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the truth behind six figures in burkas posing on hampstead heath in the spring sunshine

by shanovitch 

Posted: 03 April 2006
Word Count: 3393
Summary: Ashit is an Classical Indian musician trying to succeed in the British music industry and understand arts funding-with amusing results.

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Six figures in burkas were posing on Hampstead Heath on a bright spring morning with an assortment of Indian percussion instruments artistically arranged on the grass. Posing alongside them for the photographs was a young man called Ashit Kumar. He was wearing a silk shervani the colour of bronze. His black curls were tied back from his face and his eyes twinkled mischieviously as he displayed his sitar for the camera. It was May 1995. This was the striking image that soon would appear in glossy magazines, posters and leaflets all over the UK. ’œ Can you all squeeze up close together so I can fit you in?’ asked Razia the photographer ’œSmile’. So they were smiling though no one could see their hidden grins behind their burkas, the anxious smiles behind the beards and moustaches beneath those tented gowns.

Dressing up had been the brain child of Fatima Khan who was a student of Ashit. The burkas had been bought at a knockdown price from Aunt Sadie’s Emporium in Whitechapel and were in a variety of colours. The musicians in the costumes were only supposed to be a temporary solution till Ashit could really locate all six Muslim women percussionists for his Rhythms Of Life-Taal Zindagi project.
On that dreary afternoon in Februrary 1991 as Ashit descended the steps of Flight 614 Delhi - London Heathrow he had savoured the cool damp British air against his skin for
the very first time. The solid grey sky above was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. A dreamy look filled his huge dark eyes as he wrapped himself tightly in his woolen shawl. He sang softly a haunting melody in Raag Meg, raag for the rainy season, season for romance and peacocks dancing with their outspread fans.

In those days he was in love with London. Sleeping on the floor of cousin Vijay’s bedsit was a luxurious adventure to him . While Vijay went out to work every morning as an assistant at a local pharmacy Ashit, ignoring the pile of dirty dishes growing in the sink, would boil up milky sweet tea with chunks of fresh ginger and cardamon pods bobbing about in a saucepan . After drinking his masala chai he would settle down to some serious sitar practice. He savoured riaz in the silence of this room. Concentrating on technique and repeating scales as much as he liked at different tempos and in different combinations with no one to interrupt him. No chatter, no ’œfor goodness sake brother play the one that goes- ’˜ didi tera devar divana haye ram hmmmmm’¦.’you know that one ’¦’ his sisters singing loudly and out of tune catch phrases from Bollywood films.

At Hindu temples in Balham and Chalk Farm where the air was penetrated with incense, Ashit sung sweet Bhajans praising gods and goddesses, his fingers gliding up and down the keys of the harmonium while pumping the bellows with the other hand. In the Islington Hindu Association Newsletter under the headlines ’œ Ashit Lights Up Islington’ there was a glowing report of the Diwali concert held at the Town Hall. ’œ How he lifted our spirits with his gentle nuances of phrase, drawing from the poetry of the lyrics layers of meaning that gave voice to the longings of the soul.’ Elated devotees swishing about him in glittering saris ,pressing plates of syrupy sweet-meats onto him would plead ; ’œ we would love you to come to Mr. Mehta’s home on Sunday and play for our kirtan’ ; ’œplease perform at our puja for our new house ’; ’œ my daughter is getting married in June and it would be sooo lovely if you could play something on your sitar for us at the reception’.

Bobby Singh , majestic with his immaculately tied turban and handlebar moustache, shook Ashit firmly by the hand and arranged for him to teach the sacred songs of Shabad in the Gurudwaras of Southall and Stoke Newington to Sikh boys with their lustrous hair tied up into topknots. Through the grape vine of Rotary Club meetings and Community Centre committees news spread of this talented and versatile newcomer. Music carried him on a stream through the streets of London into the heart of the Asian community. The calender was crammed with feasts and festivals where he was seen playing sitar, or singing with the harmonium or accompanying others on the tablas. His music with its intricate tones and embellishments, with its compelling rhythms, was like a thread embroidering him to the fabric of the city.

’œ If it’s October then it must be Navaratri which means nine solid days of music’ announced Ashit. ’œ That’s great ’œ said Vijay, ’œbut you must ask the temple for a decent fee this time. Plates of food and shawls are not enough to live on.’ ’œ But how can I ask when it is in the service of God? My music is a gift Vijay , how can I charge for it?" "Then you must find another job that pays cash. When the milkman rings on the door for payment try singing him a song instead of giving him money and see if he likes that. Get real Ashit. You can’t live like this for ever. And another thing , I’ve heard that some of the other musicians are pissed off with you because you are undercutting them. When they ask for their fee they are told ’˜but Ashit is happy with whatever we give him so why are you being so greedy?’ If you’re not careful you will end up being exploited and one day you’ll wake up very angry. I don’t want that to happen to you Ashit, really I don’t. So what are you going to do about it broth?’

’œ You call yourself Ash now hena? Does that mean you’ve got rid of the shit?’ Tariq and Ash were sitting on the oriental rug in the living room of the flat that Ash rented with his girlfriend Lydia. Tariq reached into his waistcoat pocket to extract his favourite little package wrapped in foil. Inside was a neatly folded leaf smeared on one side with a paste made of limestone and stuffed with crushed betel nut, kattha bark and torn raw tobacco leaf mixed with spices. ’œA little pan from my favourite health food shop theek hai?’ He popped the whole thing into his mouth and began to chew slowly. Blood red juice oozed between his lips and a look of pleasure spread over his eyeless face. After a great deal of chewing , and a certain amount of spitting discretely into a vessel speedily provided for the purpose by Ash darting across the room, Tariq continued, ’œlet’s be straight now theek hai? Nobody really wants my ugly face on stage. The whole world is obsessed with the look of things, but looks mean absolutely nothing to me. You know’ he chuckled ’œyou are all veiled to me. I care about the sound of things theek hai? I care about what you say and how you say it; what you play and how you damm play it: so go ahead cover me up with a burka ’“liberate me ,just give me a chance to show what I can do theek hai?’

His hands felt around the carpet till he located his bag which he always carried with him as he tapped his way about London with his white cane. He pulled out his pakhavaj- a
large double headed drum which he laid across his lap. Ash diassappeared into the kitchen for five minutes and returned with a ball of dough which he handed to Tariq. Tariq kneaded it with his long fingers and pressed it onto the skin stretched across the left end of the drum stroking it lovingly out into an evenly formed chapati. Vibrations seemed to flow through the drum into the palms and fingers of his hand. His head tilted back slightly as he concentrated, and a flow of rhythmic syllables rolled and exploded from his lips, to be replicated a moment later by his hands dancing across the skins of the drum. The pakhavaj rang out across the room with a deep voice singing an archaic song that contained within it the sound of beating hearts and the caress of a lover’s hand. ’œVah Vah’ cried Ash appreciatively. Tariq reflected for a moment and then asked ’œ So who else did you say is in this band ?’

In the offices of the PWW (Pakistani Women’s Welfare) organisation in Finsbury Park Ash was consulting the director Mrs Akram and her assistant Fatima Khan. Mrs Akram adjusted her headscarf and put on her glasses. ’œ Well I congratulate you Ash. It’s about time that somebody presented a positive image of Muslim women. I think though it might be wise to make sure they are presented in modest dress, we don’t want to stir up any inappropriate attention’. ’œ The problem is’ said Ash ’œfinding Muslim women who play Indian percussion really well .I mean it’s difficult for women instrumentalists in the music business anyhow, let alone if they have to struggle against their own community as well. I’m sure they are out there somewhere , but the pressure is on to sort out the line up by Saturday when an agent is sending a photographer over for a publicity shoot. It’s all happening too fast. I was just sounding out the idea for a project with the music officer at the Arts Council. I was trying to understand the kind of events that would get funded by them. Next thing I know I’m being wined and dined and introduced to people I’ve been trying to contact for years. Seems like I’ve hit on the next big thing. What am I going to do?’ And that was when Fatima suggested dressing up a group of volunteer musicians in burkas who would eventually be replaced by the Muslim women percussionists once Ash had located and recruited them. Well that was the theory anyway.

The six musicians under those burkas on Hampstead Heath on that Saturday morning in May were; in black- ( later to be nicknamed Black Spice)-Tariq Shah (also wearing dark glasses) with pakhavaj; in lavender( later to be nicknamed Lavender Spice) Fatima Khan who played a folk drum called dholak; in dark blue, (later to be nicknamed Dark Blue Spice) Khalida Ali, a retired restaurateur from Bangladesh who had transferred her skills from presenting food in dishes , to serving up music in bowls of water by tapping them with a stick on an instrument called jaltarang ; in light blue (later to be nicknamed Light Blue Spice) Michael O’Hara from Dublin(with a red beard) playing tabla ; in brown ( later to be nicknamed Chocolate Spice) Pablo Ruiz from Spain(with a moustache) playing a clay pot called ghatam; and in white ( later to be nicknamed White Spice) Naomi Cohen from Israel also playing tabla; with Ash as sitarist and composer and producer of Taal Zindagi-Rhythms of life, by the band now called the Burka Beat.

’œWhen people see a woman in a burka yeah’ said Fatima when they were relaxing on the grass after the shoot- ’œthey make all sorts of negative assumptions about her. But this will challenge those ideas, you know, they’ll find out that sometimes there are amazing people under there’.

’œWhat’s the matter Ash, you can’t sleep?’ Lydia and Ash were in bed. Her short blond hair the colour of snow was all ruffled and feathery from lying on the pillow and her green eyes were tinged with pink from fatigue. ’œ How can I sleep? I feel I’m letting everybody down’ agonised Ash. He sat up to clear his head. ’œI came to this country to develop my music and be a serious musician and now I feel as though I’m in a pantomime instead. You should have seen us on the Heath this morning , it was hilarious and frightening at the same time.’
Lydia slid out of bed and padded into the kitchen to make some tea. Ash followed her and perched on a stool. She was thinking hard about all the things that had happened to him lately. ’œ Take it easy Ash, give yourself a break’ said Lydia .’œ They didn’t want your serious music did they-those agents and promoters and funders? You went to their meetings and you learnt about their criteria, their targets and priorities- blah blah blah. You had to give them what they wanted otherwise it’s back to obscurity. You’re giving them what they want and if they want a circus whose fault is that? ’ Ash put some tea leaves into the pot and she poured on boiling water, he stirred the tea and they let it brew. Lydia continued, ’œIt’s like you’ve stumbled upon a need for people to believe that there is a group of women brave enough and talented enough to be this band; to stand up and say look- Muslim culture is not always oppressive to women, Muslim women are vibrant and expressive, they’re just covered up, what’s so wrong with that ? They want to feel comfortable with the whole thing and say yeah it’s more liberating to be covered up than to be exposed.’ ’œWell’ said Ash ’œ I just want to make a beautiful piece of music about the rhythms of life. And you’re right, if this seems to be the only way I can do it-then so be it.’

The following weeks were so busy Ash hardly had time for anything other than
composing and rehearsing with the band. Each day he grew more impressed by their talent and enthusiasm. He came to realise that covering them up would be liberating for them in ways he hadn’t expected . He discovered that they had been experiencing prejudices he hadn’˜t known about before. Maybe audiences would concentrate more on the music if they couldn’t see behind their costumes. ’œ Did you know that nobody wants an Irish Indian tabla player ? No demand for it at all, and that’s a fact. ’ commented Michael as he rested his mug of tea on top of the image of the elephant headed god Ganesh printed on his T shirt which was stretched over his pot belly; ’œ nor a Spanish one either’ joined in Pablo, as they carefully prepared their rollups to smoke in the garden during a break in the rehearsals. ’œWho could bloody blame them’ chipped in Tariq ’œ they wouldn’t use a bloody blind Paki like me unless I was ten times better than anyone else theek hai? I think it’s bloody great to be covered up- maybe people will stop thinking ’˜what’s behind those glasses?’ and listen to my music ?’. ’œYes and they’ll be thinking ’˜what’s behind that burka?’ instead’ commented Naomi . ’œ And I’m wondering’, she said watching Tariq unwrap yet another pan, ’œhow are you going to manage chewing that in a veil?’ ’œWell’ Fatima said ’œ you’ll find out soon enough because now Ash has the dates for the tour and it looks like we’ll be spending quiet a lot of time wrapped up yeah?’

Burka Beat Rules as pinned up in the tour bus :1 NEVER expose your face in public ; 2 Only Ash or Fatima( Lavender Spice ) answer any questions from the public or the press; 3 Burkas only to be removed when tour manager says its safe; 4 Take extra care crossing the road ; 5 NEVER RUN in your burka ; 6 NEVER SMOKE in your burka.
Success can be difficult to handle, and uncomfortable , especially for the members of the Burka Beat. They may not have been allowed to run but they felt they were on the run the whole time . Gerald Wells was the put upon tour manager and roadie. It was his job to ferry the ’œgirls’ from venue to venue up and down the country. He also had to transfer them safely from their hotel rooms to the venues and back again after the gigs keeping away their fans and antagonists. ’œ We need a bigger crew ’œ he told Ash ,’œit’s too much for me to handle’.

After struggling with post gig meals in restaurants, trying to keep their voices down, concealing bottles of beer under their burkas, Khalida , to everyone’s delight, volunteered to use her connections in the catering business to arrange for top quality Indian meals to be delivered to their suites. It was with relief that they returned to their hotel , pulled off their burkas flinging them in a pile, and were at last able to be themselves. ’œ Oh Jaysus’ declared Michael bright red and shining, ’œ I’m dying under that ting- look at me I’m sweating like a ’¦.’ ’œpig?’ suggested Ash. ’œ It’s all right for you in your flowing kurta face in the breeze, wind in your hair’ commented Naomi. ’œI’m beginning to miss just feeling the sun on my skin. Can you really imagine living like this all the time ?’

The tour was timed to coincide with the release of their first album ’œ Burka Beats’ which was an instant success. Offers to perform in international festivals came flooding in. Live concerts were televised , Fatima and Ash appeared on chat shows and phone- ins. Ash knew that it would be more and more difficult to maintain their secret. Nobody commented directly about it, but an increasing unease was felt. The elation at the end of each concert; standing ovations; dancing in the aisles ,contrasted with the desperation they all felt to escape afterwards. There had also been death threats from extremist groups who thought it was an insult to Muslim women for them to perform in public under any circumstances. Newspaper columns were fiercely debating issues about the role of women in Islam, the exploitation of images of women in the media, the place of art in society. Rarely anybody discussed the merits of the actual music. ’œ Yeah?’ commented Fatima after wading through a sea of reviews and articles spread over the hotel carpet ’œyou thought if people couldn’t see the musicians they would concentrate more on the music, but instead they concentrate on not seeing the musicians-yeah? It’s had the opposite effect.’ ’œ But’ said Tariq ’œ we made enough money not to worry too much about it theek hai? After this I’m going to retire and make music just for the love of it theek hai ?’

The Albert Hall was sold out for the final concert of the UK Taal Zindagi Tour by Ash and the Burka Beats. The concert was to be broadcast live on BBC1. Princess Diana , the High Commisioners for India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and The Minister of Culture were guests of honour.The audience was crammed with celebrities- Vanessa Redgrave, Germaine Greer, Paul McCartney, Peter Gabrielle amongst them. The atmosphere was electric. The band were sweltering under their burkas as they played with a passion and intensity greater than ever before.

At the end of the concert the audience were clapping and stamping and calling for an encore. The ’œgirls’ were in the wings with Ash. ’œ What shall we do, what shall we do?’ asked Pablo ’œ I know what I’d like to do’ said Michael pulling off his burka and grabbing a drink of water. ’œ Now let me guess ’¦’ said Khalida ’œ OK ’ said Naomi. ’œEnough is enough don’t you tink?’ said Michael, ’œ you’re right’ said Khalida ’œ I think this has gone as far as it can go’ ’œOK OK’ said Ash , ’œlisten everyone this is what we are going to do . We’ll go back onto the stage holding hands , we’ll take a bow, and then ’¦.we are going to remove the burkas ’¦..and sit down’¦ and play our encore.’ ’œ Ah Shit.. ..’ Tariq started to totter but Naomi held him up. ’œWe’ll come clean’ continued Ash ’œ totally clean and face the music. Ready?’ ’œ Ready’answered the ’œgirls’ and they squeezed each others hands tightly.
’œAfter three. One’¦. Twooo’¦.Three’¦’

THE END (3392 words)

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