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Music and magic overcome politics

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-09-11

HYDERABAD, India - Sons and daughters of famous people sometimes languish in their parents' shadow because it's hard to measure up to family legends. Not Ms Durga Jasraj. A perky single mother with much of her youth still ahead of her, Durga is an impresario, a television personality, a model, a singer of classical music, and a woman who quickens the pulse of males wherever she goes.

For the record, Durga is the daughter of Sangeet Martand Pandit Jasraj, India's most famous vocalist. Her grandfather from her mother Madhura's side was Mr V. Shantaram, the veteran film producer and director. To say that aesthetic talent is in her very gene pool is stating the obvious. But Durga's particular strength lies in her drive, energy and ambition - a member of the rising generation of young Indian women who are rapidly playing leadership roles in a society that was traditionally male dominated. She's determined to widen popular understanding of classical music both in India and abroad, and what she's already accomplished is formidable.

Consider this: She's produced dozens of collections of classical music. She has staged concerts in Britain and continental Europe. She assembled some India's greatest living singers and musicians for a command performance in Parliament. President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam says he's always accessible for Durga; so are many of the country's top politicians and corporate executives.

In fact, their support has been key to Durga's biggest event, "Tiranga," a musical tribute to the tri-coloured national flag that the president himself has promoted enthusiastically. The tribute, a totally nonpartisan composition, offers a dramatic contrast to the politicization of the national flag by groups such as the rightwing Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party who have hijacked the flag in the name of patriotism. The BJP - which led a 22-party coalition that ruled India for six years until its defeat last May - has launched a national campaign in which its leaders drape themselves in the Indian flag and go around the country to recruit volunteers.

"Music should have no politics," Durga Jasraj says. "Tiranga is not about politics. It's a musical salute to the symbol of our nation."

"Tiranga" is being performed by Durga's ensemble in several cities, and recently she brought the show to Hyderabad, where her father grew up. I flew down to this old city of nizams and nawabs, which, of course, has been renewed in recent years by technology campuses that have brought fresh prosperity to the region. In fact, a "new economy" company called Idea - which, among other things, operates cellular phone services - was among the main sponsors of the event, which - like other "Tiranga" performances around the country - was offered free to the audience. One of the company's top executives, Pradeep Shrivastava, was among the 2,000 people in Hyderabad's state-of-the-art Shilpakala Vedika Auditorium, swaying their heads to the magic of music.

And magic it certainly was. Pandit Jasraj sang in Hindi and Sanskrit about one colour, saffron, which signifies energy; Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma played on the santoor on the theme of tranquillity, which is represented by the white middle band of the Indian flag; Vidvan U. Shrinivas displayed his virtuosity on the mandolin as he played compositions about green, the colour that stands for fertility and prosperity.

Durga also arranged for Pandit Vijay Ghate on the tabla and Pandit V. Selvaganesh on the khanjira to perform a stunning duet in an ode to the Ashoka Chakra, the ancient wheel symbol of the Emperor Ashoka, which denotes strength and progress.

Their performances were interspersed with poetry read by Mr Javed Akhtar, a Muslim screenplay writer and poet who's widely considered the greatest living writing in Urdu. Everyone on the stage was clad in white, a decision that Durga took to enhance the effect of tranquillity. A beautifully produced short documentary on the origins of the flag was also shown.

And while no one quite said it in so many words, the subtext - nay, the driving theme - of the entire enchanting evening was peace within and between nations, harmony among and between India's myriad ethnic communities.

I asked Durga about this. She smiled quietly. At that moment, it became clear to her questioner that maybe, just maybe, it was possible for disputatious neighbours to live in tolerance, that the flag would truly become a symbol of national unity and not be employed for parochial politics.

Or was it simply Durga's charm at work, hurrying one's heartbeat and leading one to hope that the serenity she projected would wash over our entire nation? As I left Hyderabad, that hope stayed with me, as did Durga's smile and the sense of well being that comes from having heard music and poetry that transported you, at least for one glorious evening, into a realm beyond that of everyday cares of Indians very much anxious about their country's future.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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