Kabul-based Farzana Naz grew up in the Taliban-ruled Baghlan province, where for many years, making music ended in severe beatings and imprisonment. A Pashto and Dari singer who saw music under threat from the Taliban, she is seen singing Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye je, peed parayi jaane hai… (Call those people, Vaishnavas who feel the pain of others), in a recent video. This 15th-century bhajan by iconic poet Narsinh Mehta, which has been in the Saurashtra air for centuries and wafted through popular consciousness over the years, found much resonance with Mahatma Gandhi, who’d first heard it as a child, and had included it in the set of hymns to be sung everyday, first with his commune in South Africa and then at the Sabarmati Ashram. Naz’s rendition merges with those of musicians from 41 countries including Colombia, Oman, Nepal, Pakistan, Germany, Azerbaijan, China and Bangladesh among others who’ve attempted to sing an Indian hymn with a universal message. Recorded by artistes from 124 countries, all UN-approved only, including a version by Baron Waqa, the President of Nauru, the five-minute medley has included the musical versions from 41 countries.
The video, created by the Ministry of External Affairs as a part of the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi, was released on Tuesday by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “The idea came from the Prime Minister. He wanted to re-imagine Vaishnav jan to for a global audience, and for that he wanted musicians from the world to sing it. We at the MEA then got in touch with all our missions who then identified musicians in various countries who could do justice to the song, and briefed them,” said Raveesh Kumar, Spokesperson, Ministry of External Affairs. Kumar added that one of the challenges for the piece was to do with some musicians’ discomfort with the pronunciation of the Gujarati lyrics, but it worked eventually.
Kumar also said that all the countries could not be included because the idea of it was “to be created like one song” so that “it could be shared on Facebook and Twitter. MEA got hold of an event management company to create the video and Kumar highlights that no prominent composer was asked to be a part of production.
After the PM’s request to create this, Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External Affairs was closely involved with the project and held several meetings on it. “She took a lot of interest and had several sessions. It, however, was a mission exercise. The mission did not write to the foreign office of various countries for this, it approached artistes directly,” said Kumar.
Apart from the hymn’s rendition by musicians from various countries in an effort “to globalise Gandhi’s message”, various prominent locations across the world – Piccadilly Circus in London, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, Buda Castle in Budapest, Museo de Arte in Peru among others – featured LED projections of Mahatma’s life, his quotes, discourses and sayings through line-art and hand-drawn illustrations.