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Zubin Mehta's Concert Strikes A Discordant Note In Kashmir

Sep 9, 2013
Originally published on September 9, 2013 4:58 pm

In Kashmir, the Shalimar Gardens of Srinagar, a relic of Mughal-era emperors, has been restored to its imperial tranquility with murmuring fountains, shallow pools and manicured beauty.

Carrying much-coveted invitations to Bombay-born maestro Zubin Mehta's concert this weekend, the creamy layer of Delhi and Mumbai society descended on the garden. Kashimiri fashion tends toward the more modest and staid salwar kameez, but a more dizzying array of saris never graced the red-carpeted grounds. And the gardens surely would not have seen a program of Beethoven, Hayden and Tchaikovsky.

The event had generated controversy in the restive state of Kashmir, where some of the region's Muslims have been seeking greater autonomy for decades. The concert itself came off smoothly, beginning as Mehta raised his baton Saturday night before the Bavarian State Orchestra, which he had conducted for eight years.

The 77-year-old maestro made a point of opening the performance with the premiere of a work commissioned by Abhay Rustum Sopori, a young Kashmiri composer, who said it was a "huge honor" to share the stage with Mehta.

In the words of German Ambassador Michael Steiner, who spearheaded the event, the concert was "a bow to the Kashmiris," an exercise in "peace and respect" for Kashmir.

But that message was subverted by the hundreds of police deployed inside the venue, with hundreds more in armored vans that monitored the streets outside. A mile of roads leading from the venue was blocked, and the city of Srinagar was peppered with police checkpoints Saturday. A mere inconvenience to the chauffeured dignitaries was an affront to the citizens of Srinagar.

In a land that has chafed under heavy police presence for the better part of two decades, human rights activist Khurram Parvez said the ambassador's statement extolling Kashmir had been "misleading."

India, Parvez insisted, was the "new colonial face," and members of the international community who covered up its "state brutality" were also "complicit in India's crimes" of suppressing the Kashmiri people, many of whom have sought a referendum on self-determination since partition split the subcontinent between India and Pakistan in 1947.

Steiner rejected such characterizations, choosing instead to call the dispute that had enveloped the concert "a catharsis."

Staging the musical event "doesn't mean we deny the reality," he said. "I understand the frustrations," Germany's top diplomat in New Delhi said.

Srinagar has the makings of a vibrant, old-world town. There are old Sufi shrines in distinct Central Asian style, the brick-and-wood houses of the old city, the vast Dal Lake set against the foothills of the Himalayas.

But 20 years of bloodshed and militarization have stymied Kashmir: There is no movie theater or museum, few eateries beyond hotel restaurants, and public events have to register with the authorities.

In such an entertainment-starved environment, the fact the concert was not open to the public only deepened resentment.

Nikolaus Bachler, the general manager of the Bavarian State Opera, which includes the orchestra, said in an interview with Reuters that he was dismayed by the list of attendees, and that he waived the fee for a people's concert, not an embassy crowd.

Mehta himself, in remarks to the audience, seemed abashed by the exclusiveness of the event.

"Let's be honest, ladies and gentlemen. By coming here with this great orchestra and the wonderful soloists who will perform for you, there are those that we have hurt inadvertently," he said. "And I promise, next time, let's do this concert with all Kashmiris, in a stadium. Everybody should come."

Organizers made arrangements for several hundred local Kashmiris to be in attendance — but some questioned whether that was enough. Political activist Salman Soz, the son of the Congress Party member of Parliament from Kashmir, supported the concert from the outset. But afterward he said that the guest list left something to be desired.

"Governments in South Asia have a bit of a VIP syndrome," he said. "I think on that count, things could have been done in a better way. We could have certainly had a much greater presence of non-connected people."

As the evening concluded, guests lingered briefly inside the garden walls, then stepped out into city streets that instantly grounded them in the reality of Kashmir.

Word quickly spread that four men had been fatally shot that evening as they traveled near a police base south of Srinagar. Crowds of young men, barred from the festivities but curious about the spectacle, thronged the streets outside the garden gate. The road around Dal Lake, usually an evening hangout for locals, was empty, and the luxury Taj Hotel was barred to non-VIPs.

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