November 03, 2015

Too late for bhajans and qawwalis (Jawed Naqvi)

Dawn - 3 November 2015

Too late for bhajans and qawwalis
Jawed Naqvi

COME winter in Delhi and the municipality hosts some fabulous classical music concerts at the manicured Nehru Park. A certain municipal commissioner had his cultural constraints. Any vocalist, man or woman, was requested to sing a bhajan after the main recital. Most indulged him, but when he approached Gangubai Hangal and whispered his standard request, she used the microphone to discipline him. “Hum bhajan wajan nahi gaatey hain. Pakka gana sunna hai to baith jaao,” she roared. (‘Bhajans are not for me. If you wish, you may sit down and listen to some classical music’.)

Without leaning excessively on this incident, I do believe that devotional singing in a classical concert is a relatively recent innovation, and it has become a fixation with deepening religious revivalism. Gangubai, of the exploited Devadasi extraction, unlike her predominantly upper-caste colleagues, had a problem with that. It is not that she was averse to traditional raag compositions with references to Hindu gods. Her morning melody in Raag Asaavri celebrates Mata Bhavani very evocatively.

But bhajan was not for the concert floor. Just as there are separate venues for qawwalis and shabad singing, there were formats and gatherings for abhang and bhajan.

The reason I am recalling this story is that the other day I went to a meeting in Delhi, which was dedicated to the memory of three martyred rationalists — Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi. The suspected killers in all cases happened to be Hindu extremists or, as Romila Thapar rightly calls them, terrorists. The meeting began with a bhajan that Gandhiji liked. Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye je peerh paraai jaane re. Narsi Mehta’s 15th-century verse describes the true follower of Lord Vishnu as one who shares the pain of others without flaunting it as charity.
Public intellectuals are not political parties that need vague cultural symbols to state their case.

Nice, but how was the poem relevant to the occasion? Suppose the meeting was organised by Dalit intellectuals, which it was not, how would they have choreographed the occasion? Ambedkar, the most towering of the Dalit intellectuals, has described Hinduism as a chamber of horrors.

He had a serious problem with Gandhi’s mixing of religion with politics. Can we conceive of a liberal campaign without negotiating the hard questions Ambedkar had challenged Gandhi with? A respected intellectual at the meeting quoted from Tulsidas and Geeta to illustrate the ‘agreeable’ side of Hinduism. This doesn’t work in fighting fascism. Progressive Pakistanis try every opportunity to avoid passages from the scriptures at their meetings. There could be non-believers in attendance, as Ambedkar was and his followers are.

Many of Ambedkar’s fans have sadly formed alliances with the Hindutva establishment. Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan made a great point about cow worship in a meeting in Aligarh some years ago. “The Brahmin calls the cow his mother. But when the cow dies, he orders members of my community to remove the carcass. Will I be invited to lend a shoulder to his real mother’s body? Never.”

Cultural offshoots of communist parties have also found themselves committed to irrelevant and inappropriate poetry at times. After the pogroms in Gujarat, a young qawwal was commandeered to sing Khusro’s quasi devotional Chhap tilak sab chheeni mohse naina milaike to bemused listeners at India Gate. The way to fight the fight was eventually shown by Teesta Setalvad.

Public intellectuals are not political parties that need vague cultural symbols to state their case. Nor do they beat about the bush or worry about treading on someone’s toes. They must say what they have to say with clarity and a sense of purpose. Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib are seasoned campaigners in this realm. But these are disturbing times.

Thapar was in Mumbai for a lecture when she got an early morning call from the police. They were determined to protect her since they feared someone might throw ink at her or worse. And so she was escorted to the jam-packed venue where she was heartily applauded. Then she was gently escorted back to her hotel. “I am going to be 84 and I began as a lecturer at 28. I must confess I have never felt so deeply depressed in my whole career,” she told a meeting of writers and scientists in Delhi. “It’s 68 years since independence and today I need police protection to give a lecture on secularism!”

India needs a uniform civil code, she said boldly in a recent talk. That demand usually comes from the Hindu right. It’s a tribute to Thapar’s standing in the Muslim society that no cleric threatened to shun her. If the spirit of the proposed code is rights-based and it seeks gender equality no khap panchayat could short change anyone. Thapar speaks with conviction against a creeping culture of Hindu fascism because she is against a death sentence passed on Salman Rushdie or a fatwa handed to music composer A.R. Rahman.

Another legendary historian spoke at the Sunday conclave under the banner of Pratirodh, or resistance. Prof Irfan Habib has faced reactionary Muslim ire through much of his teaching career at Aligarh. He has fought right-wing Hindu detractors just as resolutely. He is candid in his evaluation of the Hindutva threat, which he likens to Nazi Germany. “They claim to have won a big battle by changing the name of Aurangzeb Road. Why don’t they change Mansingh Road also, since he was a traitor to the Hindutva cause?” he said of Mughal ruler Akbar’s main Rajput associate. “We know they dare not touch him.”

Megha Pansare, daughter-in-law of the slain communist-rationalist, made the most urgent point. “My father-in-law always said the rightist forces are not strong. It is the progressive forces that are scattered.” Bringing them together will require sustained hard work and a shrewd strategy. Bhajans and qawwalis can wait.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.