Harmonic nationalism

Singing Gandhi's India: Music And Sonic Nationalism. Photo: Amazon
Towards the end of this compelling volume, Lakshmi Subramanian touches on the after-life of Gandhi’s music. She mentions the compositions inspired by Gandhi, including Raga Mohan Kaus by Ravi Shankar and Kumar Gandharva’s Gandhi Malhar. These are commemorative and classical. Also interesting — and this touches on the popular power of Gandhi’s music — is the everyday memory. I recall a family elder who never listened to any music. But he made an exception for Gandhi’s favourite Ram Dhun. He liked it so much that he possessed two copies of the 78 rpm vinyl recording, presumably to keep one in reserve. But the most fascinating part of his involvement was his utter silence when he listened to the bhajan. 

Ms Subramanian’s volume provides insight into the structure of feeling that Gandhi left behind, the imprint of which was visible in my relative. Gandhi was no composer or aficionado. But he was no ordinary listener. He was really a maker of sonic communities. Musical stalwarts like D V Paluskar pioneered the deployment of music as a national heritage, but the conditions for this were laid out by the shift in music from the courts and  ustads and that of the devdasis and tawaifs by the rise of a middle-class public that insisted on the national identity of music. Gandhi was very close to Paluskar who pioneered the shift from classical compositions to those that catered to public devotional congregations of Hindus. Paluskar composed bhajans for Gandhi. However, Gandhi departed from Paluskar in two important respects. The first was his refusal to be tied to the exclusive insistence on Hinduness that was central to Paluskar’s concerns. The second was the ethical (in addition to the spiritual) element that Gandhi brought to the idea of music. The second element provides an illuminating gloss to the stillness of my relative as he listened to the Ram Dhun.

For Gandhi, music created spiritual and ethical publics. While Gandhi emphasised the Hindu elements, the latter was regarded as part of a universal spirituality that did not hesitate to include the name of Allah with Hari as variants of the same God. In his later public prayers, Christian hymns were sung together with reading of verses from the Koran and Avesta. This was an essential part of what Ms Subramanian calls Gandhi’s sonic nationalism. Together with spirituality was the emphasis on self-discipline. By singing together, participants inculcated mastery over the self — like the act of prayer or of spinning. For Gandhi, it generated a disciplined social body that could even include drills. This was not to be routinised, however. Singing involved an “inner” conviction in devotional self-discipline. Parenthetically, I must observe that Ms Subramanian could have elaborated on Gandhi’s suspicion of the senses. For him, music was a way of controlling and mastering the senses. Did this also produce a narrowing of the affective experience of music itself — may be even of making music into an ethical fetish? A comparison here with Tagore’s ideas on music, especially because of the common preoccupation with the spiritual, would have been interesting.

The idea of sonic nationalism was based on producing a nation through a moral politics anchored in universalist principles. What makes Ms Subramanian’s conception significant is her handling of Gandhi’s responses to the role of music in Hindu-Muslim conflict. There are two phases in Gandhi’s relationship with communalism that Ms Subramanian explores. The first is the formative period of mass communalism in the 1920s. This was marked by massive, pan-Indian riots over music before mosques and go-korbani (cow slaughter). Ms Subramanian dwells on the ambivalence and contradictory ways in which Gandhi framed his responses to this issue, calling the Muslims bullies and Hindus cowards — while enjoining both communities to refrain from provoking the other. Ms Subramanian dwells on his statements, but leaves out the (largely ineffective) silence that accompanied the public fasts that Gandhi deployed to counter these conflicts. 

The most moving and complex part of the book covers Gandhi’s response to the mass communal carnages of the Partition- related riots. Ms Subramanian shows how Gandhi moved to the practice of public prayer and underlined the importance of music in all walks of life. These required an inner conviction in work. Indeed, Gandhi appears to have given greater value to his universalist “inner” ethical conviction than before. Indeed, he went so far as to say that he was closer to Hinduism by reading the Koran. He also emphasised the responsibility of the majority community in India and Pakistan to respect the sensitivities of their minorities. 

Gandhi’s last phase and its tremendous importance on the inner conviction raises the question as to whether the affective unity of the nation was more important to him than the beliefs he thought indissociable from the nation. Was there a rupture in Gandhi’s understanding of music as producing national togetherness on the one hand and the social values of his nation committed to communal peace and to preserving the sacred value of human life on the other hand?  

Singing Gandhi’s India: Music and Sonic Nationalism
Author:  Lakshmi Subramanian
Publisher: Roli Books
Price: Rs 495

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