‘The Zubin Mehta concert has brought Kashmir back on the agenda’

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Photo Courtesy: India.diplo.de
Photo Courtesy: india.diplo.de

Was holding the music concert in Srinagar worth the effort despite the controversy surrounding it?

A clear yes. In the end, we had 2,700 guests at Shalimar Bagh, 1,200 more than envisaged. Among them were true music lovers, cultural icons, of course, also VIPs, but most of them were normal Kashmiris: houseboat owners, shopkeepers, artists, students, academics, workers, neighbours of Shalimar Bagh – you name it. They enjoyed one-and-a-half hour of brilliant music conducted by one of the best maestros in the world. They listened to the best of music Germany and Europe can offer. They saw, for the first time, Kashmiri musicians performing a Kashmiri song – Rind-e-Poshmal – along with a classical orchestra. Even, now, two weeks later, people talk about the Kashmir concert. The overall response was enthusiastic. We were flooded with positive letters and emails not only from locals, but also from people in Europe. I just came back from the International Motor Show in Frankfurt. There was not a single visitor from the subcontinent whom I met – and there were many – who had not watched the concert on TV, listened to it on the radio or at least seen parts of the concert. The concert has brought Kashmir back on the agenda. It did not embellish anything. It showed the beauty of Kashmir, but also its difficult reality to an audience in more than 50 countries live.

Everything about the concert got mired in politics, with a section of people in the Valley seeing a political agenda in the exercise. Why did the Embassy organise this event in Kashmir? Was it only to fulfil the lifelong desire of Mr Zubin Mehta to hold a concert in the state?

The motive was Ehsaas-e-Kashmir – Feelings for Kashmir. This is why Zubin Mehta, the Bavarian State Orchestra and my Embassy worked day and night for over a year to stage this unique concert in the heart of Kashmir. We all know that Kashmir is a natural paradise. But we also know that the daily life of common Kashmiris is not at all a paradise. Of course, one cannot change the situation through a classical music concert. But there is one thing I have experienced throughout my career: Don’t underestimate the power of music. Music is universal, music connects. And this is what we wanted to do – to connect people through music. Believe me, it would have been far more easy to stage a concert in a more conventional place like Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore. The challenge was to do it exactly here, in Srinagar, exactly because the because the situation of the Kashmiris is not easy. The Kashmir concert was a cultural tribute to Kashmiris, a gesture of respect with the best we, Germans and Europeans, have – classical music.

The main criticism of the concert was that it would project a peaceful image of the state to the world when actually the state has been troubled for the past two decades.

Again, the Kashmir concert did not deny the difficult realities on the ground. On the contrary, a whole range of international media was accredited to the concert and used this occasion to extensively portray Kashmir in all its facets – the bright sides as well as the dark ones. Through this concert, millions around the globe who might have had not the slightest idea of Kashmir, got involved de facto. They tuned in, they read the articles, they got a feeling for Kashmir. To put it frankly, more publicity for the realities in Kashmir is hardly imaginable.

On the day of the concert itself, four youth were killed in Shopian in controversial circumstances and the state was roiled by protests for a week thereafter. The concert is being partly blamed for this as the killings were the result of the unprecedented security arrangements made for the event.

Let me stress two things here. First, every such incident is deplorable, every person killed is one too many. I deplore that these young people were killed. Second, to instrumentalise this and artificially link the Shopian killings, which took place 50 kilometres away from the Kashmir concert, is a disgrace to the dead.

In your message to the people of Kashmir before the event, you said that the concert was not an alternative to, but a mobiliser for more engagement in Kashmir. What will this engagement with Kashmir be like?

I have always said that I am absolutely aware of the challenges Kashmiris face in their daily life. Therefore, the commitment of my Embassy goes well beyond music. We fund a health camp for underprivileged people from villages around Mattipoora. We are supporting the construction of a major centre for medical treatment near Baramulla. We foster academic exchange. This July, I had the chance to address more than 2,000 young Kashmiri students at Kashmir University on the opportunities for education, training and careers that they could explore in Germany. And we are prepared to do more. One concrete project I am working on could be the setup of a mechanical engineering centre for young Kashmiris by a German company. And why not take up the request to use German know-how for conserving the Dal Lake in case our know-how is needed? However, you won’t get more health care, education or engineer training in being against a concert. To do more in Kashmir and having a unique concert is not a contradiction, but goes together quite well.

Zubin Mehta said that he would like to hold another concert in Kashmir which Kashmiris could attend for free. Would the German embassy be willing to organise it as well? And if yes, what would you do differently this time?

Believe me, we would have loved to invite even more Kashmiris. However, the security situation on the ground is the way it is. You know about public threats from hardliners. As an organiser, I had to bear the full responsibilty for the safety of the orchestra and my guests. I am happy that, under the given circumstances, we have achieved a marvellous result – we had full security and everyone really interested in the musical concert who asked for an invitation, got one. We could welcome 2,700 guests at Shalimar Bagh – far more than envisaged. We brought together all walks of life that evening. And everyone who wanted to watch the concert on TV or listen to it on the radio could do so – in all of Kashmir, everywhere else in India, worldwide. I think we have done our share. If the future allowed for even larger cultural events, I could only welcome that.

Why was the concert limited to a select audience when it was meant to offer encouragement and hope to Kashmiris? Besides, Nikolaus Bachler, General Manager of the Orchestra, said that they had been misled on the nature of the audience and that the organisers had turned the concert into an “exclusive, elitist event for a selected, invited crowd.”

To finally get rid of this myth, the concert audience was not selective, it was inclusive. Of course, we had VIPs – besides the contingent of sponsors and personal friends of Zubin Mehta, we had in the whole audience less than 30 VIPs from outside Kashmir. But the overwhelming majority of our guests were local – middle class, poor people, politicians, bureaucrats, young and old, pathani suits and kameez salwars. Concerning the criticism voiced by Mr Bachler who, by the way, did not have any role whatsoever in staging the concert, I think maestro Zubin Mehta said it all when he pointed out that this was the personal opinion of Mr Bachler and that 2700 guests could hardly be only VIPs.

Finally, how was your experience of Kashmir? What are the memories you carry from the event?

The small space granted in an interview is not enough to express all my gratitude to the Kashmiris and to all those on site who made the concert possible. I have visited Kashmir nine times this year. I have met marvellous, hospitable people – from the icons of Kashmiri culture to the gardeners at Shalimar Bagh, proud of the renovation work they had done for the concert. I met fifteen wonderful Kashmiri musicians. I have had lively debates on the pros and cons of staging such a concert with politicians, bloggers, activists and business people in Kashmir. Not all of the criticism Zubin Mehta and myself had to face in the media was fair, sometimes the arguments put forward were quite abstruse. However, the concert was a magic endeavour which has triggered a healthy debate on whether one can hold cultural events in a place like Kashmir. And the answer is yes, one can. And the Kashmiris, these wonderful people with their rich history, beautiful land, the hard reality they face, can be proud of it.

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