15/08/2016 9:49 AM IST | Updated 15/08/2016 11:55 AM IST

The Tunes That Stir Our Hearts: The Songs Of Our Nation

Vande Mataram

Boys running with indian flag in sunset time.
partha dalal photography
Boys running with indian flag in sunset time.

By Avinash Mudaliar

In the wake of every man, is a song, a song that he holds close to his heart, and sings softly to himself in his dreams, and yodels with all the force of his being to the elements--to the sky, to the stars, to his land, his earth, his nation... On India's Independence Day, let us look at the songs that have become an intricate part of our lives.

An ode to motherland

Dawn crept into the town of Kanthalpada, Naihati, on November 7, 1875. It was the occasion of Akshay Navami. The energy that had crept into the nation since the revolt of 1857 seemed to have imbued a life of its own. Flowers spilled from the baskets of street side vendors. Doors were open in invitation. Kanthalpada pulsed alive, with the current of the festivities.

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee needed a break from hectic Calcutta. He set out for his native town, Kanthalpada, on a train. It was a journey that was woven into the history of the nation forever. For Bankim Chatterjee, watching his beloved country unfurl through the canvas of the window, complete with nature, rivers, flowers, forests, and fruits, was an experience that elevated him. He set out to capture it.

Bhavananda is in a different mood. He is no more a sanyasin, bold and inflexible. He is no more the ruthless general of the army. He isn't the arrogant man who a moment ago had humbled Mahendra. Amid the beauty of the land and water bathed in moonlight, his mind dances like an ocean in tide at the sight of the moon. Bhavananda turns gay and eager for friendly conversation. He is eager to talk. He makes many attempts to talk, but Mahendra does not respond. And then Bhavananda begins to sing for himself:

"Vande Mataram Sujalam Suphalam Malayaja Sheetalam Mataram!"

Excerpt: Chapter 10, Anand Math - 1882

- Bankim Chandra Chatterjee

Under the pen of Bengali writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, on Akshay Navami, 1875, the lyrics of a song unfurled, growing, until it was transformed, structure and spirit, and meshed into the hue of the nation--the Vande Mataram, the ultimate manifestation of respect and delight in a motherland's bounty. Written in a mixture of Bengali and Sanskrit, it came under criticism from his friends, and his daughter, but Chatterjee maintained that it was a spontaneous expression of his emotions. Vande Mataram finally saw glory, when it was sung by Rabindranath Tagore at Beadon Square, at the 1886 convention of the Indian National Congress.

Mother, I bow to thee!

Rich with thy hurrying streams,

bright with orchard gleams,

Cool with thy winds of delight,

Dark fields waving Mother of might,

Mother free.

--The Vande Mataram, as translated into English by Shree Aurobindo.

The Vande Mataram has a colourful past, and distinct lineage. In 1905, during the partition of Bengal, hordes of people massed in the premises of the Town Hall, protesting. The song was immortalized, when one member of the crowd raised his voice above the throng, chanting, "Vande Mataram." The song was originally slated to become India's National Anthem, by Mahatma Gandhi, who usually had it performed at prayer meetings. Notably, when the song was sung on August 29, 1947, he proclaimed, "Vande Matram should be set to music so that millions can sing it together, and feel the thrill. They should all sing in the same raga, with the same bhava. Shantiniketan or some other competent institution should design an acceptable raga." The song was also the anthem of the Constituent assembly. Lok Sabha and state assembly sessions began with the recitation of the first stanza. Even Vishnu Digambar Paluskar sang it in raga Kafi for the Congress conventions, for years.

Vande Mataram has been so pivotal and vital to the nation's history and present, that there have been, over the years, at least 100 versions of the song, spanning stalwarts across generations from Rabindranath Ragore to A.R Rahman. H. Bose Records and Nicole Record Company have recorded the versions of Rabindranath Tagore, Surendranath Banerjee, Satyabhusan Gupta, and R.N Bose. The Hemendra Bose version was ill fated, and the police destroyed the factory and the records. M.S. Subbulakshmi sang it with Dilip Kumar Roy, and this version used a different raga and tempo for each stanza. The song has also traversed the world of the silver screen, featuring most famously, in Anandmath, and also, in Shyam Benegal's 1997 Making of the Mahatma, sung by Usha Utthup, in a tune set by Vanraj Bhatia. On the one hundred and twenty fifth anniversary of the song, Ek Shodh, a book in Marathi, was released in commemoration, by Milind Sabnis. Even Bhimsen Joshi sang the song in a two-minute version, on a special Parliament session.

Yet, in the background of its apparent prominence, lurked in the shadows another melody. The Vande Mataram was stated by experts, as not having 'tal' or beat, or the required rhythm and movement to constitute a National anthem. Jana Gana Mana, hitherto seen as a religious hymn, was the logical choice for National anthem. The pro-Vande Mataram campaign went into full gale, and Master Krishna Rao began defining the music and beats for the song. In addition, Bengal, under the leadership of Premier Dr B. C. Roy, were in strong favour of the Vande Mataram.

In spite of its cult appeal, the song was apparently not destined to attain the honour of being the National anthem. The Jana Gana Mana versus Vande Mataram contest left Vande Mataram fated to remain the national song of the country, while Jana Gana Mana went on to be crowned the National Anthem. Incidentally, although the original song is much longer, only the first two stanzas of the Vande Mataram are considered the national song, making it smaller than the National anthem, Jana Gana Mana.

An insider perspective is got from an excerpt from "The Glorious Thoughts of Nehru", "It is unfortunate that some kind of argument has arisen between VM and Jana. VM is obviously and indisputedly the premier national song of India, with a great historical tradition and intimately connected with our struggle for freedom. That position it is bound to retain and no other song can displace it. It represents the passion and poignancy of that struggle but perhaps not so much the culmination of it. In regard to the national anthem tune, it was felt that the tune was more important than the words, and this tune should be such as to represent the Indian musical genius as well as to some extent the Western, so that it might easily be adapted to orchestra and band music, and to playing abroad. The real significance of the national anthem is perhaps more abroad than in the home country. Past experience has shown that Jana Gana tune has been greatly appreciated and admired abroad. VM with all its very great attraction and historical background, was not easily suitable for orchestras in foreign countries. It seemed therefore that while VM should continue to be the national song par excellence in India, the national anthem tune should be that of Jana Gana Mana, and the wording of Jana Gana be altered suitably to fit in with existing circumstances."

Jana Gana Mana–-Where, Why, How?

Another elated moment for the nation--December 12th 1911, when King George V had just proclaimed the annulment of the partition of Bengal. Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore was asked to write a poem of gratitude and welcome for the arrival of the King. In the wee hours of the morning, he composed a set of lines, that he gave the Congress. 'Here is a poem which I have written. It is addressed to God, but give it to Congress people. It will please them. They will think it is addressed to the King.' Thus, on December 26, 1911, at the opening ceremony, Jana Gana Mana was sung in supposed commemoration of King George V, with a closing ceremony comprising Rajbhuja Dutt Choudhary's 'Badshah Hamara'. The King approved, the British approved, and the press raved about this new piece of honorary poetry by Tagore.

Meanwhile, there were incidents where the British government charged Indians with sedition for singing Vande Mataram. Contrarily, Jana Gana Mana was glorified, and was soon sung in Government schools, and organizations fostering loyalty to the British throne. Eventually, it went on to replace Vande Mataram as the National Anthem officially, when Dr Rajendra Prasad, presiding the Constituent assembly on 24 January 1950, said, "The composition consisting of words and music known as Jana Gana Mana is the National Anthem of India, subject to such alterations as the Government may authorize as occasion arises, and the song Vande Mataram, which has played a historic part in the struggle for Indian freedom, shall be honoured equally with Jana Gana Mana and shall have equal status with it. I hope this will satisfy members."

Saare Jahan Se Achcha

Sona Thakur, in the film Apna Ghar had a unique claim to fame. She was the vocalist for Kashmiri poet Mohammed Iqbal's lyrics for Saare Jahan Se Achcha, Hindustan Hamara, which featured in the film. Lyricist Iqbal was, incidentally, a third generation Kashmiri Pundit, who converted to Islam, from the Hindu Sapru subcaste, and was supposedly one of the early propounders of the idea of creating Pakistan.

A song that redefined the texture of patriotic songs, and still resounds in the heart of every true Indian, was the brainchild of Ramchandra Narayanji Dwivedi, better known to us as Kavi Pradeep. Born in Badnagar, Madhya Pradesh, he met and befriended Harivanshrai Bachchan while at Allahabad, where they would meet at 'kavi sammelans', which were a forum for exchanging notes on poetry. Poetry became a part of Pradeep's life, and he would travel places and recite his poetry, often meeting with approval. It was when he met NR Acharya, who introduced him to Himanshu Rai of Bombay Talkies, that his lyricism took on a new meaning. Rai gave him a week to decide if he wanted to write song lyrics, and it was a decision that sealed his fate.

Kavi Pradeep also went on to bestow upon the nation, masterpieces like Ai Mere Watan Ke Logon, Aao Bachchon Tumhen Dikhayen, Chal Chal Re Naujawan and Door Hato Ai Duniya Walon: a set of songs that have touched millions of lives. It was while listening to Lata Mangeshkar's rendition of Ae Mere Watan Ke Logo, that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was moved to tears.

A song that still moves us to tears

The number 'Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon' was originally supposed to be sung by Asha Bhosle, due to a misunderstanding between C. Ramchandra and Lata Mangeshkar. Kavi Pradeep though, was adamant about having Lata Mangeshkar sing the song, as he felt that hers was the only voice that could do justice to the number. C. Ramchandra was unsure whether Mangeshkar would agree to sing, so Kavi Pradeep began the task of convincing her to hear the song. On hearing the song, she was moved so much, that she instantly agreed to sing the song, on condition that Kavi Pradeep be present at the rehearsals. Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon went on to become one of the greatest patriotic songs of the country.

Patriotism set to tune

Tamil Poet, thinker and patriot, Mahakavi Subramaniya Bharathiyaar, at age 11, was conferred with the title "Bharathi", in the court of the King of Ettayapuram. He was given the title due to his proficiency in the field of poetry. He was fluent with most Indian languages, and his thirst for freedom, inspired him to write many famous texts. As a revolt against casteism, and a dream for a free country, he wrote a song entitled "Vandhe maatharam". Subramaniya Bharatiyaar's patriotic songs were in many languages, but most importantly, Tamil.

Some of the most emotionally loaded lyricism, came from the ill-fated prison cell of Ram Prasad Bismil, who found his way there after being implicated in the Kakori train robbery, when an iron chest was looted. Bismil was a Swami Dayananda follower, who imbibed the principles of the Arya Samaj, and in the true spirit of patriotism, while in jail, he fought for the right of the political prisoners, even resorting to a hunger strike. While on the last leg of his prison stint, in the Gorakhpur Jail, on 19th December 1925, he spilt his suppressed emotion into the penning of Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna Aab Hamare Dil Mein Hai Dekhana Hai Jor Kitna Bajoi Qatil Mein Hai, which translates to, "My heart is full of the desire to rise to the occasion. Let me see how much strength the arms of the hangman had". The last words on the lips of the executed Bismil, were, "I wish the down fall of the British Empire."

The Forgotten Army, a 105-minute television documentary, made on the fifty first year of Independence, tells the tale of the men and women behind the Indian National Army, who fought against the British empire. The creator, Kabir Khan, was inspired while on the sets of Beyond the Himalayas, which followed the Great Silk Route from Bukhara, through China, to Mongolia, and decided to elaborate on the same concept. "I thought of making a similar travelogue, tracing the famous march of the INA from Singapore up to Imphal."

For factual information, he approached Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal, and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon. Dhillon was one of the three people tried by the British in the Red Fort trial in 1946. About Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal, Khan recapitulates, "We were in Mamyo in 1996 when this old man suddenly walks up to our unit, holds Colonel Lakshmi in his hands, and exclaims: 'Oh Lakshmi! The most beautiful woman in the world!'" Dr. Montu Bannerjee, visiting the sets, bedazzled a non suspecting crew, by pulling out a harmonica from his pocket, and beginning to play the Quami Tarana (Kadam kadam badaye jaa, khushi ke geet gaye jaa). The song was apparently Subhash Chandra Bose' first choice for a National anthem. Another trend, was the nationalistic approach of the militants, which inspired songs of a more explicit nature. Two such songs, were composed by the Chapekar brothers, the first being recited by Balkrishna at the Shivaji Festival. The second was composed by Damodar Hari Chapekar for the Ganesha festival.

"In thy soul, with jewelled hair,

And thy glorious smile divine,

Loveliest of all earthly lands,

Showering wealth from well-stored hands!

Mother, mother mine!

Mother sweet, I bow to thee,

Mother great and free!"

- Concluding Verse – Vande Mataram

Be it a Bharathiyaar, or a Mohammed Iqbal, more than 6 decades after the granting of Indian freedom, the songs play on, echoing in the annals of Indian history--songs of struggle, songs of freedom, songs of worship, but most of all, songs of a dream for a free and united motherland. As dawn breaks on another celebration of Independence Day of our great nation, these will be the songs which will be reverberating across the country. As they get interpreted and sung by new generations of talent, they will continue to impel the tsunami of patriotic fervour that transcends the diversity of this country and unites us.