Having concluded the series of seven episodes on raag Bhairav last week, I will now move on to other themes and explore more raags in the near future.
Playing vocal and instrumental recordings of "Vaishnav Jan To" and "Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram" on various channels has become as much a ritual on every Gandhi Jayanti (October 2) as have the token remembrance of the Mahatma by politicians.
As these are two of Mahatma Gandhi's favourite bhajans, it is not surprising that the power of music to stir emotion should be harnessed through these songs to bolster this tokenism. This notwithstanding the periodic chest beating, and violent, communal, and inhuman streaks that are otherwise demonstrated by sections of civil society.
Over decades, musicians pursuing various genres have embraced the two songs and have presented them in recordings and at live concerts. The reasons for making these specific bhajans part of their performance repertoire would be anybody’s guess.
The words of the song-texts cannot escape the attention of singers, but for instrumentalists, the bhajans have acted as refrains to launch into melodic explorations of different raags and present them as a raagmala or string of raags. The import of the song-texts does not seem to matter in such cases. Their popularity among the masses and the recall value is perhaps all that matters to the performers.
This column has in the past featured some interpretations of "Vaishnav Jan To" recorded by Hindustani vocalists and instrumentalists. Over the next week or so, we will listen to some renditions of "Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram".
The first in the series is an iconic recording by DV Paluskar, the son of Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, who is credited as the composer of the original piece. Set to Bhajani theka, a cycle of eight matras or time units and sung as a Ramdhun or refrain, that is a prayer to the Hindu deity Ram, Paluskar elaborates on the theme based on the raags Jaijaivanti and Gara and is followed by a chorus.
He prefaces the refrain with a shloka. This particular rendition does not include the lines that deviate from the original text crossing boundaries of a specific religion and praying for wisdom to prevail in society:
Ishwar Allah tero naam
Sabko sanmati de bhagwan
The second track features shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan playing the same bhajan in the eight-matra Kaherva. He treats it like a composition from the thumri-dadra genres, elaborating beyond specific raag boundaries and using pukaar, a device that musicians use to prolong a particular note to give it an imploring or yearning emotive quality.