Sangeet, Sapna aur Samvidhan: Diverse Tastes that animate India

Written by Aruna Roy | Published on: March 22, 2016

Dedicated to Charul and Vinay and their music: the recollection of a special evening

Comrades-singers from, and for, all of us.
Vinay and Charul, singers of protest songs and peoples' bards released their album of songs , ‘Aazadi’, in Ahmedabad recently. We were invited to speak on ‘Sangeet, Sapna aur Samvidhan’ – music, dreams and the constitution. In Hindi it is alliterative. The topic was as carefully chosen as. the banner and the music we heard that day.

The theme excited my imagination. Music is important to me. It has never failed to transport me to the world of dreams and a sense of wellbeing. It is a love that goes back to childhood, when musical notes wove their magic and spoke before we had words and a vocabulary to think, to Amma's – my mother's – lullabies as we fell asleep.

When slightly older Appa – my father – put the sounds in the context of structure and theory, he told us stories about the musicians. We had compulsory afternoon naps on Saturdays to make sure that we would stay awake to listen to the National Program on ‘All India Radio’. In the journey with him we traversed the unchartered by-lanes of music, often breaking away from the trodden path to listen to the music of the world. Our ears and minds had to learn to be patient; to hear what was not familiar and not instantly gratifying. But there was a palpable expansion of one’s universe. From Dikshithar to Thumries, from Ariyakudi Ramanujam Iyengar to Karim Khan and Fayaz Khan Sahib, to the strains of the Blue Danube, Peter and the wolf, and the Minuet in G, Tevaram and Paul Robeson. My innocent mind received and began to see melody and harmony, and prepared itself to understand counter point.

I now know that this process etched the concept of plurality as an irrefutable value in my life. As children we heard the principle articulated by our parent's comments, when we grumbled about food and other things, “If you cannot taste different food and listen to different music or thoughts, you will remain narrow and illiterate, illogical and prejudiced.”

‘Sangeet, Sapna and Samvidhan’, made sense and encapsulated these ideas. The journey to Ahmedabad, fraught with painful memories of engineered exclusivity and conflict, ironically presented a great opportunity to share music and by sharing an experience established a deep connection between apparent differences and disparities. Words have become loaded with preconceptions. One often misses the essence because of the sound and fury of conditioned reflex to jargon. But music could dispel the non-essential and go straight to the collective dreams articulated so well in our Constitution and its Preamble.

Laxman and I had diligently put the music together, random and scattered as they were, keeping  strict watch on the time - five minutes in all. In those five minutes we had to capture the abundant richness of varied traditions and modes. It was a challenge.

It began with the Tanpura shruthi, the basic drone for all Indian music. All sound is a variation of those seven note from sa to ni, do to ti. As Amjad Ali Khan explained in one of his recitals two decades ago – the seven notes, the flats and the sharps, define the universal language not only of music but of all expression; a million variations of song and rendering. All bound together in the common harmony of inter-relationship.

Even the random selection followed a chronology. It went back to Amma's lullaby, a kriti of Muthuswami Dikshitar – Hiranmayim. It brought back memories of glorious sound and the warmth of a mothers' unconditional love. The kriti – as the rendering is technically defined - was sung by T.M. Krishna, a great young contemporary musician, who is also democratically committed and an articulate columnist. As a musician he has always pushed boundaries, redefining spaces. As a citizen he sees himself beyond the category and the box of a stellar musician, into which he is relentlessly pushed by an admiring audience. His writings reflect his concerns, arching from music, to freedom of expression, and protest against fascist policy. There could not have been a better example of the interconnectivity of categories in and amongst ourselves!

The musical journey meandered to Kabir, popular for centuries. He was at one time exclusively the bard of the Dalits and the poor, the poet of Hindi speaking rural India, the saint of the “Kabir panthis”. In our acquaintance with the peasants and workers of Rajasthan, we have met scores of illiterate performers with repertoires of hundreds of his songs. But Kumar Gandharva sang to Kabir that evening - a tribute for popularising Kabir on the concert platform. As he sang “ Suntan hai guru gyani-jheeni jheeni”, one hoped that the gap between the Dalits and the others, the traditional folk style and the classical form began to be blurred.

In all these instinctive choices, the effort to bring differences together, without damaging their distinctive attributes, seems to have played a dominant role.

The music then made a leap to another part of our musical mind and the globe. It was a dramatic and not necessarily an easy change for the listener. It shifted to the last movement of the 9th symphony of Beethoven- the choral. For many of us, it is a great revolutionary movement with its undisputed musical place in history. But it is no less important for bringing Schillers’s lyric celebrating universal brotherhood to millions of us. It is the symphony that played when the Berlin Wall was brought down. It is today the anthem of the European Union.

As Charul sings.. “Hindu kehta . . om namah shivaya” in her clear and melodious voice and Vinay ends this stanza with the azaan, clouds dispel along with his voice and the music reached, and touched, an infinity. The song never fails to strike the chords of our conscience.

We could hear the beginning of murmurs, perhaps everyone’s patience was being stretched. But this long standing favourite, also stands testimony to the human minds’ ability to absorb the other, the unfamiliar, so essential to building pluralism and tolerance. There was hope that the human voice used very differently in that movement, would nudge an opening up of mind space to listen and to appreciate difference.

The next switch came with the song of protest and freedom, the popular music of the modern world.  Perhaps the listeners would feel more comfortable. The eclectic audience was invisible. Joan Baez's melodious voice sang, “We shall overcome”. A song familiar to activist India as “Hum honge Kamayaab.”

It hopefully found familiar ground with activists in the audience. For the undergrads of the 60s it was politically evocative. The USA glorified in history for its advocacy of democracy, a country which freed its slaves; did not grant them equality. Martin Luther King and the movement for the equality of Black Americans is part of the living memory of many of us. This song and Martin Luther King’s ringing words, “We have a dream”, come together to make one of the most powerful statements for equality and inclusion in the modern world.

As Joan Baez sang with the power of faith and belief, my generation perhaps heard in our minds, Pete Seeger’s famous lyric also sung by her, “Where have all the flowers gone,” the powerful protest rendering against the war in Vietnam. There is a strong possibility that if a similar song had been sung today in the context of the Indian government and what constitutes the state today, the composers of music and the singer would have been jailed for sedition! Kovan, a folk singer in Tamil Nadu protesting in song against the liquor policy of the current establishment was in jail for sedition.

The music shifted from Joan Baez to Faiz and Nayara Noor. We went to Lahore for the Safdar Hashmi Festival in 1988, part of the collective euphoria of “jumbooriat”, democracy after many decades of martial law. The stadium in Lahore was jam packed. As curious and sympathetic Indians we heard songs and drums familiar and evocative. We did not have to battle with an alien culture. We had to accept that differences of nationality do not create barriers, as we hummed with “mast kalandar” and the songs; felt the rhythm of the drums in our bones. We heard Nayara Noor one of those memorable evenings. A voice of velvet and an elusive quality that is unforgettable.  Joan Baez and Nayara Noor are also women, that have brought in the feminist argument for peace and solidarity, into their singing and music. As her clear voice wafted, “Aaj bazaar mein pabajoolan”, into the cooling air in the Gujarat Vidyapeeth that night of dark differences were kept at bay.

Charul and Vinay have become synonymous with protest songs of quality, in lyrics and music. Perfectionists, committed with body and soul to what they do. They are very good friends and we have stood together at many a protest. In all the songs they have created and I have heard, one of my standing favourites remains; “Mat baanton insaan ko”. The lyric cautions us against the creation of conflicts, to prevent us from becoming tools in the hands of political manipulation. The song is popular – it’s sung both badly and well, in and out of tune, in seminars and workshops, in public meetings and drawing rooms. It is often sung without even knowing who the author of the lyric is, or even the names of the singers are. As Charul sings.. “Hindu kehta . . om namah shivaya” in her clear and melodious voice and Vinay ends this stanza with the azaan, clouds dispel along with his voice and the music reached, and touched, an infinity. The song never fails to strike the chords of our conscience.

The journey to songs of protest by people who use songs to express their angst, was organic. Lyrics composed by singers who may not read or write but can remember tomes of musical scores. Mohan Lal (Mohanba), singer of Kabir, Bhagatji to hundreds of villages in the Magra area of Rajasthan was also an MKSS and RTI activist. His musical imagination was from popular folk song, his singing always with others in chorus. His song “Raj Choron ko” spread the message of the RTI quicker and more clearly than the hundreds of lectures and articles written on the subject. He sang in his grainy voice, “Pehle wala chor”. The thief of yore shot you with a gun; today’s dacoits kill you with a pen. He sang to tell us that in this scenario, the right to see papers and documents is the only salvation from administrative tyranny, from poverty, inequality and injustice, to get us closer to the dream of freedom.

The musical journey ended for the night with the playing of the tanpura, coming back to remind us of the common harmony of the inter-relationship of notes. We have to be open to receive, allow the other point of view some space within our minds. It is the beginning of listening-- an enabling process- to learn, love and tolerate others. A change of tone from flat to sharp, may allow us to organically deal with the discomfort of alien cultural expression. The music was an expression of hope, that signaled openness: an acceptance of differences in food, in apparel, politics and religious practices.

Tolerance is one of the non-negotiables to the feeling of and actually being equal.

When Martin Luther King said: “I have a dream”, he spoke for all the unequal people of the world. What are the collective dreams of a tolerant country? Shankar spoke of those dreams which remain just at the edge of the horizon- permanently for some of us.

Shankar was born in a rural family, worked his way through school and college, worked in 17 different jobs, before he found his vocation as a communicator activist. He is a friend, colleague of many years and a part of the struggle and of protest, of songs and theatre. For Shankar dreams were not ephemeral. His powerful statement that day:

“We dream of food. In a stomach that is hungry, the dream cannot be of anything but food. We dream of food, we struggle for food, we fight over food. “

He drew out powerfully, the charter of hunger. He drew parallels between the campaign for food and hunger and the cultural expression that pushed it forward. In every successful campaign, it is that song that smells of the earth and contains a myriad images that draw on the harsh and lived experiences, that has propelled the desire to relentlessly pursued the demand for justice. We had no time to bring to our audience the powerful poem of Harish Bhidani, chanting , "Rotinaam satt hai, sattbolo gatt hai". We had heard it for the first time at a Jan Sunwai (People’s Hearing) in Bhim in 1994. Another poignant verse on hunger recalls that for a hungry person, everything that is round looks like a roti. Shankar made a simple, unpretentious reference to the unaddressed dreams of millions of Indians who were promised Azaadi in 1947, who are still waiting for it to happen.  Anticipating the beautiful lyric in whose name the album ‘Azaadi’, was released.

In the increasing bedlam of religious and political intolerance and bigotry, the sane voice of the framers of the Constitution remains a lode-star. It beckons and directs the continual demand for the logic of inter-relationship, the warmth of human concern, the space in the minds and hearts of people, the basis of a compassionate people and a fair and just government.

The entire discourse was located in the songs Charul and Vinay have sung, and in the music from the MKSS  for the RTI. The Charul and Vinay song ‘Janne ka Haq’ took the RTI to every part of India, and remains our anthem. Shankar's energy and charisma took the evening further. Dreams are expressed through collective songs and camaraderie of association.

The first song in the album released, Azaadi encapsulates the dreams of the right to live with dignity, to live without hunger -light the "chulha" everyday. These are people’s dreams, dreams which have become nightmares. The people who, to quote Galeano, remain the nobodies

The nobodies:
...............The nobodies: nobody's children, owners of nothing. The
nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits,
dying through life, screwed every which way.
Who don't speak languages, but dialects.
Who don't have religions, but superstitions.
Who don't create art, but handicrafts.
Who don't have culture, but folklore.
Who are not human beings, but human resources.
Who do not have names, but numbers.
Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the
police blotter of the local paper.
The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them
Eduardo Galeano
Shankar's dreams come from the depth of this collective conscience.

The Constitution was more than a legal document for the nobodies, for those who journey through life seeking some rationality for existence with logic and justice. It is the dream of possibilities and probability. Constitutional guarantees remain critical for all those who get out of the personal and see the public domain as the other half of a continuing argument.

In the increasing bedlam of religious and political intolerance and bigotry, the sane voice of the framers of the Constitution remains a lode-star. It beckons and directs the continual demand for the logic of inter-relationship, the warmth of human concern, the space in the minds and hearts of people, the basis of a compassionate people and a fair and just government.

It was only appropriate that the last song of the album, and the conclusion of the evening should be with a hymn to the preamble - we the people," Hum Log". The pledge is a talisman and a daily prayer. Because for many Indians, the everyday is a scene of contention and battle, for equality, for dignity and justice. The oft-quoted extract from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali, carries the same urgency and prayer for wisdom today as it did almost a hundred years ago. They are words expressed with so much beauty and truth. A prayer for freedom tempered with principles, a country:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Rabindranath Tagore

(The writer is a former officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS who resigned; now political and social activist who founded the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan along with Shankar Singh, Nikhil Dey and many others apart from being a Magsaysay award winner for Community leadership)