Monday, 30th October 2017

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Gandhi's songs

The prayer of music, the music of prayer

By Gopalkrishna Gandhi
  • Published 2.10.16

In the course of a public conversation in Chennai ,Vidvan T.M. Krishna asked me if Gandhi had any music in him. I was unsure of the answer then, but going through some Gandhi-related writings recently has shown an unexpected presence of music in that life of hectic preoccupations - a presence, not in spite of the preoccupations, but in a mutually sustaining bond.

The recitation of texts is not quite music but, nonetheless, it is nearer to singing than it is to speaking as this reference in his autobiography to the twilight days of his father, Karamchand or Kaba Gandhi, shows: "He had not read religious texts but... had begun to study the Gita and every day, during his puja, he would recite, in a high pitch (unchesvare), a few sloka-s from it." And the following, translated from the original Gujarati, connects father, mother and son musically: "There came to our place around that time itinerant showmen. Shravana carrying, by means of slings fitted from his shoulders, his blind parents on a pilgrimage was one of the pictures painted on glass I was shown.The agonizing lament ( vilap) of the parents over Shravana's death is still fresh in my memory. The tender verse (lalitchhand) moved me deeply and I played it on a music box ( vajun) that my father had procured for me. I liked learning to play musical instruments."

The S.S. Clyde, in September 1888, took a very shy Gandhi to London to study for the Bar. The experience of travelling in a liner included something unexpected: "There were musical instruments in the streamer. I every now and then played upon the piano." Wanting to become an English gentleman in London, the freshly-arrived Gandhi got himself a chimney top-hat, an evening suit, a gold pocket-watch chain. But what of culture? He writes in the autobiography, "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. He ruminated, "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... I took my violin to my violin teacher. She was most understanding. She said she would try to sell the violin for whatever value it fetched."

The violin he could, and did, abandon. But the deep impress of the " lalitchhand" that little Mohan had heard as a child was to stay with him and work with him over the years of his evolution from an essentially shy student in London to an assertive attorney in Durban, and then from author of passive resistance in South Africa to the role that led him to be called 'Mahatma'.

On February 10, 1908, Mir Alam, a Johannesburg-based Pathan who had placed his trust in the anti-finger-impressions campaigner Gandhi, got rattled when the same Gandhi came to an understanding with Smuts under which the fingerprint law for "Asiatics" was to be repealed in return for voluntary fingerprinting. Mir Alam struck all but lethal blows on Gandhi. "I fell down," Gandhi has recounted "with the first blow which was delivered with a stick..." Gandhi lost consciousness and Alam, who was then joined by other assailants, stopped only when they thought Gandhi was dead.

The Baptist minister, the Reverend Joseph J. Doke, and a friend who was present saw the whole thing and took the fallen man immediately to his home nearby where, on regaining consciousness, Gandhi asked, "Where is Mir Alam?" Doke told him that he had been arrested with the other attackers. "They should be released," Gandhi said. Gandhi records that, a little later, he asked if Doke's little daughter, Olive, would sing for him a hymn he so loved, Cardinal Newman's "Lead, Kindly Light". Doke asked Olive to stand by the door and sing the hymn in a low tone, which she did. Gandhi never forgot that 'entire scene' and Olive's melodious voice rendering: " Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom;/ Lead Thou me on! /The night is dark, and I am far from home.../ One step enough for me." The hymn, along with others from Christian music and several bhajans from the different languages and faith traditions of India, were put together by the Sabarmati Ashram, under Gandhi's watch in the Ashram Bhajanavali, the first and probably the only cross-religion hymnal anywhere. It includes the "Ramdhun", of course, ascribed to Tulsidas, which Mohandas was to electrify with the addition of " Ishvara Allah tere naam".

In the winter of 1931, on his way back from the Second Round Table Conference in London, which had collapsed on the Hindu-Muslim and Hindu-Harijan divides, Gandhi stopped in Villeneuve de Chillon to call on the philosopher and musical savant, Romain Rolland. The aesthete has written, "...after the prayers, Gandhi asked me to play him a little of Beethoven. I played him the Andante of the Fifth Symphony. To that I added, "Les Champs-Élysées" of Gluck - the page for the orchestra and the air for the flute. He is very sensitive to the religious chants of his country, which somewhat resemble the most beautiful of our Gregorian melodies, and he has worked to assemble them. We also exchanged our ideas on art, from which he does not separate his conception of truth." That was one of Gandhi's rare engagements with music for music's sake.

The next year took place Gandhi's "epic fast" in Poona against separate electorates for the depressed classes. The fast ended with B.R. Ambedkar agreeing to the alternative of reserved seats under the still-operative Poona Pact. Tagore was present at this climactic moment. As life revived in the fasting man, Tagore sang his " Jibana jokhono shukae jae [Where the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me as a shower of mercy]..."

Some fifteen years later, by which time Tagore was gone and a free India was being born, death stalked Gandhi again. In a tense Calcutta in the August of 1947, Gandhi moved from Sodepur, his customary place of stay, to Hyderi Manzil, Beliaghata, the Calcutta suburb where Muslims lived in large numbers. Among his hundreds of visitors, mostly self-invited, was the 27-year-old Juthika Roy. "My mother and I made obeisance," she has recorded, "he touched our heads and asked us to sit down using sign language as he was observing silence... Then as he went to the next room, I sang bhajans without the help of instruments. When he came back I stopped singing and he flashed a broad smile..."

Only a few days later, a Hindu mob all but killed him. Manu Gandhi records the scene of August 31, 1947: "It was 10 o'clock at night. There were only three of us in the whole building, Bapuji, Abhaben and I... The boys (outside) soon increased in numbers. They started breaking things. Stones were hurled at lamps and window panes, shattering them. The boys wanted to catch and kill our Musulman hosts. Bapuji came out... 'What is all this ? Kill me, kill me, I say... why don't you kill me?' and with these words he tried to rush amidst the crowd... Military force arrived and dispersed the crowd... Ministers including the Chief Minister Prafullababu came and told Bapu they would arrest the Hindu Mahasabhaites. 'You should not arrest them...,' he said. 'Ask them what they want, peace or riots'..."

The riots he feared, miming those of August 1946, broke out in the city. Gandhi went on fast. He was 78 and frail beyond words. Some seventy hours of that ordeal later, peace limped back to the scenes of murder and mayhem. Only after the governor, Rajaji, sent word that tension had ceased in the city and all was now quiet, that Gandhi, his voice sunk to a whisper, say that he would break his fast. He did so by sipping a glass of diluted orange juice handed by H.S. Suhrawardy, the principal target of Mahasabhaite fury. Suhrawardy broke down and bowed before the Mahatma as all present sang, spontaneously, Tagore's " Jibana jokhono shukaye jae...".

Gandhi moved on almost immediately thereafter to Delhi, which was being rocked by sectarian murders. Amidst all the torments, visitors, invited and uninvited, flocked to Birla House to see him - 31-year-old M.S. Subbulakshmi, among them. At the evening prayer there, when the " Ramdhun" was to start, Gandhi said to her, "Subbulakshmi tum gao, tum shurukaro..." Another fast ensued, another peace followed. A lasting peace? No one could say then, no one can say today. On January 29, 1948, Pyarelal writes, Gandhi mused why politicians who had toiled and sacrificed for freedom's sake, and on whom now rested the burden of independence, were succumbing to the lure of office and power. And then, Pyarelal says, in a tone of infinite sadness Gandhi repeated a verse of Nazir, the celebrated Urdu poet of Allahabad, " Hai Bahar-e-bagh duniya chand roz...": "Short-lived is the splendour of Spring/ In the garden of the world,/ Watch the brave show while it lasts..."

The next day, on the way to the gathering where he was to lead the congregation in singing Ishvar Allah tere nam sabko sanmati de Bhagavan, his chest, throbbing with the prayer of music and the music of prayer, stopped three bullets in their track. Gandhi's music was didactic. But then his life was god-bound.