‘Vaishnav Jan to Tene Kahiye’: One of Gandhi’s favourite bhajans played by classical maestros

First appeared in www.scroll.in on October 3, 2015.

Community singing of bhajans or devotional song-texts was part of the daily routine at the ashrams set up by Mahatma Gandhi.  He asked vocalist and music educationist Vishnu Digambar Paluskar (1872-1931) to depute a disciple to conduct these community singing sessions at the Sabarmati Ashram.  Accordingly, Paluskar sent his disciple Narayan Khare to the Ashram.  Khare was mainly responsible for compiling the Ashram Bhajanavali or the prayer book containing bhajans and other devotional songs pertaining to various religious faiths.

Vaishnav Jan to Tene Kahiye was one of Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite bhajans.  Written by Narsinh Mehta, a saint-poet from fifteenth-century Gujarat, the song-text carries a potent message of empathy, humility, truth, equality, and spirituality, for followers of Vishnu, the Hindu deity, but which could equally be a message for everyone particularly in these times of intolerance, hatred and self-aggrandisement.

This bhajan has also become a favourite with Hindustani vocalists and instrumentalists.  Sung or played in solo recitals or duets, this bhajan has often been treated musically as a dhun or a melody that can be elaborated.  Anchored in Khamaj, a raag that is popular for its thumris and dadras, this bhajan seems to have therefore been treated almost like a thumri.  The excursions out of the main raag stand witness to the capacity of trained singers and instrumentalists to even turn a simple melody into a display of ornate melodic elaborations, at times taking listeners away from the substance of the song-text into the realm of melody and rhythm and also drawing them to the virtuosic skill of the performers.

The first track features well-known vocalist Rashid Khan and sitar player Shahid Parvez in a duet.  They are accompanied on tabla by Akram Khan and on harmonium by Mehmood Dholpuri.

The second track features an instrumental duet between shehnai wizard Bismillah Khan and violinist VG Jog.

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