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14-min read

Make Music, Not War: Former Diplomat Nirupama Rao Wants to Unite South Asian Nations Through Symphony Orchestra

Former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao talks about India's relationship with neighbours like Pakistan and China, the recent terror attacks in Sri Lanka and her new journey to unite South Asian nations through music.

Simantini Dey | News18.com

Updated:April 26, 2019, 10:25 AM IST
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Make Music, Not War: Former Diplomat Nirupama Rao Wants to Unite South Asian Nations Through Symphony Orchestra
Nirupama Rao | Image credit: Special Arrangement
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Mumbai: Nirupama Rao has achieved many impossible feats in her illustrious diplomatic career. She has been the first woman spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and has served as India's Foreign Secretary. She has been ambassador to countries like China and Peru and has also served as the High Commissioner to Sri Lanka.

During her years in office, Rao has always pushed the envelope, refusing to settle for 'cushy jobs' that women foreign service officials were often doled out. She signed up to work on border issues and during her tenure as the Foreign Secretary, she actively worked on India's relationship with other South Asian nations and the United States.

In her lifetime Rao has been the recipient of many awards, including the Fellowship of Peace Award 2018, conferred on her by Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Center, Washington DC, which recognized her 'lifetime work toward peace and cultural understanding through diplomacy and the arts.'

It is true, that Rao has the mind of a seasoned diplomat and the soul of a poet. Flip through her poetry book, Rain Rising and you will see the extraordinary creative side of her personality. In her retirement too, Rao has been more active than most government officials are while holding office.

In July 2018, Rao embarked on an ambitious new journey to unite South Asian nations through music. She founded The South Asia Symphony Foundation (SASF), along with her husband, Sudhakar Rao, through which she is bringing together musicians from different South Asian countries to perform as a part of the South Asian Symphony Orchestra (SASO).

Rao is currently in Mumbai busy preparing for the debut performance of SASO in a concert titled Chiragh, that will be held in National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) on 26 April 2019 at 7 PM.

A group of almost 70 musicians from countries like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India are rehearsing for Chiragh every day at The Alexandra Girls' English Institution, in Fort. Rao attends all their rehearsals. She sits on the sidelines, carefully watching the musicians, most of whom she had handpicked. She records their performance enthusiastically. Chiragh will be attended by many high profile dignitaries and politicians, therefore, Rao is handling almost everything herself to ensure a flawless evening filled with harmonious music.

During her interview with News18.com, Rao spoke about Chiragh, her future plans for SASO, about India's relationship with neighbours like Pakistan and China as well as about the recent terror attacks in Sri Lanka.

Here are a few excerpts from the interview:

There are several territorial disputes among South Asian nations. What prompted you to bridge these territorial and political differences, and come up with an initiative such as the South Asian Symphony Orchestra?

My life was spent in diplomacy and foreign affairs. I was also the MEA Spokesperson and the Foreign Secretary. During that period of my career, I had many opportunities to travel in South Asia, to understand the complexities and the tensions that have kept these nations apart. I also realised that we have more in common than the differences that separate us.

People are the same in all these countries. If there is climate change in one part of South Asia, it affects the other part. If pollution levels go up, we all suffer. These things know no borders and we shouldn't have the illusion that we are safe within our borders and what happens outside that is none of our concern. We share one atmosphere, one South Asia and one Earth. So, I thought that while we cannot solve the border tensions at our level, each of us can cultivate a sense of empathy for one another and move beyond hatred, suspicion, ignorance and prejudice. I think we must have a sensible approach to these issues, and how we communicate with each other. Music to me is a great way to start such communication.

Music is a less conflicted domain, We, of course, have martial music, and music is also played in the time of war. But, by and large, music in a sense, is very humanitarian in its outlook and has the ability to celebrate diversity, in a harmonious way.

Why did you specifically think of building an orchestra, while bringing artists from various South Asian countries together through music?

I love symphonic music, and to me, an orchestra means many things at many levels. First of all, you bring together a bigger group of musicians. Secondly, each of them is playing an individual instrument. So, they have both an individual and a collective identity. The principle of symphonic music is about harmony, but there is also the concept of counterpoint, which is embedded in that harmony itself. It means that you work your way through many diversities and then come to one conclusion that incorporates all these diversities. So, I thought it will be a very appropriate example for South Asia because you have eight different nations coming perhaps from the same civilizational space, sharing similar histories, but today they are all very diverse because of political reasons, or the lack of communication between them. So, weaving our way through that diversity, we wanted to come up with some concept of harmony. To me, the orchestra signified a very powerful expression of that harmony.

I know that we don’t have big orchestras in our region. But, if you were living in the ’50s or ’60s of the last century, you may have found film orchestras as well as bands. If you notice, there is a bandstand in every big city. We have military bands of course, but they focus a lot on brass instruments, trombones, horns and such while an orchestra also, in addition to these brass instruments, has violins, violas, cellos, flutes and so many other beautiful and diverse instruments. It represents unity in diversity, and to me, that is what South Asia means. Orchestras teach people to develop empathy for one another as well. Sitting next to someone from another country, as you rehearse and talk to the other person, or help him or her with the music, you also learn to cooperate. At every level, an orchestra promotes coexistence.

How did you manage to gather this big milieu of various talented artists from different countries?

It involved a lot of research! We had set up the South Asian Symphony Foundation (SASF) in July 2018, so it has been about nine months or so. In between, I was also teaching at Columbia University in New York, so I couldn’t focus completely on this till late November. It was only after November that I started talking to people, asking them if they knew any South Asian musicians. I asked friends of friends who helped me reach out to various artists. Like that, step by step, we built. The Kashmiri musicians came in through a Kashmiri friend, who was a colleague during my civil service days. She told me about a Kashmiri musician, so I reached out to that person. He wasn’t available, but he put me in touch with three or four others. That is how we got Kashmiri musicians, who play traditional Kashmiri instruments. Then there is a group from Afghanistan which has artists who perform both western, as well as Afghan music, which is very close to our music in India -- the Hindustani, classical, traditional music.

For the first time in history, the Kashmiris, and the Afghans are playing together in an orchestra like this. They are transcending borders, politics, and divisions, and that is, in itself, a very powerful exposition of what music can be.

'Hamsafar: A musical journey through South Asia' is something that will be premiered at Chiragh, the festival of South Asian Symphony Orchestra. Tell us a little about it.

Hamsafar was my name for this composition. Since this is the debut performance of South Asian Symphony Orchestra (SASO), I asked Dr Ahmad Sarmast, who is the director of the Afghan National Institute of Music, whether he could ask one of his faculty to work on an arrangement, that would become a musical piece for South Asia. So, one of his colleagues, Lauren Braithwaite, took eight popular songs from this region, one of which is Mera Joota Hai Japani and arranged them for the orchestra. When she had finished composing, I said, 'Why don’t we call it Hamsafar?' because I felt like we are all taking this journey together. The piece begins with a Sri Lankan song and also has Dama Dam Mast Kalandar.

South Asian Symphony Orchestra also plans to conduct master classes, and workshops for aspiring musicians of South Asia?

I would like to promote and foster musical talent in this region. Very often, they don’t have the exposure to master teachers. I think classical music played in an orchestra is something we should learn to do, now that India and other South Asian countries are modernizing and opening to the outside world. We have foreign investments coming in, we want to build better roads, railways, ports, schools and hospitals. And, we are learning from the outside world in all these aspects. Similarly, in music too, we should be very proud to celebrate our traditional and regional music and we should try and promote it to the best of our ability. But, at the same time, we should be open to musical influences from the outside world. If we do so, there can be a wonderful synthesis, and each one can give and take something from it, like in any relationship. If we open ourselves to western symphonic music and learn to play it well, the outside world will come to know us better. They will begin to look at your abilities and excellence in this field. They will begin to understand our cultures and countries. More people will visit South Asian nations. So, I think it helps. It creates a two-way street.

Is there a songbook in the pipeline for South Asian Symphony Orchestra?

Hamsafar is the first composition in our songbook. A Sanskrit invocation song written by the Shankaracharya of Kanchi titled, Maitreem Bhajata which will also be sung at the concert on April 26th, will be a part of our song book, too.

I am planning to take 30 popular songs from this region for this project to create a South Asian Song Book. Songs we love from various regions of India, as well as songs from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Maldives. I intend to take two or three songs from each of these countries and arrange them for an orchestra. I want to do it as a contribution to everybody who wants to play this music. So, that's my next project. I thought this way people may at least begin to talk about South Asia as a whole.

Nowadays Pakistani actors and artists are not allowed to perform in India or be a part of Indian movies. What are your thoughts on that?

If you know that an actor or a theatre personality is someone who you do not want in the country from a security point of view, I can understand barring him/her. But, if he or she is just an actor, or a theatre personality, with no record of radicalism or extremism, then it shouldn't happen. We have to build up a constituency of peace in this region.

What people are saying is that they don't want the Masood Azhars or the Hafiz Saeeds. They just want to be normal, and forget about these disputes. They cannot solve these disputes at their level since they will take time and political vision to solve. But people don't want terrorism or violence. They just want to live their normal lives.

You may be a cynic and say what is the use of all this. But, people at the end of the day, are emotional. These cultural collaborations are important.

Wars have completely transformed from the time you started your career as a diplomat and now, in 2019. If disputes escalate between India and Pakistan, there is an impending nuclear threat. How should we as civilians move forward?

I think we should really have a movement in this part of the world. A movement for peace so that we can outvoice these people who want war. The women are silent, they should speak up, too. War is not a plaything. It is not like bursting patakas. I went to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and it is hard to sit through those stories of devastation. There they show a bomb being dropped, children reduced to ashes, and shadows of people incinerated are on the walls. I know what my parents have taught me, it is unwise to rally for war.

You come from a matrilineal background, and you made your way to the top through a very patriarchal set-up, and successfully made a career in diplomacy. How did you do that?

I may come from a matrilineal family, but I have worked in patriarchal spaces all my life. Even when I joined the foreign service, women were being given very cushy postings or postings that were not important. But, as I went along, I did complicated jobs, I worked on China, I worked on border issues, which are technically very complex and I was the Spokesperson. In this process, people in the system began to develop a kind of respect for women who are doing these things. I think I also helped women to come into the mainstream.

By God's grace, I am someone who can work on her own. I just decide that I want to do something, and very methodically try to execute it. My mind is not cluttered, so that enables me to move forward. My mother would always say that of her three daughters, I was the most persevering. I don't give up easily.

How do you think China's relationship with India has changed over the years?

The cracks and the divisions are more revealed today than they were 10 or 20 years before. We are rubbing up against each other in this Asiatic space. India has to be bold and pragmatic. It has to be a combination of both. I don't think we should shy away from defending our interests and speaking out against what we see is wrong, or what is not in our interest. In fact, we should call out countries that are doing that and not be hesitant in cooperating with countries that are like-minded. We talk about not being on any sides, but in certain areas, we have to take a stand. That's the best thing to do under the current circumstances.

You have been the High Commissioner for Sri Lanka, and you have friends there. What were your first thoughts when you heard about the terror attacks?

I was thinking about my friends, and hoping they were safe. Our musicians from Sri Lanka had just arrived in India, the night before, and we were worried about them, and trying to find out if their people were safe. Luckily, they all were. I have known that country since my early youth when I was in my early thirties, and in the last ten years, they were rebuilding and renewing themselves, and then you have this incident. It is so tragic and sad. Over 300 innocent people died, and for what reason? It is a small country and the shocks that these incidents induce, reverberate, and are not easy to overcome.

Terrorism too is changing face. No country is safe any more, be it New Zealand or Sri Lanka.

Yes, it is, which is why what happened in Sri Lanka should make us more vigilant. We don't want that to happen here, so where our security is concerned, it should be absolutely fail-proof. There should be no chinks in that. In that, we have to be very strong, and professional. But, at the same time, in the social space, because we are a diverse and plural country, we have to maintain an equilibrium and a balance. We cannot divide the country, or exclude certain communities. We have to take them along with us, as we move forward.

Pakistan has been accused of sheltering radical elements, which has caused immense damage to India time and again, and also adversely affected them too. When can we expect an end to this?

Pakistan itself has had a lot of deaths from terrorism. I think civil society in Pakistan would want an end to this. I don't doubt that. But, it is the establishment in Pakistan. It is not a democratic country, where elected leaders have much say. It is essentially ruled by the military, and the military has this policy towards India, and they foster and nurture sources of terror in this region to keep alive the problems between the two countries. That is a tragedy. More than anything, they do not understand the concept of South Asia. They are also not bothered about the impact of terror in their own country, it seems like they are ready to sacrifice their people for this absolutely negative, murder-promoting, terror policy.
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