Music becomes collateral damage in souring of Pak-India ties

Updated December 04, 2014

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Sachal Jazz Ensemble performing at the Lahore Literary Festival 2014. – Photo credit: Mahjabeen Mankani/Dawn.com
Sachal Jazz Ensemble performing at the Lahore Literary Festival 2014. – Photo credit: Mahjabeen Mankani/Dawn.com

After the Lahore-based Sachal Jazz Ensemble's seven Pakistani artists were denied permission to perform at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) on December 1, the band decided to cancel the Bangalore concert scheduled for the following day and returned home.

The Ensemble comprising musicians from India, Pakistan and the UK were on a three-city India tour.

"The morale of the group was down and the producer took the decision to return without further concerts in case there was going to be another such episode," said Jay Visvadeva, head of the London-based Sama Arts Network, speaking to Dawn from Mumbai.

The performances were organised in association with Mumbai-based event management company Culture Grind.

Visvadeva said the Pakistani artists were "stunned and saddened that they could not do what they do best – play their music".

"The production value is fantastic and the players themselves are incredible," said Rez Abbasi, a New York (of Pakistani-origin) based jazz fusion and jazz guitarist, music producer and composer, with 10 albums of compositions under his belt.

He shared his own tale of woe on the Indian front: "It is a struggle even for myself who is an American citizen and has lived in the US for over 40 years to get a simple visa to perform in India and that's because I was born in Karachi!"

"There needs to be a better vetting process that's more conducive to common sense rather than a blanketed approach," he said, adding that he failed to understand why India and Pakistan could not clear the political way for the envoys of culture.

"How else do we find common ground if not through peaceful communication via the arts?" said Rez who found the news of Sachal band not getting permission "very unfortunate".

But for Mushtaq Soofi, one of the producers at the Sachal band, "it wasn't totally unexpected".

"This kind of treatment is often meted out to Pakistani artists," he said.

Senior journalist, Beena Sarwar, also editor of Jang Group's Aman Ki Asha, and a long time advocate of normalcy in India-Pakistan relations, said the incident reflected poorly not only on the Mumbai administration, but also on the politicians who allowed it especially since the band had already performed in Delhi and there seemed to be no question of a security threat.

Of all the Indian states, Maharashtra is the most sensitive, says Visvadeva. "Also the concert in Mumbai was taking place just five days after the fifth anniversary of the 26/11 attacks there," he pointed out.

But he went on to add: "There was no security threat as such." The 900 audience who waited 45 minutes before being informed that the performance had been called off were all invited guests.

"Such petty, unnecessary leg-pulling only strengthens right-wing extremists on either side — this is exactly what they want. Is that really what India wants?" said Sarwar, adding that people-to-people engagement was critical to overcome this extremism. "But every time there's an indication of hope, someone does something to undermine it, on one side or the other," she said and added: "It's time to break this cycle!"

Shai Venkatraman, a Mumbai-based freelance journalist working as a senior consultant with Bollywood actor Aamir Khan's weekly television show Satyamev Jayate, echoed Sarwar's sentiments from the other side.

"Artists are ambassadors — cultural ambassadors — and it is interactions like these that have kept Indo-Pak relations alive through the decades, even when the two governments have been at loggerheads at various points. There was so much hope after Modi extended the invite to Sharif for the swearing in ceremony. This latest move just pushes all that down the drain," she told Dawn.

While Pakistani artists were not given permission, two British musicians in the same band were given NOCs (No Objection Certificates) which Visvadeva found clearly discriminatory.

"The NCPA authorities suggested, ridiculously though, that the two British and one Indian should perform to salvage the evening," he said, still reeling from the shock. "It is a terrible blow as you are responsible for everything — audience, artists, guests and the concert hall."

To Venkatraman, the NOC given to some and denied to other artists in the same band wreaked of "a disturbing jingoistic streak".

Ambreen Agha, a research assistant with New Delhi's Institute for Conflict Management and also a music aficionado, found the Sachal row least bit surprising.

Citing a few incidents from India, she said: "In its latest act of idiosyncrasy, the Vishwa Hindu Parshad (VHP), a right-wing militant Hindu organisation, had on November 25 this year exhibited its discomfort at Santa Claus distributing chocolates to children in relation to Christmas in the Bastar District of Chattisgarh State... and have also pushed for institutionalising Hinduism by pressing for the installation of statues of goddess Saraswati in these schools."

She said: "The Sachal band is just a victim of cultural narcissism that the Hindutva brigade exudes."

She further pointed out that this kind of narcissism was not bereft of politics: "With the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coming to power in India in 2014, the peripheral forces, or allies, like the VHP have been emboldened in their resolve for cultural and moral policing."

Agha warned that more such incidents reflecting religious fundamentalism will take hold of the country in the near future if these regressive forces were not nipped in the bud.

But sadly, she said, this would not happen: "In fact, the deliberate silence at the top will fortify the so-called cultural guardians of our country."

On the political front and Indo-Pak relations, Agha said that by not allowing a music band, and particularly singling out Pakistani artists in it, says a lot about the "ever-growing souring of relations with Pakistan", notwithstanding the premiers' diplomatic handshake at the recent 18th Saarc Summit in Nepal.

"This was their first time in India," said Soofi. The band has performed globally at all music centres, including the Barbican Centre and South Bank Centre in London, Jazz At Lincoln Centre in New York, and the prestigious Marciac Jazz Festival in France and had never had a hitch.

Sheema Kermani, who is travelling to Mumbai to perform on Dec 6, found the news disconcerting: "This is very unfortunate and sad because it is precisely our cultural exchanges that help to bridge the differences between the two countries," she said.

"We performed in Delhi and Hyderabad last August and did not face any such problems," she added. "I imagine a band performs at much larger events than us, though at our Delhi performance at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) last year, we had an audience of over 3,000 people, and had two performances in Hyderabad."

Not one to give up, Visvadeva said he would definitely try again "maybe in a better climate".

Agha is not sure: "With all the political thaws and the brawls on the border, music seems to be the collateral damage. The religious conservatives in India, who get their succour from the right-wing political party at the centre, will only shrink the space for cultural expression, making it difficult for creative artists across the borders."