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.