IT was a stirring war cry that kept India's freedom fighters going when their spirits threatened to sag, a mesmeric mantra that inspired an enslaved nation to take on the might of the British empire and break free. Today, Vande Mataram, the inspirational poem Bankim Chandra Chatterjee wrote in his 19th century novel, Ananda Math, is an almost-forgotten choral relic of the past. But not for 33-year-old G. Bharat 'Bala', an ad filmmaker who has put his commercial work on hold to pursue an ambitious campaign to reawaken the spirit that won India freedom 50 years ago.
Bala—son of V. Ganapathy, a freedom fighter who was a close associate of K. Kamaraj—roped in boyhood buddy and whizkid composer A.R. Rahman to front a high-voltage album with popular Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, internationally-known guitarist Dominic Miller, master art director Thotta Tharani, who has done a brilliant theme painting for the album's cover, and the giant Japanese company, Sony Music International, which will produce and market the recording worldwide. The album, titled Vande Mataram, includes eight numbers, three of which represent the colours of the Indian flag—saffron, white and green. "To reach the masses, one needs music. And who could make better music than Rahman?" asks Bala.
Bala's agenda is to make Vande Mataram the "new sound of India". But we live in dangerously fractious times. Patriotism—appropriated by a vote-chasing political establishment—often connotes the intolerance and bellicosity of the majority, the chest-thumping chauvinism and divisive rhetoric of the powerful. However, Bala is confident that, even in this age of PC-speak and rampant scepticism, he can retrieve Vande Mataram from the recesses of the minds of his countrymen and re-install it in their fractured hearts. "The album is not jingoistic," he says. "It will promote global peace and rekindle a sense of national pride among India's youth. I want to bridge the gulf between the youth and the passion and emotion of the freedom struggle."
An international orchestra version of Vande Mataram has been created by the Delhi Symphony Society. As the Society's honorary secretary Gautam Kaul announced in New Delhi last month, the musical script, finalised after months of fine-tuning, will be sent to the leading global symphony orchestras with a prologue that places the composition in its historical context.
While A.R. Rahman's Vande Mataram will be released at the stroke of midnight on August 14-15, the symphonic version will be played first by an orchestra of 70 musicians during a concert organised at the Siri Fort Auditorium on the same evening. Plans are also afoot to distribute audio tapes of the orchestra version in schools. The target: a generation of Indians for whom Vande Mataram is no more than a song that All India Radio plays first thing every morning.
Patriotism is the flavour of the season. And what better way of establishing that, than by giving Vande Mataram, in fact the entire concept of national identity, a contemporary ring? So, twentysomething A. R. Rahman will belt out the national song to an infectious, youthful beat. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan will join the Chennai-based icon to sing an ode to world peace, whether Bal Thackeray likes it or not. Lyricist Javed Akhtar will pen a theme song for Star Plus' line-up of Independence-related programmes. Magnasound will bring together 10 Indipop artistes on a single album to celebrate 50 years of Independence. Will it, then, become fashionable again to articulate faith in India and Indianness?
Bala and A.R. Rahman are pulling out all the stops. The three main tracks on their album—Vande Mataram, a robust, rhythmic six-minute rendition of the national song that represents saffron; Missing Bapu, a slow Sanskrit version of the ditty which stands for white; and Gurus of Peace, sung by Rah-man in tandem with Nusrat for the colour green—will be accompanied by music videos directed by Bala. The Vande Mataram video, shot on rural locations across the country, "from Ladakh to Kanyakumari", culminates with a visually stunning sequence showing thousands of Indian villagers under a 70-foot national flag. On the Missing Bapu video, the camera tracks through an empty Sabarmati Ashram as a languid, wistful, haunting version of Vande Mataram plays on the soundtrack. Gurus of Peace, introduced by CNN anchor Riz Khan, features a host of Nobel Peace laureates—Mikhail Gorbachev, Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk, Lech Walesa, Mother Teresa, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres. "Gurus of Peace," says Bala, "will be the first big song from the subcontinent, from the land of Gandhi, from the land of ahimsa for world peace."
The music album is part of a larger project—'Vande Mataram: 1947 to 1997, Fifty Years of Free India'—which entails the production of 250 one-minute films exploring the history and meaning of Vande Mataram. "We are not merely celebrating 50 years of free India. We want to invoke the spirit that earned us freedom because we need it for the next 50 years," explains Bala. It has a variety of personalities—Usha Mehta, who ran an underground radio station during the freedom struggle; Kumaran Nair, freedom fighter from Palakkad, Kerala; poet Javed Akhtar; filmmaker Govind Nihalani; Oddisi dancer Kumkum Mohanty—who explain what the unifying refrain Vande Mataram means to them. The one-minute films have been given to DD and other major TV channels free of cost—Bala expects his outfit, Bharatbala Productions, to recover the money spent on the shoot from the corporate promoters.
Will it pay off in the end? Will the images and sounds of patriotism sway 950 million Indians? If the chant does become a chorus, it could well make for good music.