Music has the power to curb intolerance, unite people: Pandit Sanjeev Abhyankar

IN THESE times of intolerance, strife and uneasiness, music can prove to be a balm and help restore sanity, believes Pandit Sanjeev Abhyankar, the maestro from the ‘Mewati gharana’ and an artist of international acclaim in the genre of Hindustani classical music.
“This [the uniting factor] is especially true of the Indian classical music, which has the vibrations to unite people irrespective of their belief systems,” the maestro says, in an exclusive interview with Qatar Tribune.
Should the icons of the country be more vocal about the message of peace, tolerance, co-existence…? “Yes. Surely. But it’s the responsibility of the media to highlight the icons in every field and highlight their thoughts, as this interview is doing,” he quips.
Aside from its potential of uniting people of all creeds, the maestro’s voice is said to have therapeutic, meditative and calming effects on listeners. “Everyone becomes one with the pure musical notes and experiences the divinity. The Indian classical music, because of its ‘surrender approach’, is the strongest medicine for blood pressure and stress-related problems. I receive such feedback every now and then from people who listen to me singing all across the world,” he stresses.

Explaining it further, he says his approach towards his musical practice has been that of a person who has surrendered to music and is not merely an entertainer. “I always sing to please the soul and the entertainment part comes as a byproduct. May be this brings out the purity of the musical notes through my voice as a medium, and this could possibly be touching the minds and souls of the listeners. May be I am blessed with it. The most important thing is that it has helped many with health issues and I thank God for this.”
A well-known figure for music lovers in the Middle East, Pandit Sanjeev Abhyankar has performed many a time in the region regaling the audiences. “There are a large number of classical music lovers in Qatar, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain etc. Organisations like ‘Beats and Tunes’ in Doha are working very hard to bring quality music to the region. Besides, the local, non-Indian audiences also get an opportunity to understand a different culture and the very unique musical form of ‘Khayal’ – meaning musical imagination within a few notes of a particular raga.”
The Indian classical music, he points out, spreads positivism and receives positivism everywhere and wherever it goes, including in the Middle East.
When asked about the evolution of classical music in the current milieu, the maestro says, “Classical music has evolved through the ages. The performance part has become more compact. Because the pace of life has become faster, patience has seen a decline.
“A stage performer has to keep this in mind and keep the concert flowing. However, as I said earlier, the Indian classical ‘Khayal’ form has the ability to transport listeners to a magical, higher world. So, the musician has to make sure this element is not lost in adjusting with the modern, fast-paced times.
“Otherwise, the soul of music will be lost and what remains is just the entertainment. This music has much more than only entertainment to offer. I try to make my singing to be an experience.”
Born in 1969, Pandit Abhyankar is seen as an inspiration for the younger generation. As for his inspiration, he says, “My foremost creative inspiration is my guru, Pandit Jasraj Ji, and all others of his generation who have traversed the path of not only the traditional repertoire but have also made valuable contributions in terms of extending the quality of presentation and ‘gayaki’, while adding many self-composed material to the already existing repertoire.”
The guru-shishya (teacher-pupil) tradition, he notes, is an inherent part of the Indian culture, and an even more important element in the field of music. “The meaning of guru-shishya tradition is that the student not only learns the basic material in a classroom type setting but also spends as much time with his mentor as possible, observing and learning all the finer nuances that have made the mentor a great luminary in the field of music.
“Giving vocal support to the mentor on stage also teaches you a lot. You observe and learn how the theoretical knowledge is used in the real world; the dos and don’ts of a performance; and many more things. So a full life of knowledge is transferred,” he concludes.
(This article was first published in the Qatar Tribune newspaper on 25th September 2019)

‘Rowing between the Rooftops’: A tribute to Kerala’s flood heroes

KERALA is known for its majestic backwaters – a network of brackish lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea coast. A world heritage site, the serene stretch of lakes, canals and lagoons is a major attraction for tourists. Unfortunately, and ironically, the woes the state has been grappling with over the past few years also relate to water – in the form of devastating, and lately recurring, floods.
With scores dead and thousands displaced in floods this year, it’s been a repeat of last year’s miseries for people in Kerala. The south Indian state had faced the century’s worst floods in 2018. But then, adversities and tragic circumstances often throw up their heroes. In the case of Kerala, it were its fishermen who turned out to be the bravehearts – risking their lives to rescue thousands of marooned humans.
Rejimon Kuttappan’s recently-released book, ‘Rowing Between the Rooftops: The Heroic Fishermen of the Kerala Floods’, is both a chronicle of heroism and a tribute to the enduring courage of a community that battled onerous circumstances to save people from flooded areas in August 2018.
‘Reji’, as the former Gulf journalist is mostly known among his peers (past and present), elucidates how these brave fishermen “spent days and nights soaked to the skin, steering on empty stomachs,” to rescue the stranded people in the Central Kerala which was under water for a full week.
“They [the fishermen] had to navigate the wild flood’s treacherous undercurrents and dive into dirty waters, risking disease and injury. Sometimes, they had to carry people or act as footstools to help them climb into the boats. They even had to swim alongside the boats, so that more people could fit in,” says Reji, in an e-mail interaction with this writer.
2018 floods: A painful chapter
During the first two weeks in August 2018, Kerala witnessed its worst floods claiming some 600 lives and displacing nearly a million people.
“These fishermen ignored the heavy downpours during the rescue operations with their boats repeatedly catching on the rooftops of submerged houses,” says Reji, adding: “Many had to dock their boats on the second floor of the marooned houses and climb into the buildings to find the stranded people.”
What made him write this book? “In the fast-moving world, which is flooded with news anyway, people would’ve forgotten the brave acts of these fishermen very soon,” he replies. “And I didn’t want that to happen. If they had not jumped into the rescue work, the death toll would have been higher. Some newspapers did carry stories of their bravery but other than that nothing happened.”
Citing the Kerala government’s statistics, Reji points out that these heroic fishermen were able to rescue some 6,50,000 people from flood-hit areas, mainly in Chengannur and other parts of Central Travancore.
Published by Speaking Tiger, the book, written in a simple and moving narrative, is based on interviews with fishermen, government officials and flood victims, while also drawing on extensive research. It brings to life the events of those terrible days, the daring heroism and the heart-wrenching sorrow. Reji also shines light on the precarious lives of the fisherfolk communities – threatened as they are by climate crisis, increasing coastal erosion, and a rapidly changing way of life.
The author also delves into the history of these fishermen – for example, how their forefathers played a vital role in helping the Kerala kings in thwarting the Dutch Navy in the 18th century.

Prepared for future exigencies?
When asked if Kerala – after battling these harrowing floods – is now better prepared to meet such exigencies in the coming years, Reji says, “No! Kerala had been struggling financially due to the 2018 floods. The loss was to the tune of Rs40,000 crore. The state has failed to raise enough money. To make it worse, this year [2019] too the floods have caused huge losses. Kerala is a small state, densely populated. This time the landslides claimed lives.
“Experts say the exploitation of land and building resorts in ecologically fragile land in Western Ghats, led to the landslides this time. Even though the disaster was scary, the government has not come up with any plan to curb the land exploitation. So, for sure, if there are floods next year, landslides will repeat, and the toll could be high as well.”
He adds, “Unfortunately, even though a disaster management authority is there in the state, other than issuing alerts, they don’t have any proper effective plans on the ground as yet.”
(This article first appeared in the Qatar Tribune newspaper on 30th August 2019)

MF Husain’s Interview for Khaleej Times (March 1, 2007)

MAQBOOL Fida Husain, or simply ‘MF’ to art connoisseurs across the world, has been in the eye of a storm, thanks to some of his recent sketches. The “International Gypsy”, as he likes to describe himself, has been living in Dubai for nearly a year now. Back home in India, a section of Hindu extremists is adamant that this “Muslim painter” must answer for the “insulting” depiction of their deities. At 90-plus, one of the most visible symbols of secular India is facing a court case as well as a concerted hate mail campaign geared to socially isolate him. In a freewheeling interview with Mehre Alam, the celebrated painter talked about some of the controversies, apart from art, answering some questions, skirting others. But he was crystal clear about one thing: No amount of censorship can bog down an artist, for he or she is always ahead of the times.

Excerpts of the interview: (Click this link to view the page)HPSC6803

Mehre Alam: How has life in Dubai been like for you?
MF Husain: I have been coming to Dubai for the past 30 years. My brothers were working here. I came to Dubai for the first time in 1978. At that time there was hardly anything that we see here now. I have seen the whole city grow in front of my eyes.
Around three years ago I decided that I must have my own base here in Dubai — my own museum and my own villa. The reason is obvious. Dubai is going to become a major art center of the world. They have all the means to achieve that. And they have the vision.
The economic growth of this country has been phenomenal.
However, as far as the cultural aspect is concerned, there has not been much to look forward to in the past. But I must also say they are changing this perception. They will host a very big art event this year in Dubai, bigger than any other art event organised in any part of the world.
I saw the future here. And this future not only concerns the art world but also many things else. Dubai is likely to surpass every other city in the world in its uniqueness and grandeur.

Mehre Alam: You have often described yourself as an “Ïnternational Gypsy”. But you have also confessed to being homesick. Which one is the real Husain?
MF Husain: I am going to India next week. There is no such problem [he refers to the concerted hate campaign against him]. In fact, I have been working abroad for the past 50 years or so. In the 80’s, I worked in New York. Prior to that, I was working in London and Paris. I love to work in various places. I have no permanent studio anywhere in the world. I even work in my hotel room or any other place where I feel comfortable. I love to work in various environments.

Mehre Alam: How badly do you miss India?
MF Husain: India is my motherland. Dubai is not. But please do not arrive at other conclusions. It’s not that some of the fundamentalist forces have been keeping me away from India. Nothing like that. It’s my choice. I wanted to work here. They say I am in an exile. But the government has not enforced anything.
It’s an altogether different matter that a legal case is going on against me in India. But earlier also, a case filed against me went on for eight years. You cannot avoid the law.

Mehre Alam: There is a widespread feeling that you have become a target of religious football.
MF Husain: I don’t think so. This talk is all bunkum. It’s the creation of the media. They have never stopped me. Nor have they ever been able to stop any creative movement even in the past.
Take the Progressive Movement in India. We launched this contemporary art movement in the late 40’s. It began in Mumbai and then went to Kolkata, Delhi, etc. In fact, there were some restrictions under the British rule. We fought the British influence in art. There was also this revivalist school in India that wanted to take it all back. They, too, had no vision.
But we fought both these two forces in what was like a political campaign. The Progressive Movement started in 1947. By 1960-61, these two schools of thought had been virtually demolished.
At one time, there were restrictions in the art colleges in Delhi, Kolkata and other cities. Students were advised against meeting us “the Progressives”. Because we were supposed to be the people who were corrupting the Indian culture. But today, where are those revivalists? They were all thrown out.

Mehre Alam: How important is creative freedom for an artist? Should artists be more sensitive towards religious sentiments of various groups or sections of people? Should there be some limits to freedom? Your freedom ends where my nose begins…
MF Husain: I mus repeat that I have never felt the pinch. Never! I am working here in Dubai because it’s my choice. They did not ask me to go away from India. There is no warrant or anything like that against me back home. This has all been created by the media who hunt for such controversies. If you live somewhere else, they’ll read meaning into it. They’ll say, Husain has been thrown out of the country.
Yes, I agree that public opinion is different. What I mean to say is that people may start believing such things. So let them believe.
If you see the history of mankind, artists have always been ahead of their times. In Europe, for example, after Renaissance, when Impressionists came, they were accused of being bogus. They faced allegations. They were thrown out. Now, Impressionists are part of the classics.

Mehre Alam: As a Member of Parliament of India, you painted a lot of historical figures. Now that you are staying in this part of the world [Middle East], should we expect to see sketches of figures of this part of the world?
MF Husain: I am an Indian painter. No matter where I stay, in whichever part of the world, I shall always paint India. My latest exhibition, too, is titled the “Ïmprint of India”. This is the result of my one year of meditation. I restricted myself to my work to finish it.
I lived in New York and London, but I never painted the US or the UK. There were a few sketches here and there, but it was mainly India that I had been painting.
My culture is Indian. This is a 5,000-year-old culture. Why should I choose to go the other way? The Indian culture is truly unique. It’s made up of so many influences that came to India. The influences remained here. Together, they evolved into a composite culture.
In Italy, if you observe it closely, there is not a single non-Christian symbol. They claim to be very modern, but they are actually very retrogressive in this regard.

Mehre Alam: What is your take on the clash of civilizations?
MF Husain: I think it’s all political and economic. That’s why we artists have nothing to do with that. The art or culture world has nothing to do with this so-called clash of civilizations. There never was a clash of cultures at any point of time in the history of mankind.
In fact, as far as culture is concerned, there never was a clash of civilizations. It has always been give-and-take. The culture of the world has evolved. Take Egyptians or the Chinese for example. They have become univesal cultures, but by still keeping their identities intact.

Mehre Alam: So it’s more superficial than real.
MF Husain: Culture means the way of living. For example, the Indian or Chinese way of eating or dressing. If you talk of culture, there has always been an interaction, a give-and-take.

Mehre Alam: Do you think there is need for more dialogue between the West and the Muslim world to avert any real or imagined clash of civilizations?
MF Husain: Let me reiterate that as far as the art world is concerned, there is no misunderstanding. The problem lies in the minds of those who are clashing for political or economic reasons. The artists are not concerned with all that. We are there to create harmony through music, literature, painting. That has been the role. Always.

Mehre Alam: Of late, there has been a concerted hate mail campaign against you. At the same time, there has been a sea of support for you too. Do you feel concerned?
MF Husain: I am only concerned with art and culture. I have no opinion on anything else.

Controversies And Misunderstandings Go Hand In Hand

CONTROVERSIES AND misunderstandings go hand in hand. Actors get blamed for things they may have little to do with, says Anu Aggarwal, the model-actress-turned-monk, while commenting on the recent Padmavat controversy that had bogged down Bollywood for a while.

“In this case, Deepika [Padukone] was targeted and not the script writer who wrote the story,” she says.

“Freedom to express oneself and viewpoints openly, without a prejudice, comes from an open mind. But let’s not undermine the fact that an open mindset, allowing free thinking of the individual, is required for this to begin with,” she tells Qatar Tribune.

Talking about southern superstars Kamal Hassan and Rajnikaanth’s recent foray into politics, Anu says this has been a trend since Jayalalitha, but it remains to be seen how well Kamal and Rajni fare in the long term as ‘heroes-turned-politicians’.

“Down in South India, the fan behaviour is inclined to reverence what with the stars being worshipped and temples being named after them where people bathe them in milk each morning,” says Anu, who also has also acted in a south Indian film, Tiruda Tiruda, directed by ace director Mani Ratnam, with music by AR Rahman.

“Perhaps, Bollywood needs to have a little more desh bhakti (love for the nation),” she quips on being asked why more Bollywood actors are not taking a plunge into politics.

Coming back to Anu’s life story, it has been nothing short of dramatic. There have been more twists and turns in her real life than she saw in reel life. The girl-next-door who had an entire generation swooning on her following her dazzling debut in Aashiqui (1990), today lives the life of a philanthropist, sanyasini-yogi, holistic healer, Buddhist monk.

She is also a bestselling author, a TEDx speaker and a diver.

Which one of these is the real Anu, we ask.

“Each one, and all of these combined,” replies Anu.


As the interview proceeds, Anu is told about a fan of hers, a professor in his 50s.

“Please tell her I do not start my day without watching her Aashiqui song!” the professor had exclaimed upon learning this writer was going to interview her.

To which, Anu says, “My life has taken such an unprecedented turn that it’s easy to forget a large fan base still exists.

“However, let me admit, it’s always a welcome reminder of the lives I have influenced positively. It does come as a surprise that people’s admiration has stayed on despite my monkhood and spirituality. That in spite of my unexplained disappearance while still on top as an actor (for a spiritual exile), I have been pardoned.”

Anu is the survivor of a horrific car crash, one that changed her life forever and put the brakes on the roller-coaster ride that her life was until then. But it also kicked off, what she terms, ‘Life2’, which ultimately led her to establishing the Anu Aggarwal Foundation (AAF), which works for children living in the slums.

She is involved in various other social works as well.

“I am living out my core values now. There is a sense of completion and fulfillment. This is unmatched what with so many people coming forward to support the foundation,” she stresses.

“My confessional memoir, Anusual: Memoir of a Girl Who Came Back from the Dead, describes all of this, about a girl who defies the social and moralistic codes, and then defies death. It’s about resurrection, metamorphosis, a new Anu.”

While she has been completely engrossed in social work for several years, she inadvertently hogged Bollywood headlines when Aashiqui 2 released on April 25, 2013, with the then newcomer Shraddha Kapoor essaying Anu’s role.

Anu’s take on the movie: “Let me clarify what Mahesh Bhatt (the director of the original Aashiqui) had to say when Aashiqui 2 was about to release. ‘Anu, Aashiqui 2 has nothing to do with your Aashiqui.’

“But I kept wondering why use the name then? However, it became clear once I saw the film. They are both love stories.”

How much has Bollywood changed since her hey days?

“Well, Aashiqui revolutionised Bollywood in 1990. It’s a bit ironic it was made by Mahesh Bhatt, who’s not geared to please the structured box-office sensibilities of a commercial movie.

“The film got mixed reviews initially, but went on to become a sensational blockbuster, breaking all commercial records in Bollywood.

“It was a time when a typical lead actress, the heroine, used to be a rich father’s spoilt daughter, with hardly any brains to harness the dream of an independent life, which was exactly the role I essayed in Aashiqui.

“The movie’s soothing, romantic music, which was something new then, went on to kick-start a romantic genre that continues to be popular until this day.

“At the time I signed this movie, I was an international fashion model living in Paris. I brought in a kind of fashion that was new to the Bollywood movie industry then [in the late 80’s early 90’s].

“I even had Bhanu Athaiya (one of my fashion dress designers for an advertisement, who had won an Oscar for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi) design my girl-next-door look in Aashiqui. It worked wonders.

“Change is the only reality and Bollywood, like all else, and thankfully so, is also evolving. There is a clear change in the plot, the story…the kinds of movies being made today.

“Technology has played an important role in this as well. For instance, when I played a psycho killer in Khalnaika (1993), a take on The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, eyebrows were raised and I was labelled a ‘bold’ actress.

“But the film was received well, more so in the international market. An award nomination also came my way in the third year of my short-lived Bollywood career. I was setting a trend then. It was truly an exception.

“Today, when Ranvir plays a negative character in Padmaavat, he is still considered a sexy hero and the audience is ready to accept that. So the audience has been through an evolutionary change as well,” she explains.

The topic then veers to Rahul Roy, Anu’s co-star of Aashiqui, who is often seen on TV channels now debating key issues of the day. Is she in touch with him?

“There is little similarity to how our lives proceeded after Aashqui. My life took the utmost extraordinary turn and I turned to spirituality and ended up becoming a yoga guru, a monk, etc, while Rahul stayed on in the glamorous world of films.

“I was pleasantly surprised to have Rahul appear at the launch of my book ‘Anusual…’, where along with Mahesh Bhatt and Deepak Tijori, he too showed up.”

Does she believe stars have a somewhat special social responsibility towards the society?

“I think anybody who enjoys the advantage of public appreciation, owes it to themselves to serve the causes of the collective consciousness. Stars certainly have a huge responsibility to their fans, to the public, to the man on the road. It is due to them a star becomes a star.

“Without the fans the concept of stardom does not exist. Stars have a huge social responsibility to the people who make them stars,” she replies.

“I was always aware of this, maybe the awareness had been created when I was a social worker making a programme for Afghan refugees with UNHCR for one. So I entered stardom with an agenda I had learned before I became a model.

“Owing to this I endorsed a condom when a star, to curb the population explosion in India, while also saving oneself from HIV/AIDS.

“There were negative reactions to this. But it was not my star status I was protecting. It was an inner urge to create awareness in my country and beyond that mattered.”

Finally, the topic of censorship: Are the various crafts of art more prone to censorship today compared to yesteryear?

“Yes,” she admits.

“And you know why? Many more people have a point of view today. Social media has made a huge change. Also, the people of India are finding their voice and they are more vocal on issues than ever before.

“On the other hand, let’s not undermine the fact that stars get a way, an opportunity, to express themselves too. For instance, there were umpteen times in the 90’s when I was misquoted or misunderstood by the media, in interviews.

“But there was no Twitter handle where I could shout out that I was misrepresented. People got to read only what the media had to say and I, the star, had to settle with that, and the backlash that it created in the public, or the way it affected my boyfriend or family,” she points out.

“So there are always two sides to the coin and with social media both sides can be viewed.

“The censor board is known to shift with the changes in the social milieu. So the magnifying lens of the censor board keeps changing with time too,” she concludes.
pg10_C11mar18 (1)