Cinna the conspirator, I am Cinna the poet!” Zubin can legitimately say, “ I am not Zubin the Zionist, I am Zubin the musician.” Of course, Shakespeare’s mob is not pacified and yes, the objectors to the concert have gone on to vilify Zubin’s music.
They feel Western classical music and perhaps all western music is a corruption of the Islamic ethic and in their own words, “It will simply promote waywardness among the youth and add to the deviations of those people who despite being so-called Muslims, least bother for human or religious values.” Mute the music indeed!
I don’t suppose that brandishing the cliché of the healing power of music or of music being the food of love will have the least ameliorative effect on those who threaten people who attend a music concert.
Neither, do I suppose that those who feel that a Western classical music concert, an exercise of one of the pinnacles of the achievement of a particular cultural tradition would be moved by the fact that in our subcontinent a Quawali concert is not just the preserve of Sufi Muslims but the cultural or even spiritual expression common to every religion known to India and Pakistan.
No one pretends that one concert or even a whole tradition of musical performances go any way towards preventing wars or in any sense mediating in man’s inhumanity to man. Germans, Italians, Russians, the French and the British shared a taste for Puccini, Tchaikovsky and even Wagner, they waged war anyway.
The Nazis didn’t care that Jews wrote some of the best classical and romantic music of the western tradition. They sent them to the gas chambers regardless.
And yet, music has been used even in recent times to attempt a dialogue between cultures, a precariously constructed bridge over troubled waters. Even in Israel and Palestine, Daniel Barenboim’s transcultural, trans-ethnic orchestra which incorporates amateur and professional musicians, Arab and Jewish, is dedicated to the project of cultural and political unity.
I witnessed their performances this year on the BBC and though there are very many Zionist enthusiasts and Palestinian supporters in Britain, no one threatened the audience and, incidentally, no animals were harmed during the performances.
Tarring Zubin with the brush of Zionist atrocities because he has lived or worked in Israel, is as absurd as characterising the threat-mongers as lackeys of the Indian or Pakistani state because they live and work on one side or the other of the border that divides Kashmir.
Zubin’s views on the divide, on Kashmir, on the dissenting but perfectly legitimate opinions within India of the way the Indian state has dealt with Kashmiri protest, on Omar Abdullah’s popularity or unpopularity are not known and I am confident won’t be publicised. Even if they were known, they wouldn’t matter. His view of Beethoven’s quartets would be much more valuable or relevant than any statement from him on the politics of Kashmir.
The contention of the Hurriyat separatist leader Syed Geelani is that the decision to stage the concert, which will be broadcast internationally, in Kashmir is part of an overt political ploy to demonstrate that Kashmir is not a disputed territory with its internal political ferment brutally suppressed by the Indian state.
The Chief Minister of Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, replies that music is traditionally a part of Kashmir’s culture and all its forms are welcome.
Other opponents of the concert support the idea that this is a public relations conspiracy. The Jamaat-e-Islam of Kashmir proclaims: “Zubin Mehta coming from this dreadful country cannot be without any hidden political agenda. To organise such concerts here is tantamount to rubbing salt on the live wounds of Kashmiris and hurting their sentiments very badly.
Jamaat-e-Islami J&K is duty bound to make the world community aware of the displeasure and hatred of Kashmiris against organising this musical concert by the German embassy. Only a few irreligious lustful rulers, bureaucrats and capitalists show any interest in such absurd programs.”
Will the world’s displeasure redound on Zubin and his recital or on the people who threaten people who do nothing more than intend to attend a music concert by invitation? Threatening guests as the jihadist organisations have done will not win international friends and influence people.
The sponsors of the concert are the German Embassy in New Delhi. If they have a political agenda, it remains ambiguous as Germany is not an unequivocal supporter of India’s claim to Kashmir.
Zubin Mehta’s possible hidden political agenda must remain a mystery. He is surely not there to sell the policies of the Israeli State to impressionable Kashmiris. The Jamaat leaders are either being supremely paranoid, or are seeking some publicity in the wake of their waning support for violence and confrontation.
Or perhaps they are afraid that the future of the world lies in a denial of segregated sects imposing medieval laws and practices on the populations they seek to hold in thrall through violence and force.
They are manifestly afraid that the war between, shall we say, Osama bin Laden and Ronald McDonald is being gradually won by the latter – that capitalist modernism, symbolised by a fast food chain which erodes the culinary settlement of centuries, is winning the hearts and minds they want to hold in feudal fundamentalist captivity?
Zubin Mehta and the western classical music tradition are not an unambiguous representative of this erosion of tastes and loyalties. Even the fact that the concert was held and its potential popularity is an indication that a section of Kashmiris want to open out to the cultures of the world.
Which means cultures, perhaps compatible with true Islamic belief, but inimical to the narrow impositions through which others seek to control a whole population and deny it access to universal and historical development, will take hold and bring those populations with Islamic belief intact into the contemporary world. Education, education, education – through the school that Mallala Yousoufzai battles to attend or even through the conductor’s baton of Zubin Mehta.