|Mehta at a concert in Madrid in 2009
New Delhi, Aug. 28: A Mughal garden, an Israel-based conductor, a German impresario, a Kashmiri audience — it was always likely such a cast of characters would bring the plot to boil.
The heat around German ambassador Michael Steiner’s effort to stage a Zubin Mehta concert on the decks of Srinagar’s Shalimar Bagh is being stoked so rapidly, there are fears the project might combust ahead of its September 7 staging.
From Kashmir’s separatists to rights picketers to online lobbyists to religious leaders, a symphony of discordant protests has swept up the bowels of the Valley and left the organisers shaken, if not yet shoved.
Hurriyat spearhead Moulvi Mirwaiz Farooq has labelled the Zubin concert a “mischievous attempt” to project Kashmir as a “normal place whereas we are a disputed zone of conflict”.
Activist Gautam Navlakha decreed the move devious for more than just political reasons.
“Germany and the European Union are eyeing the Indian market and they want to invest here. It is a give and take. Germany would help India to improve its image on Kashmir globally while India would allow it to invest in its markets,” Navlakha argued, flaying what he called the use of music as an imperial tool.
“People of Kashmir in general have no interest in such type of concerts, they know the real designs of India.”
Under mounting pressure of adverse opinion, Kashmir’s Grand Mufti, Bashir-ud-Din, added his decibel to the contrarian clamour. “It is a wrong signal that the people of Kashmir are prosperous and have the leisure to participate in such high-profile events,” the Mufti said and urged the Germans keep the gift of Zubin to Kashmir under wraps and away. “I appeal to the honourable German ambassador to reconsider the decision and instead spend on helping the education, healthcare and economy of Kashmiri people.”
This is not the first time music has become a barbed note in the cantankerous argument over Kashmir. It is almost as if somewhere in the darkened passages of Jawahar Tunnel, somewhere between Banihal and Qazigund, music turns to contraband and must be rejected entry to the Valley.
In February, Pragaash, an all-girl band of Kashmiri teenagers, plugged off, hounded by a fatwa fanned by on-line campaigns. In 2011, students of Kashmir University panicked at anonymous threat calls and abandoned a campus concert they had christened Ilhaam, or divine message.
In both those cases, proscription came mounted on religious constructs: music is unIslamic, a decree defied with flair and felicity by a long and accomplished line of Muslim patrons and practitioners. When the faithful pray across Kashmir’s mosques and shrines, they sing a sonorous song.
The objection to Zubin Mehta’s music is political, a quarrel about time and place; it is not about Islam, it is about Kashmir.
None of the nay-sayers has raised a brow on his Parsi roots or his Israeli residence. Neither has anyone questioned the conductor’s fabled accomplishment. But very often it takes little in Kashmir for issues to get cannoned into articulation of thwarted nationhood — “aazaadi”, that undying Kashmiri ember forever looking for a flame.
Nervous managers of the Zubin event — the German embassy in Delhi is its prime mover — are proceeding with elaborate preparations, regardless, although they have one apprehensive eye riveted on the pre-concert roil turning ugly.
As would be expected for any Zubin concert, the interest quotient is high and global, no less because of the exotic location. More than a dozen prime networks, including members of the European Broadcast Union, have sought telecast facilities, international guests are slated to arrive. The hosts are struggling to cope with requests even as they are worried over Kashmiri calls of rejection.
Embassy officials were tight-lipped, wary of a syllable ringing wrong. But one of those assisting the mission said: “They are following the mood in the Valley very carefully, they mean this as a gift to the people of Kashmir, they do not want it to become anything else, or worse, invite Kashmiri wrath. It is a programme for Kashmiris in Kashmir, not a state event or even a VVIP gala.”
Ambassador Steiner, one of the most engaged western emissaries in Delhi, has run seven secure-all missions to Kashmir over the last month. He has spoken to cross-sections of Kashmiris — political leaders, community elders, journalists, students, bloggers — but he remains unsure whether he was able to convince them. The late flurry of protests has verily run in the face of his efforts.
The Government of India, usually discouraging of third-country events in Kashmir, has kept an aloof posture but waved the event on, processing cumbersome paperwork and addressing security concerns. Incredible India!, a ministry of tourism enterprise, is a major event sponsor.
Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah, who has endorsed the concert and extended it logistical and security assistance, is irked by the prospect of disruption and rock-jawed about seeing it through.
“These voices are not new coming from the Valley,” a senior Omar aide to The Telegraph. “They do not wish any normal activity to happen in Kashmir, it is their case to keep the place locked and unhappy. We will see to it they do not succeed.”
Zubin, the man at the centre of the brouhaha, has spoken not a word. A concert in Kashmir was his wish and idea, expressed to ambassador Steiner in July 2012, when he came here to receive the Commander’s Cross of the German Order of Merit for conducting the Bavarian State Orchestra between 1998 and 2006.
Zubin, who remains an Indian citizen and is probably India’s greatest living contribution to the world musical stage, said he’d love it once to have a chance to lead Bavarian musicians at a performance in Kashmir.
They’re probably busy loading their props and instruments into a special plane in Munich, yet unsure if they will get to play. That opportunity will double the reward for their conductor. Zubin is this year’s recipient of the Tagore Award for cultural harmony. In Kashmir, the jury remains out on that one.