The song that’s India: Revisiting Desh Raag

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On the morning of August 15, 1989, India woke up to Desh raag, a celebration of the nation through classical music and dance. India, with its newly acquired colour television sets, watched as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi invoked Desh, a soothing late evening raga associated with the monsoons and the Indian national song – Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Vande Mataram.

Set against a waterfall and majestic mountains, we saw a solemn looking Joshi sang Lab pe jaage geet aisa, Goonje bankar des raag in his sonorous voice to the sounds of a tabla and tanpura. His verses were followed by the doleful strains of a sarangi played by Pt Ram Narayan. There was also sitar maestro Pt Ravi Shankar strumming the seven sitar strings with exuberance, Pt Hari Prasad Chaurasia breathing life into a reed, Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma playing the santoor, M Balamuralikrishna playing the violin and singing Baje sargam in Tamil, and, the famed tabla dual between Ustad Allah Rakha and Zakir Hussain, with the tricolour as the background – all inseparable elements of Desh raag.

The orchestral masterpiece also showcased various classical dance forms through short pieces: Kathak exponent Shovana Narayan danced at Fatehpur Sikri followed by Protima Bedi presenting Odissi on Juhu beach, Mallika Sarabhai giving a glimpse of Bharatanatyam, Kanak Rele presenting Mohiniattam and Swapna Sundari dancing the Kuchipudi.

This was India through sound and video, a glimpse into its rich and diverse cultural fabric. “It was also education. Telling the people about one of India’s most significant pillars – the classical arts,” says Narayan.

Conceptualised by Suresh Mullick, creative director of Ogilvy back then, and directed by Kailash Surendranath for Lok Sewa Sanchar Parishad, the piece was commissioned by the Rajiv Gandhi government “to raise the morale of people in a pre-liberalised India”. It was the third and final piece in a trilogy of short films; the other two being Freedom Run – The Torch Song and Mile sur mera tumhara. “Most of the credit goes to the fine performances of these classical heavyweights and Suresh Mullick who thought of the idea. It came when the economy was underdeveloped, the country was facing unrest and the people needed a unity in diversity message,” says Surendranath about the piece, which was composed mainly by Joshi. It was later put together by prominent jazz musician, Louis Banks. Mullick also got composer P Vaidyanathan and cinematographer RK Rao on board.

For lyrics, Mullick went to one of his own – Piyush Pande. “Baje sargam har taraf se, goonje bankar desh raag, said everything it had to. Suresh was my boss, and very particular. He said we should use analogies, and that people are smart enough to understand that we are talking of integration,” says Pande, now CEO, Ogilvy & Mather.

The process of completing the short film took over a month. Long fax messages were constantly exchanged between Banks and Mullick. Cinematographer Rao travelled across the country to shoot the film. “It was the simplicity that worked,” says Rao about the video that quite possibly helped many to grasp that Kathakali and Manipuri were classical art forms and not folk dances.

While Mile sur was about seven minutes long, Desh raag exceeded 13 minutes. Brilliant and technically sound as the piece was, Desh raag found more acceptance in the art circles as compared to the masses. “There hasn’t been a better musical genius than Suresh. But in hindsight, I think he went a little overboard. When the artiste in you gets too involved, that can happen. His artistic leanings resulted in the length becoming a problem. We loved those pieces by the artistes so much that we got carried away and got lost in its brilliance. It’s so beautiful and became extremely popular but not as much as Mile sur,” says Pande about the piece for which no artiste charged any fee.

The final lines of the national anthem were included towards the end of the film and that proved to be an impediment. “The authorities did not like our inclusion of the last bit of the national anthem – an incomplete anthem was considered inappropriate. But we managed to show it to Rajivji who loved it. He did not want anything changed,” says Surendranath.

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