On August 14, 1947 at the Constituent Assembly, a few minutes before Pt Nehru delivered his Tryst with Destiny speech, Sucheta Kripalani sang Vande Mataram. It was but fitting that independence was ushered in with music, for that art had played an important role in the propagation of freedom as a concept. Back in Madras, DK Pattammal sang a few songs of Subramania Bharathi over the All India Radio. At the end of the session, she flatly refused the remuneration offered. Years later, when I interviewed her, she still was indignant that payment was thought of. 

To artistes of Pattammal’s generation, singing for freedom was a part of life. Theatre was perhaps the first art form to conceive of music as a vehicle for nationalist messages. The songs of Bhaskara Das of Madurai were much in demand in theatre companies and therefore were viewed with equal suspicion by the administration. From theatre to cinema and the gramophone was but a step. All three modes of propagation faced the ire of the administration from time to time. Certain discs were proscribed, plays needed to get their scripts approved and when performed often had the police watching, especially when songs were sung. Films were scanned by the censor board not for libidinous scenes but for songs and dialogues containing nationalist messages. Even titles that could be interpreted that way were objected to. 

Beginning with KB Sundarambal, many artistes sang freedom-themed songs and cut discs that became best sellers. Among Carnatic artistes, it was Madras Lalithangi, ML Vasanthakumari’s mother, who by recording an elegy on the death of Chitharanjan Das in 1925, began a trend of nationalist songs. By then of course, some of Subramania Bharathi’s works had already been set to music and were being sung in concerts. 

What did the common people sing? Mucchandi Ilakkiyam by AR Venkatachalapathy (Kalachuvadu Pathippagam, 2012) takes us into the fascinating world of chap books – cheap publications carrying songs themed on daily happenings. Printed at presses in Madras and Madurai, these were a useful tool for propagating news and looked down upon by the educated and those in office, until 1931 that is, when Bhagat Singh was hanged. That event, in distant Lahore for some reason touched a chord in Madras Presidency and songs books began coming out in hundreds in praise of the martyr. Thereafter, it was a game of cat and mouse between the police and the publishers, but the latter did survive, chiefly because there was a demand. Songs of martyrdom became a genre by themselves. Sundarambal’s elegy on the death of Pt Motilal Nehru was even sung by prospective brides when the groom and his family came for the obligatory once over. 

The autobiography of S AmbujammalNaan Kanda Bharatham (Srinivasa Gandhi Nilayam, 1971), has passages that highlight how important music was in public meetings, during protest marches and while picketing shops selling foreign goods. She writes of classes being conducted for teaching such songs. The seemingly insatiable demand for such verses led to many trying their hand at poetry and composing. One of the most successful was the author Vai Mu Kothainayaki. Her biography (Vai Mu Kothainayaki Ammal by Ira Prema, Sahitya Akademi, 2001) records that she invariably sang at Congress meetings and later released some of them as discs. When imprisoned in 1932, she made sure that each Friday the women prisoners came together and performed bhajans. 

It was an era when freedom did not just mean the end of British rule. The writers also recognised shackles of other kinds – illiteracy, alcoholism, violence against women, hygiene and civic discipline. Vai Mu Ko wrote songs on these themes as well. Songs of prayer too were important. Mahatma Gandhi’s prayer meetings began with Ram Dhun and the singing of bhajans were vital to it. It was believed that these inculcated a sense of discipline and a feeling of surrender to a higher power, which in turn gave the freedom fighters the courage to set forth in their cause. As per the Life of S Satyamurti by PG Sundararajan (South Asian Publishers, New Delhi, 1988), the issuing of an arrest warrant for the former invariably meant musicians would crowd his house and perform non-stop till the van had come to take him away. It was their way of expressing solidarity with, and also keeping Satyamurti’s spirit up. 

Above all, music brought the country together at a time when such unity was needed. Why should an MS Subbulakshmi and Dilip Kumar Roy disc of Vande Mataram become a pan-Indian success? Why should Musiri Subramania Iyer singing of the plight of Indian indentured labour in far-off lands bring tears to people who had never ever crossed the ocean? Therein lay the power of music. Seventy-five years later, the songs still move us. 

This article appeared in The Hindu on August 12, 2022, to commemorate 75 years of Indian Independence.