'Modi values freedom,' says American singer Mary Millben who touched PM's feet | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Interview: 'Modi values freedom,' says American singer Mary Millben who touched PM's feet

ByKumkum Chadha | Edited by Singh Rahul Sunilkumar
Jul 04, 2023 10:21 AM IST

“I believe that PM Modi wholeheartedly values religious freedom and values the rights of any citizen to practice their faith”: American singer Mary Millben.

Mary Millben, an acclaimed African-American singer, gained attention in India during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the US. She made headlines as she touched PM Modi's feet and sang the Indian national anthem, "Jana Gana Mana."

American singer Mary Millbe singing Indian national anthem in an Indian diaspora event attended by PM Modi during his latest US State visit.(Twitter/MaryMillben)
American singer Mary Millbe singing Indian national anthem in an Indian diaspora event attended by PM Modi during his latest US State visit.(Twitter/MaryMillben)

Millben recently spoke with Kumkum Chadha from the Hindustan Times, where she answered questions and explained the reason behind her gesture towards the prime minister. In addition, she strongly criticised former US President Barack Obama for his comments on the mistreatment of Indian Muslims and added that India is not by any means withholding freedom. Here's an edited excerpt from the interview:

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Let me begin with your touching Prime Minister Narendra Modi's feet, and let me ask you what touching feet means to you.

There are so many beautiful parallels, as we saw last week, between the United States and India, and there are so many beautiful parallels between the African-American community and the Indian American community. I tell you, one of those is respect and reverence for elders. Just as in Indian culture, in African-American culture, we do the same in the context of reverence and respect for how we care for elders both privately and publicly. Touching the feet is a sign of reverence and respect, and in return, you receive their blessings.

PM Modi's critics say the feet-touching act was less spontaneous and more stage-managed.

I didn't even know the prime minister was going to be on stage for the singing of the Indian national anthem. I was not informed that he was going to be on stage, in fact, until he walked on stage. The Secret Service and all of the officials in the wings had very big eyes because normally that type of movement would not be allowed when you're next to a world leader.

How did India's national anthem, 'Om Jai Jagdish Hare, and some of the other Indian hymns happen in your American life and psyche?

There was Smita Patel, who helped take care of us as children growing up. So I was exposed to Indian music and Indian culture at a very young age, and I thank Smita so much for her love and sharing of that culture.

I was invited to perform during the 2022 Covid year to present the Indian national anthem for the 74th Independence Day and then to perform for the Diwali observance. So my interface with Indian music, Indian hymns, and the patriotic songs of India certainly deepened as I started to prepare for those performances.

Hindi is a difficult language, and you not only learned the language but mastered some of the hymns!

During Covid years, my mother and I sat around and watched Indian films all day and all night because we loved the music. One song that my mother brought to my attention while watching the films that were always in all the films we watched was the Hindu hymn 'Om Jai Jagdish Hare'. So when I was asked to perform for Diwali, I thought about the spiritual nature of the festival. As a woman of faith, I wanted to sing a song that had resonance.

How long did it take you to learn it and sing Indian hymns and the Indian national anthem?

Let me publicly thank my Hindi coach, who at the time was serving as the cultural diplomat at the Embassy of India in Washington, DC, during Covid years.

The Hindi language is very musical in its tonality and in its delivery, so that also helped with the process of learning.

Are you going to try your hand at Vande Mataram now, which is tougher?

I have been asked many times to attempt to do it, and so that is the goal.

Why does this connect to India?

Much of my interaction with India started with my introduction to American politics when I was working for President George W. Bush.

As I moved into entertainment and started to deepen my relationship with India, I began to see a lot of similarities between the African-American community and Indian culture.

What is your take on lawmakers in the U.S. circulating a letter reflecting what they called troubled signs in India, including the shrinking of political space and religious discrimination?

There is no question that religious persecution is happening all across the world, and world leaders, including the American president, must now take a new approach and pay attention to religious freedom across the world. The true hallmark of a democracy is freedom, and a free nation is only defined by a free people. I truly believe no person should be marginalised, persecuted, or treated differently because of their faith.

Do you think under PM Modi's leadership, India has somehow fallen short or slipped on that count?

I believe that PM Modi wholeheartedly values religious freedom and the rights of any citizen to practise and exercise their faith without boundaries. He is a strong man of faith, so I can say to the core that he values that.

Every country faces periods of religious persecution or conflict. We experience that in the US, just as India is, unfortunately, experiencing it in other places across the world.

I know that there are a lot of comments and conversations about American lawmakers' comments about religious conflict or persecution happening in India. The former American president (Barack Obama) made comments about religious persecution happening in India. I will say, and I'll just be very candid, that I thought it was quite arrogant of the former president to make those comments during such a historic week in the US. Those comments certainly upstaged the current president, and they certainly upstaged the prime minister's visit. There was a better forum that the former president could have used to make those comments.

What about the charge of shrinking political space?

I don't subscribe to that conversation. I don't believe that India, by any means, is withholding freedom because it is a country that is rooted and embedded in freedom. The PM himself is a leader who understands and values all of the measures that freedom and liberty give to a free society and to free citizens.

Certainly, the PM has some challenges on his hands as it relates to conflict in the country, as every world leader does. It is most important to have the right leader at the right time to address those types of conflicts with great strength and with a great understanding of democracy. You have the right leader in India with PM Modi; he understands what democracy is and what's required to uphold it and face those conflicts and challenges with the spirit of freedom and liberty for all citizens.

I'm not going to join the chorus of American lawmakers who want to criticise the PM or India; I would rather create my own course.

If PM Modi wants to put me on a plane and come to India, I will come, and I will use my platform and voice to join him and help him bring faith leaders and folks to the table to try to find peace and reconciliation.

In fact, I want to buy a house in India. I certainly love my country and my people, but if I were given the opportunity to have a third home somewhere, I would certainly make it to India.

Did you have to work doubly hard because of your gender and colour?

There were certainly moments when I had to work a little harder. But I'm not the type of person or DNA that focuses on those types of barriers. They certainly exist, and I'm certainly aware of how we're still evolving and doing better as it relates to opportunities for women and certainly women of colour and people of colour. But I focus on those things that I desire to achieve based on merit.

We still have a long way to go as it relates to opportunities for women and certainly people of colour, but we've come a long way.

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