If you cross the picturesque kaleidoscope of the Tamilnadu-Kerala border, what are the lilting melodies which melt in your aesthetic subconscious filling you with sublime beauty, even as the synthesizer does fusion music with flutes, tabla, guitar, sitar and drums? And what do you see except the magnificent Mani Ratnam’s scripting of the rural and tribal landscape and Santosh Siwan’s brilliant cinematography mixing with the songs – pristine rivers, waterfalls, water bodies, endless tea gardens, spices growing in forests all around, and a boatman becoming both the river and the song.
What do you carry inside your weary traveller’s heart deep inside like a healing poem which lifts into lyrics and music and fills your senses with unbridled ecstacy, as much as sorrow, sensitivity and angst, flying on the wings of infinite desire? What makes you human, humane, humanist once again?
They are the cross-border Tamil songs, lilting with life’s relentless and invisible genius, discovered and rediscovered in nature and humanity, in the great extraordinariness of the everyday ordinary. They are AR Rahman’s songs, among others, his lilting sufi voice rising above the din of life, and moving into the zigzag of the forests and the hills and the meadows and the lakes, becoming an ode to joy, like Beethhoven’s great rendition.
The same songs in Hindi are half as beautiful as the original version of the Tamil song, a great, classical and ancient language, mixing in lovely synthesis with dialects and sounds, leaves, bark of the tree, forest whispers, birds tweeting, the ripple of the river, the slow dying of the sunset and the sensuous arrival of the moonlit night – and the dark bodies of ordinary men and women, labouring in the fields, selling tea in roadside kiosks, fishing in the deep waters, cooking the most delicious cuisine that human beings can ever imagine on the face of this earth, with a generous mix of multiple spices, and the warmth of their hearts and hands.
Rahman speaks to us in their rainbow voices, in their delicacies and aromas; he turns the dialectic upside down, he merges metaphysics with realism, turns silence into gold, and God into man and woman. Truly, he represents the unbearable lightness of both great music and great genius.
So why is AR Rahman being trolled and abused for singing at Wembley Stadium in London on 8 July with a huge audience rocking to his beats? Rahman's ‘Netru, Indru, Naalai’ (Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow) apparently did not go down well with certain Hindi chauvinists though he got a tremendous response, as expected from the audience. "Hi London. Thanks for the tremendous support and response. However, we have been getting a few complaints on language bias which is rather unfortunate as this was an Indian show and music does not have barriers,” a Facebook post was posted on his behalf.
So what did the frogs-in-the-well want? Chaiya Chaiya… which too is a remarkable and sensuous choreographed song with Malaika Arora moving like an oriental goddess on top of a moving train? Or, did they want only patriotic songs, as in Roja?
What is this obsession with Bollywood and Hindi songs, when this country is so rich with a millions sounds, textures, fabrics, languages and dialects? What if Rahman had sung a Santhali song, perhaps one of the richest in terms of oral tradition in tribal anthropology, or a Kashmiri melody like a childhood song, Rabindranath Tagore’s Rabindrasangeet, in chaste Bengali, a revolutionary song by Kazi Nazrul Islam, or a Bob Dylan radical song of anti-establishment rupture, even a great Bulle Shah song from Punjab arguing that god is everywhere, and not only in mosques, churches or temples, as sung so beautifully by Rabbi Shergil with his guitar in the massive ‘Not in my name’ protests in Delhi?
Hence, the great, Late Bhupen Hazarika, joined the BJP. Ek Anmol Ratna said Sushma Swaraj while introducing him. So should we not listen to his Assamese and Bengali songs: Bistrin du paare.. ashonkho manushuer.. hahakaar shuneo.. nistobdo nirob bhabhe boicho keno... o ganga tumi boicho keno?
Or, hello, what to say about the Chutney music of West Indian rap, hip-hop, reggae... with Bhojpuri mixed in forgotten by all those who sing it: the inheritors of indentured, bonded and plantation labour from Bihar and Jharkhand, deported forcibly as slave labour to the islands so far away that they wen mad.. Many of them are now illustrious names in the annals of West Indian Cricket.
Will they reject Ravishankar’s Sitar mixing with the guitar and drums of the Beatles?
Indeed, it the time to listen to Beatles’ ‘While my guitar gently weeps…’. Or the ‘Sounds of Silence’ by Simon and Garfunkel. In a country where lynch mobs have become an epidemic, chauvinism, xenophobia, hate politics and racism runs deep. A woman who is not paid her salary as domestic labour in Nodia is beaten up and branded as a Bangladeshi, even while she has all the papers. All the 500 domestic workers living in a slum next to a sprawling luxury penthouse with a bizarre, incomprehensible name – Mahagun Moderne -- are banned from entering the complex, even while the memories of Eid and teenager Junaid stabbed multiple times in Delhi’s neighbourhood along with his brother is still simmering like a wound which refuses to heal.
And even if they are Bangladeshis, is it a crime to be one? Or a Rohingya, refugees of nowhere land? Now, do we declare Bangladesh as also our enemy, even as Pakistan-bashing is our obsessive national pastime, and even while China has rubbed our nose to the ground with ruthless continuity? Is India’s leadership becoming another Trump protagonist, whereby in America Indians are being fatally attacked by racists and white supremacists?
From Mohammad Aklaq of Dadri to Pehlu Khan in Rajasthan, the lynch mob moves like a diabolical spiral spewing venom, cow vigilantism and pseudo nationalism in one ugly breath – which has become the cultural bread and butter of the Sangh Parivar, vitiating the entire country’s social fabric. It is like the targeting of Jews selectively in Germany before the war, and much before the gas chambers and the concentration camps turned the Holocaust into modernity’s tragic epic of barbarism.
Ask a Northeast student in Delhi how it feels to speak their language amongst the dominant discourse, and how they are looked upon, humiliated and degraded day after day? Do we know that Arunachal Pradesh has 26 tribes and they speak and sing in different languages? Chinki, mow mow, momo: what are the racist names they are called out on the streets?
Ask an African student, pushed into the ghettos of the city’s periphery, what it feels to go to the market to buy vegetable and milk. So, do we ever choose to hear the young music bands of Shillong, Kohima and Imphal? Have they ever heard of the great band of Imphal, often singing in beautiful Manipuri language: Imphal Talkies? Can they ever hear the pulsating African beats, or the soulful blues and jazz of Afro-American music, on the streets, or inside a church? Will they ever like to watch a movie on the Ku Klux Klan like ‘Mississippi Burning’? Will they ever learn their lessons?
Tagore said nationalism is a curse. Gandhi said, open all your doors and windows for all kinds of cultures to come inside. Vivekananda went to Chicago and called all Americans ‘brothers and sisters’. Nehru went inside a violent mob in Noakhali even as Gandhi sat on a fast, challenging them with his moral and ethical authority. And what does our ruling leaders do now in contemporary India, the ruling regime of one nation, one culture, one language? It pleads to the mass murderers and cow vigilantes with farcical appeals, while tacitly allowing the fringe groups to run amok.
The frogs-in-the-well will do well to travel across the multiple landscapes of India, from the Himalayas to the Vindhyas to the sublime eastern and western ghats, and across the Tamilnadu-Kerala border, especially. They should learn from the spices of Munnar which grows and spreads its aroma like the Tamil songs which floats like butterflies and grasshoppers across the pristine landscape.
Those who thrive on barriers, clichés, chauvinism and prejudice, they should try unlearning and learning the language which they seem so possessive about --- there is great beauty in Hindi, as in its literature and poetry. And, yet, there is great beauty in other languages too and we are so lucky to have so many of them in India.
So, sing a song. Even a song sung blue. Because, music has no barriers. Three cheers for AR Rahman!