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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 13, March 30, 2024

On Passion | T Vijayendra

Friday 29 March 2024, by T. Vijayendra


I have been fascinated by the word and concept of Passion for more than 50 years. I first came across the word in early sixties in a biographical novel of the German musician Mendelssohn (1809-1847), in ‘Beyond Desire’ (1956) by Pierre La Mure. The central theme of the novel is the discovery of the scores of ‘St. Matthew Passion’ (1727), a very important piece of music written by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), in a butcher’s shop in Berlin in 1829, and the subsequent struggle of Mendelssohn to perform it. Bach himself performed it on Good Friday on April 11, 1727 in Leipzig. Subsequently the scores were lost till Felix Mendelssohn rediscovered it in 1829 and performed it on March 11, 1829 in Berlin when he was just 20 year old!

The concept of Passion is a very important concept in Christian theology and means suffering of Jesus on the Cross. (I am listening to the music while writing this thanks to the Internet. There are also, on the Internet, some fantastic images of Jesus as well as of Bach writing this piece of music). Mendelssohn was a Christian but was an ethnic Jew. The music required more than hundred performers, a place to do rehearsals and time and money. It is an epic in the story of Western Music. Finally a Jewish banker supplied the money, a barn out side Berlin to perform rehearsals, and the novel ends with the first performance. I enjoyed reading it and was deeply moved by it.

Now I am an atheist, irreligious and an anarchist. Those who have met such people would not be surprised by my interest in such ideas and subjects. Contrary to the popular belief most of us are not against serious religious persons. In history a great amount of important mile stones in arts, science and culture have been achieved by deeply religious people - Leonardo Da Vinci, Newton and Tolstoy, just to name a few people in the Christian traditions. There are equally important people in Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and many other religious traditions and cultures. Our difference with them is that the concepts of religion and God are not good enough for us. This has been debated peacefully over centuries. Our quarrel is with communalism - use of religion for secular purposes, as Asgar Ali defines communalism. It is the use of religion to gain power and wealth and use of hate and genocide of the other communities that we are against. In this many good people, both religious of all hues and others are with us.

Then in the seventies I read ‘The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti’ (1954) by Howard Fast (1914-2003). It is about a miscarriage of justice in the U.S.A. in the 20s. Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, sentenced to death and hanged in 1927 for a crime they did not commit. It was a pay check robbery and there was a false witness to it. Although every one knew it was a false case, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were punished because they were poor immigrant Italian workers and had socialist and anarchist leanings. They were punished for their thoughts and ideas and not for their actions. Fast never uses any Christian theological terms in his beautiful novel, but it is clear that he portrays Vanzetti as Jesus. In fact Vanzetti was a very sincere and humble socialist, a loving and caring husband and father as is clear from his letters from the jail.

The trial received wide scale international publicity and support for the victims. In the protest after the execution many people were killed by the police in many countries in the world. On August 23, 1977, the 50th anniversary of their execution, Michael Dukakis, the Governor of Massachusetts issued a proclamation stating that Sacco and Vanzetti had been unfairly tried and convicted and that ‘any disgrace should be forever removed from their names.’

Fast was not alone in this concern. There was a Broadway play, a film and there was great music on the subject, notably sung by Joan Baez (1941-). The two most famous songs are her recital of the poem on the Statue of Liberty sung in a manner that brings out the pathos and irony of the immigrant. The other equally moving song is the letter written by Vanzetti to his son.

The painter Ben Shahn (1898-1969) produced in 1931-32, 23 paintings on the subject, the most famous being the monumental painting called, ‘The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti’.

I have read a thousand page book on the subject describing the legal battle. It is the classic human rights case in history. Till today books and articles keep on appearing on the subject.

Actually the concept of Passion keeps on appearing again and again. When we come across the fast of Irome Sharmila which is going on now for 14 years or the incarceration of Binayak Sen, we are reminded of it. These are gentle people advocating peace and human rights. There have been and still are, a large number of people, poor people, normal people, teachers, doctors, lawyers, poets, authors, painters and musicians who have been incarcerated and punished for their ideas. Again and again people are being jailed and punished for their thoughts and not for their actions. This is what human rights are all about. You can not be punished for your thoughts! Period!

If you are a Christian you can find that Christ is being resurrected every day - wherever there is some injustice and some one is protesting. If you are secular you will find wherever there is injustice, there is protest. Good people are born again and again in every age.

So this is what the words Passion and Easter mean to me. It is about Jesus, who suffered and died for others. Who was punished and crucified for his thoughts and not for his actions. Who accepted his punishment with grace and forgave those who punished him because in his opinion they did not know what they were doing. It is also about courage - quiet courage of conviction!

Easter, 2014

Email: t.vijayendra[at]

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