Nirupama Rao, former diplomat, to promote peace through music

Nirupama Rao, former diplomat, to promote peace through music
Nirupama Rao has established a South Asian Symphony Orchestra with the objective of furthering peace in South Asia and beyond.
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Many civil servants turn to their passions and interests of their young days after their retirement. Some turn to writing, music, farming and so on to add spice to the evening of their lives. Some of these activities sometimes outshine their achievements in the service.

For the first time, a distinguished diplomat, Ambassador Nirupama Rao, has decided to continue her career efforts after retirement through the medium of her old passion, music. She has established a South Asian Symphony Orchestra with the objective of furthering peace in South Asia and beyond. “We seek to give form and life to our vision for peace in South Asia – a region that is divided by history but not by geography, and can be much more integrated, economically and culturally. Our goal of building a classical symphony orchestra of South Asia, on the lines of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, focuses on nurturing a new hope for tomorrow and for peace, transcending narrow definitions of language, religion, or ideology,” she says. She has the talent to be a maestro, but if her mission succeeds, she will also be a messiah of peace.

Just before her exquisite classical concert in Thiruvananthapuram on January 5, I explored her vision in a conversation with her. I said by way of introduction, “I must say I am no expert in western music to comment on the concert. I carried a book, 'Western Music for Dummies', when I was posted to Vienna, one of the Meccas of western music, but my status as a dummy was intact even after four years there. I thought for a long time that Mozart was a chocolate maker and Salzburg was the birthplace of Sound of Music. I also believed the myth created by the Austrians that Hitler was a German and Beethoven was an Austrian! But when I hear music, whether it is western or eastern, I can recognise it and so I congratulate Nirupama and her team.”

Nirupama Rao, former diplomat, to promote peace through music

I raised the following questions to explore her mind and music. I said that my questions would sound inquisitorial, but that did not detract from her music and mission. I was merely anticipating what the audience might want to know.

Music has a universal language, it transcends borders, breaks down walls, builds friendships and integrates cultures. It is, therefore, natural to think in terms of using music to build an atmosphere of peace rather than conflict even in a fractious and complex region like South Asia. As the foreign secretary, you have tried to make and build peace in South Asia and “faced the music”, as remarked by my friend, M G Radhakrishnan. Today, in your new incarnation, you are aiming to get the people in the region “to sweat in peace and not bleed in war”, as Mrs. Vijayalakshmi Pandit said. Speaking as a devil’s advocate, many ask whether music can succeed where diplomacy failed?

Among the new instruments of diplomacy are soft power, public diplomacy and cyber diplomacy. But are these instruments very effective? Are countries where Bollywood music is popular more friendly with India than others? Everybody enjoys Coca Cola, but are Coca Cola drinkers friendly with the US? Are wine lovers softer towards French politics? Are those addicted to Russian ballets friendly to the Putin regime? In other words, is not the value of soft power or smart power overstated?

You have said that you have been inspired by West Eastern Divan Orchestra to build your South Asian Symphony Orchestra. Could you tell us what the West Eastern Divan Orchestra has accomplished in terms of peacemaking or peace building?

You say that orchestras are beautiful creations in which harmony prevails and barriers crumble. All musicians have equal importance and they play to contribute to the integrity of the symphony they play. Such orchestras have existed in Europe for years, but still some of the European countries have been at war. Why has this happened?

You have chosen western music as the medium to build peace and understanding in South Asia. Western music is elitist and even alien to many people in South Asia. Hindustani music may strike a better chord among the people of South Asia. Are you afraid that use of Hindustani music will be construed as an effort to create Indian domination?

China has great influence in South Asian countries because of the power of money, trade and possibly cuisine. How do you expect music and culture to counter the Chinese influence in the region?

Her responses revealed that what she was not aiming to resolve political issues. "Let me say my levels of ambition was quite modest. I am not here to solve intractable, political problems that have defied solutions for over seven decades now. I think that requires political vision.”

She emphasised that hers was not a political but a humanitarian project. "This is not about me trying to solve the world problems. But this is a humanitarian one. It has a lot to do with public diplomacy. But more than that, it transcends in to the area of soft power,” she said. Further, Nirupama dismissed the notion that Western music is elitist. "Look at our Bollywood music. So much is inspired from the Western music. We play a lot of Western sports, like tennis, cricket, etc. Why not Western music? Why can't a young Indian or south Asian excel and become like these musical geniuses from China, or South Korea or Japan. That's a way of getting ahead of the world, making a name for India," she said.

I conveyed to her a request from a caller that she should stay on in Kerala for a while to create some peace in her own tumultuous home state which is in the grip of senseless violence. While the audience laughed, Nirupama said, “Invite my orchestra too. We will do it.”

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