‘By ELLEN BARRY’
SRINAGAR, Kashmir Sept 07 — At 4 in the afternoon on Saturday, elegantly dressed people began filing into the sumptuous cool of Shalimar Garden, past the pink stone pavilions and whispering fountains that made long-ago emperors, stuck in dusty Delhi, weak with yearning.
Each had received an invitation to the most improbable and exclusive concert of the season, hosted by the German ambassador to India: the celebrated conductor Zubin Mehta and a full orchestra had flown in from Munich for a 90-minute performance in Kashmir, a valley that is viewed by many Indians as a lost paradise.
But the serenity ended at the garden walls.
Once India’s greatest tourist attraction after the Taj Mahal, Kashmir has been scarred by two decades of violence, as separatists fought to expel Indian forces and the army sought to crush the rebellion. Mr. Mehta, a former music director of the New York Philharmonic who performed in the ruins of the Sarajevo library in Bosnia in 1994, dreamed of repeating that triumph here, playing for an audience of “Hindus and Muslims sitting together,” as he put it.
Mr. Mehta’s dream was met with widespread criticism in Kashmir, where much of the population chafes against the heavy Indian police presence. A separatist leader called a general strike to protest the event, which he claimed served the aims of the Indian government, and most of Srinagar shut down. Toward the end of the concert, word came in that the police had fatally shot four people about 30 miles from Srinagar. Two were militants, the police said.
In interviews, many Kashmiris complained that the public would not be admitted to Mr. Mehta’s concert, left to watch from a distance as V.I.P.’s were whisked in and out.
“How can you have a concert in a walled garden, surrounded by rings and rings of security?” said the novelist Mirza Waheed, one of several Kashmiri cultural figures who protested the event. “The entire idea sort of collapses that this is a concert for peace. The people are not invited. It is as simple as that.”
Hours before the concert was to begin, Nikolaus Bachler, the general manager of the Bavarian State Opera, whose orchestra performed Saturday, also offered a sharp comment.
“We were expecting to play for the people of Kashmir in the spirit of brotherhood and humanity,” Mr. Bachler said in a written statement. Organizers, he said, “turned this concert into an exclusive, elitist event for a selected, invited crowd and this understandably became a political issue, which is a pity and against the aim of art.”
When Mr. Mehta, 77, arrived here Friday evening and ascended the terraces of the garden, he was greeted reverently by a mass of journalists and musicians. The slender silver fountains had been repaired, surrounding visitors with the sound of falling water, and shadows were beginning to slide across the face of the mountains.
“It’s gargantuan,” Mr. Mehta said, referring to the arrangements spearheaded by the German ambassador, Michael Steiner. “He had the government repair this garden, redone in the old style, and the fountains and the flowers. It’s fantastic.”
Mr. Mehta, who is from Mumbai, India, last visited Kashmir on a family trip in 1974, before the first great spasm of violence overtook the valley. The idea of returning was fixed in his mind, a gesture like leading the Israeli Philharmonic before an all-Arab audience in Nazareth, or the dramatic performance in Sarajevo’s burned library.
“They all came and sat together” there, Mr. Mehta said. “So I always thought, why not in my country? And where in my country would be more apt than Kashmir? I just want to play for Hindus and Muslims that sit together. That’s all I want to do.”
When he mentioned this wish to Mr. Steiner last summer, the ambassador vowed to make it happen. It was a risky promise; in 2011, organizers hastily canceled a planned literary festival in Srinagar after leading intellectuals condemned it, saying it would “dovetail with the state’s concerted attempt to portray that all is normal in Kashmir.”
When faced with the same complaints, however, Mr. Steiner did not retreat. Despite several recent episodes of violence involving Indian and Pakistani troops at the disputed border, it has been a quiet season for protests in Kashmir, the third quiet summer in a row, perhaps evidence that psychological fatigue has set in after 20 years of conflict. The last notably violent year was 2010, when more than 128 protesters, mostly stone-throwing teenagers, were killed by police bullets. Each death prompted a new set of demonstrations, which were inevitably followed by tougher crackdowns.
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, the top elected official in Kashmir, said he saw the concert as a turning point, perhaps the first in a wave of large cultural events.
“I think it’s safe to say this concert would not have been happening a few years ago,” Mr. Abdullah said. The reaction, he said, was hardly surprising, since separatist leaders rarely get the chance to address such a large group of Western reporters.
“It’s the fashion of the season to be seen coming out and saying something against this,” he said. He was also skeptical of complaints that the event was too exclusive.
“How many people are actually genuine connoisseurs of Western classical music?” he said. “I have had people ask me for passes and then ask me, ‘What sort of songs does Zubin Mehta sing?’ ”
By Saturday evening, the criticism had clearly reached the event’s organizers, who added 500 seats to admit more Kashmiris. The audience now totaled 2,000, though many appeared to be plainclothes police officers. Persian carpets were laid out in a row on the grass for the “V.V.I.P.’s” to cross with their retinues; fashionable women ascended a long red ramp, wearing saris and Jackie O sunglasses.
After the musicians had taken their places, Mr. Mehta turned to face the audience and delivered a sort of apology.
“Let us be honest, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “By coming here with this great orchestra, and these wonderful soloists who will perform for you this evening, there are those who we have hurt inadvertently. But we only want to do good. And I promise next time, let’s do this concert for all Kashmiris, in a stadium. We don’t want only a select few.”
Iram Majid, 26, was listening raptly. A teacher, she was escorting a dozen students from a convent school, and she said she felt some ambivalence. Missing from the evening’s program, she said, was any mention of the violence of 2008 and 2010.
“The side that no one is talking about is that people have been slaughtered,” she said quietly. “Killing is a small word. People have been slaughtered.”
But two hours later, after the last tuxedoed musician had left the stage, she smiled radiantly when asked if she had enjoyed the music. Bashir Manzar, a newspaper editor, said many of his friends had argued against attending, and he was glad he had ignored them.
“It doesn’t change Kashmir’s status, but it makes Kashmir smile for a while,” he said. “We do want to breathe now and then.”
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.
Courtesy: New York Times