Songs for Our Times

I have been watching with increasing despair and sorrow these past few months as India has teetered on the brink of disharmony and violence, hoping against hope that it was just a passing phase. There were moments when I felt things were looking up, for instance, when people of other faiths—not just Muslims—came together at Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere to oppose CAA and NRC. There were times I told myself it was getting better, that India was essentially secular, and that divisive forces would eventually be defeated.

Then the Delhi carnage happened. Many were killed, even more injured. Property was destroyed, people were forced to flee their homes. Curfew was clamped. We mourned. Not just for the dead, but for the way the hydra-headed monster of hatred, bigotry and violence had again reared its head.

I have lived in Delhi for most of my life, and to see the city burning like that—if only virtually, since I now live in Noida and don’t need to go to Delhi often—was heartbreaking. My Twitter and Facebook feeds were flooded with horrifying photos and articles, and I despaired, wondering where humanity had gone.

And then the heartwarming bits of news began trickling in: the gurudwaras which announced that their doors were open to victims of the violence, irrespective of faith; the Hindus who staunchly protected Muslim neighbours; the Muslims who formed a chain around a temple, the Sikh who risked his own life to ferry Muslim neighbours to safety, again and again and again… each piece brought with it new hope. Yes, humanity will triumph, I thought. This too shall pass.

This week’s blog post, I thought, merited a list. A list of songs that call for peace and communal harmony. Songs that remind us that hatred and violence go nowhere, and that religion is supposed to make you a better person, not an evil, angry one.

As always, these songs are all from pre-70s Hindi films that I’ve seen. But this time, there are two exceptions to my usual (self-imposed) rules. For once, I’ve not stuck to my rule of not including two songs from the same film. For another, this time, the songs are (somewhat) in order. Not of my liking them, but of how I I’ve been feeling these past days.

1. Yeh kiska lahu hai kaun mara (Dharmputra, 1961): I actually posted the link to this song on my Twitter feed, because it is so sadly appropriate to what’s been happening in Delhi. The bloodshed, the angry mobs, the burnt houses. Yeh kiska lahu hai kaun mara is a lament for the anguish of Partition, but it’s so relevant even today. And Sahir Ludhianvi, never one to mince words, says it brilliantly: Jis Ram ke naam pe khoon bahe, Us Ram ki ijjat kya hogi; Jis deen ke haathon laaj lute, Us deen ki keemat kya hogi (That Ram on whose name blood is spilled: What honour will be of that Ram? That faith at the hands of which rape is done: what price is that faith?) If there is a Hindi film song that shows communal violence its true, non-religious, face, it is this one. Blunt and brutally honest.

2. Dekh tere sansaar ki haalat (Nastik, 1954): Another song from a film set during the Partition and its aftermath. Another song about the brutality and utter inhumanity that takes over so many when it’s a question of religion. Kavi Pradeep isn’t as hard-hitting as Sahir (and I, personally, do not think ‘lafanga’ is an appropriately harsh word to describe rioters and murderers), but he does, in his own somewhat milder way, condemn the hatred and communal disharmony of the times.

3. Allah tero naam Ishwar tero naam (Hum Dono, 1961): If Sahir could express the helpless fury of a man seeing nothing but strife around him in Yeh kiska lahu hai kaun mara, he could also write this very different song: a poignant plea for peace. Addressed to both Allah and Ishwar (and therefore implying a prayer from both Hindu and Muslim), this is a devotional song which asks not for material wealth or long life or all the other blessings most Hindi film bhajans beg for. Instead, it asks for wisdom and compassion, among those who rule and among those who are ruled. An anti-war song in the context of the film, but an apt song for what we’re going through as a country. Balwaanon ko de de gyaan, indeed.

4. Khuda-e-bartar teri zameen (Taj Mahal, 1963): When I think of Allah tero naam Ishwar tero naam, I am reminded also of a similar song, also addressed to the deities of both India’s major faiths, that wept for the loss of humanity’s humanity: Ishwar Allah tere jahaan mein, from Earth (1999). The sentiment of Ishwar Allah tere jahaan mein, however, is closer to that of yet another song written by Sahir. For Taj Mahal, he wrote Khuda-e-bartar teri zameen, another song that moans for the loss of humanity, the violence that has become not just so every day, but is so glorified.

This song is rather more explicitly against war, but still: it also questions the hatred, the greed, the eagerness for power that drives people to violence.

5. Humne suna thha ek hai Bharat (Didi, 1959): I picked the songs for this list strictly on the basis of lyrics, without even paying a second thought to who had written those lyrics. It was only when I actually began writing up the description for each song that I realized something: a startling majority of these songs were written by Sahir. Songs that spoke up for peace, songs that spoke against communalism and for the unity of all Indians.

Humne suna thha ek hai Bharat is another. Sunil Dutt, as the teacher, finds himself facing the questions of the students of his class, asking why India is called ‘one’ when it’s so diverse, and why there isn’t peace, even though the Quran says the same things that the Veda-Puranas do. The teacher puts the blame on the ‘Divide and Rule’ policy of the British, but one can see how relevant that answer is in today’s day too…

6. Tu Hindu banega na Musalmaan banega (Dhool ka Phool, 1959): Possibly the most popular song about secularism in Hindi cinema, this one reinforces the idea of the previous one: training in tolerance and mutual respect must begin early. Children must be taught the importance of a secular outlook, of not letting religion come in the way of humanity. Manmohan Krishna’s character in Dhool ka Phool, having adopted an abandoned baby, takes it upon himself to teach the child the way to live. Not as a Hindu, not as a Muslim, but as a human being. Humane. Sahir (again!) dwells on how the Almighty created us as human beings; it’s we who have divided ourselves up into different nations, different religions. There is more to it, though: he also derides the distortion of religion, and the corruption of the powers that be (Yeh mahalon mein baithe hue kaafir yeh lutere)—and promises a day when this child will grow up to put an end to the forces that divide.

7. Kaabe mein raho ya Kashi mein (Dharmputra, 1961): When I mentioned, in my introduction to this post, that in this list I wouldn’t stick to my usual rule of including only one song per film, Dharmputra was the film I had in mind. While this excellent story of communal harmony had the anguished Yeh kiska lahu hai kaun mara, it also had this superb qawwali. Picturised on two men, one a Muslim and the other a Hindu, this duet is all about how religion is a very personal thing, and that religion shouldn’t come in the way of love and humanity. Whether you go to Kashi or to Kaaba, whether you go to the temple or the mosque—it doesn’t matter. Chaahe yeh maano chaahe woh maano. If only more people could understand this.

8. Bane ho ek khaaq se (Aarti, 1962): The musical score of Aarti tends to be remembered for its bigger hits: Baar-baar tohe kya samjhaaye, Kabhi toh milegi, and Ab kya misaal doon. But tucked away between those is this gentle, quiet little song which talks of how we are all made of the same clay, how the colour of our blood is the same. True, Majrooh Sultanpuri writes this more specifically to show why the (perceived) gap between rich and poor is baseless, but that core premise—that we, under our skins, are all exactly the same—may well be employed to crush other manmade differences as well. Lagaa lo sabko tum gale, habib kya raqeeb kya (Embrace all, why differentiate between friend and enemy).

9. Pyaar baantte chalo (Hum Sab Ustaad Hain, 1965): And this is the crux of the matter, the way we can work towards a better world. Share the love, pass it on. Don’t think of yourself as different from the other.

Pyaar baantte chalo takes off from a scene which is a good everyday insight into religion-based discrimination: it’s time for a meal in a train, and Kishore Kumar’s character is puzzled to see that a bunch of men aren’t eating anything, though they obviously have food with them. Why, he asks, and the Dalit, seated on the floor of the train, says that he can’t, not with the Brahmin sitting next to him and glaring: only when the Brahmin starts eating can the Dalit dare to. And why isn’t the Brahmin eating? Because he’s got this Muslim sitting next to him, bhrasht-karoing his dharam. As for the Muslim, he’s grouchy about the Christian stuffing his face next to him (it’s not spelled out exactly what the grouse is about, but I’m guessing that’s possibly a ham sandwich). The point is, all these guys (except the Christian) are depriving themselves of food just because of their own prejudices.

I love the simplicity of this message: you can be any faith you want, but remember that we’re all, eventually, one. Ram yeh hai toh Rehman tum ho, Yeh hai Kartar toh John tum ho; Naam kuchh ho magar yeh na bhoolo, sabse pehle insaan tum ho (This is Ram, and you are Rehman. This is Kartar, and you are John. You may have whatever name, but you are, first, human).

10. Woh subaah kabhi toh aayegi (Phir Subaah Hogi, 1958): To end, a song of hope. The darkest of nights must have an end. There will always be a dawn; it may seem like centuries before it comes, and the night may be full of terrors—but dawn is inevitable. Jis subaah ki amrit ki dhun mein hum zehar ke pyaale peete hain (That dawn, in the hope of whose nectar we now drink cups of poison): that dawn will come someday.

And, on those words—of Sahir, again—a little plea: please spread the love. Don’t let yourself be swept away by the bigotry and hate that is prevailing, the lies that are spread everywhere. If you can’t help those who are victims of the violence, at least do what you can to not spread the hate further. Let us not have another Delhi 2020 again.

54 thoughts on “Songs for Our Times

  1. Very timely and appropriate !
    What is happening in Delhi is very unfortunate. I wish that the good sense prevails and things return to normalcy soon.
    Interestingly, 7 of the 10 songs are by Sahit Ludhyanvi alone !

    • Yes, I was surprised to discover that so many of these songs were written by Sahir – it says a lot about the sort of films he often wrote for. Many of them were quite different from the run-of-the-mill romance-crime-comedy formula.

      I so hope normalcy returns to Delhi soon. It is heartbreaking to see the horror and the hatred which has been unleashed.

  2. This is not the India we grew up in.
    I am glad that I have not many years left and that my children have settled abroad.
    My best friends are Muslims and my wife and I both studied in Catholic schools and colleges.
    We know the value addition these communities bring to India.
    This makes us sadder.

    • So true. This hate-filled India is so different from the India I saw growing up as a child, too. We have always prided ourselves on the inclusivity of India. Now things are such that I wonder, every now and then, what will come next. After the Muslims have been pushed out or killed, whose turn will it be? Christians, Sikhs? Who will be the next target of all this hatred?

      • I’m an outsider, but there is already a lot of violence and discrimination against Christians, as far as I know; Margaret of dontcallitbollywood did a good analysis of that a while ago. Sikhs and Jews have always faced violence. I mean the Jewish population didn’t mostly leave for nothing. I did some research on the Sikh situation for that Black Prince film last year and it was not cheerful. Jains and Bhuddists I don’t know anything about, though.

        • I’m a Christian, and I’d say that the violence and discrimination against Christians is there, but it’s less generalized and less all-pervasive. Possibly that’s because most Christians tend to be far less visibly recognizable – in a crowd, a Muslim may stand out because of burkha, skull cap, etc (not always, of course), but nearly all Christians dress in exactly the way most Hindus do. Plus, discrimination in cities, among the educated and well-off Christians, is much less (not unknown, though – in fact, several churches in Delhi were desecrated in various ways, one after the other, a few years back).

          The situation in the rural areas is pretty bad – there was that horrific incident, many years ago, of the Staines family being burnt in their car, and there have been lots of reports of churches being burnt or Christians being forced to participate in ghar-wapasi rituals to bring them back into the ‘fold of Hinduism’.

          I guess the Christians are too small a minority to pose any sort of even perceived threat to Hindutva supporters. Buddhists and Jains are probably pretty safe – both are homegrown faiths, you see, so they aren’t perceived as alien, which is the main grouse. Sikhism is a homegrown faith, too, but the Sikhs have proven, time and again, that they won’t kowtow to anybody, and that irks some people…

          • I mean, what you describe is already what I would call an emergency situation based on polarisation models. It is tipping into ethnic cleansing for muslims already, but it could definitely tip for any of the other groups, too. I guess not standing out is an advantage Christians have, though, which is another thing Sikhs have against them.

            • Yes, standing out visibly applies for Sikhs also – one very real reason for the way they were treated back in 1984. I didn’t live in Delhi back then, but just the stories I’ve heard of it are hair-raising in their brutality. :-(

              Do watch Dharmputra. It’s an unusual movie, and a good one. Shashi, despite being so young, is convincing.

  3. By far your best blog post ever
    You perfectly expressed what many of us feel – the increasing despair and sorrow, the heartbreak about what’s happening in our city
    The song list is perfect too: the songs remind us of our common humanity and give us hope

    • Thank you so much. To me, too, it seemed like the most heartfelt post I’ve ever written. This one really came from the heart, and I had second thoughts about posting it: would people think I was being too frivolous, posting song lists when others are trying to recover from the way their lives have been destroyed and their nearest and dearest killed?

      Then I figured I needed to. Just compiling this post helped me express some of the despair I feel, and I hoped it might arouse some feeling in others too. Plus, of course, offer some comfort.

  4. A timely post. When the situations in the country are making us sad, the plea for peace and harmony is the most appropriate thing.
    The song list is perfect.
    Let me add a song from Border,
    mere dushman mere bhai

  5. A song from Nanha Farishta:
    bachche me hai bhagvan
    bachche me hai rahman
    bachcha jesus ki shan
    Not about overcoming violence/hatred/… but about a oneness in religions.

  6. An excellent speaking collection of soulful lyrics.Those who are spreading hatred in the name of religion should hear every word of each song and if they are human,they will undergo a change.

    • “if they are human,they will undergo a change.

      I hope so! But sometimes I feel these people aren’t even human. I have just read news about them blocking relief supplies being ferried to the victims of the violence.

      How brutal people can be.

  7. :( ‘New Post’, I said to myself. And then, this… Not because it isn’t good; it is. Very good, indeed. But because it’s needed. Isn’t it sad that ‘Songs for Our Times’ have to be these? That after 70+ years, the more things change, the more they remain the same?

    In that vein, from Mere Geet, a Rafi solo: Aapas ke jhagdon ne.

    And what about Jaanewaale sipaahi se poocho from Usne Kaha Tha? It talks about the fultility of war, but is so relevant in civil war as well, don’t you think?

    p.s I think you (and bollyviewer) have given me the germ of an idea for a (complementary) post.

    • Yes, so terrible that ‘our times’ should be reflected in songs like these. I was praying yesterday that I would be able to, before the year is out, be able to post a list of which the first song would be Aayi hain bahaarein mite zulm-o-sitam. :-(

      I had never heard Aapas ke jhagdon before. Jaanewaale sipaahi se poochho I had a long tussle over; I couldn’t decide whether to include it or not, but eventually decided to drop it (regretfully!) because I figured I had ten songs that more fitted the occasion. But a lovely song and a lovely plea for peace.

      I am looking forward to seeing your post!

  8. I am a big fan of your writing. Recently among a group of music loving friends, we had a song topic to sing…songs of Chitragupt & Ravi. Plenty of Ravi songs but fewer of Chitragupt. I decided to read your list of your 10 favourite Chitragupt songs & decided to sing Agar Sun Le as 1 u listed having heard it in your childhood. It was a fantastic song & much appreciated. I’m not a professional singer but an ardent music lover. Sharing with you a song inspired by your writing.

    Sorry for taking the liberty to send you a song but appreciate your choice.

    Sunil

    >

    • You didn’t send me the song, but I’m sure it must have been wonderful. Is it on Youtube (or any other streaming site)? If you don’t mind, could you share the link? I would like to listen.

      And thank you so much for the kind words! I am really grateful.

  9. Very apt post. Very apt indeed. If only it could prove to be an eye-openers for the hate-mongers roaming about not only Delhi but also various nooks and corners of India now-a-days ! You have done a great job by this post. I had watched Dharmputra on Sony TV more than two decades back and had read the novel (penned by eminent Hindi litterateur – Acharya Chatursen) even much before that. Inclusion of two songs from that movie in this list of yours have refreshed my memories of that movie. I always considered Tu Hindu Banega Ya Musalmaan Banega as the best song on this particular theme. However you have made me feel that Yeh Kiska Lahu Hai Kaun Mara is indeed the best one with the hard-hitting lyrics.

    • I had forgotten that Acharya Chatursen wrote Dharmputra. Oddly enough, just a few days back, I tried to read another novel of his – Vaishali ki Nagarvadhu – but gave up after only a couple of paragraphs. It was a scanned copy of a paperback, and printed in the typical old-fashioned style (where अ, न etc are often written in a way that’s gone almost completely out of style now). Also, I suppose I was not feeling well, so I found it tough going. Must try to get hold of Dharmputra and give that a try.

      Glad you liked this post. Thank you so much.

    • I’m not sure if you wanted to suggest Yaar hamaari baat suno. An obvious spin-off from the story of Jesus and the woman whom he saved from being stoned – the ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ idea (which does appear in the lyrics). I think somewhat tangential to the more core theme of communal harmony, but I think a good thing to mull over when people keep bringing up the idea of ‘historical’ wrongs. A friend and some others were discussing this on Twitter the other day, in the wake of my friend (who’s Muslim) being taunted by someone who blamed Musim ‘invaders’ for ‘corrupting Indian culture’. We were of the opinion that if history were to be minutely examined, no religion or ethnicity can claim to have a completely clean slate – somewhere along the line, followers of each religion have committed heinous acts (in the name of that religion, too), and to hold grudges against their co-religionists for centuries later makes no sense.

  10. Thank you for this post, Madhu.
    It breaks the heart to see this happening and particularly in the city one calls home, and to people who were part of your life, as transient as they might have been. Somehow, Hindi movie songs move me, their words soothe me and give me renewed hope. But I am also appalled by the apathy of the movie industry today. Maybe it was because during the 1950s and 1960s, the focus was on nation building and to come out of the trauma of partition that the industry too rose to the occasion. The shared memory of the immediate past brought people together in ways we cannot fathom. Still, I feel that those stalwarts were more courageous as compared to these capitalist minded buffoons who populate the industry today. Mainstream cinema had more guts then, maybe. Today, anyone from the industry speaking out is celebrated because it is no longer the norm.
    Or it could be a fickle memory thing, which tends to remember only the good in the past. I don’t know, really.

    • You are so right, Simrita. When I posted about this post on Facebook, I wrote that while I was compiling it, I couldn’t help but think how Hindi cinema of the 40s through to the 60s seemed to promote communal harmony – and the very nature of the industry itself seemed to speak of a merry mixing of faiths. The huge number of Muslims, for instance – but also Sikhs, Jews, Parsis, Christians – and a fairly consistent ‘moral’ messaging, if I may call it that. Nation-building, yes, and perhaps the sort that wouldn’t appeal to modern audiences (since it did come across sometimes as preachy), but on the whole, it seemed to have its heart in the right place. I wonder if that’s fickle memory working for me too, but anyway…

      By the way, talking of cinema and communal harmony, it’s sad that of the many film people who are so active on social media, most seem to be fairly silent on the Delhi violence. Swara Bhasker, I think, was among the few (the only one?) who spoke out, and I believe she’s got into a lot of trouble for it.

  11. Madhu,
    We are living in sad times. Sectarian fault lines have been always there in our society, if not on religion, on caste basis – sometimes overt, at times latent. Economic progress, modernisation and urbanisation tends to obliterate caste identities, but our electoral politics accentuates this. Reservation in government jobs is now less a welfare measure, and more an emotive tool for sectarian politics.

    Religious communalism is a different kind of monster. Building a multi-faith modern democratic state is continuously a work in progress. It does not take much to break the fragile equilibrium. Unfortunately, we hear strident voices from both the extremes very loud, and not much of sanity. I am distressed to find educated people mocking at ‘Ganga-Jamuni tahzeeb’. We can only pray for the welfare of our nation and that good sense prevails among our communities. None of this minimises the gross failure of law and order machinery in Delhi.

    Your post was very timely, and you have selected some of the best songs on the theme. Congratulations and thanks a lot.
    AK

    • Thank you, AK. Glad you liked this post.

      True, communal harmony in India has always been very precariously poised – and it’s all too easy for it to tip over and descend into something beyond just avoiding contact with the ‘other’. What’s frightening is the way sectarian politics has burgeoned and grown to such monstrous proportions that today it’s all a question of sitting around and hoping things settle down and get resolved, without any really hope at all.

      And the way the law and order situation in Delhi collapsed – the less said about that, the better. :-(

  12. Thank you, Madhu. So many of my favourites are on this list especially ‘Allah tero naam’, which I was guided towards by a chance comment by my grandmother. And that you picked out the line that for me is the most poignant – ‘balwaanon ko de gyan’ – made me smile. I have other associations with some of the other songs (I remember for instance discussing ‘Ye kiska lahu hai’ with a favourite film professor). All in all, a list that I am grateful for.

  13. Oh, Madhu. I don’t know what to say other than “Amen” to your pleas for humanity and peace. It seems like the whole world is caught in a convulsion of hatred and cruelty. :-(

    I have always found these lines from “aye malik tere bande hum” deeply moving and today I look to them in a desperate bid to secure a smidgen of hope that love and compassion will ultimately prevail.

    jab zulmon ka ho samana
    tab tuhi hamen thamanaa
    vo buraai karen
    ham bhalaai bharen
    nahi badale kii ho kaamanaa
    badh uthe pyaar ka har kadam
    aur mite bair ka ye bharam

    • Thank you, Shalini. And Amen from me too, to your prayer. And that excerpt from Ae maalik tere bande hum is so apt. If only more people would realise that love and mutual goodwill is at the essence of religion, not this travesty people – across religions – seem to have made of it.

  14. What a timely and heart-wrenching post, Madhu! Checked out your blog after some time (been trying to stay away from social media these days), and I’m sure glad I did. Have little to add by way of songs. Can’t help thinking, though, that the past might offer paths for resolving this hatred that characterises the present. And films can be compared to time capsules of a sort, little bits that capture (encapsulate?) what the ‘present’ was back then. And specifically how we humans dealt with the evil that pervaded at that time. Maybe some day we shall become more receptive to lessons we receive from the past via cinema?

    • Hi Abhik, good to ‘see’ you again! Thank you for reading this, and for commenting.

      I agree, there might be pointers in our old films to show how we could live. In fact, rather recently (when I reviewed Khandaan, for Pran’s birth centenary), I came across a vivid example of communal harmony, and done in such a matter-of-fact way that one wondered if it had even been added intentionally, or it was just there. The way a Hindu man, friend of a Muslim family, is treated by the family – the daughters appear in front of him without purdah (and, endearingly, call him ‘Dadaji’), they insist he eats lunch with them – and when he regrets that he must go back, they send a packed meal with him!

      Plus, Dharmputra should be required watching. That’s such a good film on communal harmony.

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