Mahatma Gandhi found refuge in music
Gandhi ji had a long and intimate association with poetry, music and the arts as integral parts of his concept of Swaraj, writes Mrinal Pande
As the old saying goes, one that does not care for music is either a yogi or an animal. We are neither yogis, nor animals. So it has to be said that to the extent we are bereft of music, we are like animals…our lives today do not have music, nor harmony. Where the people do not speak with one voice how can Swarajya exist?... I feel true music lives in the sound of a Charkha and spinning of Khadi..”
This was Gandhi ji speaking at the second annual celebrations of the Ahmedabad Rashtriya Sangit Mandal, on 21st March 1926. He had sensed the great paradox in Indian life, a closed, divided society producing a poisonous deindividualisation that atrophied minds, and kept the nation from dreaming together of Swarajya.
Music thus became an integral part of his public meetings that always began with sung prayers from various religions. They included beautiful renderings of Narsi Mehta’s Vaishnav Jana, Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, Abide With Me from the Psalms, Vande Mataram and Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana. In 1925, writes Pyare Lalji in his diary, a group of Benglai sitarists offered to play while Bapu spun his Charkha. Bapu gave his permission but it was his ‘Day of Silence’, so he just listened to the sounds and worked at his spinning wheel. Later he wrote in his diary the yarn he spun while listening to music was superior to most other days’ produce.
The intertwining of music in the form of prayers, chants and hymns should not be seen only as a determined move against colonial assertion of western superiority
Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, the great visually challenged musician and musicologist (Vaggeyakaar), founder of the Gandharva Sangit Mandal, was a great follower of the Mahatama. At Bapu’s behest he composed many Bhajans for the prayer meetings. In both the Lucknow Conference of the Indian National Congress, as also the later session in Kakinada, he inaugurated the sessions with Bhajans and prayers sung by his group of Shishyas, accompanied by a one stringed Ektara and Tabla. Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram was also sung by the group of satyagrahis while they trekked during the long Dandi march. And again, when Bapu was touring Bihar.
The intertwining of music in the form of prayers, chants and hymns should not be seen only as a determined move against colonial assertion of western superiority. It should be seen as holistic nationalist effort to heal and fuse together a fractured nation and help it recuperate and also gradually recover its pre-colonial secular identity.
It was in Bihar that Manu Ben first added the lines, Ishwar Allah Tero Naam, Sabko Sanmati de Bhgwan (You are the Ishwar and also Allah, please grant the boon of good sense to all.), to Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, and Bapu told her that the lines must be included whenever this prayer is sung.
In 1920, when Bapu visited Kashi, he urged that music was a part of Indian tradition and therefore, no one who practised it, even the professional Tawaifs (courtesans), could be treated as impure outsiders.
The famed Tawaifs of Kashi reciprocated by forming a Tawaif Sangh under the well-known singer Vidyadhari Bai and donated regularly to Gandhiji’s Swaraj fund.
Gandhi ji also requested, Gauharjaan, the most famous singer of Kolkata to hold a special performance and donate the proceeds to his fund, which she did. Later she shyly confessed to a friend that she was really nervous to carry out Bapu’s command. His asking a Tawaif to help Swaraj movement was like someone asking a surgeon to produce a delicate ornament embellished with gems.
Gandhi ji had a long and intimate association with poetry, music and the arts as integral parts of his concept of Swaraj. In December of 1945, he recorded from Khadi Pratishthan in Sodpur, that his visit to Santiniketan had been a pure pleasure.
He wrote to Rathindra Nath Tagore that his great concern now was that Santiniketan should continue to represent Rabindranath Tagore’s high ideals. He was deeply impressed by the teaching of music there, but it must not stop with teaching Bangla Gaan and Tagore’s songs. It must also include the best contributions of Hindu and Muslim poets and singers as also the best of western music by including them all in their curriculum. He had himself had a long debate on this with Gurudev and after some initial hesitation the latter had accepted Gandhi’s theory of making music more inclusive.
“When there is a war, “Gandhi ji wrote in Young India, “the poet lays down the lyre, the lawyer his law reports, the school boy his books.” Haunting words that must resonate in the mind today more than ever before, in the lives of India’s Midnight’s children.
This article first appeared in National Herald on Sunday