LISTENING to Shruti Sadolikar in Delhi the other day my mind leapt into a maze of politics. Here was a Maharashtrian Brahmin woman singer remembering Ustad Alladiya Khan, her guru’s guru. It was just the opposite of what some other Maharashtrian Brahmins would want her to do.
Her recital of Raag Tilak Kamod bore resemblance to the composition Kesarbai Kerkar once sang. It was a song whose words celebrated the virtues of knowing true music. Kesarbai had learnt it firsthand from the founder of the Jaipur-Atrauli school of music, who, going by his name, should be of erstwhile Khorasani extraction. In Raag Poorvi, Sadolikar’s bandish wove patterns imbibed from Hazrat Amir Khusro’s tribute to his patron saint Nizamuddin Auliya.
Then my mind jumped to the 19th-century Sanskrit poem, Vande Matram. It was composed by a Bengali Brahmin and then borrowed by Maharashtrian Brahmins, to sing and also to vend politics in their patch. Music, however, defanged the song’s poisonous politics. Vishnupant Pagnis sang it in Brindavani Saarang. Vishnu Digamabar Paluskar performed it at Congress party sessions. Master Krishnarao (1898-1974) sang it in Bilawal, a composition said to be inspired by Paluskar. Omkarnath Thakur’s version exists in Devgiri Bilawal. Mogubai Kurdikar, mother of Kishori Amonkar, sang Vande Matram in Raag Khambavati.
A version sung by Manna Dey, Sudha Malhotra and Parul Ghosh in Raag Mian ki Malhaar for a 1950s’ movie was composed by the great Bengali flautist Pannalal Ghosh. Lata Mangeshkar and others have sung it. The Hindutva underclass that targets Muslims, not without promptings from a coterie of Chitpawan Brahmins of Maharashtra, knows virtually nothing about Vande Matram’s musical journey. The underclass knows only that it is something you shout to corner vulnerable Muslims.
The assassination of rationalist writers and activists by suspected Hindutva militants is of a piece with the rise of the underclass.
A.R. Rahman, possibly the least accomplished of the Vande Matram crooners, composed the poem into a TV song. He is a self-proclaimed Muslim but that could not be the reason why his version sticks out like a poor cousin from Vande Matram’s hoary past. If Rahman’s version is the most popular among the Hindutva underclass, blame TV.
Hindustan mein rahna hai to Vande Matram kehna hoga, shouts the tuneless Hindutva underclass, with prompting from the Chitpawan elites in Nagpur. (You want to live in India? You have to say Vande Matram, ie long live the motherland.) There is no point asking if the mobs can sing Vande Matram like Vishnupant Pagnis.
The assassination of rationalist writers and activists — Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi — by suspected Hindutva militants is of a piece with the rise of the underclass. They are a pawn between rival Hindu elites, a history that goes back to the Tilak-Ranade rivalry of the early 20th century. Ranade embraced enlightened Hindu tradition. Tilak used the street power of the hoi polloi to press his campaign of nascent Hindutva, nationalism laced with religion.
The way Prime Minister Modi identifies himself with the underclass, Nehru, Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh could not, would not. Indian writers who have returned their state awards to protest deepening intolerance across the country — Nayantara Sahgal — a niece of Nehru, Ashok Vajpayee, Krishna Sobti, Uday Prakash among dozens of others — can be readily identified as men and women from the intellectual elite seeking social justice for Dalits and assorted minorities. They are now increasingly confronted by Hindutva’s destructive cultural appeal. In Iran’s cultural and religious experiment such liberal, left and moderate ideologues were condemned as munafiqeen, or hypocrites, deserving of death. Hundreds were killed. The battle seems to have begun in India.
In his clarion call to deal with Muslims shortly before independence, M.S. Golwalkar offered the prescription that Hitler had used on German Jews. He had not provisioned for the resistance from the unannounced rise of the equally resolute Hindu ‘munafiqeen’, the ‘hypocrites’ who would rain on the Hindutva parade.
I once had a conversation with K.R. Malkani, the late senior member of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. He read and wrote in Urdu and didn’t know the first letter of Hindi. Iran, he told me in the early years after the revolution, could contain the kernel of the strategy that Hindutva would use to bring down a secular state, by shaking it, rattling it, with sheer street power.
There was a big difference in the outcome, however. Iran, despite the ayatollahs, or perhaps because of them, stood up for the Mustazafeen, the oppressed underclass that helped overthrow the Shah.
In the few decades since the revolution, the Islamic Republic has taken significant steps toward fulfilling its promise to this class. It has done so by giving priority to social rather than military expenditures, and thus dramatically expanding the ministries of education, health, agriculture, labour, housing, welfare and social security. The military consumed as much as 18pc of GDP in the last years of the Shah. Now it takes up as little as 4pc.
In three decades, the regime has reduced illiteracy among the post-revolutionary generations, from 53pc to 15pc. The percentage of women in university student populations has gone up from 30pc to 62pc.
A section of the underclass in West Bengal, in the wake of a faltering working class movement, recently switched sides from the left to the extreme right. It may be kept busy with Mohammed Akhlaq-like episodes off and on. But there is already a bigger task cut out — this time to take on the moderate and liberal Hindus, heirs to Ranade, Nehru and Jyoti Basu’s mantle. This is the battle the Hindutva ayatollahs are not likely to win easily, if they ever do. Whatever the outcome, the way the dice is loaded between Nagpur and New Delhi, the underclass is primed to be short-changed, unlike in Iran. Such is the usurious class character of Hindutva. On the other hand, learning to sing instead of shouting Vande Matram from the rooftops might ease the pain of many in the mobs.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, October 20th , 2015