A bold school student stands up for music
August 7, 2017

The courage of a teenager in going ahead with her scheduled music performance despite a diktat against the event by a handful of Muslim clerics has caught the imagination of the nation. Nava Thakuria on some of the developments in the region

Young Nahid Afrin’s performance on March 25 this year at a cultural event in Assam did more than enthrall her audience – it was a stand against the diktat of a few Islamic clerics, accusing her of flouting Sharia, the Islamic rules and ways of living. The young Assamese girl, the first runner-up at Indian Idol (Junior) 2015, a popular television reality show, sang at the Cultural Nite till midnight, despite the clerics’ directive.

On March 14, leaflets were distributed in the Muslim-dominated Hojai and Nagaon localities of Central Assam, saying the proposed cultural show at the Udali Sonai Bibi College ground at Lanka Town of Hojai District should be discouraged. Even though the leaflets did not mention Nahid by name, the clerics were clearly referring to the teenager.

The argument, endorsed by 46 representatives of a number of state-based Islamic organisations, was that the selected venue was surrounded by mosques, madrasas, eidgahs (an open-air gathering to perform Eid prayers) and graveyards, and holding a cultural function there would affect the younger generation and invite the wrath of Allah. This was the first time such a diktat was being issued in Assam, known for social harmony, religious tolerance and pluralism. It is the land of the great Vaishnavite saint Srimanta Sankardev, who spread the message of love and brotherhood among all communities, castes and creeds centuries ago.

Nahid Afrin.

Intellectuals, writers, journalists, politicians, cultural personalities and even separatist forces unanimously raised their voices against the diktat. They objected to the clerics’ stand that music, theatre, magic shows and the like are anti-Islamic. Exiled Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen, a victim of religious fanatics in her own country, tweeted, appreciating Nahid for her brave statement that she would go against the Mullahs. She demanded stringent punishment for the clerics who were signatories to the diktat, arguing that “they don’t believe in human rights, women’s rights”.

The Mumbai-based Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy, including Suhana Sayed from Karnataka, came out with a statement applauding Nahid’s achievements, saying she (Nahid) had wowed music lovers cutting across religions with her out-standing talent. Various media organisations also published articles condemning the clerics.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has taken serious note of the matter and directed the administration to ensure Nahid’s security and that she is given all help to stage performances. The state police deployed two armed personal security guards for Nahid.

Police sources said they suspect that Nahid might have been targeted as she performed some music pieces which carried an anti-terror (more precisely, anti-Islamist) message. She had also sung a few songs based on Hindu mythology. Assam police chief Mukesh Sahay says the matter is under investigation. He gave an assurance that the democratic rights of every citizen would be protected.

Meanwhile, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal criticised the diktat. He telephoned Nahid and assured her of all possible help. Describing Nahid as “the pride of Assam”, the chief minister said she was free to perform anywhere in the state and could do so without fearing anybody. Facing the heat, the Assam State Jamiat Ulama tried to clarify that that it was not a fatwa against Nahid. It blamed the media for spreading what it termed as misinformation.

Meanwhile, amidst all the hue and cry, Nahid has firmly declared that she will continue singing. The student of Standard X, who made her Bollywood singing debut in the Sonakshi Sinha starrer Akira recently, pointed out that her voice is a fabulous the gift from Allah and she would definitely utilise it with the support of the people of Assam and of India as a whole.

Lankan filmmaker conferred prestigious award
Acclaimed Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage was conferred the third Biswaratna Dr Bhupen Hazarika International Solidarity Award in Guwahati recently. Accepting the honour, Vithanage, whose  movies have been screened at various international film festi-vals, said the celluloid industry in Sri Lanka faced similar constraints as those plaguing India’s regional film-makers. Bollywood films enjoy a significant market-share in Sri Lanka, too. However, he pointed out, there was still a sizable number of serious film-goers in his country who supported alternate films.

Vithanage paid tributes to Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Guru Dutt, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Jahnu Barua and other Indian film makers, as well as to Bhupen Hazarika. He said he had been particularly influenced by Jahnu Barua’s award-winning Assamese movie Halodhiya Choraye Baodhan Khay (The Catastrophe) in his creative journey.

The inner conflicts of ordinary people and their journey towards personal freedom are the focus of most of Vithanage’s films. His Sisila Gini Gani (Ice of Fire), Anantha Rathriya (The Dark Night of the Soul), Akasa Kusum (Flowers of the Sky), Pura Handa Kaluwara (Death on a Full Moon Day), Ira Madiyama (August Sun), Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka (With You, Without You) and Usawiya Nihandai (Silence in the Courts) are among his internationally acclaimed films.

Later, at an interactive session at the Guwahati Press Club, the overseas visitor expressed concern over the crisis facing small-time filmmakers in various parts of the world. Admitting that the present scenario of the Sri Lankan film industry was bleak, he was nevertheless optimistic that new technology could be used for its sustained growth. He also felt screening of regional movies (including Sinhalese films) with multiple sub-titles through various alternate media outlets would help the industry to have a better future.

Expressing the opinion that Sri Lankan society remained ethnically divided even after the end of the Tamil uprising in the northern parts of the island nation, Vithanage noted that Indians were united as a nation despite the diversity of ethnic and other groups in this country.

The biannual Biswaratna Dr Bhupen Hazarika International Solidarity Award, introduced in 2013 by the Asom Sahitya Sabha (ASS), the state’s highest literary forum, with support from Numaligarh Refinery, in memory of Bhupen Hazarika, carries a trophy, a cash prize, and a citation among other things. Bangladeshi scholar and dance exponent Lubna Marium and eminent Malayalam filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan were the earlier recipients.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Guwahati.)

July – September 2017