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Feature

The many moods of nationalism


Rahman's Vande Mataram matches India's new image as a no-nonsense, macho nation. It is combative, whereas the old tune on All India Radio was prayerful


In its 124-year history, Vande Mataram has been a prayer, a march song and a song of defiance. When India turned 50 two years ago, A R Rahman gave the song a new, aggressive musical interpretation. And this year, Kargil fund-raisers used the song extensively at their shows; Rahman's tune perhaps matches India's new self-image as a no-nonsense, macho nation.

The Vande Mataram we hear on AIR is a prayerful, Gandhian interpretation. Ashis Nandy believes Gandhi feminised Indian politics by, for instance, adopting the womanly mode of protest: not eating. Gandhi turned it into a potent, non-violent weapon; thus was born the hunger strike. The old, familiar Vande Mataram, based or raga Desh, has no hint of aggression. It doesn't sit on a heavily drummed-out beat that might suggest stern, masculine discipline (in Indian musicology, rhythm is often compared to the father and melody to the mother). There are no percussion instruments keeping time, yet it is in time and has a delicate order of its own.

Rahman's Vande Mataram is strong on rhythm. A heavy drum accompanies it throughout, and beats out a fast pattern for the refrain. He sings his refrain, Maa tujhe salaam, in the upper octave, in a tone that sounds almost belligerent.

Over the years, AIR listeners have come to associate the old radio tune with the religious music broadcast at dawn. The tune is tranquil -- musically it has no jagged, sudden peaks and lows -- and evokes among older listeners the poignancy of the freedom movement. Rahman's tune, on the other hand, is not touched by regret or grief of any sort.

Lata Mangeshkar sang Vande Mataram for the film Anandmath, and Salil Chaudhury had then interpreted it as a march song. Those were more innocent times, of course. Its spirit was inspired by an India fighting foreign rule. That was also an India that hadn't acquired any nuclear muscle.

Same song, different meanings

Vande Mataram is the most controversial song in Indian history. It has meant different things to different people at different times.

How Bankim Chandra wrote the poem is well documented. Tired of city life, he took a train from Calcutta, then the busy capital of the British Raj, to visit his village of Kantalapada. He was enchanted by the natural beauty on the way, and Vande Mataram took shape in his mind.

Rahman's tune is not awed by all the beauty Bankim celebrates -- of the streams, the lush greenery or the grand mountains. It does not dwell in romantic subtlety.

Bankim wrote Vande Mataram in 1875. Seven years later, in 1882, he incorporated it in his novel Anandamath. Soon Vande Mataram caught the imagination of freedom fighters and became their mantra. The British were infuriated, and tried to stifle it.

D V Paluskar, who founded the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya and brought music out of the gharanas, first sang Vande Mataram at a Congress meeting in 1915. Subsequently, freedom fighters persuaded him to sing it regularly at the annual Congress conferences.

Vande Mataram got involved in Hindu-Muslim politics in an unexpected way. In 1923, Moulana Mohamed Ali, who was presiding over that year's Congress convention at Kakinada, objected to its singing, saying music was taboo in his religion. "This is a national forum ... There is no justification for a ban on music here. When the president could put up with the music in the presidential procession, why does he object to it here?" Paluskar retorted. He then went ahead and completed singing Vande Mataram.

The Muslim League opposed the song saying it was idolatrous, and the Congress agreed, in 1937, to drop all but the first two stanzas. In the deleted stanzas, Bankim had written about the "leonine roar that issued from multi-million throats", and "the spectacle of unfettered strength triumphantly trampling the enemy under its elephantine foot" (Aurobindo's translation). The hero of Anandmath fights a Mughal king, and so the feeling persisted that Vande Mataram could spark anti-Muslim sentiment.

The row continued and the Congress asked Maulana Azad, Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose to settle it with the guidance of Rabindranath Tagore. This sub-committee also endorsed the decision to do away with the later stanzas.

The Cambridge History of India calls Vande Mataram "the uncrowned national anthem". And Nehru, Tagore and Aurobindo spoke feelingly of its role in the freedom movement. Nehru called it "the unofficial national anthem". Whatever their other differences, nationalist leaders were united in their adoration of Vande Mataram.

When India became free, Vande Mataram was considered the natural choice as national anthem. After a long-drawn controversy, it lost out to Jana gana mana. Nehru said the government had given up Vande Mataram on the advice of its experts who had felt it was not suitable for band music. The complaint was that Vande Mataram had too much alap. An alap is sung spontaneously and it is hard for two singers to synchronise alap-singing.

Among the many who had composed tunes for Vande Mataram was the vocalist Master Krishna Rao. He spent a long time matching his tune to a police march. He got a British band master to write a score, and sang it before a parliamentary committee. Krishna Rao took great pains to show that it could be sung in unison, and was heartbroken when parliament rejected the song.

Four new interpretations

All India Radio has based its tune on Desh, a raga whose name must have suggested itself when they set out to compose a tune for this tribute to India.

There are four Vande Matarams in Rahman's commemorative album. The first is the freshly written eulogy, Ma Tujhe Salaam, which is not a translation of Vande Mataram but which just happens to borrow the older song's refrain.

Mehboob, lyricist for films like Rangeela and Bombay, has written this version. The second, called Revival, is a rendering of Bankim Chandra's original composition. Side B has an instrumental version of the second tune. The tape ends with a Tamil translation of Maa Tujhe Salaam. Maa Tujhe Salaam sets the tone for the album with its use of a heavy electronic orchestra; as you go along you realise that there isn't a single track which is free of electronic sounds.

Rahman's style has won appreciation for him from the unlikeliest quarters: Swapan Dasgupta, columnist for India Today, felt the young composer had finally freed the song from "Nehruvian distortions" by setting it to an attacking tune. Another columnist, Tavleen Singh, said Rahman's song was the only cheering item at the 50th year Independence Day celebrations in Delhi!

Naipaul, that long-distance India watcher, might similarly be impressed by Rahman's combative tone. There is an energy in Rahman's song that could suggest, to Naipaul, an India standing up for itself; conversely, if you're troubled by the unGandhian path we have taken, you might see in it an India raring to go with an in-your-face insolence.

Revival is sung by a chorus of four female voices, and manages to recreate the prayerful mood of Tagore's Vande Mataram. The stylised vamping on the acoustic guitar (Dominic Miller) is a highlight. However, the saxophone improvisation does not strictly stick to Desh, and seems to go off into desultory passages. This track comes closest to the mood of the AIR Vande Mataram we have known all these years.

Gurus of Peace has Nusrat Fateh Ali and Rahman singing together. It was probably one of the last recordings of the late maestro. The tune itself brings to mind Porale ponnu thayi, a song Rahman made for the film Karuthamma. The English words (Tim Kody and Dinesh Kapoor) are a weak echo of Flower Power sentiment:

What are you waiting for,
another day another time
Someday you have to find
a new way to peace...

It opens with an alap by Nusrat, who signs off with some fast sargam flourishes. Rahman contrasts Nusrat's Indian-style improvisation with some straight, meend-free lines of his own.

Tauba Tauba has a starkly attractive tune but the bass sounds and the drums tend to be distracting. There are some shehnai sounds towards the end, which also seem to go off-key. Rahman has been attempting to break the mechanical perfection of film-song rendering with dissonance, and unconventional voices. Whether the off-key sounds here were meant to be dissonant or became so by bad playing is not clear, but the total effect is one of disturbance rather than agreeable surprise.

Only You, inspired by the prayers of a Sufi saint of the 12th century, progresses on a hoof-like beat and evokes the image of a running horse. The refrain and later parts are bridged by phrases using the descending notes common in Arabic music. The lovely prayer that inspired the song:

O God, if I worship you
for fear of hell
burn me in hell.

If I worship you
in hope of paradise
exclude me from paradise.

But if I worship you
for your own sake
grudge me not your everlasting beauty!

This is the first album in which Rahman sings a majority of the songs. He knows the strengths and limitations of his voice and has composed tunes which he can negotiate with ease. Most tunes steer clear of complicated graces. The recording is of a high quality.

On the attractive tri-colour inlay card, Rahman dedicates the album to "the future generations of India" and urges them to learn from "the wealth of human values and ethics that this country is made of". He hopes Bala, the producer of the album, will continue to be "mad with patriotism" and "spread this emotion among every youngster in this country".

Mad patriotism scared Gandhi. He called off his anti-British agitation when people mad with patriotism burnt down a police station with policemen inside.

Gandhi, and Tagore, would have approved of a thinking patriotism.

S R Ramakrishna


Vande Mataram
Sony
Rs 60

Aurobindo's translation of Vande Mataram:

Mother, I bow to thee!
Mother, I bow to thee!
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
Bright with thy orchard gleams,
Cool with thy winds of delight,
Dark fields waving, Mother of might,
Mother free.

Glory of moonlight dreams,
Over thy branches and lordly streams,
Clad in thy blossoming trees,
Mother, giver of ease,
Laughing low and sweet!
Mother, I kiss thy feet,
Speaker sweet and low!
Mother to thee I bow.



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