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In search of a Gandhian tune

A new book looks at Mahatma Gandhi’s complex relationship with music and nationalism

Gandhi at an assembly during the singing of the ‘Gita’ in 1946.
Gandhi at an assembly during the singing of the ‘Gita’ in 1946. (Photo: Getty Images)

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s discomfort with nearly everything that brought pleasure is not unknown. Food, for him, was the substance that held body and soul together. When he was not on a fast, which he deployed frequently as a tool of political resistance, he would try out a series of severe diets, including a plant-based regime that endangered his health. Sex was even knottier terrain. He took a vow of celibacy in his late 30s after fathering four children, and urged his followers to abstain from sex for pleasure. For years, however, he fought off the demon of temptation, and even engaged his grand-niece Manu Gandhi in a dubious experiment to test his will power.

Relatively less is known about Gandhi’s attitude to music, though it is safe to assume that he didn’t particularly care to be entertained by it. Lakshmi Subramanian’s Singing Gandhi’s India: Music And Sonic Nationalism (Roli Books, 240 pages, 495) takes a look at the man’s relationship with music, especially with its potential to create harmony and discord in a nation threatened by sectarianism. The academic framing and sporadic jargon aside, the book affords fresh insights.

In Gandhi’s time, the project to nationalize music, as with all cultural expressions, was inflected by a strain of aggressive Hinduism, which has now morphed into Hindutva politics. As classical music from the north began to be codified in the 19th century by stalwarts like Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande and Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, lines were drawn between high and low, Muslim and Hindu, performers. The attempt to gentrify classical music and dissociate it from its secular origins was challenged by a generation of musical geniuses like Rabindranath Tagore, Nazrul Islam and Dwijendralal Ray.

Devadasis, tawaifs and Muslim ustads became “undesirables"—dismissed by the Brahminical, male bastion as mere entertainers, as opposed to those who pursue music for a higher purpose. Knowledge once privately treasured and selectively disseminated by gurus and ustads became freely accessible to the public through notations and scores. With the advent of the gramophone, the possibility of creating “a national sonic register" became real as records hit the market.

An ardent admirer of Paluskar’s music, especially of the Ramdhun and Vande Mataram he composed, Gandhi appointed Narayan M. Khare as music teacher at his ashram in Sevagram. Khare’s duty was to lead the songs and prayers, which were intrinsic to the daily life of the residents. He compiled a Bhajanavali, a collection of lyrics, from which the ashramites sang. Since the majority of the residents were Hindu, bhajans dominated the selection, though sections of the Quran, Avesta and other religious texts were also part of the repertoire.

Gandhi was particularly mindful not to let music be exploited for religious ends, though his intentions were not always honoured. Subramanian writes, with chilling contemporary resonance, about the precarious public mood that could flare up over rallies that played music near mosques or over the relaying of the azan near temples. Gandhi urged Hindus and Muslims to arrive at a compromise. While the former, Gandhi argued, must not offend by playing loud music near mosques, the latter, too, should exercise restraint on the issue of cow slaughter. Needless to say, this solution, like Gandhi’s proposals on untouchability and caste, proved too idealistic to implement.

Till the end of his life, Gandhi’s attitude towards music, Subramanian shows, remained firmly pragmatic. For him, music was a tool for moral improvement. A national music, he argued, should calm minds, not incite mobs. When he sang the Ramdhun or spoke of Ramrajya, Gandhi clarified that he invoked Ram not as a historical entity but as an ideal. He wanted his followers to listen to the deeper music of life that was audible in the silence of meditation or in the hum of the spinning wheel, instead of being swayed by the cacophony of the angry masses.

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