Burning Sensation and the Case of ‘Classical Music Festival’

Burning Sensation and the Case of ‘Classical Music Festival’
by Seuty Sabur for Alal O Dulal

© Daily Star
© Daily Star

I have never been a fan of ‘Prothom Alo’ but I do admire their power to master the wind and change their palates accordingly. Oh! How beautifully they manage to stir  up the sentiments of both agony and ecstasy simultaneously.

Read the first and last pages of the December 2nd, 2013 edition (items titled ‘We don’t want a sick government” (“আমরা অসুস্থ সরকার চাই না”) and ‘My soul was filled’ (পূর্ণ হলো হৃদয়ের পাত্রখানি)) and you will know.

Similar contradictory feelings overwhelmed Facebook status updates of my friends since the Bengal-ITC SRA Classical Music Festival began. Many have questioned how anyone could enjoy such highbrow music under current political condition. Many have insinuated that it is only possible for affluent people, disconnected from ‘real’ world, not to feel the pain of those victims in the burn units of the major hospitals. On the other hand many have shared their blissful experiences of listening to the maestros from dusk to dawn. I, as always, remained restrained watching their squabbles on- and offline. Needless to say I am a brazen stalker in a disguise of a social scientist.

Living in Baridhara, at our family home, and teaching at a private university automatically put me under the category of ‘snob’/‘affluent’ type, one who is disconnected from the ‘real’ world. Well, I never disown my class-gender-religious-ethnic identity; Partly because I consider it criminal to do so.  An unclear framework of one’s identity can lead to serious misconceptions of one’s social actions, strategies one uses to negotiate their place in a given time.

On the other hand, a teacher at a public university is always considered to be the one struggling hard, even if s/he is teaching fewer courses, doing numerous consultancies and earning much more than what I earn. As if teaching at a public university or for that matter at an NGO/news agency makes one more political/self critical by default. Only those are the legitimate voice to speak on behalf of the victims. Hence their concern about current political situation is deemed much more valid and they are capable of taking you on a guilt trip just because you have been to the music festival. I can’t help but spot their newly updated fun travel /family photos, and model-like profile pictures while they were flooding their status updates critiquing. These actions don’t surprise me. Life is like that, one can be blissful and poignant at the same time. One doesn’t stop living when hundreds are dying. Rather escalated numbers of dead bodies make one numb.

We can argue about the timing of Bengal-ITC SRA and the intention of the organizers. But one must remember this took a whole year to plan and execute. Would it have been better if they had canceled it? Whose betterment are we talking about here? The arson victims? Are they in a position to care? Then it boils down to the question of sartorial taste, civic decency and appropriateness.

There was a time when classical music was patronized/ appreciated by royalties, nobles and handful of enthusiasts across the subcontinent. Times have changed. Corporations and states (India in this case) have replaced the royal patrons in this festival. VIP seats were reserved for the ‘khas’ (special) people – ministers, high profile government officials, foreign dignitaries, bankers, prominent businessmen, artists, old families who are considered to be connoisseurs of art. Rest of the Army stadium was filled with ‘aam’ (ordinary) people like me. I was there every day for few hours except for the last day.  I met most of my friends, acquaintances, a few colleagues and students – all too familiar. There were more, beyond the familiar faces… twenty thousand of them. Each had a different a story and a reason to join the festival.

I went alone on the very first day and later was joined by my partner and friends. I was offered a seat by a man who along with his fiancée had reserved an entire row for their friends. Rupok, the man, was at his mid twenties, and had come to Dhaka to get his undergraduate degree  and stayed back to work. I happened to talk to them during the break while organizers were preparing the stage for next performance. He was an accountant. His  fiancée Shetu works for an NGO. He lives in one of the messes in Arambaag while Shetu lives in Bangladesh Mahila Shangastha Hostel at Bailey Road. They travelled all the way to the cantonment riding on Rupok’s bike. I asked them whether they were scared of the arson/petrol bomb attacks. They seemed indifferent. Shetu was laughing at my question, “We are not as lucky as you are. We do need to be at the office every day whether there is a blockade or not. Besides, these arsonists are paid people, bikes don’t interest them.” After talking for some time I learned that they also attended the festival last year. At that time neither of them were trained in music nor were they particularly interested in classical music. They came with their friends and later got hooked.

There were another bunch of executives from advertisement agencies. Some of them were busy giving instructions to the people at the office. Upon inquiring I came to know that only a few of them were music enthusiasts, for the rest it was one of the parties to hang out with friends. There were another group of girls in hijab . One of them I knew from Chayanot music school. Many of my friends and acquaintances were discussing the political situation in between those serene performances. I can bet most of them were affected by the strike and blockade. They are anything but disconnected from the ‘real world’. I can spend  the whole post providing profiles of the audience members but my interest here lies elsewhere.

I am not here to justify any celebrations at this point. What interests me is the fearlessness of these individuals, their strategies to counter the current political situation and go on with life and finally, their acquired taste which allow them to be part of such a festival. So, friends who have been asking the question, ‘how could they?’ probably should rephrase the question into ‘why do they?’

The size of the audience was bigger this year despite the blockade and inadequate public transport/CNGs. I would like to see this spontaneous gathering as a resistance of common people – everyday resistance to counter everyday violence. I am aware that they are privileged and coming from the affluent class or various fractions of the middle class. They certainly don’t represent the rest of the social classes. But what is intriguing is that their familiarity with this kind of music and ability to appreciate it. They have inculcated this as part of their ‘habitués’/practices. Despite  reservations for VIPs’, free registration has enabled the aspiring middle class to enjoy the music without being concerned about the hierarchy or falling prey to  any other form of symbolic violence. They have chosen to live despite  mayhem, sought refuge in music.  They have tried to find momentary bliss in this Death Valley.

One can rightfully identify the dominance of Indian performers in the event and how it reflects the over powering/ hegemonic nature of Indian culture. One can also argue that local organizers are creating an enabling environment to extend the hegemony in the name of cultural exchange. But can anyone draw line on music-scapes? At what point do Ustad Alauddin Ali khan, Lalon Shai, Shachin Dev Burman or Kazi Nazrul become theirs from ours or vice versa? Aren’t we unnecessarily entering the dangerous terrain of ethnocentrism/cultural parochialism (as my friend Layli Uddin would say)? Where do we look for our much needed fluidity?

I find it totally unnecessary to make sufferings of the innocent an excuse to impose one’s own taste or sense of appropriateness on others. Month long blockade and deaths related to political violence is bad enough, let alone moral policing of intellectuals. I don’t understand why anyone would reprimand people for being content instead of critiquing the political parties and state who are responsible for such orchestrated violence. If people are so concerned then why is there  no significant mobilization against the blockade, arson and other forms of terrorism which the state has successfully legitimized? Why are we making ourselves subjects to such a mindless political culture? Why, despite  being politically aware and critical, there could not be any noticeable uprising after Shahabag? What are we waiting for? Another round of neutral third force? Army? External pressure? Haven’t we learned by now that it is us who have to claim our share from the state to make this nation work? Our itch for making a difference or pseudoburning sensations won’t bring any change but our actions will.

Seuty Sabur is Assistant Professor of Department of Economics and Social Sciences at BRAC University, Dhaka. She blogs on AlalODulal.org

2 comments

  1. Eloquently written and powerfully argued, an wonderful essay indeed. It has made me rethink many of my knee-jerk reactions. I am with you in spirit.

    I like the rephrasing of the question to “Why Do they?” I would also like to add a tag on question, Who they are? You give us glimpses of the answers to these question. And they speak to a larger question about maintaining a sense of normalcy and value of everyday lives in the midst of crisis and chaos? Does not love happen in times of war? Does not laughter ring through battle fields? Given that in modern world the lines between battle fields and our everyday lives have become increasing blurred, should we not (are we not compelled to) carry out our lives in middle of and despite the battles around us? Should we not kiss our lovers after escaping from a burning bus? Should we not make love or babies in this damned country of death? Should not the music play on despite or even, in protest of the fires on street? These questions must be answered with empathetic yes, if we are to affirm life and living.

    Yet, I feel that there may be valid reasons for criticizing the festival. From your essay there emerges a picture of a public (am or sushi jonota) that is caught in the fight between the two political parties; people here are innocent bystanders, hostages, and collateral damage. So what’s wrong, if they want to find some solace and some escape from the fight that is not their? But I think the problem lies just in that formulation, why is not this fight their or ours? The disconnect people are talking about has to do with the ways a portion of our population (urban middle class; shushil shomaj, vaddarlok etc.) has taken themselves out of the fight. They are in the battle-field as hostages and victims but not as fighters; the fighters in this battle are the dirty politicians and their hired goons (mostly street kids risking their lives for daily bread). We cannot take ourselves out of the fight. We must come to the music festival not to escape the violence of the street (or even despite of it) but after having taking a stand on the streets. I know this is a easy argument to make sitting 12000 miles away. But that doesn’t make the argument moot: Ordinary people or the middle class or the subaltern CAN NOT continue to be the bystanders or hostages of the political battles, they must participate and become conscious actors.

    Secondly, your analysis does not critically analyze the implications of the “Khas” people’s presence at the festival. You say that yes they were there but so were we, the ordinary folks. But what does it mean to have these “khas” people enjoy/ravel in music festival? Are these not the same people who are in charge of the state machinery? Are these not the people on whose orders people die on the streets of Dhaka and elsewhere? Are these not the people who are burning up the country to maintain their status as “khas”? So the question has to do with who “owns” the music festival? Is it the “khas” (state and corporate nexus) people whose patronage made the festival possible or is it “aam jonota” who filled their souls? Some criticisms of the festival may be warranted because of the disconnect of our rulers about their own acts of atrocities; they can order live rounds of ammunition on the streets of Dhaka in the morning and patronize classical music at night. Why do they patronize this festival… out of pure love of music (art in general) or as a part of a sinister P.R. campaign? Or is simply because such festivals produce the kinds of spectacles that occupy the minds of the masses? What does it mean to participate in such spectacles? What does it mean to turn on the television?

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