The song of Suhana: Making sense of an uproar
Does music have anything to do with being human?
The focus of this article is about a recent distressing incident in Karnataka, and to look closely at the implications it brings to bear upon the notion of a human being and the role of education in it.
Fanatical cries against Suhana’s singing
The incident pertains to the innocuous rendering of a Kannada devotional song by a young Muslim girl Suhana Syed from Sagara Taluk, Shivamogga district, in a popular Kannada TV musical reality show “Sa Re Ga Ma Pa” recently. It was a mega audition event, wherein Suhana got the appreciation from the judges for her singing while qualifying into the next rounds. No sooner than the event was telecast, a Facebook comment was posted on a page entitled Mangalore Muslim by an anonymous group which raised objection to the girl’s singing. It claimed that it was against the religious tenets and that she had besmirched Islam by singing in front of men while wearing hijab. Since it generated heated arguments and counter comments on social media and television channels, the Facebook page was taken off hurriedly by the concerned persons.
One positive outcome of the incident has been the outpouring of overwhelming support for Suhana from various quarters – her family and neighbours, right-thinking liberals, poets and artists irrespective of their religious faiths, media and even political parties in the state.
Viewing it rationally
However, such intolerant tendencies are on the rise, constantly trying to disrupt the peace and social harmony either on the basis of religion, caste, language or sex, and they cannot be ignored as stray incidents. We need to analyse their roots in order to deal with them appropriately.
The key aspect is not analysing the opinions expressed by the two opposing sides of the spectrum, which anyway get polarised. It is to do with dissecting facts from falsehood, forming one’s own independent view amidst plethora of news items and opinions and our being able to depend on the credible source or voice that could guide us in arriving at a well-informed position on many such issues.
Constitutional guarantee against such flare-ups
Let us first turn to the preamble of our Indian Constitution. The following fundamental rights have been bestowed upon each citizen, which are justiciable and hence inviolable.
Right of Equality – no citizen can be discriminated against on the ground of religion, caste, race or sex; and there shall be equality of opportunity
Rights of Freedom: there shall be liberty for the exercise of: Right to freedom of speech and expression
Rights relating to Religion – all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience, and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion subject to public order. Eg. Wearing of Kirpan is deemed to be included in the profession of Sikh religion
The basic objective of the framers of the Constitution was to guarantee:
a. Justice – social, economic and political.
b. Liberty – of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.
c. Equality – of status and of opportunity.
d. To promote among all citizens fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual, unity and integrity of the nation.
Further, being a ‘secular state’, no one shall be discriminated against on the grounds of religion, either by the state or anyone else.
It thus becomes absolutely clear that it will be illegal for any individual or group to prevent people like Suhana from pursuing their passion.
Do these acts befit the dignity of a human being?
It is said that we belong to the species ‘homo sapiens’ and possess a few abilities and features that set us apart in the natural world. A close analysis of ourselves as human beings in terms of the above question demands that we examine the claim that it is right to classify ourselves as being different and unique from other animals.
What makes us unique?
Ancient Greeks as well as Indian philosophers held the view that the human capacity for reason clearly differentiates us from other animals and gives us access to truths, both eternal and temporal. The human ability to control (even if imperfectly) nature, and build tools and edifices that seemed almost to defy the will of god, cried out for explanation. We also seem to possess autonomy and power that is denied to all other creatures. Apart from bodily physical needs (which even the animals possess), as per ancient philosophy, the nature of being human involved the presence of a soul or spirit and that in the case of a rational human being, allowed him to acquire virtue and live in accordance with the dictates of good and true. This also meant the ability to control and resist the dictates of mind’s passions and appetites. The notion of a human being thus was clearly linked both to the notion of a good life and the qualities and capacities that make it possible for the human to attain it.
Even the modern understanding of human beings avoids a purely species related or biological understanding of human beings, and is keen on looking at those features that are obviously not the result of our biological heritage. Viewed this way, human beings have certain capacities and attributes and deserve moral consideration. We are distinguished by the qualities of - ability to think and reason, conscious awareness, the capacity for emotions and feelings, agency and autonomy (the ability to act on the world by virtue of evaluative capacities), and sociality and mutuality (the disposition to establish and maintain social relationships within a framework of shared morality).
Have we lost ourselves?
However, it is astonishing that people of late seem to have largely succumbed to irrational faith and belief. Shakespeare deplored the fall of human intellect centuries ago in his famous play Julius Caesar when he declared: “O judgement, thou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their reason!”
As if to provide a strong evidence to the above declaration, numerous pseudo-religious and psychic bodies have sprung up everywhere, due to the loss of reason and logic, resulting in perennial strife and struggle, antagonism and terrorism everywhere. How could we account for astrologers and soothsayers, vaastu experts and fundamentalists rising phenomenally and devastating the dignity and grandeur of human race at a rapid pace? As William Drummond rightly opines, “He who cannot reason is a fool. He who will not is a bigot; he who dare not is a slave.” People seem to have lost their faculty to think, to reason. Though no other species is endowed with this faculty, we seem to be following a herd instinct, mechanically going through a routine pattern of life set by others, without devoting time and effort to question, to examine every facet of life through reason and intellect. The insane reaction of a section of the society to Suhana’s musical journey, however shrill, is only a manifestation of such a bigotry.
Emotional functioning is often erratic and prone to illness. And as human beings and societies, we are very far from justice and humaneness in relation to others.
Role of education
This raises a serious difficulty. What should education assume in order to bring about its normative goals?
The solution to this crisis lies in not accepting anything merely because it has been practiced for long or it comes from an authority. Thus the entire journey through life has to be based on questioning, which entails strengthening and developing the intellect right from one’s childhood by exercising the faculty of questioning, reflecting and reasoning. This is clearly not the same as merely gathering information from external sources, through rote learning in schools and colleges. When someone asked Herbert Spencer, a profound thinker, if he was a voracious reader, he quipped: “No sir, if I were as big a reader as others, I would have been as big an ignoramus as others”.
Looking at the above analysis, education should attend to the whole person. It is rather clear that our current education systems in practice do not emphasise or nurture all the above aspects nor acknowledge the complexity of each domain. We see that the Indian education system, largely, equates the development of reason with the acquiring of techniques and procedures that emphasise rote and memory. Analysis and critical autonomous thinking seem not to be the key outcomes of the schooling process. It can be argued in respect of emotions too that our schools and curricula are blind to emotional issues. While affective factors are inevitably a part of human interaction, educators pay very little attention to this dimension. The other key questions - how do our schools nurture students’ autonomy and independence? Do they lay emphasis on social and political aspects of education; do they promote a mode of learning that narrows the social and economic gap between students of various backgrounds? Do they promote social justice and equity? All of them beg genuine answers.
Does music have anything to do with being human?
Reverting to Suhana’s singing, a somewhat different, nonetheless related dimension that needs to be pondered over is, whether one’s interest in art or music has any bearing on the notion of a desirable human being.
Pampa, Kannada’s Adi Kavi (also the court poet of Chalukya King Arikesari II in 10th century), in his epic ‘Vikramarjuna Vijaya’ or ‘Pampa Bharata’, while highlighting human values, does provide an answer to this question in one of his well-known poems. He, interestingly, stresses upon both sacrificing and deriving happiness from material enjoyment simultaneously. He lays emphasis on being open to literary pursuits, music, and developing an attitude to relate to and working with like-minded persons. Only such a holistic person, according to Pampa, will become a true human being.
In summary, in Pampa’s view, meaningfulness of a human being’s life lies in leading a healthy, balanced life. In the course of fulfilling one’s aspirations, including physical desires, one would do well to enjoy the fruits while sharing the same with others. And not so unimportantly, make one’s leisure time meaningful too by spending in aesthetic activities that provide joy to oneself.
Most of us do not disagree with what Pampa said 1000 years back. Do we?
S V Manjunath is currently an Associate Director (Kannada Initiatives) at the Azim Premji University. He has a Master’s Degree in Social Work and a PG diploma in Personnel Management and Industrial Relations.
Manjunath made a mid–career shift more than seven years back, after spending more than two decades in the corporate sector as a human resource professional.
He has interests in literature, music and cricket and writes regularly on issues in education in various newspapers and portals. He has authored two books in Kannada - a collection of essays on his experiences as a HR Professional titled ‘Janasampada’ and ‘Sakha-Sakhi’, a photo feature documenting his parents’ 50-year life journey.
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