How musical was the Mahatma? It’s complicated…
Henry Ford, the American car capitalist, is best known for two things: first, the mass-produced, affordable Ford Model; and second, the remark that “History is one damn thing after another”. Much has changed since Model T rolled out in 1908, ‘Aspire’ and ‘Freestyle’ Models have now hit the Indian market in the under Rs 600,000 range. We have newer types of histories as well, visual histories, histories of emotions and belief and, as with Lakshmi Subramanian’s new book, a history of music during the heady but difficult times of the Gandhi-led march to our freedom.
Singing Gandhi’s India is a title that both entices and provokes. It invites us to share in the devotion, delight and yearning of our colonised people as they broke into dhuns, Ramdhuns as modified by Gandhi, evoking a commonality of belief, bhajans, Bankim’s Vande Mataram and politically and socially revolutionary sentiments, often set to marching tunes. The book gives us a ringside view of the tricky yet inflammable issue of what was music to one community sounding like cacophony and a disturbing amplification of noise to another. This, and the conflict that it generated between communities in the mid-1920s, was the cause of much concern for Gandhi as he strove to foster commonality and a kinship of shared sentiments.
As with much else, Gandhi insisted on a strict musical regimen at his ashram, for everyone, the day began with early-morning community singing. He even invited accomplished musicians to sing on the banks of the Sabarmati. As to Gandhi’s considered views on the joys of music, he was again elliptical in that special Gandhian way: “I have discovered no easy way of enjoying the music of songs. I cannot, therefore, easily drink in the joy they are capable of giving.”