In the 1980s, the true meaning of being Indian was choosing your favourite between the two public service advertisements, Mile Sur Mera Tumhara and Baje Sargam. The films were part of a national integration campaign spread through Doordarshan, the country’s only channel with national reach.
As it turned out, when the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity collaborated with the Films Division, Prasar Bharati, Doordarshan and All India Radio to spread the message of nationalism, they inadvertently divided people into two camps: those who loved the rousing Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, and others who preferred the mellow Baje Sargam (video above).
The appeal of Baje Sargam, which concentrated on musicians who combined their talents to perform an intricate tune composed in Desh raag, was often muted by the earlier and more glamorous Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, (video below), which featured an array of film personalities such as Shabana Azmi, Kamal Haasan, Waheeda Rehman, and Amitabh Bachchan.
The videos begins simply, with playback singer Kavita Krishnamurthy announcing, “Baje sargam har taraf se, goonj bankar desh raag” (The notes sound everywhere, the music echoes as desh raag). If you didn’t know the raag, it was explained with unassuming brevity. Sitar player Ravi Shankar followed her words, expanding the raag with his stringed instrument, while classical vocalist Bhimsen Joshi matched the notes with his voice.
Baje Sargam features several other noted musicians, including Shiv Kumar Sharma on the santoor, Ram Narayan on the sarangi, Zakir Hussain and his father Allah Rakha on the tabla, Lalgudi Jayaraman on the violin, Hariprasad Chaurasia on the flute, S Balachandar on the veena, and Carnatic vocalist M Balamuralikrishna singing in Tamil.
Classical dancers were also featured, expressing the raag through various forms, including Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Manipuri, Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, Kutchipudi and the folk tradition of Kaalbelia. Their performances reflected the country’s diverse and multi-cultural background, seamlessly combined through the appropriately named Desh raag.
The absence of lip-synching film celebrities allowed the singers to take centre-stage, giving them national coverage. “Even in those Doordarshan films where many stalwarts performed, his portions stood out,” Hindustani classical vocalist Shubha Mudgal said about Joshi’s memorable performance in an interview.
Balamuralikrishna, too, looked back at the making of the video with fond memories. “It was bliss being a part of Mile Sur Mera Tumhara and Baje Sargam Har Taraf. Among the most soulful patriotic compositions in recent times, they brilliantly captured the spirit of India,” he said in an interview. “These recordings by Doordarshan that were accompanied by aesthetically-shot videos are still popular. As someone familiar with the pre-Independence era, I know what patriotism means. It’s an honour to render such compositions.”