Songs of freedom

In 1988, after the Independence Day speech delivered by Rajiv Gandhi, viewers of Doordarshan were pleasantly surprised to see a new music video on national integration. It had several leading singers and artistes from across the country and was rendered in several of the languages spoken in India. Mile sur mera tumhara, a song created to promote the idea of national integration, was an instant classic.

Songs extolling the virtues of freedom and nationalism were always a part of India’s freedom movement. In the 1870s, Bengali novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee wrote the song Vande Mataram and in 1881, it was published in his novel Anandmath. The novel was banned by the British government but the song and the phrase had caught on and went on to fuel the spirit of patriotism in the decades to come.

Starting from Rabindranath Tagore, who sang it during the Calcutta Congress Session in 1896, the song became a war cry by the time the government decided to partition Bengal in 1905. By 1904, in the inchoate days of recording, Tagore recorded the song in his voice, in all likelihood, a cylinder record. In fact, when Bhikaji Cama created the first version of the national flag of India in 1907, it had Vande Mataram in the middle band.

Such was the popularity of the song that in the south, Subramania Bharati used the phrase to write patriotic songs like Vande Mataram Enbom. Of course, Bharati wrote several songs that came like a whiff of fresh air and invigorated the masses with revolutionary thoughts. SBS Raman, who directed a popular play on the life of Bharatiyar, says that with the imagery of Bharata Mata, Bharatiyar was able to establish all Indians as equals, being the sons of the same mother. “His idea was that as siblings we have our issues but it is for us to sort out. With his clarion call for freedom, his songs touched the consciousness of the masses. He was able to visualise the nation and its women as free and strong beings. People from all walks of life heard his poems, which had already gained popularity in his lifetime, though there still are differing opinions on this,” he says. Bharati’s songs spread like wild-
fire in a nation thirsting for freedom.

Writer and historian Venkatesh Ramakrishnan feels that the songs of Bharati became more popular after his death in 1921. “In 1926, SS Vasan started publishing the songs of Bharati from the second issue of Ananda Vikatan. Bharatiyar’s wife Chellamal sold the rights to the songs and after two decades, AV Meiyappan bought them for `9500 and they began appearing in movies. His songs were also sung during political meetings. Later, his works were donated to the people of Tamil Nadu.”

In 1904, an Urdu journal Ittehad published a song which soon went on to become a song of freedom. Saare jahan se acha, written by Mohammed Iqbal remained a popular patriotic song despite the writer later having become a votary of Pakistan and a separate nation state. In 1945, Pandit Ravi Shankar set the song to Raag Mishra Pilu, which was a more spirited version and that became the standard version thereafter.

Tagore went on to play the role of a writer of songs in 1911 when he sang his song Bharoto Bhagyo Bidhata during the annual session of the Indian National Congress in Calcutta. Tagore later set the notation for the song. But even before Jana Gana Mana was adopted by the Constituent Assembly of independent India on January 24, 1950, it appeared in Bimal Roy’s movie Udayer Pathe (1944).

As the freedom movement gained momentum, the revolutionaries were leading the action on a parallel track. Ram Prasad Bismil popularised the poem of Bismil Azimabadi Sarfaroshi ki taman-
nah, which became synonymous with the revolutionary movement. Mahatma Gandhi’s prayer meetings made the 15th century poet Narsi Mehta’s poem Vaishnava jan toh and the traditional Ram dhun spread across households.

With the rise of Subhash Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army, many more songs were brought out to inspire the fight for freedom. Captain Ram Singh Thakur, a member of the INA, composed the marching song Kadam kadam badhaye ja, which gained instant popularity in the 1940s. He also composed the song Subh Sukh Chain, which was the Hindi translation of Jana Gana Mana. It’s said that the translation was done by Netaji and his close confidantes Abid Hasan, Mumtaz Hussain and Bhonsle. Many years later, Thakur even said that while the Tagore’s lyrics of Jana Gana Mana was chosen as the national anthem, the fast tempo, as played today, was his contribution.

On August 14, 1947, the midnight ses-lsion of the Constituent Assembly began with the rendition of Vande Mataram and ended with Jana Gana Mana.

This story was published as a part of the Republic Day special feature in The Times of India

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