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.

Rebel With A Cause

THERE COMES a point in life — and he says he reached this point a few years ago — where one feels that structuring happy endings on the screen is not enough, says Mahesh Bhatt, as we settle down for a freewheeling chat in Dubai Mall, where he was assisting daughter Pooja in the shooting of her latest film.

“You need to contribute in the real world. And if you cannot do anything concrete, you can at least try to mitigate some suffering, scale it down… help avoid conflict,” he points out.

Known for his outspoken views, the veteran Bollywood filmmaker — best remembered for ‘meaningful’ films such as Arth, Saaransh, Janam, Naam — has also had a string of controversies dotting his 30-year-plus career. But he has moved on undeterred. It’s not easy — or even politically correct — in these times of mistrust and Islamophobia, for anyone to speak out so brazenly, and so openly, as Bhatt does.

Neeyat (intention) is the most important thing,” he asserts.

“None of us will be able to make it without the other,” he says, as the topic shifts to the relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours of South Asia — India and Pakistan.

As he delves deeper into India-Pakistan relations, he says his friends in the media often rap him for his unease with any anti-Pakistan rhetoric. Yes, he maintains, he does indeed have a problem with jingoism of any kind. “I am not going to be moved by this fashionable word that you keep using — ‘national interest’. It’s very easy to love humanity, but why is it so difficult to love a Pakistani, or an Indian?”

On a visit to Pakistan, Bhatt had said to the Pakistan leader Nawaz Sharif: “I love you for loving Dilip Kumar.”

Now, here’s the background: Dilip Kumar had confided to Bhatt that no politician had ever bestowed him with as much respect and affection as Sharif had done when he visited Pakistan during his premiership.

Bhatt cites another example. His driver on this trip to Dubai, a Pakistani from Swat, keeps on thanking him for visiting the ailing ghazal king, Mehdi Hassan in Pakistan.

Bhatt is peeved at the media’s “insensitive approach”. “Hatred sells,” he rues. “Immediately after 26/11, Pakistani human rights lawyer Ansar Burney went to donate blood for the terror victims in a Mumbai hospital — but nobody covered the event.

“What was selling (then) was the Pakistani killer, and not the Pakistani man eager to donate blood.”

Hasn’t 26/11 severely undermined the efforts of peaceniks like him? “We’ll have to dismantle the mental cages we have created,” he points out.

“Pakistan too has to root out such mindsets within its own establishment — kind of hostile towards the Indian interests. India must also do the same.”

What about the Indian Muslim — where does he stand today? “Unfortunately, at the same place where he was in 1947,” replies Bhatt, as he refers to the Sachar Committee Report, according to which, the minorities have not got a fair deal. Bhatt also points to Prime Minister Mammohan Singh’s statement where he said that the minorities were the first claimants to the resources of the country.

“Post-9/11 has not been a very good time for minorities in my country also. Islamophobia blew from the West and reached my country at a time it was being ruled by the right wing.”

With Barack Obama at the helm, does he see an end to Islamophobia? “Obama seems to at least unashamedly accept the fact that Islam is a part of the American story. I wish we had an Indian prime minister earlier saying the same thing. We Indians too need to realise that Islam is a part of the Indian story. I think Obama will be able to take the edge out of what has been unleashed on the Muslims.”

The talk then veers to the Liberhans Commission Report on the Babri Mosque demolition — which has recently been presented to the government of India. “I am happy the report is out now; whether it’ll invite punitive action or not, I think they (communal forces) are ashamed enough.”

Bhatt’s last directorial venture, Zakhm, was returned to the Censor Board because of alleged pressure from right wing groups as the film dealt with the 1992 riots in Mumbai. “Zakhm was a very bold film, made at a time when the NDA was in power. People said I had demonized the right wing. I told them I had not demonized the right wing, I had projected them the way they are. The joke is that they gave me a National Award for the film.”

He believes the worst thing to have happened to India is Hindu fundamentalism. “I am certain that what will destroy India is not Islamic fundamentalism, or any outside force, it’s the cancer within — the Hindu fundamentalism,” he iterates.

Finally, we shift to Bhatt, the filmmaker. “I don’t think I am going to dabble in cinema myself. I’ll now play the role of a guide to my daughter. The page has turned.”

(This article first appeared in the Khaleej Times newspaper on July 10, 2009. Below please find the web link of the article)

Mahesh Bhatt