Let the shehnai play: Ragas of Indian freedom
Editor’s note: It’s a shame that Indian classical music often feels inaccessible to so many of us. Even if we enjoy listening to a performance or an artist as a layperson, we rarely understand the rich tapestry of tradition that gives them meaning. So we are delighted that Harini Calamur—who is a writer, veteran journalist and also a classical music aficionado—has put together this series on Hindustani music. Each instalment of this beginner's guide comes with its own delightful playlist:) This one is an Independence Day special–as you get ready for the long August 15 weekend.
On the 15th of August 1947, as the world slept, India achieved independence from British rule. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's first Prime Minister, raised the Indian national flag at the Red Fort in Delhi and delivered the historic "Tryst with Destiny" speech. On the same day, at the same event, Ustad Bismillah Khan played the shehnai from the ramparts of the Red Fort. The raga he chose for this historic occasion was "Raga Kafi," which was symbolic in evoking a sense of joy and celebration. The soulful rendition of Raga Kafi on his shehnai resonated with the emotions of millions of Indians celebrating their newfound freedom.
Unfortunately, there is no known recording of the Ustad's performance at the Red Fort on the 15th of August 1947. In an era when recording was expensive, and the need to preserve memories was not seen as important, the historical event was probably not recorded, and no recordings have surfaced since. This is a great loss, as it would have been a priceless historical document of a truly historic moment. This is one of his later renditions of Raga Kafi, a jugalbandi with N Rajam on the violin.
On the same day, the mellifluous notes of Vande Mataram in Raga Des were heard in Parliament. Sardar Vallabhai Patel, India’s first home minister, had invited Pandit Omkarnath Thakur to sing Vande Mataram. There was then, like now, a controversy that surrounded the song. While many Muslim freedom fighters and rebels sang Vande Mataram; those in the Muslim League, and Jinnah in particular opposed it. So, in many public gatherings just the first stanza of the song would be played.
The Indian National Congress that adopted the song in the 1890’s dropped the remaining stanzas as counter to Jinnah’s poison around the song. Pandit Omkarnath Thakur was known for singing the entire song. His concerts would end with the performance of all verses. When Sardar Patel invited Omkarnath Thakur to Sing, Panditji insisted on singing the song in its entirety. Patel agreed. The song was performed at the studios of All India Radio in Bombay (as it was then) and broadcast to all other stations.
Vande Mataram was an inspiration to freedom fighters ever since Bankim Chandra Chatterjee composed it in his classic tale of sacrifice and revolution, Ananda Math. Rabindranath Tagore sung it in 1896 at the Calcutta Congress gathering. I am not sure a recording from that time would survive. But there is a version of Vande Mataram sung by Guruji, released by Saregama recorded circa 1910.
The song was composed in many ragas, and sung in many ways. The singing star of the 1930’s, Vishnupant Pagnis sang a beautiful version of Vande Mataram in Raga Sarang. Mogubai Kurdikar gave a different shape to the national song, signing it in Raga Khambavati. Bhimsen Joshi gives it a Kirana Gharana touch in Raga Des; while Veena Sahasrabuddhe, in one of her last performances, has a mellifluous version in Raga Kafi. The Great vocalist Hirabai Barodekar is said to have sung Vande Mataram in Raga Tilak Kamode from the ramparts of the red fort at the same event where Bismillah Khan played the Shehnai. But there are absolutely no recordings of that event.
But, the involvement of musicians in the independence movement went beyond singing Vande Mataram. Many were actively involved. Master Flautist Pannalal Ghosh, for example, was actively involved in the fight for independence. He trained to fight in akhadas and gymnasiums – and as his involvement in the independence movement grew, so too did the British Raj’s interest in him. He fled to Calcutta and began honing his skill as a musician there.
Another famous musician associated with the freedom movement was Vishnu Digambar Paluskar – who was really responsible for Hindustani classical music to move out of the courts, to spaces where masses could access him. He used these concerts to spread the word of patriotism through classical music.
Great leaders of that era were inspired by his work. Mahatma Gandhi was so enraptured by VD Paluskar’s (not to be mistaken for his son DV Paluskar) musical composition of Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram – it became his favourite bhajan. Unfortunately there are no recordings of VD Paluskar that survive, but this recording of Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram by DV Paluskar will give us a sense of what it could have sounded like.
And, to end this piece, a tribute to one of the most neglected players in the freedom struggle. The Tawaifs or courtesans. At the height of the non cooperation movement a Tawaif called Vidyadhari Bai heard Gandhi speak. And she was mesmerised by the notion of independence. From then on, she was a transformed woman – singing classical patriotic songs at various mehfils.
Saba Dewan’s inspiring book ‘Tawaifnama’ tells the stories of the Tawaifs of Northern India, who took the word of freedom to their patrons, who gave up their expensive clothes for Khadi, and who used the power of lyrics, music, and dance to popularise azaadi. Very little remains of their work today. In fact, we possibly don’t even remember their names. But they also served, who sang and danced. This version of the song is performed by famous folk singer Malini Awasthi.
Have a melodious Independence Day, and give a silent thanks to the millions of women and men who fought so that we can hold our heads up and say ‘we are an independent people’. I will leave this with Hemant Kumar’s take on Vande Mataram – which I believe is the most beautiful of them all. It is an anthem that calls on us to rise and defend the motherland – and Lata Mangeshkar has never sounded sweeter. Vande Mataram and Jai Hind.
We have created a handy playlist with all the tracks mentioned on splainer’s Youtube channel. ICYMI, you can check out Harini’s playlist on Raga Bhairavi here, Raga Puriya Dhanashree here, Raga Lalit here, Ragas of Spring here and Raga Darbari here.
PS: If you need a list of all the amazing music and videos shared by Harini:
- ‘Raga Kafi’ by Ustad Bismillah Khan and N Rajam
- ‘Vande Mataram:Raga Des’ by Pandit Omkarnath Thakur
- ‘Vande Mataram’ by Guru Rabindranath Tagore.
- ‘Vandemataram: Raga Sarang’ by Vishnupant Pagnis
- ‘Raga Khambavati’ by Mogubai Kurdikar
- ‘Vande Mataram:Raga Des’ by Bhimsen Joshi
- ‘Raaga Kafi’ by Veena Sahasrabuddhe
- Remembering freedom fighter & maestro Pandit Pannalal Ghosh
- Pandit Vishnu Digamber Pulaskar
- ‘Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram’ by DV Paluskar
- Chun Chun Ke Phool Le Lo, a documentary about Vidyabhari Bai.
- ‘Chun Chun ke Phool Le Lo’ by Malini Awisthi
- ‘Vande Mataram’ by Lata Mangeshkar, Hemant Kumar