I have been listening to T. M. Krishna’s ‘unsung anthem’ from the morning. I never thought I would actually sit down and listen to the national anthem (he clarifies though that this is not the national anthem, but rarely-sung verses selected from the longer poem); listen, and listen again and think, and then I want to write something about it.
The verses were used in an abominable film some years ago (there was also a complete national anthem recorded by 39 artistes and produced by Harsh Neotia at the height of Shining India but for now we can ignore it).
After the film, there was a brilliant parody by Dipangshu Acharya (Parody Likhchhe Bidhata). That was in 2015, the second year of Modi-reign.
Now in his second term, the fear of 2015 feels kind of lame, for there is a war that the state is fighting against its own people. Now fear is no longer distant, sporadic or scattered, but it has entered our homes, is all pervading, and it is the one thing that is uniting a part of the nation in hatred and another in the resolve to fight hate.
Now we are searching everywhere and in everything for meaning and strength. T. M. Krishna sings the unsung verses of the national anthem and he sings the line about the many faiths of this land,
অহরহ তব আহ্বান প্রচারিত, শুনি তব উদার বাণী
হিন্দু বৌদ্ধ শিখ জৈন পারসিক মুসলমান খৃস্টানী,
and his voice breaks. He has to stop, he cannot look up, and you see him struggling with his emotions before he can start singing again. I feel tears in my eyes. He is actually singing a tragedy.
Decades ago, when I first started to go to Bangladesh, I would find it odd that across the border they always asked you questions about your religion. It wasn’t something I was used to. Moushumi. That could well be a Muslim name. They were not so familiar with my surname, and could not place it. Are you Muslim, or Hindu, they would ask at the immigration desk, especially if I was going by land. And I would say, I am nothing. How can it be? They would ask. I would say, we do not need to mention any religion on our passports in India. Did I take some pride in being of a state where you could be of any religion or of no religion at all? I think that despite my indifference to the nation named ‘India’, I also felt relieved to hold the dark blue passport which gave me some freedom of choice. Not for much longer, I fear.
Interestingly, Tagore wrote about the beauty and plurality of this grand land, but he was also against small-minded nationalist politics. If Bharat was the country he could admire, then Bengal was the home he loved. ‘Amar sonar Bangla ami tomay bhalobashi, I love you, my golden Bengal,’ he wrote. That became the national anthem of Bangladesh in 1971. One cannot help but be amazed at the turn of events and the course of history. Two songs of a single poet became anthems of two nations, while the barbed wire separating them stands to symbolise the CAA/NRC/NPR crisis today.
T.M. Krishna sings about the land that has a place for all faiths–Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Zorastrian, Muslim and Christian–and his voice breaks. Has, or had? What should we say now? Have we already lost it?
Perhaps not. There was a photograph in the papers yesterday, of a woman named Rehana Khatun, age 28, who was sitting with her baby in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, when the night temperatures were 2.6 degrees Celsius. For the caption they had two other lines from this unsung anthem of Rabindranath Tagore.
ঘোরতিমিরঘন নিবিড় নিশীথে পীড়িত মূর্ছিত দেশে
জাগ্রত ছিল তব অবিচল মঙ্গল নতনয়নে অনিমেষে।
In the darkest night, in this sick and senseless nation,
Your watchful eyes were ever awake, filled with resolute goodness.