Of peace and propaganda

Of peace and propaganda

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The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra performs for a Nazi gathering.
The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra performs for a Nazi gathering.

Exactly a decade ago, the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra visited the United States. The high-and-mighty audience at Washington’s Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts comprised President Bush, the first lady, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was a desperate attempt to shore up Bush’s ratings, and to show the world that all was getting well in Iraq, a country that had just received the priceless gift of democracy from the Bush regime.The Washington Post, in its review of the concert, had this to say: “You’ve heard of show trials? Well, last night’s appearance by the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center was a show concert. The State Department flew 60 musicians the 6,200 miles from Baghdad to Washington to play for less than an hour in tandem with members of the NSO. As Winston Churchill might have put it, rarely have so many traveled so far to do so little.” The concert wasn’t spared across the Atlantic either. In England, The Independent’s Andrew Buncombe’s report on the concert was headlined “The sweet sound of propaganda”.

Propaganda. By the end of this week, we’ll get a taste of it, too. On September 7, Zubin Mehta will lead the Bavarian State Orchestra in Srinagar, summer capital of Indian-occupied Kashmir. Called ‘Ehsaas-e-Kashmir’, the Bombay-born conductor will direct what German ambassador Michael Steiner called ‘one of the world’s best orchestras’. That it’s not even the best orchestra in Bavaria, let alone the world, is another matter (that accolade belongs to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra). Saturday’s concert, organized by the German embassy and the Indian government, will be telecast live around the world, and is set to surpass the Iraqi Orchestra’s Kennedy Centre gig  with the sheer reach of its propaganda.

For those unaware, a primer on Kashmir: It is internationally-recognized disputed territory, and the stage of horrific crimes, perpetrated on Kashmiris by the Indian state and it’s AFSPA-empowered Army (The AFSPA—Armed Forces Special Powers Act—legalizes the Indian Armed Forces’ murder of civilians on mere suspicion, and protects murderers from prosecution). It is a major flaw in our Constitutional setup, and it is in this backdrop that the State will attempt to dominate the narrative on Kashmir with this concert. Doubtless, its intention is to try and paint an ‘all is well’ image of Kashmir to the world, just like Bush tried to do with the Iraq Orchestra. In a recent interview with a newsmagazine, Mehta spoke about bringing ‘peace’ to Kashmir.

While it isn’t clear yet whether Mehta is gullible or even knows about how his concert is being handled, here’s an undisputed fact about bringing peace to Kashmir: The concert isn’t open to ordinary Kashmiris. A letter to the ambassador from Kashmiri intellectuals states: “the list of ‘invitees only’ is bound to be restricted to the members of the apparatuses of the Occupying State: from perpetrators of crimes, as heinous as murder, rape and torture, to the local collaborators of the State and perhaps some powerless, vulnerable and compliant few.” As of last week, 1,500 invitations were sent out, over half of which were to outsiders. You can, and I strongly implore you to, read the full text of Kashmiri civil society’s letter to the German embassy here: http://bit.ly/12HmSqm. I fully agree with most of the points it raises, and am reluctant to repeat them here, tempting as it may be. Interestingly and fittingly, Kashmiri civil society will respond to Ehsaas-e-Kashmir with its own cultural event, Haqeeqat-eKashmir (the reality of Kashmir).

But on one level, Mehta may be correct about bringing peace—to his concert and elite audience. The Indian newspaper DNA recently reported that “The 14-km-long route from the city to Shalimar Garden would be sealed on the evening of Sep 7. The Dal Lake would be monitored by security forces using speed boats. No civilian movement would be allowed inside the lake at least three km beyond the banks where the garden is located.” Mehta, who says he performs a number of ‘peace concerts’, should know that such enforced ‘peace’ and coerced silence is the soundtrack of a prison, not of a healthy democracy.

It was the German ambassador, Michael Steiner, who first announced this concert. He reportedly prioritized it after Mehta expressed his desire to perform in Kashmir, during an event organized by the embassy in New Delhi. Though it’s fully possible that Germany may be unwitting collaborators with the Indian state, that country’s ties with classical music propaganda go back a long way, as is mentioned (in passing) in the letter to the Embassy. Between 1933 and 1945, the august Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, then sometimes known as the Reichsorchestra, sold itself out to the fascist state—it was a powerful tool in the hands of Joseph Goebbels, its musicians were civil servants, and it regularly played in front of giant Swastikas before the worst criminals of the 20th Century. Its director, William Furtwangler, was the man who actively led the orchestra into the open arms of the Nazis.

Furtwangler wasn’t the only one. The legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan, a man today known as much for his arrogance as for his talent, joined the Nazi party to further his own career. In 1954, he inherited Furtwangler’s baton at the Berlin Philharmonic, and maintained a vice-like grip on the orchestra till 1989, when Claudio Abbado succeeded him. A confession would be appropriate here: Despite his Nazi connections (and my hatred of the Nazis), Karajan remains my second-favourite conductor, behind only Arturo Toscanini. It’s one of those things I can’t explain.

When ambassador Steiner announced the concert, this is what he said: “With the magic power of music, crossing geographical, political and cultural borders, we want to reach the hearts of Kashmiris with a message of hope and encouragement. 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.” Beethoven, Haydn and Tchaikovsky—what better than a mother hearing the epic opening of the Fifth Symphony when she’d rather hear about some semblance of justice for her murdered son? Of course, it’s obvious that for a Kashmiri father, the Violin Concerto is a perfectly legitimate alternative to seeing his son for the first time since that evening long ago, when the khaki-clad men took him away.

One simple question for Steiner: How is the concert for the people of Kashmir when it is out of bounds for the ordinary people of Kashmir? As I’ve noted above, let alone attending the concert, Kashmiri civilians won’t be allowed anywhere near it. Also, what is the peace, hope and encouragement the organizers hope to achieve? Let’s rewind, again: In 2008, Mehta’s brother Zarin orchestrated the New York Philharmonic’s tour to North Korea. He billed the concert as “a manifestation of the power of music to unite people.” The subsequent nose-diving of US-North Korea relations made that supposed ‘power of music’ perfectly clear. Building bridges between nations, cultures and peoples is the job of diplomats, not orchestras, and the correct way to do it is through negotiations, not symphonies. Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, comprising musicians from Israel and Palestine, is supposedly an exception, but to what extent it has helped Israel-Palestine relations is anybody’s guess. Nevertheless, the German Embassy’s utter disregard for the sentiments of the Kashmiri people is disturbing, to say the least. It would make any fascist worth his salt proud, and will do a fantastic job of pushing Kashmiri voices even further along the fringes of the dominant discourse.

Despite my anger at the concert and the way the Indian State and the German embassy are going about it, I still truly want to believe that Mehta has a good heart, despite the evidence to the contrary—I’d like to think it’s a prerequisite to produce the kind of beautiful music aapro Zubin has consistently churned out. I sincerely hope I’m not wrong in my assessment of him, though I’m fully aware that occasional bouts of megalomania can afflict even the most harmless souls.

In Kashmir this Saturday, perhaps Mehta can lead his orchestra into a performance of John Cage’s 4’33”, the experimental composer’s most important work by his own admission. The most famous of all ‘silent’ compositions, its score instructs the performer not to play any instrument throughout the duration of the piece’s three movements. It purports to bring into focus the sounds of the environment the listeners hear while it is performed. If the Indian state and their German collaborators listen intently enough during its performance, they’ll hear what really needs to be heard in the Valley—rising steadily above the forced silence of the surroundings, a desperate chorus of Kashmiri civilians demanding justice for the heinous acts perpetrated on them by the Indian state and its rampaging Army. That, not this concert, would be the true Haqeeqat-eKashmir.

Courtesy: Author’s blog

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