India: Spreading the message of non-violence
Notes from Colombian musician César López's visit to India
"The AK-47 is the most-used rifle in wars throughout the world. You can buy it in Africa for 8 US dollars. Armed groups like it because it is light and children can easily use it."
"A bullet costs the same as a bottle of milk. An AK-47 shoots 30 bottles of milk in 5 seconds which can feed 50 children for a week."
These are some of the facts and comparisons that Colombian musician César López constantly brings up while talking about non violence. His carry case always invites curious and sometimes even suspicious looks. 'This is not a weapon, this is a guitar' say the numerous stickers on the case. And every time César opens the case, he reveals a pleasant paradox - an electric guitar fashioned out of a decommissioned AK 47 rifle or the escopetarra. The escopetarra is Cesar's well known creation, a combination of two Spanish words 'escopeta' (meaning shotgun) and 'guitarra' (meaning guitar). Retaining the form of the rifle, yet being completely incapable of firing, the six-string guitar symbolizes the powerful transformation - from violence to peace. In César's words, "If the weapon's use, which is for killing, can be changed, then why can't humans change too?"
Coming from a country which has been plagued by civil unrest for the past five decades, César has been using music as a means of transforming minds and bringing about social change. Having worked with issues such as violence against children and upliftment of street musicians in the past, his present work mainly focuses on addressing armed violence in his country for which he uses the escopetarra as a tool. Since 2006, César has been working with UNODC on a 'No Violence' campaign under which he and other musicians have worked with communities afflicted by violence. The campaigners have also played in prisons, schools and universities and worked with young people, particularly those linked to conflict and gangs. Through the Office, César has received the funds and the 17 assault rifles needed to produce escopetarras. Each escopetarra is donated to an international artist, an institution or an individual working for peace.
This year, César visited India upon invitation by the Embassy of Colombia in India and UNODC. Here he fulfilled one of his cherished dreams by donating an escopetarra to the Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Smriti in New Delhi on 31st October. "I learnt about Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violence while studying music in Colombia," says César. "And as I started linking up my art to social processes, I started approaching Gandhi's teachings in order to base my work on knowledge and principles that have already been practiced. The seeds of his teachings germinated through my work and I am most happy to deliver one of the fruits of his philosophy to his own place of origin."
On 1st November 2011, César performed in a concert in New Delhi as part of the Delhi International Arts Festival 2011. The concert was held in collaboration with the Colombian Embassy, UNODC and the UN Information Centre (UNIC) for India and Bhutan. To a packed hall consisting of young and old alike, César performed with his escopetarra, punctuating his performance with real life stories of conflict survivors who are the inspiration for many of his songs.
On 2nd November 2011, he also participated in an interaction with about 100 students from the Amity International School, Pushp Vihar, New Delhi where he spoke about his experiences, sang and played the escopetarra for a young, enthusiastic audience. He even allowed two young guitarists to play the instrument! The interaction was organised by UNIC and also included a panel discussion which brought together Ms Cristina Albertin, UNODC Representative for South Asia, François Stamm, Head of the Regional Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Ms Kiran Mehra-Kerpelman, Director UNIC and two senior Amity students.
On his first day in India, UNODC took César to a well known slum colony on the banks of the river Yamuna, where ragpickers live and earn their living from collecting rags. Many of them have become drug users and inject mainly prescription drugs. The NGO 'Sharan', provides services on behalf of the Government to the drug users, including needle-syringe exchange, counseling and Opioid Substitution Therapy. Upon interacting with the drug users and resource persons who explained the problems of drug users and the many challenges in addressing drug use, César noted, "Even though we are also dealing with the problems of drug production and use in Colombia, this time I had a closer contact with the human drama of those who are living under the devastating effects of drugs. This experience was very important to me as an artist, as it awakened a different sensibility and gave me more reason to compose songs with messages closest to human realities".
As an artist, César emphasizes the need to keep reinventing his art to bring about social transformation. Even as he works closely with rural communities, he realizes the importance of communicating with people at large and getting them to reflect on violence in their society. For example, to reach out to a wide audience and open up the debate on armed violence, César partnered with 18 renowned Colombian artists who sang in his album 'toda bala esperdida' (every bullet is lost). The album carries the lyrics, photographs and stories of people who are the inspiration behind the lyrics and a set of thought provoking questions for every song. The songs can be freely downloaded from the website www.todabalaesperdida.com
César is also very wary of the escopetarra being perceived as a mere gifting object. "Very often people forget all the work around the escopetarra and see it just as an object," he concludes. "We do so much more with it... So it is important that we make the social process more visible and reduce the protagonist status of escopetarra. The escopetarra should become a result of the social process".
News clippings covering César López's visit: