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Tuesday, Apr 22, 2014

Asia

India: The times are a-changing

The Straits Times | Tuesday, Apr 22, 2014

Naseeruddin Shah (right), whose persona and success goes to the very heart of the idea of India that is so under challenge as the BJP is poised to take power in New Delhi, is seen here together with fellow actor Rajit Kapur at the staging of A Walk In The Woods at the University Cultural Centre

Last week, I spent two evenings with Naseeruddin Shah, India's most refined actor.

With Singapore businessman George Abraham on guitar, and joined by our wives, we drank, sang Bob Dylan songs and talked about India's changing social fabric, how the country was morphing in not-always pleasant ways and of our sons who were House mates at a boarding school in Dehradun, northern India.

The following evening, we watched as Naseer, directed by his wife and actress Ratna Pathak Shah, held a sellout crowd at the NUS Cultural Centre spellbound as he portrayed a Pakistani peace negotiator tangling with his Indian counterpart in an adaptation of Lee Blessing's play, A Walk In The Woods.

The play, brought here by De Ideaz, could not have been better-timed, or the casting more perfect. For Naseer's persona and success goes to the very heart of the idea of India that is so under challenge, more so as the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems poised to take power in New Delhi.

From the novelist Salman Rushdie, whose writings so angered some clerics that they issued a fatwa against him, to prominent thinkers, ordinary folk and leading and lesser lights in Bollywood, the phenomenon of Mr Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist politician tipped to take power in New Delhi, looms large.

There is a sense that India is at a crossroads, that Mr Modi, whose Gujarat state witnessed terrible anti-Muslim riots in his first term, may take India down an unfamiliar path which stresses one religion over the rest, distorts the Hindu ethos of assimilation and tolerance, stresses one deity over the rest of the gods in the Hindu pantheon and somehow, gives more importance to the Hindi-speaking heartland over the rest of the vast and varied nation.

The stress is particularly heavy on people who've never identified themselves through their community or caste and perhaps Naseer, a Muslim in a nation that's predominantly Hindu, is no exception.

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