‘Gandhi’s Song’: A new documentary about a nearly six centuries old Bhajan

The following appeared worldwide on the IANS wire

From Indo-Asian News Service

Chicago, January 30: A nearly six centuries old song written by Gujarat’s most revered poet-philosopher Narsinh Mehta and made by Mohandas Gandhi as his life’s guiding force is now a subject of an upcoming documentary.

The documentary titled ‘Gandhi’s Song’, being written and directed by Chicago-based journalist and writer Mayank Chhaya, begins production in the next couple of weeks with location shooting in Junagadh and elsewhere in Gujarat where Mehta spent his life creating some of the most popular metaphysical ruminations addressed to Krishna.

“Generations of Indians since Gandhi’s assassination on this day sixty seven years ago have grown up thinking that ‘Vaishnav Jan To’ was written by him. This is a remarkable example of the creation being more enduring than the creator. This particular Bhajan is unique in the sense that it remains so current in its moral underpinnings about what constitutes a civilized human being,” Chhaya told IANS.

‘Gandhi’s Song’ will be a full-length documentary feature with a clear focus on bringing Mehta and his profound philosophy about the universe to the attention of global audiences. Mehta, who by most widely accepted consensus lived between 1414 and 1481, was in a sense unwitting figure in India’s great Bhakti Movement, which flourished organically throughout the country during medieval times between 800 and 1700 CE. In the tradition of the figures of the Bhakti Movement of the time Mehta was also a pioneering social reformer who used the power of his poetry to break down rigid caste and class barriers.

“Vaishnav Jan To, which is easily among the most widely sung songs in the world, was typical of Mehta’s deceptively simple but profound worldview. Each verse essentially defines what kind of moral standards should drive humans. I would argue that the Bhajan in many ways shaped Gandhi’s larger sociocultural view that was at the heart of the country’s freedom movement. It is any poet’s envy that a creation not only lasts centuries but continues to retain its modernity,” Chhaya says.

Although ‘Gandhi’s Song’ is pegged on ‘Vaishnav Jan To’ because of its global recognition, the documentary will dwell on Mehta as a poet, reformer and figure who defied constricting social norms and worked all his life to establish societal equity among people divided by castes.

“My purpose is to tell a world-class story with high production standards. I would have ideally liked to highlight Narsinh Mehta in the title but one has to keep an eye firmly on its global marketability. Gandhi remains one of the most recognizable names in the world. So why not ride on his celebrity to highlight a truly great poet and philosopher? Gandhi would not have minded that and Mehta could not have cared less,” Chhaya says.

The documentary will feature extensive location shooting, interviews with literature scholars and historians and some measure of dramatizations of events from Mehta’s life. While Mehta is known in Gujarat among the older generation, he mostly remains an unknown name outside. Chhaya says as a test he asked several Indian Americans in Chicago area who wrote ‘Vaishnav Jan To’ and was surprised to find that most of them said it was Gandhi.

The documentary will be shot over the next two months and is scheduled for release later this year. Chhaya is in talks with major channels worldwide for its broadcast to reach as wide an audience as possible.

“When Prime Minister Narendra Modi was feted at the Madison Square Garden, violin maestro L. Subramaniam and his singer wife performed a re-composed version of ‘Vaishnav Jan To’. No one mentioned that it was written by Narsinh Mehta. I want to correct that huge omission although knowing his philosophy it wouldn’t have matter to Mehta one bit,” Chhaya says.


An extended caption story


A guest greets President Obama during the receiving line prior to the State Dinner. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The official White House photographer Pete Souza has this telling photo taken during the meet and greet before the state dinner for President Barack Obama in New Delhi.

Being official anything is difficult but being an official government photographer is even more so because much of what one does is staid officious non-sense. Souza, who is a well-regarded photojournalist, does manage to extract something memorable from time to time from what could easily be a boring assignment.

Although this photo does tell a story, it is not about the coming together of the utterly privileged elite, as represented by Obama’s feet and legs, and the multitude as represented by an Indian man wearing leather flipflops on a pair of feet that may never have seen the inside of a pedicure salon. I say this because in order to be invited to a state dinner anywhere, particularly in a society as conscious of your station in life as the Delhi elite, you have to be a member of the privilegentsia.

In the defense of whomever the feet belong to—I can easily find that out but why bother?—they look generally clean and free from any contagion lurking between them. You do not see calluses or corns, which indicates that the man does take care of his feet. Of course, I do notice the second toe on the left foot has a partially dying nail as you can see in its partial blackening.

At this point I am becoming aware that this post has  no particular insights to offer other than some extended caption to a telling photo.

A staggering non-story

President Barack Obama is an American constitutional law expert which means he has a sound grasp of the US constitution. However, that does not automatically mean that his grasp extends to India’s constitution.

In order for him to make any comment at all on India’s constitution, he or someone whom he trusts in such matters would have to carry out some basic research before making a public pronouncement about one of its articles.

This context is necessary before making any comment about a controversy being generated by the television media in India about some observations he made during a town-hall type speech in New Delhi. In his characteristically expansive but eventually inconsequential address, Obama said many things about India and America as diverse societies.

In a monumental stating of the obvious he said things such as “India will succeed so long as it is not split along the lines of religious faith,” or “In big and diverse societies like ours progress basically depends upon how we see each other. We are strongest when we see inherent dignity in every human being”.

But then he got more specific and also said this, "Your Article 25 (of the constitution) says that all people are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion…In both our countries, in all countries, upholding this fundamental freedom is the responsibility of government, but it’s also the responsibility of every person."

It is this bit that is prompting TV anchors to wonder whether it was the president’s parting shot at Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose aggressive Hindu political ideology is viewed as running counter to the spirit of Article 25. I would not like to go into the complex details of that ideology and why it is not as simplistic as some would have us believe.

I would restrict myself to the question of whether Obama was consciously making what he knew could be interpreted as something out of the ordinary, if not provocative. The simple answer is yes. I say this because it would have required his speechwriter specific effort to find out about Article 25 and what it says, even if this specific effort merely meant doing a Google search. I am not concerned with how much effort but any effort at all. That suggests premeditation and calibration which in this case mean that under general urgings from the president the speechwriter/researcher would have looked for a particular article of India’s constitution that fits neatly into his overall case for religious and other freedoms.

It is from this standpoint that I think that Obama had consciously chosen to make the point he did about religious and other freedoms. Was it a shot at Prime Minister Modi with who he had just had two days full of brotherly bonhomie and bro-hugging? Possibly so but then so what? In the end both are seasoned politicians and both know very well they have their constituencies to humor from time to time. I would like to get facetious and say it was Obama’s way of getting even with Modi for wearing a suit embroidered with his full name in its pinstripes.

The point is if the leaders of two great democracies cannot afford each other this much room for something mildly unpalatable, then what’s the point in being democracies? One question heard on a debate on NDTV was whether Prime Minister Modi can get away by making a comment about a politically and culturally fraught situation in America while on a visit here. The answer again is yes if that is what he wants to do. No one is stopping him because it is not a question of getting away but the freedom of speech. Would it be construed bad form for him to do so? Possibly but that is still superseded by the freedom of speech. I don’t even think it is bad form because what Obama said may have been calibrated but was certainly not exceptionable. In short, a staggering non-story.

R K Laxman, 1921-2015


The great cartoonist R K Laxman, who died yesterday in Pune, India at the age 94, had a deftly common touch to his lines and humor. He built what is arguably India’s finest career in cartooning on the strength of his gentle quirkiness that naturally avoided being abrasive for the sake of being abrasive.

For decades, Laxman’s ‘Common Man’ (See my version above) delivered to millions of Indians a combination of humor, satire and sociopolitical comment in a way that prompted reflection rather than derision.

It is no coincidence that Laxman, known for his perspective from the standpoint of the common folk, regarded the crow as his favorite bird. Shorn of apparent elegance and often scoffed at for its common ways, the bird attracted Laxman. I would argue that Laxman’s crows are perhaps his finest creation. He captured the crow’s self-assured body language and street smart brilliantly.

The cartoonist stayed away from withering wit that might leave his subjects emotionally bruised but made the point nevertheless. When it came to the self-assuredness of lines, I think his friend and contemporary Bal Thackeray had more of it. In fact, Thackeray’s political humor was decidedly more stinging and lines way sharper. It is not about one being better than the other. It is just a matter of different styles. Of course, considering his vast output Laxman could often lapse into stating the obvious in a particularly trite fashion.

He was not what one might call a laugh out loud or, in modern parlance LOL, cartoonist. He was what I call smile out loud or SOL cartoonist. It is not for me to say whether he could produce LOL humor. May be he could or may be he couldn’t. However, as a political cartoonist his job was as much to make you laugh/smile as to make you think. Every time Laxman drew his lines one got the sense that he was also drawing the line of good taste.

I met Laxman only once and that too for less than ten minutes in 1982. I have written about that encounter in a somewhat tangential context here. That encounter led me to give up the idea of pursuing a career as a cartoonist. I had the humor and perspective to be one but not the fine ability to caricature through lines. That explains why I have, late in my life, taken to abstract art.

My version of Laxman’s ‘Common Man’ above took me less than 10 minutes to finish. As I finished it I remembered his advice to me 33 years ago. He said my caption was “clever” but drawing “terrible.” “Work on your caricature skills. Cartoons are as much about words as they are about drawings,” he had said. I think my caricature has since become better.

On Narendra Modi’s pinstripes


Pinstripes by MC

People forget that it is a combination of conceit, hubris, narcissism and megalomania that propels any politician’s ambition to be the leader of any country, let alone a country as mind-numbingly complex as India. I would argue that without at least one, if not all, of these attributes anyone would find it practically impossible to rise to the highest seat of power, namely that of prime minister.

With that out of the way, I come to the current frenzied debate over one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s suits in whose pinstripes was embroidered his full name Narendra Damodardas Modi. Many are outraged and embarrassed at the prime minister’s sartorial tastes during President Barack Obama’s visit and the cheap self-absorption it underlines.

I am only mildly amused because it is not a news flash that a politician is also a narcissist. They all are in varying degrees. It is a key ingredient of their profession. In Modi’s case it is overstated because he literally wears it on his sleeve (and everywhere else) but must we really quibble over the degrees?

Of all the things that people should have a problem with when it comes to the prime minister, his full embroidered name in his suit’s pinstripes should be the least on the long list. I think the chic elite, which regards him as an interloper,  is unsettled that Modi displays a perpetual swagga. The suit may not pass the fashion muster in Paris or Milan but it has the virtue of cheap playfulness.

It is being hotly debated whether during his long stroll with the prime minister at the Hyderabad House Obama noticed the custom-made pinstripes. May be he did or may be he did not. In any case, the bro knows what swagga is. Either way it is of no consequence. However, in so much as it highlights the mind of Narendra Modi, all that it says is that he really loves himself and his own name. To which I say “Meh.”

P.S.: Incidentally, I have not used a photograph of the suit in question because I have no access to it without copyright. You can, of course, see it all over the Net. For your edification, I have done a small illustration of it.





Horizons by Mayank Chhaya

I could melt away into any of these three horizons without looking back.

An unnecessarily long post about US-India relations on eve of Obama visit

A politically unencumbered President Barack Obama will visit India for three days beginning January 25. He is someone now playing for history rather than the remainder of his presidency. The visit itself is expected to be high on the symbolic and the ceremonial considering barely two years remain in his tenure.

Although deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes has described the visit as a “seminal moment”, those of us who follow such visits and details of US-India  relations closely know that such description really does not mean much. It is time to stop describing the bilateral relations as “seminal” because seminal, which comes from semen as in seed, should have grown into something much bigger by now. It is odd that we continue to talk about the seed for as long as we have.

I have heard for at least two decades now how India and America are natural partners with enormous potential not just between them but for the rest of the world. One would think a “seminal moment” would have occurred much earlier in those two decades than now. The problem is every engagement between Washington and New Delhi gets described in various ways that essentially mean “seminal.” So much so that one has begun to wonder whether the seed has the potency needed to live up to its much touted “transformative potential.”

The “transformative potential” of US-India relations has been a recurring theme of the diplomatic intercourse between the two for as long as one remembers in the past three decades, particularly after 1991 when India began dismantling state controls over its economy which were reminiscent of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

On this particular visit by President Obama, his second to India, there are expectations that the civilian nuclear deal could come into sharper focus as part of energy cooperation. In terms of trade in goods and services the relations have strengthened significantly as evident in the rise from $18 billion in 2001 to $93 billion by 2012. Of the $93 billion total, $30 billion was attributed to services. There is a much stronger presence of US corporations in India than ever before and it is heartening to note that a lot of it is in research and development.

There are, of course, specific deliverables that the Obama visit is built around in the areas of defense cooperation, energy, climate change and economics. The US-India defense framework agreement, signed in 2005, is up for renewal after its 10-year period.

In specific terms, the defense framework agreement as part of the new US Strategic Military Guidance announced in January 2012 by President Obama put greater emphasis on the Pacific region and referred to India as a ‘Strategic Partner’. The common interests highlighted as part of were:

  • Maintaining security and stability.
  • Defeating violent religious extremism and terrorism.
  • Disaster relief.
  • Preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and associated materials, data, and technologies.
  • Protecting the free flow of commerce and resources through the vital sea lanes of Indian Ocean.

During the last visit of then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in September 2013, a Joint Declaration on Defense Cooperation was made that focused on the following general principles

  • The United States and India share common security interests and place each other at the same level as their closest partners.  This principle will apply with respect to defense technology transfer, trade, research,co-development and co-production for defense articles and services,including the most advanced and sophisticated technology.  They will work to improve licensing processes, and, where applicable, follow expedited license approval processes to facilitate this cooperation.  The United States and India are also committed to protecting each other’s sensitive technology and information.
  • The United States continues to fully support India’s full membership in the four international  export control   regimes, which  would  further facilitate technology sharing.
  • The two sides will continue their efforts to strengthen mutual understanding of their respective procurement systems and approval processes, and to address process-related difficulties in defense trade, technology transfer and collaboration.

It would be useful to find out how many of these stated objectives have been achieved.

I have occasionally written about US-India relations, particularly pegged on important visits by US officials. For instance, on July 23, 2013 I wrote about Secretary of State John Kerry’s maiden visit in that capacity to New Delhi. One of the points I made with comedic exaggeration was this: “Kerry will notice that there is discernible jadedness in the bilateral intercourse. To put it in purely sexual terms, he will likely discover that the foreplay, that happened before his time, was more exciting than the coitus. But then that is not such a bad thing as relations between countries go.” That was because the term of Prime Minister Singh was coming to an end and there was uncertainty about who might form the next government in 2014. I also wrote the following about the relations in July last year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office.

A year has passed since and there is a new government in place in New Delhi under a prime minister against whom Washington had a sort of restraining order for close to ten years barring him from coming within a few miles of the American shores. (Comedic exaggeration). Now that Narendra Modi is firmly ensconced in New Delhi and President Barack Obama is rapidly approaching his lame duck period, one can only wonder what it is that the two countries can do to live up to the frequently claimed promise as a “defining relationship of the 21st century”.  In my judgment, not much. America and India are like that covetous couple who are eminently satisfied in the flirtatious phase of their relationship because they are both apprehensive about what unpleasant surprises taking it to the next level might spring up.

In a speech that was supposed to set the stage for his visit to New Delhi starting tomorrow, Kerry said at the Center for American Progress there is a “potentially transformative moment” in the bilateral relations. It is funny how there is always a potentially transformative moment between the two countries that never really rises to its potential to truly transform. The new narrative, which is quite like the old narrative, has it that India and America are “indispensable partners of the 21st century.”

That is the basis on which Secretary Kerry is expected to try and build a strategic relationship. Of course, being a top American diplomat Kerry has to remember that the U.S. business interests are as important as strategic ones when it comes to any country, particularly India which still remains a highly exploitable market for U.S. corporations. Hence this series of caveats, “If India’s government delivers on its plans to support greater space for private initiative, if it creates greater openness to capital flows, it if limits subsidies and strive for competition, and provides strong intellectual property rights, believe me even more American companies will come to India.”

The primary purpose of the visit is for Kerry to co-chair the fifth US-India Strategic Dialogue on July 31 with his India vis-à-vis Sushma Swaraj. The visit is also expected to lay the groundwork for the upcoming summit meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Obama in September.

During Kerry’s last visit to India in the waning days of the Manmohan Singh government the strategic partnership between India and the United States had appeared much less grand than what was promised in 2009. It is not clear what it is that this strategic convergence between the two can actually mean in specific terms. I say that because while there is a broad, high-level meeting of strategic minds on both sides, it is in specifics such as Afghanistan, Iran, China, Russia, nuclear proliferation, trade and commerce issues and suchlike that the two find considerable divergence. They both know that diplomacy cannot be monogamous and is intrinsically promiscuous because countries have to balance so many complex global equations. India’s dealings with Iran is a case in point. I have written about that earlier. Another example that comes to mind is the way New Delhi voted in favor of a strongly-worded resolution on Israel by the United Nations Human Rights Council contrary to expectations in some quarters that the Modi dispensation might take a more pro-Israel stand over the Gaza conflict.

Rather than forever waxing eloquent about the transformative potential of US-India relations the two should peg it down and work on little less ambitious partnerships that make a quantifiable difference in a diversity of global issues. It is not for me to give a list of what those could be because no one pays me to do that. I could if I had to and was paid to do so. One that comes to my mind off the cuff is about how India and America can together transform the world’s health sector drawing on their well-known strengths.