Singing in the Dark Times

Singer Kailash Kher with Anna Hazare

"Lokpal, lokpal, pass karo Jan Lokpal", "Bharat hai humko jaan se pyaara, I love my country-ee". The Lokpal anthem is jaunty and self-assured, and it is also clichéd and cringe-making.

To those belting it out in Ramlila Maidan, though, it must seem entirely different. To feel in solidarity with strangers and sing beside them is a pretty intoxicating sensation. Even the most jaded, disabused person has known the sense of being lifted by an anthem.

It doesn't matter whether you are genuinely persuaded by the cause. These songs are meant to hypnotise you, at least for a bit. Everything makes simple, blazing sense. Music can worm its way through your sophisticated defences, which is why it is such a powerful weapon of defiance and propaganda.

And it tends to produce belief without knowledge.

I used to be moved, in a shallow and indiscriminate way, by any kind of message music — from national anthems to Communist rallying songs, from military marching music to anti-war protest songs, even sports anthems.

As a child, I loved the rhythm and words of Rule Britannia just as I liked Balikudeerangale, a Kerala People's Arts Club song.

Songs that spur and exhort are meant to make situations bearable, and inure people to immediate pain for the larger glory. Chivalric ballads, like the famous Song of Roland, told soldiers of heroism and duty, and reminded them of great warriors before them. (They still serve the same purpose in movies like Lakshya or Border.)

Same way, Soviet "tractor musicals" mixed song and dance with revolutionary pieties. They were about happily subordinating yourself to the collective goal, about the joys of hard labour. In Grigori Aleksandrov's film The Bright Path (1940), workers sing, "Whether you work a machine or break through rocks/ A wonderful dream reveals itself and calls you forward". In Britain, music hall songs egged boys to battle for the Boer wars and the First World War. (These songs also traded in crude racial stereotypes to attack the Axis forces, with songs like The Jap and the Wop and the Hun.)

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