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An Eastern Spring

An Eastern Spring: Memoir Of A Second Generation Immigrant Part Four
Neil Kulkarni , April 22nd, 2011 07:42

In Part Four of his memoir of life growing up as an immigrant in Coventry, Neil Kulkarni discusses racial tensions in both India and England

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90s/00s. Relax and realise you’ll never be healed from the wound that is your skin. Its colour controls your past and your present and your future. That is not a limitation. Too much nervousness with talk of race, the instantaneous denials and protestations that accompany the white response. A mistaken impulse for atonement, a dealing with, a righting of wrongs, that puts fears of inadequacy and bristling resentment in EVERYONE’s response. Can’t talk race and pop because too many people think they’re on trial. Anxiety of accusation means that we can’t all acknowledge that racism isn’t some single-issue habit that can be avoided or ejected but part of each and every one of us, not someone else’s ‘problem’ but in ALL of our souls. So, first, as if it’s possible, relax, it's the best way to stay vigilant. It’s nearly morning again. We’ll be done with each other soon. Listen to Bismillah Khan, perhaps the single most inspirational musical artist of the 20th century this side of Miles Davis, and remind yourself how little any of us know, how much any of us can feel.

We've all of us, especially us British folk, got to be asking what it means to be one of us, be on the lookout for where that meaning hardens, and thickens. And we should all be aware of those frequent moments where music, a thing made of love, is used to shore up senses of national identity, simpler times, golden ages. As an English Asian I’ve spent much of my life out-Englishing the English, I’m paranoiacly aware, through a need to know my potential enemies, of what it can mean when white pop looks back wistfully. Britpop gave me plenty of reasons to be suspect, to wonder what dreams are getting re-animated when people hark back. Yeah 67/68 can mean revolution, but it can mean the Immigration Act the Labour govt. bought in, it’s neutering of Enoch’s 67 campaigns, it’s making of me as non-patrial. The letters from readers told me stuff – mainly that a lot of people were even wondering what the fuck I was doing writing for white music papers. Take my “black hip-hop shit elsewhere” was the most memorable advice, whilst their favourite bands draped themselves in the flag – I’ll leave it to you to care whether I cared but I was nurturing my own guilty revisionism too. Whilst Oasis were finally and fatally winning Britishness back for the non-fey and charmless for good, I’m trapped and tripped out and looking back, and hiding in my own vintage duds as well, listening to tapes in a CD age, trying to look like I’ve just stepped off a boat (i.e. smart and sharp). And my own tone of nostalgia for Marathi film-song finds ugly compassion in the 90s & 00s on the city streets and villages of Maharashtra. Mumbai, like Coventry, is a place where you have to work fucking hard to be a racist; you’re raised in a chaotic cosmopolitan fog of accents and languages – but in the past 20 years Mumbai, at its best is a model of religious tolerance, has been twisted by the equally idiotic manoeuvres of gunmen in hotels and the Shiv Sena. These self-proclaimed 'Army Of Sivaji' spread mayhem and fascist violence, spark anti-union riots and race-hate against Muslims and immigrant workers from other states, under the guise of bhumiputr, declaring only Marathi Hindus as true 'sons of the soil'. Their lunatic founder-leader, ex-cartoonist Balasaheb Thackeray, has spent his entire fetid Hitler-modelled political career spewing hatred of Islam, calling only for “Marathi songs to be played on the radio”. And the ironies like a stink rose unfold - Shivaji used as a figurehead of hatred, the guy whose bronze bust I proudly polish on my mantel, a warrior-king smart enough to know that religious tolerance was the key to uniting the people because the people practiced religious tolerance naturally.

‘Verily, Islam and Hinduism are terms of contrast. They are used by the true Divine Painter for blending the colours and filling in the outlines’ - Shivaji Bhosle

Lata Mangeshkar, like all Marathi singers, sang songs about Shivaji because he was a hero to Marathis. In fact, she sang songs to him at the formation of the Maharashtran State, May 1st 1960 in Shivaji Park, Bombay. 50 years later, Lata, now convinced and close to the Thackeray’s, sings in Bandra park Mumbai for Shiv Sena, at a celebration of Maharashtra’s Golden Jubilee. Also in 2010, Asha Bhosle, Lata’s sister, keeps the tension in their prickly relationship going (a 50 year saga involving stolen lovers, musical rivalry and Baby-Jane-style sibling antagonism too epic to deal with here) by publically stating in Pune, a Shiv Sena stronghold, that ‘India is for all Indians, [regardless of religion]’, much to the disgust of the Thackeray clan. The stink rose keeps unfolding. Last time my mum went back a few months back, she found herself apoplectic at just how many of our relatives seemed to think it was OK to engage in precisely the kind of Islamophobia Shiv Sena have smeared across the Maharashtrian body politic. (Shiv Sena are currently co-opting protests about a planned nuclear facility in Konkan, the precise area of Maharashtra that my mum’s family comes from). Feels like they’re pressing in close. In the 90s, just as I’m finding my identity, it’s getting hijacked by cunts and thugs, and I’m meeting more narrow-minded English Marathis, later arrivals than my parents, whose politics cause massive late night arguments with my folks when they come to our house, idiots with idiot offspring who grass me up for popping out for a fag.

Shiv Sena’s rise is part of the reason I haven’t been back in many years, and Thackeray’s use of Marathi music to perpetuate his rot is almost enough to make me stick all my old Marathi vinyl and tapes up in the attic to wait for a calmer age. Of course, Thackeray is why I never can do that. Music survives because it’s communication between times and places. It contains the history of the people who pass it on that journey and so Marathi music whether classical, folk or cinematic is always absolutely dependent, as is all Indian music, on the influence of Islam, and the intransigent eternity of ancient Vedic music, and the way those two forces do the do, get busy, get down and get funky with it - drone derailed, melody endless and triumphant.

Missionary, evangelical Abrahamanic faiths whether Mughal or British have always run into the same problem with India. The vastness and variety of unscripted, unbroken spiritual practice, local but linked, was always finally impervious to books, the written word of god. The smartest auslanders soon realised that giving India architecture and infrastructure could impose a control stronger than the superimposition (for that is all it ever could be) of a foreign faith. Akbar knew it, and so Shivaji followed - people meet and play together, can’t be stopped. And so Sufi mystics and Sultanate courts bring new tunes, new instruments, new forms like ghazal and qawalli. As ever, music’s potential for abstraction gives it a generosity - a universality too slippery for politic's dull manoeuvres, too powerful a slipstream to not careen over those divides, only existing when flowing on beyond petty man-made notions like race, nation or state, living irrefutable proof that Shiv Sena’s project is a contemptibly ignorant, anti-artistic battle cry of inhumanity. Why else would an Islamic shenai master like Ustad Bismillah Khan be most famous for playing this beautiful tune, this tune I remember my mum and dad singing at the temple in the morning, this ageless ancient tune ostensibly Hindu but as memory-burned by the desert and the mountain range as it is by the jungle and the river. And the city's own new seething.

(One of Ghandi’s favourites, another old Indian who knew how precarious notions of Indian identity could be when shot through with bigotry or fear, the way wilful historical ignorance so often ignores the ways people really are, preys on resentment to turn natural respect and love into a deviant enmity. “To think that I should be dubbed an enemy to an art like music because I favour asceticism! I, who cannot even conceive of the evolution of India's religious life without her music!”)

It’s not possible to listen to Indian classical music, such a huge part of Maharashtra’s pre-cinematic & Bollywood-cinematic musical history, without hearing Islam’s influence. Shivaji himself as Emperor of the Marathas, declaring independence from Muslim rule, was clever enough to realise that it’s the secular state that endures, and it’s in the 17th century, when Shivaji’s empire sought to emulate the tolerance and open-mindedness of Muslim sultanates around India, that Maharashtrian music takes massive leaps ahead, absorbing hugely important lessons from Iran, schooling itself from the ghazal of Pashtuns from what’s now Afghanistan and Pakistan (and back then was all Bharat, or India), from the Mughal-court musicians who bought their own traditions and instrumentation from as far afield as Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Indian classical music is a polyglot mess of this itinerant innovation and intrigue, so it’s no accident that when Bhimsen Joshi died in January this year, Shiv Sena made no attempt to pretend he was some voice from a faux-Marathi past. Movie songs, which can still be tied in with a Marathi film-industry and a golden age concurrent (although still pre-dating) independence are utilisable by poltroons on the right – the ancient music that is the wellspring of those folk and film songs is less easy to crowbar into such modern rigidity. When I first heard Joshi I pissed myself. His voice made me laugh - it may well do the same for you, possibly because like me you’ve grown up thinking that voices can only do certain things, that someone like Tim Buckley is the limit of what the throat can do. Stay with Joshi and you’ll find yourself breathless, wracked, hand on mouth to keep in the gasps.

His music, like all great Indian music, consistently defies the post-colonial partitions, the opportunistic games played by politicians with Indian ‘identity’ – his voice, when you hear it and let it take you, is an inexhaustible repository of human experience and emotion that absolutely breaks over such barriers like a tsunami, that reveals exactly how much he learned from the Muslim pioneers of modern vocal-Raga and Kyall (Abdul Karim Khan and Abdul Wahid Khan), how he was astonishing precisely because his music destroys the confinements of his Gharana and springs from the faithless wonder, and sacred fearlessness that has characterised Indian music for thousands of years. Muslims and Hindus have sung in each others temples and mosques for a millennium - Joshi’s music is proof that Raga is simply a framework within which anyone and anything can happen, his melodies the most astonishing modernist improvisations within that ancient framework, his songs as Islamic as they are heathen, as prehistoric as they are futuristic, as civilized as they are untamed

What I learned in the 80s and 90s, digging deep into the concepts behind Indian music, is that those strictures you might read as confinements are there to be broken and blended and played with, that music only progresses when the societies that musicians come from are invaded, overthrown, absorbed, kidnapped, returned palpably and audibly changed. Immigration of people and ideas is the lifeblood of music - has been since time immemorial - and when you hear Joshi, there can be no doubt. You hear that, yes, vocal chords and lungs and minds and imaginations can be trained within a society to do things that are superhuman, but they can only resonate within you still, can only attain true immortality, when tied to a heart open to all human experience, all human lives, all human music. Indian classical music is so often talked about as a system, a lexicon, a blueprint you can’t stray beyond, and that might indicate confinement and limitation. But in contrast to the piddling-about that Western models of musical-freedom so often inspire, the discipline and intense intent of Eastern music is peopled by artists who can’t help but use the confines of their training to explore the infinite: these aren’t people who see being a musician as essentially pissing about prettily, but people for whom music is the only discipline in their life. Those ragas by Khan you heard up-page – they’re meant to be played at certain times of the day but how right do they sound at 2.am when nothing else makes sense? Joshi was a raging alcoholic but even in his later recordings and especially on his stunning film-soundtrack work with Lata, you can hear an artist absolutely committed - spiritually, intellectually and musically - to exploring all the possibilities, the infinity of expression and precision that the raga mode affords it’s most expert proponents. Lack of notation is key - oral transmission as opposed to the tyranny of text opens up the possibility of whispers going awry, of learning being challenged before it can turn into orthodoxy, of sounds mutating through race, religion, and in the white-hot inferno that forges the two in the heart. Every time I hear Joshi I hear something new. It’s because Indian classical music isn’t a system. It’s a launch pad into infinite space, whether that’s cosmic or metaphysical, emotional or intellectual.

Of course it suits racist scumfucks like Shiv Sena to fundamentally misunderstand music, to bound it to an earth they see in terms of fear and loathing and lines between us. By the 90s, I was realising that the attempt to either assert a false racial history, or pretend that race has no part to play in music, were two sides of the same ignorant-assed coin. The difference being that by the 90s I was writing about it. I remember, it took me three reviews to figure out what it was I wanted to say and I’ve been banging on about it ever since. Don’t be daft, you’re not going to stop me now: the ultra-English stain I am on England cannot be bleached out, even if what I have to say is nearly done. Next time, before the dawn, I want to break down your pedigree to find out mine. I want both us mongrels to meet.

Isabel Monteiro
Apr 22, 2011 1:30pm

great writing, Mr Kulkarni.

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