For Gandhi, Secular Music Had Potential to Reach the Masses

The choice of music at Gandhi’s prayer meetings indicated his life-work of cultivating religious harmony, compassion, and a secular way of life.

Excerpted with permission from Lakshmi Subramanian’s book Singing Gandhi’s India: Music and Sonic Nationalism which traces Gandhi’s relationship with music and nationalism. Uncovering his writings on music, ashram bhajan practice and the Vande Mataram debate, Subramanian makes a case for closer scrutiny of Gandhi’s oeuvre to map sonic politics in twentieth-century India.

Public prayer meetings and music became a major Gandhian activity, especially in the years immediately leading to independence and the massacres and riots that accompanied Partition thereafter. These meetings also emerged as an important site of public debate where Gandhi discussed the importance of true religion and a spiritual mode of political participation.

The songs selected for the prayer meetings were popular bhajans with musical and melodic appeal. Their content also provided a basis for Gandhi’s discourses. Among the songs that constituted the repertoire for public meetings, the Ramdhun acted as the principal refrain while devotional songs of Kabir, Meerabai, Tukaram and Surdas constituted the main repertoire. To this were added Christian hymns and verses from the Avesta and the Koran rendered by Gandhi’s disciple, Raihana Tyabji. Gandhi justified the selection amidst controversies and criticism. It was largely inspired by the Ashram Bhajanavali and partly by songs that conveyed the message of faith and accommodation directly. Arguing for the multi-faith nature of India, he said in a letter to a friend that the name of Rama was but a metaphor for the unity of all religions, that it was not an idle, irresponsible chant, but a mode of addressing the all-pervasive God known to millions and to evoke the deepest of feelings.

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He had no interest in foisting his notion of Ramrajya or kingdom of God on earth on other religious groups; indeed, in the frontier provinces, he often used the word ‘Khudaraj’, the Urdu word for it, with the same fervour. As a politician, Gandhi was sensitive to regional settings and sensibilities and was insistent on going past self-interest and chauvinism. In a speech at the prayer meeting in Madras on 14 January 1946, he praised the devotion and musicality of the Telugu compositions of the saint-composer Tyagaraja and commented on the sweetness of his songs which seemed to spring from the very heart of the singer.

Lakshmi Subramanian
Singing Gandhi’s India: Music and Sonic Nationalism
Roli Books, January 2020

The reference to Tyagaraja here was strategic and spoke to the simmering controversy on the use of Telugu songs in Carnatic music among musicians in the Tamil-speaking region. The mainstream version of classical music, consolidated under the direction of the Madras Music Academy, found detractors in the protagonists of the Tamil Music Movement that insisted on the exclusive use of Tamil compositions and the jettisoning of Telugu songs. Gandhi thus used the occasion to say that the way out of provincial and insular antagonism was to celebrate the name of God – it did not matter whether it was in Hindi, Bengali or in Tamil.

Like Tagore, Gandhi too, found assertions of extreme nationalism disturbing, strident and cacophonic and when he was moved by song and melody, it was either the stirring content or its devotional potential that he reaffirmed. Nationalist songs extolling the beauty of the nation and its evocative images were empty because they failed to identify the hollowness of the national character that stood in the way of achieving real freedom – freedom from fear, poverty and prejudice. Consequently, Gandhi was often critical of paying lip service to these assertions. Occasionally, he repeated the conventional ideas of a national song, of a notation that would enable the entire nation to sing in one voice.

For Gandhi, the potential that music enjoyed in India was in its power to move masses and help communicate simple political and social messages through melodic refrain – in other words, music was an instrument of political communication. The masses understood religion, even if not in the inclusive terms that Gandhi espoused. Nonetheless, it produced a language that Gandhi could use to speak and convey his ideas of freedom and swaraj. It was not as though Gandhi did not understand the complex social history of Indian music and modernity – he had occasion to comment on the shared space that music provided for Hindus and Muslims. In fact, he said:

we see Hindu and Muslim musicians sitting cheek by jowl and partaking in music concerts. When shall we see the same fraternal union in other affairs of our life. We shall have the name of Ram and Rahim simultaneously on our lips.

Over the years, sound and song both remain audible expressions of public life in India. Amplification and easy access to public broadcasting has meant that a variety of songs, suited for every occasion – blood camps, donation drives, political canvassing, festive occasions, Independence and Republic Day celebrations – make use of music that is meant to provide an ambient noise to the celebratory events.

Also read: Excerpt | Facing Gandhi: Facing Oneself

Even if Gandhi’s prayer meetings did not have the desired effect of resolving communal tensions, his favourite bhajans enjoyed a vibrant afterlife in independent India. Sung ritually on occasions marking his birth and death anniversaries, these became part of the Gandhian ritual that the nation state celebrated with due diligence. These celebrations did not, and could not, mask the disconnect with Gandhi’s message. Riots and communal disaffection continued to plague the Indian landscape while politics around amplification and sound have surfaced repeatedly, especially in more recent years.

Lakshmi Subramanian is an Indian historian and has worked in the fields of maritime history and the social history of Indian music. She is currently a professor at the Humanities and Social Sciences faculty in BITS Pilani (Goa) and also an associate member at the Institute of Advanced Studies, Nantes, France.