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75 years special: The song that’s India

Some of the most memorable tributes to India have come from public service announcements such as Mile Sur and Desh raag. The replication of these, besides a couple of brilliant ones, has seldom been as eloquent or moving

Independence Day celebrations, Independence Day music, Independence Day celebrations India, Indian music, Indian musicians, Jai He 2.0, national anthem, national song, Mile sur, indian express newsGrammy-winning composer and producer Ricky Kej's version of the national anthem -- a tribute to the refugees living in India -- is a reminder of a world that once was and could be.

In 1911, when Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore penned Jana gana mana, a set of verses in highly Sanskritised Bengali and almost entirely made up of nouns invoking spiritual sovereignty and pluralism, not many knew that the poem would find its way so fluidly into the Indian consciousness. Composed in raag Bilwal by the polymath, with some help from his musician grand nephew Dinendranath Tagore, the first stanza, Bharoto Bhagyo Bidhata, was adopted by the Constituent Assembly of India in 1950.

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The way the song is rendered today was a gift from Irish-Indian educationist Margaret Cousins of the Besant Theosophical College in Madanapalle. This is where Tagore met principal James Henry Cousin and his wife, Margaret. The latter set the piece to tune then, and found much appreciation from Tagore. The shortened martial style rendition of the piece which takes 52 seconds – is based on the rhythm structure composed by Captain Ram Singh Thakuri, freedom fighter and the band master of the Indian National Army and remembered for the iconic Qadam qadam badhaye ja.

So on the eve of the 75th Independence Day, when 75 musicians came together to sing the complete poem Bharoto Bhagyo Bidhata, with its five verses, in a piece called Jai He 2.0, one was transported back to the era of great promotional music films which projected the idea of India, imbued in inclusivity, with the brilliance of its classical, folk and film artistes in one space. The egalitarianism in Jaya Hey 2.0 is notable, where sarod maestro Ut Amjad Ali Khan, violinist L Subramaniam, vocal classical greats Shubha Mudgal, Aruna Sairam, Parveen Sultana are in the same space as rock musician Lou Majaw, folk artistes Teejan Bai, Parvathy Baul and Tatseo Sisters and playback singers Shreya Ghoshal, Shaan, Javed Ali, Alka Yagnik, Kavita Krishnamurthy, Udit Narayan and Shaan. The piece is led by 88-year-old Asha Bhosle, who sings the first lines from her Mumbai home.

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Put together by Kolkata-based composer duo Sourendra and Soumyadeep and produced by real estate company Ambuja Neotia, what works in this eight-minute piece is the idea that pinched up differences of caste, class, colour and creed do not matter in music; and thus should not matter in India too, which has diversity woven into its fabric.

While Jaya Hey 2.0 is very well-crafted, it’s Grammy-winning composer and producer Ricky Kej‘s version of the national anthem — a tribute to the refugees living in India — that’s a reminder of a world that once was and could be. Created in collaboration with The United Nations, India and The UN Refugee Agency, the piece is stirring to the core, as Afghan refugees Abdullah and Aqila; Aura from Myanmar, Disanthana from Sri Lanka, Odette from Cameroon among others pay their tribute to getting asylum from India by singing its national anthem. It’s beautifully rendered and goes beyond the conventional partitions we live with, myopic politics and boundaries that are there geographically and otherwise.

Compared to these two pieces, the government’s official Independence Day anthem, Har Ghar Tiranga, which has Bhosle and Sonu Nigam as its main singers, completely falls flat. Mainly because filmmaker Kailash Surendranath, who also helmed Mile Sur mera tumhara and Desh raag once, does what he avoided in the two iconic pieces – usage of cliches like jhanda, desh, etc. Virat Kohli, Anushka Sharma, Anupam Kher among others just don’t manage any impact.

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Piyush Pandey, now CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, who wrote the lyrics of the original Mile Sur, was asked by his boss and adman Suresh Mullick to “use simple words to bring people together”. So Pandey wrote, Mile sur mera tumhara, toh sur bane hamara.

And on the morning of August 15, 1988, a pre-liberalised India, which was glued to its newly acquired television sets, watched the first visuals of an amber sun meld into an austere-looking Pt Bhimsen Joshi who crooned these lines in the majestic evening raga, Bhairavi. The music picked up pace and the scene changed to Dal Lake, then a tractor in Punjab’s mustard fields, the Taj Mahal, a desert, the backwaters…. It was India in graceful hues of patriotism. In this India, Shabana Azmi and a fisherwoman from Goa, Amitabh Bachchan and M Balamuralikrishna, Sharmila Tagore and the cast of Tamas, among others — sang in Punjabi and Konkani, Kannada and Marathi, Tamil and Malayalam, Assamese and Telugu. Soon Kashmiris had learned to hum the Malayalam lyrics, Ente swaravum ningalude swaravum; Marathis managed the Bangla Tomaar shoor moder shoor; and Tamilians were enunciating the Punjabi lines, badlaan da roop lai ke barsan haule haule. This is when Kamal Hassan and the Calcutta Metro were in the same space, when India’s melody queen Lata Mangeshkar’s sari, with saffron, white and green draped on her right shoulder, was nationalism enough.

This Lok Seva Sanchar Parishad film by the Rajiv Gandhi government was followed by Desh raag, another fine example of musical excellence from the same team. Longer at 13 minutes, this showcased India through classical music and dance. It was education and an initiation into the classical arts. There was Pt Ravi Shankar strumming the sitar with exuberance, calling out to this monsoon raga that predates the concept of patriotism, Pt Hari Prasad Chaurasia breathing life into a bamboo flute, Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma playing the santoor, Lalgudi Jayaraman on the violin, M Balamuralikrishna playing the violin and singing Baje sargam in Tamil, and the famed tabla dual between Ustad Allah Rakha and Zakir Hussain, with the tricolour as the background. There was also Mallika Sarabhai (Kuchipudi), Protima Bedi (Odissi), Uma Sharma (Kathak) and Swapnasundari (Kuchipudi) among others, showcasing a range of Indian classical dance forms.

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Both films had the last line of the national anthem patched with it. An incomplete national anthem was a problem for many in the government, but it was worked in so properly and remarkably, without any mayhem over the whole thing, that it prevailed.

In January 2010, the same team, minus Mullick and PP Vaidyanathan and some other key members, created Phir Mile Sur, but the updated version was disastrous. Amitabh Bachchan sang Joshi’s lines and was miserably out of tune. The only saving grace were Shreya Ghoshal and Sonu Nigam besides Louiz Banks and Gino Banks on the synth and drums respectively, who got their sections on point. But all of it just didn’t come together. While Juhi Chawla was horribly off key, one of the worst bits was Mile sur sung like Aati kya khandala and picturised on Aamir Khan. It was hard not to wonder about the inclusion of Shiamak Davar here, performing the most inane dance moves to the iconic lyrics. Bhupen Hazarika was in an oddly different register, a massive editing fault.

In the 90s, a decade dominated by AR Rahman, he created a seven-track album titled Vande Mataram. While Ma tujhe salaam was all heart, Rahman also gave us two renditions of the national anthem, both of which have been produced by Bharat Bala. They were commissioned by the Culture Ministry under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. Created in 2006, one is an instrumental rendition, while the other is a vocal presentation. Rahman tried to capture the nation’s endless musical variety in these three-minute pieces. In the latter, he managed to put Mangeshkar and Bhosle in one frame, singing together. Rahman melded vocalists from various genres, styles, gharanas and presented a rousing version with synth and brushed drums, showcasing India’s most famous vocalists in gentle shades of patriotism.

In the 90s, a decade dominated by AR Rahman, he created a seven-track album titled Vande Mataram. While Ma tujhe salaam was all heart, Rahman also gave us two renditions of the national anthem, both of which have been produced by Bharat Bala.

While musical public service announcements have become a significant part of Independence day celebrations, back in the day, 75 years ago, the matters of music were simpler, even though the environment was marked by instability and bloodshed.

So on the morning of August 15, 1947, just hours after Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his “Tryst with Destiny” speech, there rose, from the ramparts of the Red Fort, the balmy and tender notes of a shehnai. The raag was Kafi, which connects intrinsically to many forms of folk music in India and the musician, Ustad Bismillah Khan, a devout Shia Muslim, who was asked by Nehru to play the ‘mangalvadya’ and give India’s Independence an auspicious beginning. As he walked in front of Nehru and the rest of his Cabinet, against his will (he wanted to sit and play), dressed in his trademark achkan and Nehru topi, he blew life into a reed and hope in the hearts of those who had gathered to hear India’s first Prime Minister speak. Since that day, Khan’s recital, mostly a recorded Kafi or a mangaldhun, has opened the celebrations for years. The instrument would become a symbol of secularism, upholding the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb of the nation and Varanasi, where Bismillah Khan and his family resided and played at the Balaji Temple for years.

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In 1947, a little earlier, at the break of dawn Pt Omkarnath Thakur had sung Vande Mataram from All India Radio, Bombay, on the request of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, his sonorous voice doing complete justice to the enormity of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s poetry in that significant moment. While Thakur’s 1947 recording was played at 6.30 am again this time at the 75th Independence Day celebrations, Khan’s shehnai seemed to be missing in Doordarshan’s telecast of the event.

AIR opens their morning broadcast with his mangaldhun every day. It’s significant when some things never change.

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First published on: 15-08-2022 at 09:02:05 pm
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