Music lessons

Why Gandhi’s favourite bhajan ‘Vaishnav Jan To’ is so important in Modi’s hate-filled India

First they killed the Mahatma. And then they went after his message of empathy.

At the finale of SPIC MACAY’S 5th International Convention in Delhi on June 10, the first act in the all-night concert was Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna, along with violinist RK Shriramkumar and mridangist Arun Prakash. Krishna opened with Thyagaraja’s spectacular composition Dasharathi in raga Todi – brooding, turbulent, and dissonant – before seguing into a soaring, cascading thillana in Behag by Lalgudi Jayaraman. Next he sang a plangent viruttam written by the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan in raga Sahana, and followed it with a crest jewel of Carnatic music, Syamasastri’s O Jagadamba, in the majestic raga Anandabhairavi.

Things were going superbly well – Krishna was intense and ecstatic as ever, and the playful ease between the three musicians (who are great friends) kept the performance energetic and unpredictable at every turn. Many other lovely ragas – Varali, Kharaharapriya, Neelambari, Begada – were woven into the main repertoire of compositions, framing the major pieces and leading from one to the next in Krishna’s inimitably mellifluous and agile way.

And then, a little over an hour and forty minutes in, Krishna, who can never resist some shock-and-awe tactics, began to sing Narsi Mehta’s 15th century poem in Old Gujarati, Vaishnav Jan To Tene Kahiye, which was adopted by Mahatma Gandhi into the roster of prayers routinely sung at the Sabarmati ashram.

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A rendition of ‘Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye’, by Amjad Ali Khan and Bismillah Khan.

Krishna started off in Suruti (tuned by Arun Prakash, the mridangam player who is also a composer), before finally arriving at Khamaj, which is the raga in which this well-known bhajan is normally sung. It was electric to watch Krishna moving out of Telugu and his native Tamil into Gujarati (his accent is perfect, by the way), and bringing his Carnatic concert to a close with one of Gandhi’s favourite prayer songs, that was once so familiar to all Indians.

Every moment of the evening had been deeply moving up to this point, but to hear Vaishnav Jan To in Krishna’s voice was to have tears in one’s eyes.

For just hours before, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Amit Shah had insultingly referred to Gandhi as a chatur bania (“wily trader”) at a public meet in Chhattisgarh, dismissing the Mahatma’s contribution to India’s freedom movement as somehow clever, instrumental, transactional and devoid of the ideals and values that we invariably associate with the Gandhian struggle. Gandhi was just another scheming bania – a disparaging dig at his trading caste.

TM Krishna. Photo credit: Bharat Tiwari
TM Krishna. Photo credit: Bharat Tiwari

Krishna timed his comeback extremely well, to remind us with this beloved and beautiful song of a man whose political and spiritual memory is daily being impugned in Narendra Modi’s India. The maestro sharply brought to our flagging attention the central theme of the bhajan, which is empathy, the ability to identify with the suffering of another human being.

Consider a person to be pious, says Narsi Mehta, only if he can feel another’s pain (peed paraai), only if he reaches out to alleviate another’s hurt (para-duhkha), and only if he does so without pride (abhimaan) in his own compassion. How terribly Hindutva distorts the essence of Hindu piety, and twists what it means to be a true vaishnav jan – the equivalent, in medieval Gujarat, of a devout Hindu.

Mehta wrote and Gandhi advocated sincere fellow-feeling, the capacity to suffer for and with someone else, without self-congratulation, as the quality that makes anyone a real Hindu. A regime led by a rightwing Hindu supremacist party that normalises terrorising of minorities, lynching of Dalits and Muslims, and breaking all bonds of human solidarity and mutual respect that have kept us together as a political community despite all sorts of differences, simply does not use the same idiom as Mahatma Gandhi. Nor is it truly “Hindu” in any recognisable traditional sense of the term.

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Ravi Shankar and George Fenton

In the audience on that Saturday evening were hundreds of young people. Under the leadership of Kiran Seth, the non-profit SPIC MACAY has brought arts exposure and arts education to millions of students for the past forty years. I remembered attending free SPIC MACAY concerts and lecture-demonstrations in school and college, where I first got to see and hear some of India’s greatest living artists.

I realised I had grown up knowing the words and tune of Vaishnav Jan To, and that it was a Gandhian song, without feeling anxiety because its words were in a language that was not my own though it never felt alien. I wondered how many of the students sitting in the hall that night knew what Krishna was singing; what it meant for him to be singing this bhajan and not some other; and what had changed so horribly in the country that it became heartrending to hear this composition in the current context. Gandhi never felt so urgently important, nor so inaccessible, as for those 15 minutes of Krishna’s rendering of what ought to be – and was, for decades – a sort of anthem for all Indians, especially Hindus.

India’s tragedy under the Hindutva boot is not only that its opposition parties, especially the Congress and the Left, have failed to stand up to fascism. It is not only that Sangh ideologues feel free to play fast and loose with history, vilifying Gandhi, appropriating Ambedkar, tearing down every pillar of the Nehruvian state, and worst of all, eviscerating the Constitution. The most damaging effect of the BJP rule is the slow, steady erosion of empathy as a public value, leaving us morally impoverished – lesser human beings and lesser Indians.

Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye je peed paraai jaane re. Soon there will be no one of that description left in the majoritarian Hindu Rashtra.

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