There are very few occasions when Hindustani musicians have participated in or commented on political movements in the post-independence era. The situation during the general elections of 2014 and thereafter saw a marginal change, with some musicians using social media to voice their opinions. Of course, these comments mirrored the polarisation seen in many sections of Indian society and rarely came anywhere close to what might be considered a serious political discourse. More importantly, most Hindustani musicians have chosen to remain silent at most times, even on issues that concern their own fields of specialisation, particularly when such issues relate to government agencies and policies.
On the contrary, there are examples of musicians having supported the freedom movement in one or the other way. Was their decision prompted by the political climate of the time or was it the inspiration they drew from national leaders? One will never know, because none of these musicians have maintained detailed diaries that inform present-day research scholars about their motivations.
Interestingly, some musicians have musically responded to Mahatma Gandhi as a towering historical personality. I am not referring to the devotional songs Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram or Vaishnav Jan to Tene Kahiye, commonly heard today in fusion concerts and sometimes even as part of concert repertoire in conventional Hindustani performances. I have discussed some of these renditions in my column earlier. But with the celebrations for Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary beginning this year on October 2, I have chosen to focus on two creations that were evidently inspired by his persona.
The first is a musical homage to Gandhi by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar in the form of a new raag called Mohan Kauns, which he composed as a tribute. The structure of the raag is similar to Charukeshi and to the maestro’s own creation Charu Kauns. But Mohan Kauns omits the Pancham or the fifth and focuses on the Madhyam or the fourth. The meend or glide from the Madhyam to the Shadja or the tonic lends a different character to the raag. The Rishabh or the second is used sparingly. This raag is not to be confused by another one that shares the same name but has quite a different structure.
The following track contains an introductory aalaap and rhythm-bound jod followed by the gat or instrumental composition set to Rupak, a cycle of seven matras or time-units. He is accompanied by tabla maestro Alla Rakha.
The second track features the inimitable iconoclast Kumar Gandharva singing his raag Gandhi Malhar, also a tribute to Gandhi. The raag has shades of Bilawal, Mia ki Malhar and Khamaj, with the Gandhar or the third positioned prominently. But the character of the raag that emerges through the performance is very much its own. The composition is set to a slow-paced twelve-matra Ektaal. The track can be heard here