“We seek to give form and life to our vision for peace in South Asia – a region that is divided by history but not by geography, and can be much more integrated, economically and culturally. Our goal of building a classical symphony orchestra of South Asia, on the lines of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, focuses on nurturing a new hope for tomorrow and for peace, transcending narrow definitions of language, religion, or ideology..........Our aim is to promote greater cultural integration for the cause of peace in South Asia through the medium of music. The inspiration has come from what we saw as a felt need for providing a platform to promote more dialogue, cultural synergy and understanding among the youth of the eight countries that together constitute South Asia......
Our work uses soft power, cultural collaboration across borders and the medium of music which speaks a universal language. We believe that this is a project that helps strengthen and consolidate our felt need for a more peaceful and inter-connected region of South Asia.”
These are words from the “manifesto” of former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, who, having faced the music in the process of building peace in different parts of the world, has turned to her own musical talent to “bridge, transform and inspire” South Asia. Many people, who have held high positions in the Government, have turned to private peace efforts and achieved spectacular success, like Jimmy Carter, who won the Nobel Prize for Peace after his lacklustre performance in the White House. But this must be the first time that a former diplomat resorts to a new medium to advance peace. Among the instruments of diplomacy, smart power and public diplomacy come close to her chosen path. This is indeed a win-win initiative since, given her extraordinary talents in writing and performing western music, she will become a maestro, if not a messiah of peace.
On a day of extraordinary violence and bloodshed in her state of Kerala on account of a senseless controversy over entry of women in the Sabarimala shrine, Nirupama performed to an invited audience in Tiruvananthapuram to demonstrate how her orchestra could bring about change of hearts in South Asia. Her performance, together with her Sri Lankan team, was widely applauded. Her repertoire of western classical music was truly impressive and her singing was magical in itself, regardless of her mission of peace.
I was invited to have a one-to by-one conversation with her on the stage. I said by way of introduction, “I must say I am no expert in western music to comment on the concert. I carried a book, Western Music for Dummies when I was posted to Vienna, one of the Meccas of western music, but my status as a dummy was intact even after four years there. I thought for a long time that Mozart was a chocolate maker and Salzburg was the birthplace of Sound of Music. I also believed the myth created by the Austrians that Hitler was a German and Beethoven was an Austrian! But when I hear music, whether it is western or eastern, I can recognise it and so I congratulate Nirupama and her team.” I raised the following questions to explore her mind and music. I said that my questions would sound inquisitorial, but that did not detract from her music and mission. I was merely anticipating what the audience might want to know.
Music has a universal language, it transcends borders, breaks down walls, builds friendships and integrates cultures. It is, therefore, natural to think in terms of using music to build an atmosphere of peace rather than conflict even in a fractious and complex region like South Asia. As the Foreign Secretary, you have tried to make and build peace in South Asia and “faced the music”, as remarked by my friend, MG Radhakrishnan. Today, in your new incarnation, you are aiming to get the people in the region “to sweat in peace and not bleed in war”, as Mrs Vijayalakshmi Pandit said. Speaking as a devil’s advocate, may ask whether music can succeed where diplomacy failed?
Among the new instruments of diplomacy are soft power, public diplomacy and cyber diplomacy. But are these instruments very effective? Are countries where Bollywood music is popular more friendly with India than others. Everybody enjoys Coca Cola, but are Coca Cola drinkers friendly with the US? Are wine lovers softer towards French politics? Are those addicted to Russian ballets friendly to the Putin regime? In other words, is not the value of soft power or smart power overstated?
You have said that you have been inspired by West Eastern Divan Orchestra to build your South Asian Symphony Orchestra. Could you tell us what the West Eastern Divan Orchestra has accomplished in terms of peacemaking or peace building?
You say that orchestras are beautiful creations in which harmony prevails and barriers crumble. All musicians have equal importance and they play to contribute to the integrity of the symphony they play. Such orchestras have existed in Europe for years, but still some of the European countries have been at war. Why has this happened?
You have chosen western music as the medium to build peace and understanding in South Asia. Western music is elitist and even alien to many people in South Asia. Hindustani music may strike a better chord among the people of South Asia. Are you afraid that use of Hindustani music will be construed as an effort to create Indian domination?
China has great influence in South Asian countries because of the power of money, trade and possibly cuisine. How do you expect music and culture to counter the Chinese influence in the region?
Nirupama’s responses were on the lines of her manifesto. She clarified that she was not expecting that her music will help resolve the intractable problems of South Asia. She was aiming more at creating an atmosphere of peace and cooperation than acting as a promoter of political negotiations. She said that her mission was not political, but cultural and humanitarian.
I conveyed to her a request from a caller that she should stay on in Kerala for a while to create some peace in her own tumultuous home state which is in the grip of senseless violence. While the audience laughed, Nirupama said, “Invite my orchestra too. We will do it.”