On Gandhi Jayanti, remembering Mahatma's most beloved hymns — from Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram to Lead, Kindly Light

A common theme seems to run through Gandhiji’s preferred playlist. The themes of devotion, harmony and reconciliation are a common thread. And through all of the songs, there is a sense of gazing deeply into the self to bring out the best that resides in everyone regardless of how trying the circumstances are.

Karthik Venkatesh October 02, 2019 09:30:22 IST
On Gandhi Jayanti, remembering Mahatma's most beloved hymns — from Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram to Lead, Kindly Light

Mahatma Gandhi. Wikimedia Commons

  • A common theme seems to run through Gandhiji's preferred playlist. The themes of devotion, harmony and reconciliation are a common thread.

  • Through all of the songs, there is a sense of gazing deeply into the self to bring out the best that resides in everyone regardless of how trying the circumstances are.

***

Editor’s Note: This piece was first published on 2 October 2019. It has been republished on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary also known as Gandhi Jayanti.

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For five centuries, Gujaratis have kept the musical and poetic legacy of the Bhakti poet, Narasinha (Narsi) Mehta alive. The songs of the poet, who lived in the 15th century (1414–1480), are sung all over Gujarat in temples, in cultural gatherings and are studied as poems in schools and colleges besides being hummed by people in the course of their humdrum daily chores. Unbeknownst to them, many non-Gujaratis too have heard at least one of Narsi Mehta’s songs and many probably even know more than the stray line or two of the song, but are likely unaware of its author.

The song in question is Narsi Mehta’s Vaishnava Jana To Tene Kahiye Je (Call only that person a Vaishnava or a godlike person) which was one of Gandhiji’s favourite songs and a source of profound inspiration to him through good times and bad. They were a regular feature of his prayer meetings which usually featured a variety of hymns. In 1982, the song’s usage in the movie Gandhi popularised the song among a whole new generation of listeners both in India and abroad.

On Gandhi Jayanti remembering Mahatmas most beloved hymns  from Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram to Lead Kindly Light

Mahatma Gandhi. Image via WikimediaCommons

Another hymn that regularly featured in Gandhiji’s prayer meetings was Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram, sometimes called Ram Dhun, a popular bhajan whose lyrics were taken from Shri Nama Ramayanam written by Lakshmanacharya and modified by Gandhiji. The original lines went:

Raghupati raghava rajaram,
patita paavana sitaram.
Sundara vigraha meghashyam,
Ganga tulasi salagram.
Bhadra girishwara sitaram,
Bhagat janapriya sitaram.
Janaki ramana sitaram,
Jaya jaya raghava sitaram

Gandhiji’s version, which he and his fellow satyagrahis chanted during the Dandi March of 1930 runs:

Raghupati raghava rajaram,
Patita paavana sitaram,
bhaj pyaare tu sitaram
ishwar allah tero naam,
sabko sanmati de bhagwan.

Clearly modified with a view to spreading the message of reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims, the song was set to tune by the renowned musicologist, Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. In recent times, the song has featured in popular Hindi films like Lage Raho Munnabhai and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. In 1982, the song was the opening track on the Afrobeat band Osibisa’s album Osibisa – Unleashed – Live.

Another song that Gandhiji turned to often was Rabindranath Tagore’s Ekla Cholo Re. Written in 1905, the song became popular during the Swadeshi movement and the movement against the Partition of Bengal. The lines in Bangla went Jodi tor dak sune keu na ashe tabe ekla chalo re (If they answer not your call, walk alone). As a public personality forever in the midst of people, what in the song that urged people to plough their own course could possibly have appealed to Gandhiji? Could it be the fact that at many important junctures in the freedom movement, Gandhiji stood alone, with the rest of the Congress ranged against him? Can one surmise therefore that this song spoke to Gandhiji’s inner persona more than some of the others?

In 2012, Amitabh Bacchan’s rendition of Ekla Cholo Re in the Bollywood movie Kahaani revived interest in the song.

In February 1908 Gandhiji was brutally assaulted in Johannesburg by Mir Alam, a Johannesburg-based Pathan, who was convinced that the compromise that Gandhiji had reached with General Jan Christian Smuts, the Prime Minister of South Africa was a betrayal. The compromise that had riled Alam so much was that as per Gandhiji’s agreement, Indians would now consent to voluntary fingerprinting as opposed to the compulsory fingerprinting that was then the law. After the assault, Gandhiji was taken to the home of a Baptist clergyman, Joseph Doke who, with his wife, nursed Gandhiji back to health. Upon arriving at Doke’s home, Gandhiji requested (in writing, since the bandages on his jaw would not allow him to speak) that Doke’s daughter, Olive, sing his favourite English hymn, Lead, Kindly Light before he rested.

In 1916 at a conference of missionaries in Madras (now Chennai), Gandhiji himself sang the hymn originally written by Cardinal John Henry Newman in 1833. From 1916 up until his death in January 1948 Lead, Kindly Light is regularly referred to in Gandhiji’s writings. He is said to have quoted it in difficult conversations with the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, during the Civil Disobedience Movement and even had the hymn translated into Gujarati so that it could be sung at the daily prayer.

It is a matter of conjecture where Gandhiji first encountered the hymn and took to it so much. It is possible that he first encountered this hymn as a student at Alfred High School in Rajkot where he studied from 1881 to 1887. Another possibility is that he encountered the hymn in England during his years as a law student from 1888 to 1891.

The hymn’s first stanza was said to have been particularly dear to him:

Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on,
The night is dark and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on;
Keep Thou my feet, I do not ask to see
The distant scene, one step enough for me

Another hymn, Abide With Me by the Scottish Anglican pastor, Henry Francis Lyte, which is a prayer to God to remain with the devotee through life and death is also said to have been a favourite with Gandhiji. Set to the tune of Eventide, a tune by William Henry Monk, ironically, this hymn was also the favourite of Kind George V who reigned over Great Britain between 1910 and 1936, during which time, Gandhiji shook the mighty British Empire to its very foundations. It was sung at the wedding of George V’s son, King George VI and his grand-daughter, Queen Elizabeth II. Since 1927, it has also been sung before the kick-off at the FA Cup Final. In India, it is played at the end of the Republic Day celebrations during the ‘Beating of the Retreat’.

A common theme seems to run through Gandhiji’s preferred playlist. The themes of devotion, harmony and reconciliation are a common thread. And through all of the songs, there is a sense of gazing deeply into the self to bring out the best that resides in everyone regardless of how trying the circumstances are.

On 2 October, 1947, on what turned out to be Gandhiji’s last birthday, a recording of Mirabai’s Hari Tum Haro Jan Ki Peer in MS Subbulakshmi’s voice was played for him. This had been arranged by Rajaji, Gandhi’s old comrade-in-arms. This was a song he constantly returned to in the remaining months of his life and the song that was played after the announcement of his assassination on All India Radio (AIR).

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