Zubin Mehta in Kashmir: Playing Beethoven amid partisan chatter

zubin-kashmirIt looks like a scene from an aesthete’s paradise: the luminous music of Beethoven and Haydn is poised to mingle with echoes of Amir Khusrau’s couplets of longing  in the breathless beauty of Kashmir! As the legendary poet watched the sun go down amidst the golden waters of the Dal Lake from the Shalimar Bagh, centuries ago Khusrau penned down his most famous lines that have been repeated by generations of Kashmiris: “Gar Firdaus rōy-e zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast” – (“If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this).” amir-khusrau

When the Persian poet first wrote this eternal couplet, little did he know that the venue of his lines – the Shalimar Bagh, would eventually fade out to an abandoned glory. Having been the muse of poets and writers, the site for romantic Bollywood numbers to a venue of neglect and gunfire, the garden has seen it all. But today, on the 7th of September, 2013, its pathways have all been swept, its  grass is all mowed, the weeds have been cleared, the flowers pruned and the fountains all have new spigots. And the reason for its makeover- the Zubin Mehta concert Dubbed ‘Ehsaas-e-Kashmir’ (or the ‘Feel of Kashmir’), iconic music conductor Zubin Mehta is set to enthral his 1500-strong audience with tunes by Beethoven, Haydn and Tchaikovsky at the Mughal Garden.

zubin-awardThe Bavarian State Orchestra and the Valley’s santoor icon, Pandit Bhajan Sopori, will join the maestro in modulating those exquisite compositions in the becalmed beauty of Srinagar.   The concert, hosted by German ambassador to India Michael Steiner, will be broadcast live in more than 50 countries around the world and is being attended by several important government ministers, diplomats, athletes and film stars on its guest-list. Its star-studded guest list notwithstanding, the concert has slipped from the realm of aesthetics into the noise and chatter of a polarized debate with separatists smelling an agenda in this celebration of the west-meets-east music festival.

An Indo-German collaboration

zubin-germanDiplomats and government officials from both countries have argued that the concert is simply a collaborative venture between India and Germany and that there wasn’t any ‘political motive’ to it.  Reinstating the apolitical nature of the event, Steiner had announced that, “This concert is for the people of Kashmir. Beethoven, Haydn and Tchaikovsky, played by a world-acclaimed maestro and one of the best orchestras of the world in one of the most enchanting places in the world.”  Steiner even went so far as to remark that, “Germany recognised Kashmir’s legitimate, democratic institutions — namely, the elected State government” and argued that “the world’s most beautiful prison” in 2004 had changed to dealing exclusively with the pro-Indian politicians and the establishment in 2013.” The aim of the concert, therefore, was to “reach the hearts of the Kashmiris with a message of hope and encouragement”, he added.  Some Kashmiris, however, seem to be feeling otherwise.

Separatists’ Chant

zubin-protestVeteran Separatist leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, has been quick to voice his anger. “Here people are suffering and dying. We’re oppressed by the Indian armed forces and the police. In such a situation, a music programme has no justification or relevance.” Calling for a day-long strike Sept 7, Geelani has argued that the concert is an attempt to “legitimise Indian rule in Kashmir”. Supporting his view is also Khurram Parvez of Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies: “Germany has been very inconsiderate…How can you collaborate with India, which is involved in human rights violations in Kashmir?.” Together with a number of activists, writers and academics, Parvez even wrote a letter to the German ambassador stating that the legitimisation of an ‘occupation’ via a musical concert was totally unacceptable and reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Some Kashmiri rights activists have also announced a parallel concert titled Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir a few hours before Mehta takes stage. The alternative concert is expected to have local poets, singers and rap bands performing in a public garden. They also plan to have a photo exhibition, put up banners and posters depicting the ‘reality of Kashmir’

Beauty versus Reality

The German envoy has been prompt in refuting the separatists’ spin. “This concert has the potential to make the world look at the complex realities of Kahsmir: its breathtaking beauty as well as the many challenges you, the Kashmiris, face in daily life,” he said. This is a view that some Kashmiris also echo. While many have grumbled about the huge expenditure on the garden’s makeover for the event (roughly $500,000) and the increased security, they also confess that the concert has something good for everyone. Boatmen on the shikaras are cheerful about the new influx of tourists for the concert. Some locals are even describing it as a “once-in-a-lifetime” event. Whether Mehta’s concert eventually lives up to its promise of connecting hearts and kindling hope for Kashmiris or continues to face the music from the separatists remains to be seen.

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