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Last week in the New Yorker , author Amitava Kumar wrote a piece titled ‘The Agony and Ecstasy of India at the Olympics’ where he pointed out that “…if for the rest of the world the Olympic Games represent glorious achievement through sports, for many urban, educated, middle-class Indians, they offer only a ritual wallowing in a feeling of failure.” He then went on to write that “this feeling comes from a blinkered — not to mention privileged — view of the world” where the person who was feeling humiliated belonged to what was called the leisure class, while the athletes soldiering on the field is often from poor, disadvantaged strata.“The former are unable to comprehend, much less celebrate, the latter’s triumph.”
For some reason I thought about India’s performance at the Rio Olympics while I waited for the AR Rahman concert to begin this past Monday at the United Nations. I was crammed into a row normally designated to interpreters, and around me Indians squabbled over their claim for the perfect chair. I had never been inside the General Assembly Hall before and I am not sure if it was the spirit of the venue or the glorious colours with which the main stage had been decked up, but I too got carried away with excitement.
Earlier this year, I had enrolled in a course as part of my Master’s program on ‘Culture and Foreign Policy: India, China’ and I sat there amidst men and women dressed in sarees and kurtas checking off all things that I considered as cultural ‘symbols’. I keenly watched the black and white film on M.S. Subbulakshmi as she walked over to the podium in that same venue in 1966 to sing ‘Maithreem Bhajatha’ — a song about cultivating friendship, renouncing war and giving up aggression on others. I dwelled on every word that India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin, said: “We hope this event will reinforce the belief that diverse cultural traditions reflecting each others values remain relevant to global thinking and the UN.” What did he really mean by “diverse cultural traditions”? Is that really something we adhere to back home? Or is it something we want the world to think we respect?
People all around me seemed excited about being specially invited to a Rahman show. I was too. I was seven years old when Rahman produced his first album for the Tamil movie, Roja , and his songs succeed in making me pack my bags and return to India. Yet there was a last man standing between us and the concert and that was Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar who lauded the significance of music in India’s freedom struggle as well as its role as a unifying power. “...Every morning in India begins with music. Every morning in every corner in India begins with the music of the Azaan , followed by the music of the Hanuman temple, followed by the music of the Gurudwara and then by the music of Church bells," he said amid a huge round of applause, adding that one should "thank destiny for making us Indians". I had worked as a political correspondent for The Hindu , reporting on the BJP in Delhi, for more than three years so I did pause for thought after Mr. Akbar’s glorious declaration.
Let me confess here that even though I was excited to hear Rahman perform, I was really there for my friend Harini Srinivasa Raghavan who was one of the main singers at the concert. Harini and I went to primary school together in Chennai and she is now a New York city–based musician and was part of the Rahman concert as a Berklee School of Music alumnus. I was there to witness what was clearly a huge moment in my friend’s career. I have seen Harini straddle two lives, as a software engineer and a musician, before she sunk all her savings and went to music school. She is now an independent artist, practises and teaches music everyday and is attempting to carve out a name in this highly competitive city.
But what brings me back to Amitava Kumar’s words is a YouTube video that Harini showed me a couple of weeks ago. I had never heard of The Sunshine Orchestra up until then and she told me that they too will perform on August 15th. Much like Kumar’s descriptions of the families from which the Indian athletes come, the youngsters of the orchestra are sons and daughters of tea sellers, people who iron clothes and wash dishes for a living, and are folks who had never heard of western classical music let alone been to a concert in an air-conditioned hall.
Rahman had dropped clues about the youngsters earlier this month when he was asked about his association with MSS and his upcoming performance at the UN. “We all grew up with her charm. She was magic on stage…I am really honoured to go 50 years after she performed in the UN, to perform, as a tribute to her and to Indian music. I have a very special offering there which I will reveal very soon.”
That special offering took centre-stage at the UN, holding various string instruments, playing four songs including ‘Kurai Ondrum Illai’ made famous by MSS. So was ‘Endaro Mahanubhavulu’ also performed by her during her career and brilliantly crafted by the young musicians. Here I’d like to be controversial and point to the fact that I developed goosebumps while listening to the orchestra play and urge readers not to take seriously the opinion of those in India who claim to have watched a cell phone recording five minutes after. One line from the YouTube video stays with me: “String instruments are ruthless to master.”
In the last 48 hours, Harini’s Facebook timeline has been inundated with people questioning the validity of the whole show. How exactly does Rahman represent MSS or her music genre? But Facebook is a curious thing that makes you believe your whole virtual world is up in arms so I asked friends from other parts of India if there are any such discussions about the show. No, I was told. Yet, as two people who were somehow part of the concert we decided to sit down and figure out what has got people so worked up.
“In my lifetime I want to see a world where people do not fight and kill each other but find better methods to solving conflicts. Let us hope in our lifetime we see this change.” Does that not resonate with the message that MSS brought to the UN, 50 years ago?
I asked Harini if she would have felt differently if she hadn’t been part of the concert, and by extension, would I have felt differently if she hadn’t been part of it? “I would have tried to understand why he performed the songs he did,” she told me. “I first heard that it was a tribute concert for M.S. Subbulakshmi from my parents who had read about it in a news article in Chennai and I wondered why would Rahman agree to do an MSS tribute? What does that even mean?”
When I helpfully googled the term ‘tribute’ — an act, a statement or a gift that is intended to show gratitude, respect, or admiration — we both agreed that the August 15th concert was not completely off the mark. “I think The Sunshine Orchestra signifies in a way what MSS stood for,” Harini told me. “It is Rahman’s way to continue to break barriers across class and caste and make music universal and accessible.”
But what about all the other songs? So, we ran through the entire set list to get a sense of what ARR was getting at. Was it really representative of Indian music today and a world that has grown so complex over the last 50 years? The songs many of which were in Tamil emphasised peace, women’s empowerment, universality, faith and love. One featured couplets composed by Kabir, another verses picked from Punjabi Sufi Poet Bulleh Shah’s poems, and three were in Rahman’s signature Qawwali style. And, only finally came the much tweeted about ‘Jai Ho.’
But “we still kill each other,” Rahman had said, in reference to religion, after the show came to an end and he had thanked the audience for loving and supporting musicians. “In my lifetime I want to see a world where people do not fight and kill each other but find better methods to solving conflicts. Let us hope in our lifetime we see this change.” Does that not resonate with the message that MSS brought to the UN, 50 years ago?
Should we then take heart in the fact that a tribute was paid to a classical musician through the voice of a mainstream Indian artist recognised universally? Perhaps, a constructive Facebook conversation could be had about the essence of The Sunshine Orchestra and how a popular icon of our time is attempting to further the ideals of an older one. As for me, I have evolved from being woken up by MSS singing the Suprabhatam through my grandmother’s old transistor to willingly listening to her songs and understanding the lyrics.