Music, like all other forms of knowledge and learning, can either make you a bigot or set you free. You can think, like I do, that music is god’s language as much as you may think music is marching bands that precede killer armies. As a reporter, I had the privilege of listening to Ghulam Ali’s first concert in New Delhi some three decades ago. I remember being mesmerized. I was a student of Hindustani music and Urdu. Music is an entry point for me to a person’s mind and cultures’ voice, it’s peoples’ struggle. It makes of me a believer, a person of faith, a seeker of other knowledge and cultures.
Music keenly enjoys the freedom of either turning you into a surveyor of all you see or a subaltern playing to the galleries. By lending himself to subaltern politics in India, renowned ghazal singer Ghulam Ali is moving towards the latter. “I am so happy today. I have not received so much love and affection before…I started singing on stage 55 years ago, due to the love and affection shown to me, this day is very important for me. I am not a great singer. I am an ordinary singer. I enjoy hearing music, like I can sing also,” he said this week while performing at a heavily security covered concert in Kolkata in a modesty as remarkably false as his promoters. Ghulam Ali’s concert was cancelled in Mumbai last year after the Shiv Sena – also a blot on India - threatened to disrupt it.
Like many Indians I have been following the Ghulam Ali controversy first with a sense of shame (about what we do to an artist), then alarm (as irresponsible mischief makers in my country stoke communal fires) and finally a fair amount of disdain at the way the singer himself has clawed to make a place for himself amidst the controversy. This has nothing to do with Pakistan and India. It has everything to do with respect, self-respect. If Ghulam Ali respected his gift from god – music – he would have told all Indians he would not set foot in the country till he is received by all of us. Not where state elections will be played out along Hindu Muslim lines as is happening in West Bengal and will follow in Kerala, but pan-India. You cannot be a little free when you are as blessed as Ghulam Ali. Either you are free, or you are not.
Compare his hit-and run concerts in India to the fatwa on the Oscar award-winning musician A.R.Rahman because he had composed music for the film Muhammad: Messenger of God by an Iranian filmmaker. “What, and if, I had the good fortune of facing Allah and he were to ask me on judgment day…I gave you faith, talent, money, fame and health – why did you not do music for my beloved Muhammad (Majid Majidi’s) film? A film whose intention is to reunite humanity, clear misconceptions and spread my message that life if about kindness…” He added that Indians are blessed to live in a country where religious freedom is practiced. “Let us set a precedent in clearing conflict with grace and dignity and not trigger violence in words or actions,” the maestro responded to the fatwa crowd. At that time we at The News Minute had written that the nation should give A.R. Rahman a standing ovation. We are firmly reconfirming that. Read our story here.
There was no pretense in his response of being only an ‘ordinary’ artiste, neither was there any nonsensical respite offered from the forces of divisions, etc. Faced with a fatwa, A.R. Rahman went out there and claimed his rightful space in time, here and now. And set an example for others. His faith was central to this. When you are believer, you are a total believer – there can be no half measures faith.
Ghulam Ali knew very well what he was doing when he aligned himself with politics of division and opportunism across the border. Blessed with a divine voice he preferred to throw it in with marching bands, leading a group of Indians who find in him a temporary cultural messiah. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee managed to massacre Urdu as she welcomed Ghulam Ali for his concert earlier this week. It is highly unlikely that many in Kerala – his next stop – understand the language. That is not the point. Music can bring solace to the deaf. Many of his listeners in Kerala will not be among the believers.
No Sir, you are not an ordinary singer. But you have hitched your extraordinary voice and talent to forces of division in India. They will discard you as soon as their work is done. That makes you just an ordinary tool, not a grand monsieur who once strode the firmament in India with grace and dignity and music that had the whole country in raptures. Continue like this and you will never be to all Indians what A.R. Rahman is to the world. He has grown in this faith, not wallowed in it.