Gandhi was no connoisseur but he did appreciate some voices – Dilip Roy and MS Subbulakshmi. What moved Gandhi about bhajans generally was the lyrics and content that he often discussed at length in the meetings. The language of the bhajans was also singled out for discussion; for Gandhi, what was pleasing about the medieval bhajans was the simplicity of their message and accessibility of their linguistic expression.

For instance, he praised the Marathi bhajans of Tukaram that extolled the pure and unflinching devotion that defined the true devotee. Gandhi did not find anything sectarian about the selection of bhajans that were sung, as in his view, prayer could never be considered as belonging to any one community.

1946 and 1947 were years of tribulation for Gandhi as he battled against communal violence and attempted to quell the fires of Partition in the Punjab and Bengal. It was not surprising that these years saw Gandhi’s marked appreciation for music as a source of personal solace and as an affective medium of pure devotional communication with the audience. The Ramdhun invariably set the stage for his speeches, helping to convey the transition from darkness to light and from ignorance to truth, resonating with the collective will of the people to aspire to an idealised nation, the Ramrajya of his dreams.

Gandhi wished all his followers to join in the prayer, for this alone would cleanse their hearts of animosity and prejudice. While there is no doubt that these personal efforts calmed the communal fires in Bengal’s Noakhali and brought some resolution, the issue of a multi-faith prayer was not that easy to accommodate.

Gandhi’s prayer meetings seem to have become noisy and dissonant in 1947, when he encountered protests from many about the inclusion of the kalma, the Muslim expression of faith, in his repertoire as well as the invocation of the Ramdhun amidst a crowd composed of different communities.

For Gandhi, coercion of any kind was intolerable. The issues facing him were escalating violence and communal hatred, majoritarian tendencies and a resurfacing of petty issues that invoked religion to create a public disturbance. By August of the same year, when the country witnessed devastating scenes of violence and discord, he was openly critical of Hindu majoritarian tendencies.

On 19 August 1947, he expressed sadness, noting how a Muslim friend of his had said that Muslims had nothing left but subjection to the Hindu majority and may have to suffer in silence the music blaring before mosques while they were offering prayers. Gandhi hoped that whether in Pakistan or Hindustan, each majority would do whatever that was proper and in all humility.

Gandhi experimented with public prayer meetings to communicate his understanding of non-violence and tenets of public participation. The issues before Gandhi were one, interpretations of tradition and religion; two, acceptable codes of public dialogue and participation; and three, the power of prayer for persuasion. Thus, holding prayers amidst protest, the appropriateness of non-violent protest and disagreement was a running theme in his prayer speeches.

On 30 October 1947, reacting to a disturbance caused by a gentleman who said he would not allow the prayer to proceed, Gandhi expressed his reluctance to hold the meeting, especially after the person was asked to leave by the concerted decision of the majority present. He was pained by this coercion, but equally, he could not consider abandoning the reading of the Koran or the singing of the Ramdhun, which were inseparable parts of his prayer.

Cutting short the discussion, he asked those present to think over the matter and express objections clearly. If they wanted to persist in the prayer meetings, they would have to give an undertaking that they would not be provoked to violence under any circumstance. Openly appreciating the conduct of one of the protestors who maintained codes of civility, he admitted that it was a litmus test for non-violence and that basic tenets of truth and non-violence were never easy. However, his sadness at the obstacles that India faced, making it well-nigh impossible to achieve social harmony and peace, was obvious.

The songs that were sung at his prayer meetings referred to an India that was an idealised dream and not the reality that he confronted.

On 31 October 1947, he said how, in his view, disappointing 300 people who had gathered to listen to him and pray with him for the sake of two or three detractors was also a form of violence – an admission that could be construed as his own form of majoritarianism. Where the difference lay was in cultivating the habit of non-violence and forbearance that withstood the clamour of the few to stay on the path of right action with complete non-violence.

“Let them not be angry with the persons who are protesting or say anything to them either here or outside. I shall carry on the prayer and the recitation from the Koran if you are agreeable to this. Because you are in the majority, you should not think that you can ignore the people who are protesting. If you think you can ignore them, you would be following the path of violence. We must be more concerned about the people who are in the minority.”

He invoked the serenity of the morning’s bhajan service rendered by Dilip Roy. ‘I was pleased by his melodious voice and his art of singing. The sentiment expressed is nothing uncommon but the way it was presented is what we call art.’

For Gandhi, art was about the higher life and if it taught the principles of non-violence and accommodation, it was nothing short of deep creativity. Prayer meetings were an ideal occasion to delve deeper into the significance of texts such as the Koran and to communicate the benefits of inclusive reading and immersive listening. On 2 November 1947, he said that by reading the Koran, he was even closer to Hinduism, and that if people were not willing to listen to him, they were free to leave.

“Let them not put up with it because I am Mahatma or because I have rendered service to the country and they wish to see me. That is why I am asking if you are truly keen on having the prayer.”

The only rationale for attendance was belief in the principles of truth and non-violence.

Singing Gandhi’s India

Excerpted with permission from Singing Gandhi’s India: Music And Sonic Nationalism, Lakshmi Subramanian, Roli Books.