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The Afro-pop band Osibisa did a rendition of Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, possibly during their India tour in 1981. Photo: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
The Afro-pop band Osibisa did a rendition of Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, possibly during their India tour in 1981. Photo: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Songs for Gandhi

Will new works inspired by Gandhi's concept of freedom emerge?

It would be near impossible to think of music associated with Mahatma Gandhi and not have Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram and Narsinh Mehta’s Vaishnav JanaTo play instantly in one’s mind.

Initially, both songs were part of the repertoire often presented at Gandhiji’s prayer meetings, and both were included in Ashram Bhajanavali, a compilation of Gandhiji’s best-loved prayers and inspirational songs.

The two songs are also among those that are invariably taught at schools, and at one point or the other, most of us would have sung one, if not both. Both songs have also been recorded extensively by a variety of musicians and in diverse styles, ranging from folk renditions to heavily orchestrated pop versions.

But in 1982, Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram was the opening track on Afro-pop band Osibisa’s album Osibisa-Unleashed-Live. Evidently the track was recorded during a performance that formed part of their India tour, possibly in 1981. Cheered on by an enthusiastic audience, the group seems to have presented the song to a rousing reception, concluding its heavily accented rendition with a “Jai Jai Ram Sita Ram" chant.

It is not uncommon for artistes to include a song in the local language while on tour, and this might have been one of the reasons for Osibisa to include Raghupati Raghav in their set list for the India tour. Belief in Gandhian ideology might not necessarily have prompted the decision, although a message of unity and love is included in the introduction to the track.

Country singer and songwriter Kris Kristofferson, though, makes a more explicit tribute to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr with They Killed Him from the 1986 album Repossessed.

Kristofferson’s track opens with the lyrics:

There was a man named Mahatma Gandhi

He would not bow down, he would not fight

He knew the deal was down and dirty

And nothing wrong could make it right away…

There is also the Bob Dylan cover of They Killed Him, which may be of interest both to music lovers and to Gandhians.

Celebrated singer-songwriter Patti Smith also offers tribute to Gandhi with her track titled Gandhi, as does Marti Walker with Compassion, where she says: “Once Gandhi looked into his killer’s eyes/And he forgave him". In fact, a huge listing of music related to Mahatma Gandhi sits collated at

Composer-performers in India, too, have paid homage to Mahatma Gandhi. Sitar legend Ravi Shankar composed raga Mohan Kauns in 1948, a few days after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Vocalist Kumar Gandharva’s tribute took the form of raga Gandhi Malhar. However, both ragas have not yet become part of universally accepted raga repertoire, and remain special works composed by the two great artistes.

But in the future, will we hear new works inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, or have we become too distanced from his concepts of freedom, equality, brotherhood, non-violence and love?

Also Read | Shubha’s previous Lounge columns

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