Vaishnav jana toh, tene kahiye je, peed parayi jaane hai…Sometimes, in just about seven minutes, a song can capture a nation. Known to be Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite bhajan, this Narsinh Mehta piece has evoked patriotism for years. Hummed during the Salt march, it was a poem that illuminated the qualities of a Vaishnava, who is pure in thought and action. While the likes of MS Subbulakshmi, Pt Jasraj and Lata Mangeshkar have elevated the simple tune in raag Mishra khamaj to a song that appeals to every generation, now Delhi-based musician Vidya Shah has recorded a version of the bhajan. To release online today, the video sung in the Gandhi-ashram style has a slew of Gandhi paintings by painter and Gandhian, Haku Shah in the backdrop. Excerpts from the interview:
How did the idea of creating another version of Vaishnav jana toh come about?
I learnt Vaishnav jana toh in the Gandhi ashram-style in Ahmedabad and was told that this is how it was sung for Gandhiji. That particular melody is quite endearing and comes with a nice folk feel. I remember seeing a television show where they were asking young people about the familiar bhajans and this came up, which I thought was curious. So I thought of using the same melody and giving it a contemporary interpretation.
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It is an iconic tune, which has been sung by many Indian musicians and is synonymous with Mahatma Gandhi. When one touches something iconic, there is fear of it going wrong.
There are so many iconic people who have sung this song, so it’s obviously a very celebrated piece. I have reinterpreted an old composition. It is a bhajan and is sung like a bhajan. I have just lifted that context and put it into my context. I did not want to do too much with the tune because it has its own sanctity. I didn’t feel the necessity to recompose it.
You’ve used Haku Shah’s paintings as the backdrop for the video.
He’s a Gandhian and has lived by the Mahatma’s ideals and principles all his life. It was also his creative burst that inspired me. He had done an exhibition called ‘Nitya Gandhi’ that was inaugurated at the Gandhi ashram in Ahmedabad last year on October 2. So I thought it would be befitting to usethese images.
What, according to you, is the significance of Vaishnav jana toh in today’s context?
The song is very much in the sagun idiom. It is actually referring to the Vaishnava, the bhakt of Vishnu. It’s a context that is defined. But it’s interesting how a variety of forums discuss it. Somebody has given it a sociological context and related it to what’s happening to the farmers. The journeys it can make are so interesting. It’s heartening to see that it’s open to so many interpretations despite being located in a Vaishnav context.
How do you plan to take this project to the people?
I will show it in schools across the country. It will be released online and be available for people to watch.