On 06 February 2011 a remarkable programme was organized in the auditorium of the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, for entry of Taisha Antony to stage after she spent twelve years learning Bharat Natyam dance under the guidance of celebrated dance guru Dr. Yamini Krishnamurthy.
Taisha is a teenaged girl studying in class 11. The most remarkable aspect of the event was not only the wonderful performance of the young girl but also the juxtaposition of two frames, one that of Goddess Saraswati and the other of Jesus Christ. Very appropriately at the conclusion of her performance it was announced that her dance programme was dedicated to the eternal spirit of India which represented coexistence of faiths and a common framework of living where there is ample scope for give and take.
It is a rare sight to see a Christian girl seeking at the same time the blessings of Goddess Saraswati and Jesus Christ before commencing her maiden performance on the stage.
Taisha groomed in a family proudly adhering to Catholic denomination of Christianity began her performance by offering flowers to both the deities and paying obeisance to her guru Yamini Krishnamurthy. Her performance was centered around themes which are integral part of Hindu mythology.
Her graceful gestures and her captivating movements wonderfully captured the beauty and aesthetics woven around the popular stories surrounding Goddess Durga, Goddess Saraswati and even other mythological characters abounding the Hindu scriptures.
The audience consisting of people from diverse faiths cheered her with every intricate and graceful movement of her hands, legs, head and her whole persona. There was beauty and majesty in her portrayal of the themes of Hindu mythology. It was a delightful sight to see a catholic girl performing to the tune of music resonating with the message of Gods and Goddess of the Hindu pantheon.
The spread of republican values in our country after we became a Republic has been responsible for taking the cultural values which were confined to temples and monasteries to every section of society professing diverse faiths. The classical dance forms which remained within the premises of ancient shrines are now being followed by ordinary people some of whom have emerged as accomplished artists bringing fame and glory for themselves and for the nation as a whole.
This is a heartening trend. This diffusion of cultural symbols and values belonging to a particular religion among all faiths strengthens our unity. It reconciles diverse streams and provides an enduring anchor to sustain the eternal idea of India.
At a time when religion and religious symbols are misused by people to promote hatred and violence, the performance of Taisha Antony by invoking both Goddess Saraswati and Jesus Christ constitutes an important step, howsoever small it may be, to fight the divisive forces through constructive forms of dance and music.
Our country is celebrating the 150th birth anniversary celebrations of Swami Vivekananda whose birth day is being observed as Youth Day in India. Apart from being an outstanding saint scholar of world wide fame he was an ardent lover of both eastern and western music. Gifted with a mellifluous voice he had charmed all those associated with him with his talent to sing.
As early as 13 December 1896 he had written that “Music is the highest art, to those who understand, is the highest worship”. Such a renowned saint and lover of music had once said that India needed a Vedantic brain and Islamic body. Mahatma Gandhi, the father of our nation, wrote that he did not want India to be wholly Hindu, wholly Islamic and wholly Christian but wholly tolerant with all its religions coexisting side by side.
We all know that our country was divided on the basis of religion. Millions became the victims of partition the result of which was the creation of a separate State called Pakistan. Scores of Muslims migrated to the newly carved out nation.
Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, the celebrated vocalist, was one among them. He was one of the renowned exponents and practitioners of Hindustani classical music. While in Pakistan he performed in the public and there was a request to him to sing Thumri, a genre of song depicting love and devotion. Invariably the theme of such songs refer to love and devotion for Krishna.
As soon as he started singing the first stanza which contained the sacred name of Lord Krishna there was loud and strident protest demanding to stop it immediately. Ustad Khan could not fathom the reasons behind the disapproval and objection. He was told in no uncertain terms that in Pakistan the name of the Hindu God Krishna cannot be uttered by a Muslim. He was stunned beyond belief. Later he took a decision to come back to India and reside here.
Eventually he was conferred with the citizenship of our country and pursued his music with passion and went on to become a role model of an Indian excelling as an accomplished artist. His exemplary courage and decision to leave Pakistan and settle down in India offers a vital and enduring lesson for us. Here was a Muslim who discarded the notion of a nation State based on religion to pursue music which was to him as dear as his life and religion.
In the formative periods of nation building during the 1950s we thus get an inspiring instance of a musician belonging to Muslim community who by preferring to come back to India from Pakistan was in fact defending the idea of eternal India which Taisha as young girl was doing in twenty first century through Bharat Natyam performance.
Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was truly one of the finest and authentic representatives of generations of people who lived and died for the cause of Eternal India. He therefore did not approve of partition of our country. His profound remarks that "If in every home one child was taught Hindustani classical music this country would never have been partitioned" brought out the cultural, artistic and musical basis of unity of our people who are diverse in terms of creed, language, ethnicity and regions and yet united together through common bonds of sharing and fellow feeling.
Yet another Muslim Ustad Bismillah Khan, the maestro of Sehnai who while being a devout Muslim spent hours together practicing Sehnai in front of the sacred Viswanath temple in Varanasi. We have thus a rich legacy of deriving inspiration from diverse religious traditions to define the idea of eternal India. We get educated in this respect as much from prominent personalities as from day to day life of vast masses of people who through their work and worldview represent the commonalities of all faiths.
It was Mahatma Gandhi who shaped his life in the pattern of life of the ordinary people of India. While fighting for our freedom from British rule he regretted that India lacked a curriculum of music for our children. He wanted every child of India to learn dance and music to discipline life and make it more rhythmical and harmonious. He had lamented that there was no music in the life of Indian people.
Understanding music and dance from the perspective of order, rhythm and harmony he proclaimed that lessons of music for children and even adults would correspondingly make life and society more orderly, balanced and constructive. He, therefore, had famously said that India cannot get Swaraj without music in public life. The larger significance of music in achieving the goal of Swaraj was understood by him when hardly there were any movement to spread the culture of classical music among the masses of our country.
Now, that a movement has been launched in making people more interested in classical music and the youth of our country is increasingly trying to learn the performing arts, we need to sustain this momentum for restoring sanity and strength both in individual and collective life.
Long years back while writing his famous book ‘The Discovery of India’ Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had observed that all the communities be they Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and all other religious groupings created a common culture and ethos for the whole of India. He categorically stated that even if whole of India had been converted to Islam or Christianity the pride of people on the common culture of India would not have been diminished on account of such conversion due to the dignity and poise the they acquired through long struggles of life.
The passion and desire of young girl Taisha to learn classical dance form of Bharatnatyam is rooted in our common cultural values. It is a refreshing example of our composite culture registering triumph over all attempts to fragment society on the basis of religion.
Only a few years back when the then mayor of London Mr.Living Stone visited India, he wrote an article in the Times of India under the caption “Britain as the Colony of India”. While recognizing the rise of India due to accelerated economic growth, he underlined the vast reservoir of cultural values nourished over centuries and stated that the West has not been able to understand the cultural strength of India which eventually would enable her to occupy the front rank among nations.
It is this cultural strength which simultaneously gets nourished by invoking the Goddess Saraswati and Jesus Christ. The meaning and significance of the little girl Taisha Antony’s entry to the stage has to be understood in this broader context. It is this integration of common cultural values of Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and all other religious groupings which will sustain our unity and integrity. Truly the teenaged girl Taisha deserves compliments for sending the message of tolerance and harmony through her wonderful Bharatnayam performance.
# The author was OSD and Press Secretary to the late President of India Shri K.R.Narayanan and served as Director in the Prime Minister's Office. He is currently Joint Secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat. The views expressed by the author are his personal views.