The BBC Proms festival, a summer season of daily orchestral music at London’s Royal Albert Hall, is currently underway, beginning, as it does annually, in mid-July, extending until mid-September.
Since returning from the UK in 2008, I’ve been listening on internet radio. This year, the Proms began with a political tinge: on the very First Night, Russian-German pianist Igor Levit strode onstage wearing an EU flag on his lapel, and his encore offering was Franz Liszt’s transcription of the Ode to Joy – the famous chorus which forms the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and is the European Union anthem.
Just a few days later, Argentinian-Israeli pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim (who also holds Palestinian and Spanish citizenship and is founder of the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, a youth orchestra comprising musicians from Israel, Palestine, several Arab countries, and Iran) made a ‘spontaneous’ speech at the end of the second of two concerts at the helm of the Staatskapelle Berlin which featured the symphonies of British composer Edward Elgar.
Barenboim stressed that his thoughts were “not political, but rather of a human concern. When I look at the world with so many isolation tendencies, I get very worried. And I know I am not alone.”
After giving an account of his years living in England, which he felt gave him “the impetus” to speak, he said, “I think that the main problem today is not the policies of this or that country. The main problem is that there is not enough education.” The audience responded with hearty applause.
“No German musician will tell you – ‘I am German and I will only play Brahms, Schumann and Beethoven’. We had very good proof of it tonight [referring to a German orchestra playing Elgar]…. If a French citizen wants to learn Goethe he must have a translation. But he doesn’t need a translation for the Beethoven symphonies….This is why music is so important. And this isolationist tendencies and nationalism in its very narrow sense, is very dangerous and can only be fought with a real great accent on the education of the new generation…..The new generation need to understand that Greece, Germany, France and Denmark all have something in common, called European culture. Not only Europe. Culture. This is the most important thing. And of course in this cultural community called Europe there is a place for different cultures. For different ways of looking at things. But this can only be done with education. And the fanaticism that exists in the world with religious backgrounds can only be fought with education.”
Predictably, a media storm erupted following Barenboim’s speech, with both critics and supporters, often betraying their own Brexit or Remain bias. But could we extrapolate some messages from the speech far beyond British shores as well? The recurrent theme in the speech was ‘Education.’ Wouldn’t an objective, unbiased education, particularly of history and at school, go a long way in creating a more balanced, humane world view?
The onus of education extends further than just the classroom, a point made by Sunny Singh in her critique of Christopher Nolan’s allegedly ‘historical’ blockbuster film ‘Dunkirk’ in the Guardian (‘Why the lack of Indian and African faces in ‘Dunkirk’ matters’) calling out the literal ‘white’wash of an historical event: “More than history books and school lessons, popular culture shapes and informs our imagination not only of the past, but of our present and future.”
“Does this removal of those deemed “foreign” and “other” from narratives of the past express a discomfort with the same people in the present? More chillingly, does it also contain a wish to excise the same people from a utopian, national future?” she asks.
Shashi Tharoor in the preface to his book “An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India” laments this lack of education: “The British public is woefully ignorant of the realities of the British empire, and what it meant to its subject peoples. These days, there appears to be a return in England to yearning for the Raj”. This was certainly my experience in my England years, with many British colleagues seeming to think it was a benign regime, with lasting benevolent legacies like railways, postal services and democracy.
But what about our own history education? Is there good reason why Dr. Ambedkar isn’t included in the pantheon of India’s national heroes in my eight-year-old son’s General Knowledge textbook? Why is caste, if its odious history is ever taught at school, airbrushed to look like it is a vestige of the past, and doesn’t exist even today? Can any evil be tackled if it isn’t called out in the first place?
In Amitav Ghosh’s book ‘The Iman and the Indian’, in the chapter ‘Empire and Soul: A review of the Baburnama’, he examines the autobiography of India’s first Mughal emperor Zahiruddin Mohammad Babur (1483-1530). It makes fascinating reading, and again is something you’ll not encounter in a school history textbook.
Ghosh writes: “The women in his book are strong-willed and independent; they declare their own agency without hesitation, in matters political and personal…The contemporary Muslim fundamentalists who would carry Afghanistan back to an idealized past in which women never stepped out of the house would do well to have a look at this classic of Islamic life in their part of the world. They would find that the Middle Ages were not quite what they imagine them to be.”
Ghosh writes further on: “Mughal rule also coincided with a great renaissance in Krishnaite theology…Far from suppressing the burgeoning activity in that area, Akbar and his nobles actively supported it…As a living practice, contemporary Hinduism would not be what it is if not for the practices initiated under Mughal rule. The sad irony is that the Hindu fanatics who destroyed the Babri mosque were attacking a symbol of the very accommodations that made their own faith possible.” The further sad irony is that many such aspects of history will be even more inaccessible to the schoolchild and the general public in the current political environment. Yes, Maestro Barenboim, the main problem here too is that “there is not enough education”, certainly not the unbiased kind. Indoctrination, on the other hand, is rife.
Coming back to music: it was Ghosh (in his Ibis trilogy) who made me aware of just how much the opium trade affected peoples on both sides of the colonial divide. Since then, each time I listen to Hector Berlioz’ opium-fuelled Symphonie Fantastique, I can’t help but think also of the exploited impoverished farmers in central India who probably starved (as they were forced to cultivate opium instead of food crops) so the drug could be indulged by Europe’s elite and intelligentsia.
(An edited version of this article was published on 03 September 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)