General | December 2019

Gandhi, the bhajan, and the power of a song

(Published in Times of India, Bengaluru edition on 28th September 2019)

Music was an important part of Gandhi’s life and message. A cursory glance through photographs of his iconic marches and prayer meetings reveals that more often than not, there were musicians and musical instruments around him. It is curious that for someone whose life symbolised austerity in many other aspects - attire, food habits, sexual desire - music would come to play such a significant role. And not all forms of music (he famously didn’t care for even very great classical renditions, preferring the sound of his spinning wheel to indulgent raga development). What was it then about particular genres, specifically the bhajan, that appealed to him? And what enabled these songs to transcend their original contexts to become powerful tools of mass unity?

One is aware of the stories behind the Ramdhun and Narsi Mehta’s Vaishnava Jan. Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram was a traditional bhajan, whose words were modified during the freedom struggle to echo Gandhi’s message of unity between religions. Vaishnava Janato, composed by the Gujarati bhakti poet, similarly resonated with Gandhi’s message of compassion towards others.

Music has given me peace. I can remember occasions when music instantly tranquilised my mind, when I was greatly agitated over something. Music has helped me to overcome anger.

—Mahatma Gandhi

The genre of devotional music, specifically the bhajan-kirtan, is unique in that it imports the essence of the raga grammar of classical music, and combines it with the simple appeal of the folk song, to form a unique amalgamation that is extremely versatile in its expression of the poetry. At one end, artistes like Bhimsen Joshi and Kishori Amonkar used the bhajan as a vehicle for the best of classical ideas - improvising and embellishing to astounding musical effect. On the other, you have the congregational singing as popularised by the likes of the Hare Krishna movement and Chinmaya Mission. While the Ramdhun is a simple tune that can easily be sung with no prior music training, the latter is more intricate and nuanced. The melodies of both these bhajans were also apt - the Ramdhun, with shades of Jaijaiwanti and Kafi, and Vaishnava Jan in Khamaj, both combine the teevra (higher variant) and komal (lower variant) notes to create tunes that are at once plaintive and yet hopeful.

Gandhi could have chosen the more appropriate Vande Mataram, already a clarion call of the freedom struggle, or many other nationalist songs already in vogue as his personal anthem. Eschewing these, he chose these less fiery, almost passive devotionals to be identified with his life. In doing so, Gandhi was harnessing the centuries-old power of devotional congregational singing started by the Vaishnava sect of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and repurposing that power to bring people together for a different cause. From the original repetitive chanting of the bhajan that drove people into a collective trance, the same song now united people from different walks of life to march to the same beat. Rather than have to familiarise his followers with a completely new set of songs, he adopted the familiar words and phrases of the bhajan, but the context it was used in so completely overshadowed the actual meaning of the lyrics that these two songs almost acquired a patriotic dimension - which is interesting because the lyrics (barring the later addition of the “ishwar allah tero naam”) are indeed religious and in a sense tangential to his message of universal brotherhood. These songs became symbols of resistance, and when one hears accounts of Gandhi being led away to jail while his supporters repeated “ram ram raja ram”, it never fails to invoke a deep emotional response.

Music indeed has the power to make a strong political statement; and what gives it that power, arguably more so than the spoken or written word, is its ability to communicate layers of meaning without being overtly threatening. It is much easier for the powers that be to muzzle an incendiary poet or speaker than it is to manage the optics of exerting force against a musician. On one hand, music is a way to actually remove and uplift oneself from the bitter truths of the real world, while on the other, there is perhaps nothing that can express a multiplicity of emotions - yearning, desperation, angst and hope, the way a song can. And it is this harmonious yet emotive value of music that makes it amenable to both ends of politics - anthems and national songs of the establishment serve as tools to bring about a homogenised uniformity, whereas, equally, protest music can be a voice of dissent against the majoritarian view.

It is doubtful that a devotional song will ever have the same power to unify people across divisions as it did in Gandhi’s hands. Times have changed. What remains unchanged however is that, whether a political movement, a protest march, or a fierce World Cup match, if you want to amplify a message or rally people together, then music continues to be the answer!

Manasi Prasad
(The writer is a classical vocalist and
the museum director of the Indian Music Experience)


General, Brigade Group



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