Vaishnava jana toh, taine kahiye/ Peed parayi jaane re/ Par dukkhe upkaar kare tohe, mann abhiman na aane re
(Call those people, the Vaishnavas, who feel the pain of others/ Help those who are in misery, But never let self-conceit enter their mind)
It is not very often that a piece of poetry is synonymous with someone who neither wrote it nor crooned it, but lived it instead. Vaishnava jana toh, known to be Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite hymn, was written by bhakti poet Narsinh Mehta in the 15th century. Penned in archaic Gujarati, it has its moorings in the late-night raga Khamaj, and was put to tune by musician Vishnu Digambar Paluskar.
Sung during the Salt March, it’s appearance anywhere — be it by Pandit Jasraj, MS Subbulakshmi, Lata Mangeshkar, or Pannalal Ghosh — has always been a reminder of the Mahatma. Another piece cherished by Gandhi was Tulsidas’s Raghupati raghav raja ram.
“Gandhi believed in the power of using music to bring people together. Vaishnava jana toh talks of a person who understands the sorrows of the other. In today’s times, what can be more relevant,” says singer Vidya Shah, who has also sung a version of the piece.
The hymn, along with other Christian songs and bhajans in different languages and faiths, were collated by people at Sabarmati Ashram in the Ashram Bhajanavali, a cross-religion hymnal.
Amar Niranjan Bhatt, an Ahmedabad-based expert on Gandhi, says, “Look at the selection of poems. They were careful to not select those which lured people to be more devotional. Ye bhakti ke laalach ke geet nahi the. This wasn’t poetry where the poet tried to impress with words. These carried a depth of meaning.”
But much before this hymn made it to the roster of prayers at the Ashram, Gandhi’s life was dotted with music. One finds mentions of it in his books and letters. Once he saw a showman tell the story of the mythological character Shravan Kumar, who dies while fetching water from a river for his hermit parents. The verse — lalit chhand — moved him deeply. He’d play it on a music box his father had brought for him. In his autobiography, he wrote: “I started to learn to play the violin so that I could get a sense of the notes and beats. Three pounds went into the purchase of a violin and some more to its learning.” But the ‘moha’ did not last long. Was I going to spend the rest of my life in England? How was my dance-learning going to help me back home ? The violin I can learn to play when I return. I am here as a student. I should acquire but one asset: learning…”
Another favourite hymn of the Mahatma was Meerabai’s Hari tum haro, an ode to Lord Krishna. He found universal connotations in Meera’s pain. He was keen that the song be recorded by the Carnatic legend MS Subbulakshmi. After he had moved to Delhi, a 31-year-old MS had come to visit Gandhi. When the Ramdhun began, he told her “Subbulakshmi tum gao, tum shuru karo…’
“MS amma had sung a lot of concerts to raise money for the Kasturba fund. Gandhi was always mesmerised by her voice. In fact for Hari tum haro, Sadashivam (Subbulakshmi’s husband) expressed in writing to Gandhi that she does not know that bhajan and would rather not attempt a half-baked version. He replied, “I’d rather have MS say the words than have someone else sing it,” says Carnatic classical vocalist Aruna Sairam. The song was recorded at All India Radio (AIR) studios in Chennai, on the night of October 1, 1947, and completed at 2 am on October 2. The recording was airlifted to Delhi, where it was played to Gandhi on his 78th birthday, October 2, 1947.
In one of his speeches, the Mahatma had said: “To make life musical means to make it one with God, to merge it in Him.” Hymns like Abide with me, which is still played at the closing of the Beating Retreat ceremony and Lead kindly light by Cardinal Newman remained a part of his life.
Be it Gandhi listening to flute legend Pannalal Ghosh when he was sick or his admiration for Tagore’s Jibon jokhon shukaye jay (Where the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me as a shower of mercy), the Mahatma’s connection with the seven notes remained significant. Just like the one with the dream of a free India.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 2, 2019 under the title ‘Marching to his tune’.