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From India to South Asia

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

The United Nations hosts artists, musicians and speakers from all over the world in its efforts to inform the educated, to make the diplomats keep some perspective as they wend their careful and deliberate ways to re-order the world and to lubricate the gargantuan diplomacy wheels spinning on the water's edge in New York City.

Travel back thirty-five years. The then Under Secretary General of the United Nations, C. V. Narasimhan, arranged for M.S. Subbulakshmi to sing for the diplomats in New York City. It was her first trip to the United States. On October 23, 1966 the suited and the booted, the kaftaned and the robed, the turbaned and the dashikied gathered to listen to this shy, golden-throated warbler from Chennai. She enchanted the audience with her rendition of Rama Nannu Brovara and Shiva Shiva Shiva Bho among other delectable Carnatic music pieces.

She also sang a syrupy sweet, cringe-inducing, piano-accompanied 'hymn' titled May the Lord Forgive(written by C. V. Rajagopalachari) in her attempt to cater to the tastes of 'alien ears'! I believe that both Rajaji and MS were very quickly forgiven by the Lord for such a gauche attempt at multiculturalism. Apart from that 'lapse' the concert was a grand success and the world's diplomats listened to the 'Nightingale of India' mesmerized. Secretary General U. Thant warmly praised India's generosity for sending Subbulakshmi to enthrall the UN and he profusely thanked Subbulakshmi for her display of genius.

Just as important as the famed singer in that setting was the presence and work of C. V. Narasimhan, the Under Secretary General. Affectionately called by those who know him as 'The Singing Civilian', Narasimhan, an ICS officer, began formally learning Carnatic music in 1943. His music lessons began with his guru, the famous Musiri Subramania Iyer, initiating the discipleship with a rendering of the famous Thyagaraja krithi Telisi Rama Chintanato. When Narasimhan, no mean musician himself, introduced to the world M.S. Subbulakshmi that day in 1966, it must be remembered as the day India was truly introduced to the world. After all, what is more complex an art form from India than Carnatic music and who is more steeped in Indian traditions and customs than a Subbulakshmi?

Subbulakshmi, talking to an interlocutor has said, “Right from childhood, just as I felt devotion towards God, I felt a deep respect for my elders. Whenever something good happened, I believed it was due to their good wishes. And I must say that right through my life I was lucky to get their blessings.”

In Past Forward(Oxford University Press, 1997) Subbulakshmi tells Gowri Ramnarayan that her first important performance as a singer was at the Music Academy in Madras. “It was to be a full-fledged, three-hour concert there before an audience of musicians, critics and music lovers. I was 18. I shivered and trembled before the event. Trying not to look at the listeners, I went up to the stage, sat down, checked the tuning of the tambura and began… Suddenly, my fears fell away. I sang with joy. Chembai Vaidyanath Bhagavatar, a well-known singer, had been sitting at the back. He got up and came to the front row, loudly expressing his approval. Others too were quick to say 'Bhesh! Bhesh!' and 'Shabhash!' I treasure the words of the great Veena player Sambasiva Iyer. He said, 'Subbulakshmi? Why, she carries a Veena in her throat!'” Maybe Subbulakshmi should have also reminded Gowri Ramnarayan that the Hindustani maestro Bade Ghulam Ali Khan once described her as 'Suswaralakshmi Subbulakshmi'.

Fast-forward thirty-five years. On October 24, 2001 the master of ceremonies, Shashi Tharoor, Director of Communications, United Nations, introduced to the august body the Indian band Euphoria. News India-Times reporter Jyotirmoy Datta waxed eloquent about the “beautifully orchestrated program” compared by Tharoor, “with his schoolboy mop of hair flapping.”Euphoria, we are told, opened their concert “with a thumping, romping, aerobic (sic) version of Vande Mataram, the national song of India (Gosh, really? When did the Indian Muslim leadership, Sonia Gandhi and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya accept it as such?), to which the U.N. audience thumped their feet but which would have surely given goose-pimples to Bankimchandra Chattyopadhyay, the 19th century composer of the classic hymn dedicated to the mother country.” Hmmm…Vande Mataram, sung to a pop-rock rhythm by gyrating, long-haired, jeans-clad, English speaking Indians… What a truly Indian experience for the diplomats from the 189 countries around the world!

Exactly 35 years after Subbulakshmi brought the Indian and the sublime to the U.N. it was time to usher in the trite and the South Asian. We have 'successfully' stirred India into the South Asian mix, politically, symbolically and culturally and what better to symbolize that than to revel the ambassadors of the world with 'rock music' from India -- to get the old diplomats bump hips with young secretaries working for them on the latest turgid UN declaration? And no longer a C. V. Narasimhan, musician diplomat, to introduce the artist from India, but the fashionable author, Washington Post book-reviewer, Shashi Tharoor, to sing along with a 'rock band' called Euphoria! I see in this shift from India to South Asia a move from the authentic to the trivial and from the classic to the merely popular and often puerile. But I bet Mr. Tharoor has more friends among the New York glitterati than did Mr. Narasimhan. After all, the powerful and the 'connected' people assembled in the august halls must have felt more 'comfortable' listening to Euphoriabelt out some inane ditty than they would have listening to Subbulakshmi sing Saroja Dhala Netri.

Mr. Tharoor did not just have Euphoriaentertain the U.N. diplomats, but had the Pakistani band Junoon jump into the melee. What could be more symbolic about the wonderful relationship between India and Pakistan than have Pakistani and Indian young men in long hair and dressed in t-shirts and jeans twang their guitars and beat their American drums and gyrate 'westward'?

It is strange that Indian ambassadors and votaries of multiculturalism feel more secure and comfortable in the West, in marketing the fashionable than they do plumbing the depths of the traditional, the classical and the Indian. I don't know how well versed Mr. Tharoor is in Indian music, philosophy, or art, but I have found that the Indians who usually cry hoarse about multiculturalism, or who flay Hindu 'majoritarianism', have very little knowledge about India's past and the Indian arts. These people, me included, are the products of the 'Macaulayite' education, which have made us more fluent in English than in our mother tongues, more familiar with the lyrics of Strawberry Fields than with that of Bhaja Govindam and more conversant with the ideas of Descartes than with the shad-darshanas of Hinduism.

In fact, as a 1950s born Indian, I went through an education system that reduced almost everything Indian to trite, easy-to-swallow morsel of truism or half-truth. I rejected, with my cousins, siblings and friends our parents' and grandparents' exhortation to read about Indian religion, philosophy and languages, to be inquisitive about rituals and their meanings and learn Indian music, dance or song, to practice meditation and yoga and to learn to tie our dhotis correctly around our waists. Not all of us succumbed to the deadening influence of mediocrity and the pseudo-secular and therefore we still have a vibrant classical music, dance and yoga tradition in India. Religion, philosophy and history, however, has not attracted the attention of the intelligent and the bright and therefore we have the handful of 'secularists' lording over the 'social science' academic turf for fifty long years, producing their popular pulp-fiction, trashing Sanskrit studies and working feverishly to identify the Aryan-Dravidian divide using the latest theories minted and manufactured in the halls of continental European academe.

What else can explain the award given to Romila Thapar at the Sorbonne recently or her present six-week Kahn Visiting Fellowship at Smith College, or the even more ludicrous French 'putsch' to make Arundhati Roy some kind of a new Mahatma by giving her the French Cultural Award?

So, there it is folks. We have Mr. Tharoor reviewing the fashionable work of young, Indian English wordsmiths for the Washington Post, invited frequently by the South Asian Journalists Association and universities around the US to break bread (tearnaan?) and drink wine (down Kingfisher beer?) with the likes of a Fareed Zakaria, or sensationalist editors of Tehelka and the band members of Euphoria and wax predictable about religious 'fundamentalisms'. But you will not see him, or his fellow fashionable South Asianists sitting and listening to a not-so-fluent-in-English Veena player from Chennai play Enduro Mahaanubhavuluor the very fluent in English, Tamil and Sanskrit Swami Dayananda Saraswati (who makes his abode both in Coimbatore and in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania) talk about Hindu dharma.

Originally published on Tuesday, December 25, 2001.

 
     
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