If you are my generation or younger, the chances are you don’t really know the words to India’s national song. Of course you learnt it at school, and have misty-eyed memories of struggling to sing it during morning assembly. Like me, you probably look back and laugh at how your voice would get trapped in your throat because of the impossibly tough falsetto of the opening lines. But I’m pretty sure that all these years later, if you and I try and go beyond the first line of Vande Mataram, we will trip on our words — because of the heavily Sanskritised language that we never really understood to begin with.
That said, even if we didn’t quite get the words, just the beat and melody of Vande Mataram has always created that intangible sentimental energy — the sense of belonging that only music is able to evoke. So, when AR Rahman recast the song in a music video, accompanied by Dominic Miller on the acoustic guitar — Miller plays with Eric Clapton and Sting — we felt all was well with India.
Later, in an international poll commissioned by the BBC, Vande Mataram was voted the world’s second favourite song, narrowly losing the top spot to an Irish ballad. And though we still did not remember the words, we would always hum along and feel that our nationalism was both sturdy and secular.
So, when I heard that some self-appointed spokesmen for India’s Muslims had declared that they would not allow the song to be sung by children of their community, I was, at first, both disgusted and frightened. It seemed like such a bigoted and bizarre resistance, and so badly timed. I kept thinking: this is the last controversy a community already under so much scrutiny needs.
And then I read more about why the song has such a tortured history, why it was not chosen as India’s national anthem and why it has always divided public opinion in the 130 years since it was first written.
By now you must be familiar with all the arguments, including the definitive work by JNU professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya who has written an entire book on the anatomy of the song. Six decades ago, pre-Independence India debated the obligatory singing of Vande Mataram just as vociferously. Even then, Muslim legislators, including MA Jinnah, argued that the underlying patriotism of the song was more religious than national and that the many references to Hindu imagery and goddesses made it an unsuitable anthem for the freedom movement. Finally, Nehru decided that only the first two stanzas of the song were suitable for singing at public gatherings, and even then, anyone who wanted to not sing it was free to opt out and remain silent.
So now that I’m less ignorant of history, am I more convinced that the resistance to the singing of the song in the India of 2006 is legitimate?
Actually, no. I don’t buy the argument that the past must define the present. I believe that history is never static, and that time and context can alter both meaning and symbolism.
Take a minute to remember another song we all learnt at school. Saare jahan se achha, written in simple and accessible Hindustani, is probably more user-friendly than either our national anthem or our national song. We all remember that when India’s Rakesh Sharma first went into outer space, that’s how he described our country from up there, to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Did it matter, even for a second, that the song had been written by a man who went onto become the national poet of Pakistan? Have we ever wasted any time debating whether Indian nationalism should be captured in the words of a man who crossed over to the other side? No, because quite simply, it just doesn’t matter.
And what about Rashtrapati Bhavan? When it was completed in 1929, it was known as the Viceroy’s House and was Edwin Lutyens’ testimony to the invincibility of the British Empire. North Block and South Block today house the Government of India, but were also the creations of a British architect, Herbert Baker. Every January, this part of Delhi comes to life during the Beating of the Retreat. When you hear the bugles sound and watch the camels against the setting sun, do you even remember that the British once lived here? For modern India, this annual ritual celebrates the end of the Raj; we don’t even pause to notice the irony that the Retreat was quintessentially British and introduced to India by the Empire. We have just given it the meaning we like, and now that has come to be its truth.
I feel the same way about Vande Mataram. Should its singing be made compulsory? Absolutely not. We all know that the song has become a plaything for our politicians. So, the BJP uses it as a war cry for Hindutva; and the Congress tinkers with it as part of its mealy-mouthed manipulation of the Muslim voter. Patriotism can’t be thrust down the throat of a thinking, enlightened country. So, whether it’s the national anthem or the national song, coercion has no place in modern India.
But equally, I have no patience for the sort of statements made by a handful of orthodox clerics and I will argue that Vande Mataram does have a place in our schools. It doesn’t have to be part of a rigid rulebook, but it should be part of the journey of learning.
When we — Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh — first sang it during our school years, we were entirely unmindful of its religious connotations. In fact, we were ignorant of religious symbolism in most ways. I remember that the main hall of Modern School had a statue of Saraswati carved in the wall. It was something of a school ritual that as children passed by, they would touch the idol’s feet, barely stopping to look up at what she represented. All those years, it’s my guess that not many students knew that this was a Hindu goddess — for most it was simply a school custom.
In a country as disparate as India, religion sometimes weaves its way into the everydayness of our lives and settles down to become part of popular culture. I don’t think we need to defensively deconstruct every such ritual.
But there is one thing that bothers me. Hindu motifs have found their way into the mainstream; so have many Christian themes. Because many of us studied in Westernised schools, Christmas carols are the defining songs of our childhood, and we don’t even notice their Biblical birth. But missing in this medley is the spillover of Islamic traditions. We must ask ourselves whether we are guilty of still treating Islam and its believers as the ‘other’?
It’s beginning to change slowly. Recent chartbusters include the immensely melodious Allah Ke Bande performed by a Hindu musician, Kailash Kher. Till the song made him big, Kher was a struggling artiste in Mumbai. The story of his success is not just a symbol of India on the move; it’s another example of the many coloured threads that form the tapestry of our lives.
But most of all, it’s a reminder that salvation may just lie in a song.
The writer is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7 email@example.com