Can music be a cultural unifier for a divided South Asia?

Ambassador Nirupama Rao speaking at a Symphony of South Asia event. Photo:

Through the medium of The South Asian Symphony Orchestra, we want to take South Asia to the world and bring the world to South Asia. With these words, Nirupama Rao, a former Indian foreign secretary and former ambassador to the United States and China, introduced the multinational orchestra that she and her husband, former civil servant Sudhakar Rao, founded in Bengaluru, at their maiden performance in New Delhi.

It was another matter that the performance before an elite capital audience on a balmy March evening got washed out by unseasonal thundershowers after they had barely begun to settle down, but the opening musical notes – including an invocation on renouncing war and cultivating friendship – had already begun to create an atmosphere of harmony and wellbeing at the India International Centre’s lush gardens.

The orchestra’s concerts are appropriately named Peace Notes, signifying its mission “to unite creative artists and the regional imagination to promote connectivity and greater integration across social, economic and political divides” that plague the eight-nation region comprising India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives and Afghanistan.

“We are inspired by the dream that South Asia must overcome the hesitations of history and build an architecture of dialogue and cooperation that can nurture and sustain our common humanity and recognize our shared destiny,” says Rao, taking a huge leap of faith in a region scarred by wars, diplomatic conflicts, cross-border insurgencies and a history of mistrust, suspicion and non-cooperation.

South Asia has often been defined – and dominated – by the region’s two largest countries, India and Pakistan, but the region is quite diverse, home to several major religions, namely Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Sikhism, a profusion of languages, a heterogeneity of cultures, peopled by a quarter of mankind with a population density that makes it one of the most crowded yet diverse spaces of this world.

“Nationalism has trumped regionalism in this space. We would like our Orchestra to point the way to recognition of the fact that South Asia is in many ways an integer, bound more together by our commonalities than our differences,” says Rao who, during her long diplomatic career, has been witness firsthand to how political differences and disputes over borders have led to bleeding conflicts and abortive peace talks that have defined the region’s tormented history. And, instead of despairing, she and her fellow idealists looked to invest in the youth of the region by creating a non-political platform to foster more dialogue, cultural synergy, and friendly understanding among the youth of the eight countries in South Asia, including India.

The aim of the South Asian Symphony Foundation (SASF), which runs the orchestra, is to promote greater cultural integration for the cause of peace in the region through the medium of music. “The aim is to foster artistic talent and creativity among these young musicians of promise. We will organize performances of The South Asian Symphony Orchestra in various cities of India and South Asia, as also the rest of the world. In due course, we will enable the development of orchestral repertoire, including classical and indigenous music from South Asia,” says the aims and objects of the Foundation.

But with the current state of affairs in South Asia, where India and Pakistan don’t even talk to each other, don’t trade with each other, their artists are not welcome to visit each other, their sportspersons are not allowed in each other’s countries, where their ties are marked by deep-rooted political mistrust and social prejudice, and where South Asian regional cooperation has been held hostage to their strained ties, can music really be a bridge builder?

Cynics will naturally scoff at the idea. Peaceniks are not in vogue in a region where militant religious nationalism is the defining ideology in many of its countries. The peace marchers of an earlier era, who used to hold candlelight vigils at the Wagah-Attari border between India and Pakistan on August 14-15 that mark the Independence Day of both countries, are held in ridicule as impractical romanticists. Recently, a veteran Pakistani cricketer made an impassioned appeal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to let the two countries, both passionate about cricket, to play in each other’s country. “I will request Modi sahab ( a subcontinental honorific equivalent to ‘Sir’) to let cricket happen between both countries,” Afridi was quoted as saying in Doha.

“Just send the Indian cricket team once, we will take care of them with utmost love.” the former Pakistani captain said in a media interaction. Asian Cricket Council (ACC) chairman and Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) secretary Jay Shah had told Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chief Najam Sethi that the Indian cricket team cannot travel to Pakistan for the Asian Cup 2023 being hosted by Pakistan because of the current political hostility between the two counties.

A rightwing pro-government website in India took no time to denounce the suggestion, calling Afridi someone “who supports separatism in Kashmir” and the person “who had earlier called Narendra Modi worse than coronavirus, now pleads with PM Modi to send Indian team to Pakistan”!

It will be wrong to assume that the antagonism is pervasive and endemic to people of both countries. Sapan, the acronym for the South Asia Peace Action Network, a trans-South Asia civil society coalition of organisation and activists whose founding charter says their aim is to “reclaim South Asia” and whose objective, among others, is to work for “a visa-free South Asia or confederation of nations with soft borders”, has been campaigning relentlessly for dialogue and regional cooperation as prerequisites for peace and stability in the region.

In February, Sapan had what they called an online knowledge-sharing discussion “to explore the experience of love in the region, introspect on the barriers built against it, and be inspired by those who persist in following their hearts”

Love is a personal affair, but in our region, it has many social and political ramifications, said Aekta Kapoor, a Delhi-based journalist and founder-member of Sapan, who moderated the panel where several activists from shared experiences and insights about cross-border and inter-faith love, marriage, and the roadblocks such union have faced in recent times. Kapoor reminded everyone that three countries in South Asia were one country at one time, but yet “it’s like we’re constantly punishing each other!”

So, if inter-faith marriages are taboo and cross-border love is becoming increasingly challenging, can music really bridge the trust gap?

Orchestras are seen as sublime creations that can transcend barriers of race, religion, language, and borders. This is reflected in the composition of the Orchestra, with 65 musicians from eleven countries, including from Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and India, besides the South Asian diaspora across the world, “where different musicians and instruments join in harmony together, where walls begin to crumble, and differences recede”.

Shyam Saran, the president of the IIC and a former foreign secretary who had been instrumental in getting the Orchestra to Delhi, had introduced the Orchestra by quoting Greek philosopher Plato who said: “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything”.

The question is can South Asia’s political leadership take that flight of imagination to open the doors to cross-border cultural engagement and let the fusion of regional harmonies create a new cultural identity for South Asia? Maybe, paeans to peace by by such musical ensemles like The South Asian Symphony Orchestra will one day give wings to nobler sentiments to build new bridges of love and understanding, not only between India and Pakistan, but South Asia as a whole!

(The author is a veteran editor and Founder, South Asia Monitor. Views are personal. He can be reached at (Used with permission)



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