Communal harmony in Kerala and remembering Sitar maestro Pt Ravi Shankar

When I visited Kerala I realised there were no divides along the communal lines in the northern districts of the state. And the community leaders were extremely vigilant in this regard

Representative Image (Photo courtesy: social media)
Representative Image (Photo courtesy: social media)
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Humra Quraishi

Three years back, in the spring of 2017, I’d last visited Kerala’s Malappuram region situated in North Kerala. And as we drove from Calicut towards Tirur, where I was to attend a literary festival, what stood out were refreshing sights to say the least. To put it in a nutshell, it was obvious that the different communities were living on par.

In fact, when I saw young boys walking along the road in that carefree way with white skull caps on, and then another group of the young walking in the traditional headgear and wear, together with tilaks on their foreheads, I asked the cab driver about the ground realities. And he smiled and said that in Kerala all communities live on par and that there were no communal elements. But then he’d hastened to add, “North Kerala is all very safe …for everyone.”

And later during my interactions with the different communities living in North Kerala, several prominent citizens told me, “All of us, Hindus and Muslims and Christians together with our community leaders are taking precautions so that the Right- Wing communal outfits do not wreck our togetherness …” As they’d detailed, “till now North Kerala is free from Right-Wing intrusions, but South Kerala has been hit by the communal poisonous venom…We as citizens are aware of the danger, as the RSS cadres have made considerable intrusions in South Kerala !”

And as I spoke to several others, it became clearer that there were no tensions or divides along the communal lines in the northern districts of the state. But they’d also stressed that community leaders were extremely vigilant and taking all possible precautions. In fact, at that meet I met several who’s who of the state and though they were from different faiths but looked and sounded one! They spoke the same language and dressed the same way …ate the same cuisine. More important was their common concern to keep the togetherness intact. They were more than aware of the fascist forces making intrusions and the dangers lurking around. But writ large was their determination to keep the fascists and fascism at bay.

I had met prominent writers who were doing their utmost to reach out in every possible way. In fact, one of the writers I’d met there at that festival, was the well -known Malayalam writer KP Ramanunni, who later, in 2018 , dedicated the entire prize amount he received from the Sahitya Akademi Award, to Saira Banu, mother of Mohammad Junaid the 16 year old, murdered by Hindutva goons inside a train compartment of the train taking him and his siblings towards Ballabhgarh in Haryana, a day before the family was all set to celebrate Eid.

It is very touching to know that Kerala’s famous writer KP Ramanunni reached out to this Haryana based family of Mohammad Junaid…This itself speaks volumes of the constant efforts by various people at various places of India to bridge divides and reach out in every possible way.

Nostalgia tightens its hold. Whilst keying in, I’m also reminded of my travels in Kerala’s Malappuram region in the early 90s, when I was covering the hundred percent literacy feat of Kerala. Way back in 1991, when I traveled to Kerala to cover the literacy movement, the district medical officer of Malappuram, Dr A Mohammad, had told me that the local volunteers of the state together with the community leaders had brought about a huge change on the literacy front, “Four earlier attempts to bring literacy amongst the Muslims failed. Then the Muslim League and the Imams of the masjids cooperated, and so a large number of illiterates came to the sessions. In Islam a lot of importance is given to education yet politicians played havoc and education amongst the Muslims received low priority. …Now the local volunteers have brought about a big change. Already we can see a big improvement. Today there is a decrease in infant mortality and an increased awareness about family planning.”

Space constraints come in way of my detailing what blissful images I’d witnessed in 1991; of the Hindu , Christian and Muslim volunteers reaching out to the disadvantaged, to all those lagging behind on the educational front …in fact, I had focused on this aspect for the features I had then written for the Illustrated Weekly of India.

It is significant to point out that in Kerala this togetherness of the people from different faiths is one of the ongoing aspects to this state and its people. In 2005, I came across this news report in the (Hindustan Times--- October 13, 2005,) of a Hindu ritual performed by an Imam : “Churches and mosques in Kerala are vying with each other to perform a Hindu ritual - “Vidyarambham ', to initiate children into the world of letters on Viyaya Dasami day. A Hindu custom in the past, its picked up by others…In Cheraman Juma Masjid on Kodungalur, claimed to be the first mosque in the country, 12 children including 4 girls, uttered the first letter of their life sitting in the lap of the Imam of the mosque. All the children were Hindus …'its part of our great culture, we are only fulfilling our duties.' mosque president VA Ibrahim said.”

Today, instead of focusing on the horrifying tragic incident of the brutal killing of the elephant in Kerala, and seeing to it that the guilty are given the strictest punishment, several Right- Wing politicians are playing up the communal card. Why? Why wreck the togetherness of the people of the State!

I have been thinking of Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar…

I do realise that this year – 2020 - is Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar’s birth centenary year. He was born a hundred years back - on April 7, 1920, in Varanasi/ Banaras, Uttar Pradesh.

But do you know why I have been thinking of Pandit Ravi Shankar in these recent months? Seeing the absolutely deteriorating conditions prevailing around, I’m reminded of what all he had said …his stark comments.

I had met and interviewed Pandit Ravi Shankar twice. The first time was around the time of his 70th birthday, and as I sat sipping my tea at his Lodhi Estate home, I got so terribly nervous that the entire cup crashed to the carpet of his living room. With that disaster, my nervousness peaked to such an extent that I could barely ask more than the basic, customary questions.

But Panditji had simply smiled and tried his best to make me feel at ease. And it was only after a gap that I'd mustered enough confidence to try and meet him again. This was around the early 1993. He looked frailer and sad. He told me that he was totally devastated by the recent death of his only son Shubo. That was the time he and his second wife Sukanya were planning to shift base from New Delhi to San Diego, California.

He had said, "The mess in the country is painful for me. Even a place like Delhi is becoming unfit for living. With everything else, the pollution here is killing,". His wife Sukanya who stood close by, had added, "The politicians and pollution have finished the city. We have already bought a Spanish villa in California and now I'm doing it up my way."

To that he'd added, "For me, the house is a very important place. Since I was 10, I have been travelling, living in hostels, so I value my home. That feeling of warmth, coupled with a comfortable middle class lifestyle. Nothing gaudy or vulgar. Somehow, I totally dislike the Delhi concept of showing off. A dignified, balanced and comfortable way of life is what I like."

He went on to tell me details of the very first house he had built for himself in Banaras. "I don't know why I decided to build that house in Banaras. Probably because I was born and brought up in that city…and though I'd built it in the early '70s, within years I decided to abandon it. All sorts of crude elements had sprung up around me, those decaying values stifled me, so I decided to shift out of Banaras. I'm not a fighter. I'm a musician and I can't stand vulgar people, besure log."

In fact, as the couple took me around their Lodhi Estate home what struck all too immediately was the simplicity all around. There wasn't a trace of any ornate furniture, no porcelain ware, no elaborate bedroom bandobast. In fact, the only room which looked well done up was the music room; with sitars, sur-bahaars, tanpuras neatly placed in stands and the walls of this particular room adorned with prized photographs capturing Panditji with John Lennon, Uday Shankar, Baba Allauddin, Pablo Casals, Mariam Anderson, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

The maestro's bedroom had only a double bed and a fax machine in it! As we neared the puja room, he told me, "This isn't just a puja room but my private corner. This is where I meditate, do riyaz, pray. For me, religion is a very personal thing. I am certainly not ritualistic. In fact, like me, most musicians are broad-minded…When I was 18, I went to live with my ustad, Baba Allauddin, and though he was a devout Muslim, his home in Madhya Pradesh's Maiher was full of photographs of Kali, Krishna, Christ, Mary…Music makes you more tolerant. …I only wish our present-day politicians were more musically-inclined; then there'd be more harmony and not the present-day cacophony!"

Leaving you with this verse by Rachna Joshi from her recently launched poetry book- ‘Monsoon and Other Poems’ (Tethys – Yatra Books)

“Miasma….

Today/

Don Quixote would fret at/

The wave of intolerance/

Sweeping across countries./

No more voices to be raised /

No more debate and free expression/

No more poetry./

He would be fighting the miasma/

That is surrounding

And suffocating us./

In this land too/

People are being trampled underfoot/

Is Quixote a Zen master/

Who dares to see the truth/

In a hostile world.”

The views expressed in the article are the author’s own

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