Use culture to fight terrorism
Last night, I attended a mushaira after 10 years (presuming that some readers may not know what it is because mushairas are a rarity these days, it is a poetic soiree — mainly Urdu — that takes place after dinner and can go on till the morning depending upon the mood of the listeners and the repertoire of the poets). I was struck by a few things. One, the auditorium was filled to the capacity, so to ensure that those who could not cram in, the organisers had put huge LCD screens and speakers outside where people were sitting on plastic chairs to hear the poets recite their verses. Even the plastic chairs were not enough and many were sitting on the concrete steps, while a few were reclining against the boundary walls.
Two, presumptuously, I told a first-timer friend who I had dragged along that almost 90 per cent of the audience would be the Muslims from the Walled City and other such ghettos of Delhi as it was the India-Pakistan mushaira. Be prepared to be swarmed by a tide of black burqas, I had warned. Despite getting a crick in my neck because of constantly craning it to scan the auditorium, I could not spot a single burqa. Almost half the audience comprised women dressed almost like society ladies, complete with single pearl strings and chiffon sarees.
There were large number of non-Muslims and I did spot a foreigner couple, very enthusiastically recording select poetry recital on their mobile phones.
Three, unlike a geriatric conclave that I had expected, there was a large turn-out of youngsters in jeans and tank tops, both boys and girls, some barely out of school, listening intently to the poets, rooting those they liked, hooting those they didn’t and in between copiously writing down the verses. Clearly, a lot has changed in the last 10 years since I attended a mushaira. But of all these surprises, what remained with me till the end was how much I had forgotten about the power of culture to stimulate one’s intellect; how much it contributes to refinement in the society, how much sensitivity it brings out among the people and how much pleasure it gives to the senses. It was no jam session, no music to pump up the adrenaline. Yet, youngsters who could be boogying the night away in a discotheque after quick shots of tequila were sitting hunched back on their chairs quickly scribbling away the verses, lest they miss a word at two in the morning.
And what were they listening to? Barring a few who recited verses of love and longing, the poets, speaking of peace, communal harmony, terrorism, similarity of sub-continental politicians, poor, gender equality, the courage of soldiers who die on the orders of inept superiors and so on, reflected the realities of their countries. The poets from Pakistan spoke of terrorism and growing religious fanaticism. While Gulnar Afreen asked, ‘If you are not on the wrong side/why don’t you remove your mask?’, Ahmed Faraz lamented, ‘The town is full of religious preachers now/otherwise drunks like us could take on three-four at a time.’ And Zehra Nigah portrayed the plight of a 13-year-old boy-soldier. The Indian poets spoke of religious intolerance and communal harmony. Wasim Barelvi recited, ‘All preachers tell me that god only wants piety and prayer/I say, how much longer are you going to scare me?’
Mushairas are important, I realised. They provide cultural mooring to the people; and unlike many other forms of art they are participatory as poets and listeners interact at a certain level. Those who listen to poetry or indulge in other forms of arts are less likely to turn fanatic or violent. Their sensibilities get so refined that fanaticism or communalism becomes crass; which is why women suffused in fragrances and gentle make-up had no use for veils.
Have you noticed how a fanatic of any persuasion, while being well-read about his ideology and with statistics on his finger-tips has no time for sublime? Arts and culture militate against fanaticism, which is why the first thing the Talibans did was ban music, poetry and other art forms. That is why they denounce Sufis, because while you may take a gun off the Taliban, you cannot take poetry, qawwali and dance out of a Sufi.
Closer home, I used to wonder why none in my family in the ‘backward’ Uttar Pradesh wear veils or beards, while those in cosmopolitan Mumbai do. The mushaira gave the answer. The reason is the same as why Indians who leave India for foreign pastures are more religious and jingoistic. Uprooted from the familiar environment, without the cultural anchor, religion provides the easiest form of identity. While films are also a part of culture, they only provide instant gratification and not sustained participatory stimulation. Perhaps, the tragedy of Mumbai is that Bollywood has replaced all forms of cultural activity, leaving people with a void, which they try to fill with an overdose of religion. And when that occupies the complete mindscape, fanaticism and communalism hovers perilously close. Maybe, it is time we seriously think about fighting that with poetry. And hold more mushairas, to begin with!