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Musical diplomacy to extract common ground?

by on February 21, 2014

One of the most efficient ways of exporting culture to foreign audiences has always been music. Beethoven is Austria. Verdi is Italy. Tchaikovsky is Russia. And ABBA is Sweden. This rather passive activity is such a simple yet intricate concept and it manages to engage most people one way or another. Through music from different places people get to experience a different sound in tune, singing techniques, instruments and least of all there is the exposure to language. We have seen it from the idea of Eurovision Song Contest (in essence a peace project) to American pop culture expanding globally.

What reactions stirred by an Indian Pakistani talent show?

Pakistan and India are part of one of the longest lasting conflicts in modern history regarding the Kashmir region. They are also fortunate enough to, to a certain extent, share similar linguistics – in verbal form (read more about Urdu and Hindi here). This, of course, facilitates bridge building between the two communities, as they already have common ground to stand on.

In September 2012 Sur Kshetra started airing in both Pakistan and India, where some of the biggest names in the regional music industry mentor two groups of contestants from respective countries. The contestants are, as self evident, representatives of their nation and therefore to sing songs accordingly (Harpalgeo, 2012).

(Mulazim Hussain performing for Pakistan)

Even though Sur Kshetra may not be marketed as more than just a talent show between two countries, it is in reality much more. It is built upon two of the most conflicting nations in modern history, having a musical talent show, which is broadcasted across both countries. Its mere popularity should be an instigation that it is in fact building some trust between the two, as the exposure of both similarities and differences enhance understanding, if not even appreciation. There are even two Facebook groups (here and here) that argue that Sur Kshetra is a bridge towards a more peaceful subcontinent.

However popular, it seems to stir some nationalistic sentiments within certain parts of the audience, saying that the judges seem incapable of being impartial and neutral in their assessment (Asif Sheikh, 2012). To majority of the people discussing it within a social media context, it seems to be rather a displeasing subject. Although, whether these emotions are stirred as they would be during a cricket game between two seemingly friendly nations or if there are more underlying roots is debatable.

One of the two hosts and mentors, Atif Aslam, said quite positively, about the cultural exchange: “This show is different because artists from both Pakistan and India are going to share the same platform. There will be a lot of cultural exchange and the Indian audience will come to know about Pakistan culture”  (Anon, December 22 2011, para:3).

Classical music as a cultural bridge

This method had been used slightly differently previously in a perhaps even more interesting context, when the New York Philharmonics, in 2008, had a concert in front of a North Korean audience, both live and on state television, in Pyongyang (Allen Pigman, 2010).

The audience stands for the Star Spangled-Banner, img source American Government

This did, as is clearly witnessed, neither denuclearise North Korea, nor did it solve its humanitarian issues, but the mere fact that the Philharmonics were invited by officials and that international press was allowed unrestricted internet access (Allen Pigman, 2010), shows that there might be some willingness and consensus amongst the [former] leadership, to engage with the global community. Bilateral diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea, on a more traditional, governmental scale has historically been least to say difficult and has fed on to the rigorous mistrust that can be observed today (Kang, 2005). It is evidently not purely in the hands of indirect cultural diplomats to solve grander political issues that have torn on the relations for over half a century. Nevertheless, if they do act as brokers between cultures then that in itself is a success and a step forward, in both these cases that have been presented.

South Korean Foreign Minister at the time considered the concert in Pyongyang a stepping stone in enhancing mutual understanding of the two countries (Kwon, 2008). Seeing as the stalemate and tensions accelerated by government to government diplomacy, it was clever, and perhaps also effective, to involve civil society in the peace building process, to establish the common ground that in fact is there. This helped identify and stimulate the similarities rather than creating further gaps. They are not as different as they think – they listen to the same music, don’t they?

This last extract is from the Philharmonics playing the Korean folk song Arirang, which received standing ovations.




Allen Pigman G, 2010, Contemporary Diplomacy, Polity Press, Cambridge

Arora P, 2012, More jingoism less singing in Sur Kshetra, Rediff Movies, published September 22

Asif Sheikh R, 2012, Is Sur Kshetra in line with Aman ki Asha or is it just Atif vs Asha?, The Express Tribune, published October 23rd 

Kang I-D, 2005, Peace and Prosperity Policy and Peace regime on the Korean Peninsula: The limits of Coercive Diplomacy in the Korean Peninsula, Institute for East Asian studies, Seoul

Kwon Y-S, 2008, NY Phil’s concert sets stage for cultural diplomacy, Yonhap News Agency, published February 26

Sur Khestra program description, Harpalgeo

Zeenew Bureau, 2011, “Indians will come to know about Pakistan’s culture: Atif”, published December 22


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One Comment
  1. This is an interesting case for you to have selected for a post. The musical dimension of cultural diplomacy has not received as much attention as other forms (although see Jessica Gienow-Hecht’s book Sound Diplomacy). You are correct to stress its potential role in building peace between communities in conflict as well as paying attention to the limitations, as in most cases this Track III-type activity doesn’t lead to breakthroughs. It is more helpful to think of such interventions as adjusting the mood.

    There are a few typographical errors (e.g., it is Philharmonic, not Philharmonics).

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