Subhendu Ghosh and P.K. Basant present a musical feature that brings alive India’s secular culture this Saturday

“It was December 6, 1992. I was sitting with my guru, (late) Hafeez Ahmed Khan. He was teaching but he was very tense and he kept the television on. And on the television we saw that the Babri Masjid was being broken. He was very upset. I was speechless,” recalls classical vocalist and science professor Subhendu Ghosh.

He knew that the shocking event in Ayodhya would have violent consequences that would in turn trigger more violence. “I had heard my parents talking about the communal riots during Partition, but that was before I was born. I myself have witnessed the communal riots of ’84. I walked in the camps at that time, and it was terrible…” Realising that “things have come to this stage”, in the charged days following the Babri Masjid demolition, he resolved with like-minded friends — including Professor P.K. Basant, Minoti Chatterjee (now principal of Kamala Nehru College) and several others — to remind his fellow Indians of the examples of secular traditions, individuals and institutions with which the country’s history abounds.

He had also at around the same time come out with an album of ghazals by poets who wrote on political and secular themes, including Faiz and other writers of the 20th Century. “Some of us friends thought that instead of talking of political discourse we should look back into our cultural history,” he explains. “For example it was always being said those days that the culture of India is Hinduism. I have no objection to that, and I know that Hinduism is a culture that developed around the Indus Valley. But it was not being projected like that.”

It was Basant who suggested that Ghosh being a musician, they should focus on the history of North Indian music. “From the post-Dhrupad period you find the musicians were from different religions and communities. The same is true of the poets. And music and poetry go together,” says Ghosh. The programme that came together was performed by Ghosh along with commentary in many venues and cities for several years till 2004. With professional engagements taking him away from his Delhi base, Ghosh has not been able to continue the routine. Now, some 10 years later, he feels the atmosphere of intolerance, polarisation of communities, extreme casteism and violence has brought the nation to the brink of another period of social catastrophe.

This Saturday, with the commentary of P.K. Basant, Ghosh sings songs from various sources, starting with Amir Khusrau and continuing through Kabir and Nanak, Tansen, Bulle Shah, the Bauls and more contemporary voices such as Nasir Kazmi (whose verses are immortalised in Habib Tanvir’s play Agra Bazar), the poets of the anti-imperialist struggle and Tagore.

“We are in a very adverse situation of communal tension. I am trying to revive this feature.” People may disagree with the views of the musical feature’s creators, but they cannot deny that “this is history. These were people who were loved and who loved India,” says Ghosh.

The format is flexible. Ghosh will be accompanied by young musicians. The languages are many — “I am trying to learn Punjabi, Persian,” he mentions — and in the past he has included poets dear to the different regions where he performed. In Nagpur, for instance, his audience asked for Sant Tukaram.

“We apologise we have not been able to include all the poets who have contributed to the secular fabric, otherwise we would have to spend the whole night.” They all represent people who were “rebels” against the inhuman practices that divide and lead to violence, and they were above caste and religious differences, which is why they were “more human and that’s why they were creative geniuses,” says the vocalist, who has set the verses to musical formats like shabad, qawwali, folk and classical.

The performance, “Secular Traditions in Hindustani Poetry and Music”, takes place May 3, Arpana Caur’s Art Gallery, Academy of Fine Arts & Literature 4/6, Siri Fort Institutional Area, New Delhi, 5 p.m. Phone: 011 2649 8070