Posted by: Vikram | June 2, 2009

A R Rahman’s Vande Mataram : Reclaiming and Reshaping India’s inter-communal space

During the Gujarat riots of 2002, the rioters did not just attack the lives and properties of Gujarati Muslims. But they also deliberately attacked and defiled the sites of their heritage and contribution to Gujarati and Indian culture. One example was the destruction of the shrine of the 16th century Muslim poet Wali Gujarati, which has not yet been rebuilt. Intolerant emperors like Aurangzeb destroyed temples and beheaded Sikh gurus to advance their political goals. Although often done in the name of religion, these actions are not meant to protect or preserve any religion or culture, but to appropriate the markers of culture for their own gains and also to destroy India’s secular space, carefully constructed over hundreds of years of co-mingling.

India’s multicultural society faces enormous strains and contradictions as it urbanizes and modernizes. The old bonds of shared tradtions, sufi shrines, composite culture and rural economic interdependance often evaporate in the hustle and bustle of urban India’s unforgiving capitalism and consumerism. But this also presents an opportunity, an opportunity to reshape and remould India’s secular space into a more socially progressive co-existence. India’s entertainment industries, are an important aspect of this evolving space. I am not claiming that the movie and television industries have or are playing a singularly positive role in the reconstruction of this space. But some pivotal persons have played an enormous role in the development of a new syncretic Indian identity, in recent times none more than AR Rahman.

Rahman’s music not only infused a new Tamil and Sufi input into a stale and stolid palette of Bollywood music in the 90s, but he has taken every opportunity to reclaim India’s secular space. An example is Bankim Chattopadhyay’s patriotic hymn Vande Mataram, that had been appropriated by many a chauvinist group for their political purposes. Vande Mataram, a tribute to India’s rivers and lands, became a polarizing force. One might argue that by reworking Vande Mataram, Rehman’s work gives credance to the claims of the right, however Rehman’s reworking is just one of many that have come since the song was introduced. If his song has become so popular, that is mainly because of Rehman’s own musical talents and his understanding of India’s young and old cultures.

Rahman took on all sides of the debate by calling his tribute to India, Vande Mataram and infusing the song with markers of his own identity as a Tamil and an Indian Muslim. Vande Mataram searched on youtube, now leads one to a song sung, composed and dreamed by an Indian Muslim, an evocative call to the Motherland by a faraway son or daughter. With much new and innovative music and lyrics, the song retains the essential quality of Chattopadhyay’s version, a Vande to a mother’s riches alongwith a Salaam to her wonders.

Rahman, in fact, goes much further. By visually inserting the marginal India of Ladakh, western Rajasthan and Kerala onto the screen, he claims India’s public space for these marginalized groups. One might argue that those visuals are merely reflect the consumption of a marginal, exotic India by the ‘mainstream’. However I feel that the style of their representation (in particular their control of the Indian flag) and the complete absence of any urban Indian in the visuals says quite the opposite. It is easy to dismiss songs like Vande Mataram as nationalist fanfare. There are indeed many Bollywood songs that are just that. But Rehman’s Vande Mataram emphasizes that unity is as much about respecting and appreciating difference as it is about using those differences to create an ever evolving space of co-existence.


  1. @ Vikram : Never liked that song, its unsingable just like the US national anthem is ‘unsingable’ by the way I do not understand the lyrics either. In the school I always used to skip it.

    Anyway Talking about Emperor Aurangzeb and Gobind Singh, you might find this link interesting :

    Click to access zafarnama.pdf

    This is a letter that the Guru wrote to the Emperor. The translation from Persian is included.

    Odzer, I was referring to the new version by A R Rahman. I am surprised that you had to sing the original Vande Mataram in school.

    I had a discussion on the Guru and Emperor Aurangzeb on the South Asian Idea blog. Will get back to you on that letter soon.

  2. VM was rejected on the grounds that Muslims felt offended by its depiction of the nation as “Mother Durga”—a Hindu goddess— thus equating the nation with the Hindu conception of shakti, divine feminine dynamic force. Also it means to bow down to the land.. Islam prohibits muslims to bow in front of anything other than Allah, hence it is not acceptable to Muslims to sing this song. MR AR Rahman is a reverted muslim but he has very scarse knowledge of Islam.

    • Assem, creating a syncretic and composite culture will invariably involve compromise. Nobody is claiming is that Rahman’s VM is a Muslim or a Hindu song, it is Rahman’s song with influences from Islam, Hinduism and Tamil cultures.

      On what basis are you claiming that Rahman has a very scarce knowledge of Islam ?

    • The identification with Islam have became is largely about the theological concepts haram – the Forbidden – and halal – the Permitted – structured. You don’t have to imagine mother land as idol goddesss. Islam forbids to bow down to land but does it also stop to love his/her country as mother ?

  3. I always loved Vande Mataram. Don’t know why, I find it haunting, not just the lyrics but also the tune. I had not heard Rahman’s version. Good find.
    Also this post is pretty emotional Vikram. Or I wonder if I am seeing it that way.

    I am surprised that you hadnt heard the Rehman version. I did not intend the post to be emotional, but these topics do to tend to be very emotionally charged in India today. And India’s composite culture is something that I think is unique and essential for the well being of future generations.

  4. Vikram,personally,I do not think much of either Rehman or his version of Vande Mataram.I would appreciate if I could be made to understand the reference of Gujarat in this context.?I do not think any one of us know the true story of 2002.Let us wait for the judgment…you know there is a saying……..JUB JUNGLE MAIN AAG LAGTI HAI TO JO PER LAGAE HI NAHIN UNKA BHI HISAB HO JATA HAI.

    • I did not intend to assign blame for the Gujarat riots. Let us hope that the truth triumphs, it is after all our national motto.

      What cannot be denied is that Wali Gujarati’s tomb was destroyed by rioters, and that is nothing short of an attack on India’s culture. It is not much different from the Taliban’s destruction of Sufi shrines in Pakistan, although the destruction of tolerance in that country had begun with partition and entry of Wahabi Islam under Zia.

  5. I have grown up with this song….

    this song made Vande Mataram uber cool for gen X (or Y)

    I think it has become the centre of too much controversy…what with one section forcing it down the gullet of another and another section refusing to sing it at all on religious grounds..

    what absolute rubbish!
    its a song at the end of the day…sing it if you want dont sing it if you dont..want to..

    neither force smeone to sing it nor give reasons that border on the insane for not singing it..

    if religion was the barometer for right and wrong a lot of writers/poets from both religions would be in the dock…

    I loved this post Vikram! thanks a lot 🙂
    specially the part about the control of the flag..
    it helped me to see the song froma new perspective too…

    whatever be the intention of the filmmakers the effect was beautiful…

    Exactly, Indyeah. Vande Mataram for Gen X, exactly my point and Rahman was skilled enough to deliver.

    “if religion was the barometer for right and wrong a lot of writers/poets from both religions would be in the dock…”

    You are quite correct. Art and music is a space that should be and will be influenced by religion, language and history but should not be held hostage by anything.

  6. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll listen to the song.

  7. Very well studied observation, Vikram!

    2 more things:

    1 interesting to note the pathan-like(am i rite?) riding the horses with the national flag(140:146 e.g.), in Lata’s video from the same album:

    i wonder who are they signifying?

    2 many ideas you talked abt in ur article should also be credited to entire team of BharatBala Productions , mainly Kanika i feel…

    • Welcome Chetan bhai. The Lata Mangeshkar video continues the same idea of placing the margins at the centre. I think the horsemen represent the restlessness of the youth and the desire to keep moving. They carry the flag, so perhaps it means that they are moving forwards as Indians. Not just the Pathans but other ethnic groups of India are also shown on horses carrying the flag.

      • Vikram, dats the point, rite! i can understand other ethnic grps , but pathans dont belong to post 1947 india!not certainly in significant numbers to find place in such a general why they?? r they refering to khan abdul gafar khan n his fauj?

        actually it amusingly reminds of persians, who “originally” attacked india…n they r now carrying national flags! ha!


  8. Also i forgot to add one more thing:

    Although i said that credit for the vande mataram video should also be given to other team, for one thign A R Rahman should be saluted n that’s as you also pointed out, that despite being a muslim, he did “vande” mataram…

    Controversy may be approached with 2 points:

    1.Wikipedia says:
    In 1937, the Indian National Congress discussed at length the status of the song. It was pointed out then that though the first two stanzas began with an unexceptionable evocation of the beauty of the motherland, in later stanzas there are references where the motherland is likened to the Hindu goddess Durga. Therefore, the Congress decided to adopt only the first two stanzas as the national song.

    Also other muslim clerics have clarified:

    Now this vande mataram version nowhere invoke goddess durga, so that point of contention expires.

    But it indeed ask you to salute you mother, your motherland, you country, India!

    Why should there be any problem in saluting anybody for whom you have deep respect for? i don’t think this is anti-islamic…

    Also this should be kept in mind that “vande” is a sanskrit word, which has multiple meanings, which is very COMMON for any sanskrit word….i have sanskrit-sanskrit-english dictionary and you can always find many meanings for almost all words.

  9. Arguably the real objection comes from the fact that it has its origins in the second version of Anandamath, which is hard not to read as an anti-Muslim novel. Bankim Chandra in his later years, had become quite hostile both towards the Muslim community and this period of Muslim rule in India. These are hardly unknown facts and were pointed out at the time by noted thinkers, Tagore being the foremost amongst them. Similar problems were of course what made the initial generation in the National Movement evtually discard the song in favour of Jana Gana. IT would be hard not to read or see the original as a paen to the Mother Goddess, which is explictly was.

    However, ideas or concepts of the nation are invariably gendered. Just as Britannia or Liberty (statue) are seen as emblematic incarnations of the nation in Britain and the US; India is invariably seen as female and as Mother India. I don’t think this is religious or specific to any one community. When I think of Mother India, I don’t think of some Hindu goddess but of Mehboob Khan and the immense sacrifices of the earlier generations which enable us to enjoy the freedom and lifestyle we currently experience.

    That said I don’t particularly like any of our national anthems; in fact with some exceptions I find most national anthems, poor in terms of rousing quality or musical appeal. Which is to be expected, since they are largely handed down to us from another time. Rehman’s re-interpretation is intriguing, even if I am not swayed by it. I like you concept of bringing the margins to the centre though Vikram, this is something Indian nationalism could do with a lot more.

    • Conrad, the national anthem (Jana Gana Mana) takes on special significance in a country like India where the population does not share a common culture, language or religion. In many ways, Jana Gana Mana is a very clever choice of anthem (in Bengali, making clear reference to the various regions) , although as you point out it lacks the rousing quality other anthems might have.

      And yes, Indian nationalism will not be complete until the margins get their due and their voice.

  10. well i guess my comment about pathans was out-of-place, since i guess that was already discussed…..sorry for that..

  11. Vikram, the music and words of this song transform me into another state of mind and enrich a feeling of ecstasy. Beyond Academic debate, Indyeah and you are quite right in claiming it as Gen X song to feel the emotion of love to motherland. One more song, you would like to hear of same theme is Ganga tum behti kyon ho by Bhupen Hazarika.

    • thanks for this video Yayaver

      this is my fav Bhupen Da song..
      I had blogged about it twice 🙂

      • @ Indyeah. Nice to hear , I did not know the song few months back. Then my head of department told me in farewell party about Bhupen Hazarika and this song. Since then, I have downloaded mp3 version and hear it again and again.

    • Many thanks for the video yayaver. Made my day 😀

      Majesty inspires art. So nations inspire art. And every generation will express its nationalism on its own terms. But we should not forget the expressions of past generations.

  12. One more point to the muslim perspective – the scholars recognize that sometimes ‘deep respect’ can merge with ‘worship’. So the words chosen for respect matters. If it borders that of worship such as in Vande Mataram (for many hardline muslim scholars), then they are bound to reject it.

  13. If we are to honor the Islamic perspective, then Islam says a lot about how to live life, how to structure the society and what laws to follow. Why should we stop at just giving respect to Islam’s perspective on Vande Mataram, which also assumes – incorrectly – that Islam and its followers are a monolith and ignores those Indian Muslims who are fine with singing Vande Mataram? In a secular society, who decides what aspect of Islam deserves respect and what aspect doesn’t and is to be ignored, when religion stops being a private matter?

    And it seems to me that double-standards are at play when it comes to Anand Math and Aurangzeb. A multicultural society works best when there is give-and-take between different sections. A give-and-give/take-and-take approach will invariably lead to friction and discontent.

    • Amit, nowhere have I said that non-Muslims (or even all Muslims) should accept the strict Islamic perspective on this issue, please see Assem’s comment above and my response.

      “In a secular society, who decides what aspect of Islam deserves respect and what aspect doesn’t and is to be ignored, when religion stops being a private matter?”

      As this post points out, it is the individual who will decide how inserts his religious identity into the public sphere.

      • Vikram, my comment wasn’t directed at you specifically and the questions I asked were meant as food for thought. Sorry if there was some confusion. 🙂

  14. Assem,

    That reason is, to my mind bunk. If you’ll notice, Jana Gana Mana is also a paean to the Sprit of India, if you will. A song to a Spirit is cool but a Goddess isn’t?

    Secondly, have you ever been to a dargah?A lot of, if not most, Indian Muslims, rather willingly, bow their heads to people a lot less distinguished than “India”.

    The reason that Vande Mataram carries a lot of baggage is due to historical reasons, rather than theological reasons. Firstly, of course, we have Ananda Math which is not exactly a novel promoting religious harmony. Due to that, Vande Mataram came to be adopted as a sort of leitmotif for a narrow brand of Hindu Cultural Nationalism, especially in Bengal where a fair amount of revolutionary activity was heavily influenced by various degrees of religiosity. How deep this relationship with communalism was can be gauged from the fact that during communal riots, Vande Mataram and Har har Mahadev were two slogans raised to “combat” Allahu-Akbar/Nare-Takbeer.


    Nice article.

    … destroy India’s secular space, carefully constructed over hundreds of years of co-mingling.

    Has India ever had a “secular space” or any space devoid of religion? At best, what I can think of is a sort of Sarva Dharma Sambhava existence, as exemplified by, say, the Sufis, Akbar or Gandhi.

    • Hades, I dont see why secular in the Indian context cannot mean inclusive of all religions, indeed western secularism and multi-culturalism seems incomplete to many,,8599,1668481,00.html

      Let me quote from that article written by an American correspondent in Delhi,

      In school, my three-year-old daughter has already learned about the Hindu deities Lord Krishna and Lord Ram. She is about to start work on an Eid art project, and will no doubt celebrate Christmas with her school mates in the way of children everywhere: by asking for the latest toy. She doesn’t understand the nuances and differences, yet, but she does know that different people have different beliefs and that those beliefs all deserve respect.

  15. […] More here: A R Rahman’s Vande Mataram : Reclaiming and Reshaping India’s inter-communal space […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: