Cheerful advice or desperate warning?

This is the third in a series on non-obvious raga choices.

One of my favourite among the Rishi Valley School assembly ‘set’ songs is a verse of Guru Nanak — Sumiran Kar Le. We sang it in a fairly joyous, mildly chiding manner in what I think is raag Yaman. Here is my recent attempt at singing it (perhaps a little faster than we sang it in school). Apologies in advance for any off-key patches or mispronunciations:

The appeal of the song is also of course in its simple, easy to grasp lyrics. Here is one translation (source):

Remember God, O mind of mine, life is passing by without remembering his name.

Like a well without water, a cow without milk, like earth without clouds,
Like trees without fruits, so is a being without God’s name .

Like a body without eyes, like a night without a moon, like a temple without a lamp,
Like a learned man without scriptures, so is a being without God’s name.

Be rid of lust, anger, pride and greed, O good people!
Nanak says listen O seekers, no one in this world is your own.

The tuning of this verse that we learned at Rishi Valley was in no way intimidating. The verse has one central message — do not forget God. But the path is laid with welcoming analogies. The message in the last stanza is stark (there is no one to call your own in this world), but the remedy is simple and easy to execute. One would be a fool not to take Nanak’s advice — there is nothing to lose and everything to gain. It is such a lovely tune that I often sang it to put my son to sleep.

I recently came across M.S. Subbulakshmi’s rendition from a 1970 concert. The piece starts at 02:41:32

I am not sure what raga this is in — it sounds like Shubhapantuvarali. I do not like the raga — I find it unnecessarily depressing. I listened to it when we were in the throes of the COVID-19 second wave, with uncertainty touching us in very real ways. And I found myself moved to tears. Words that I had previously found familiar and uplifting were utterly transformed into desperate hopelessness. But it was also strangely and deeply therapeutic. Life seemed utterly pointless when presented in such a manner, but that made the idea of surrender compelling.

Nanakshah’s plea which earlier had the air of a nice-to-have life hack that one could pick up in a self-help book like an atomic habit (‘remember God’ — how difficult could that be — after all it is as natural as the moon in the sky), had been transformed by MS’s voice and tune into something absolutely essential and also strangely difficult. Remembering God no longer seemed like the difference between a somewhat meaningless but fun existence and more mindfulness but the only thing that could prevent eternal damnation.

The question is, which tuning is more suited to the message? I am torn. Like I said, I was utterly moved by M.S.’s rendition. But I am also certain that if we were made to sing the song in this tune as children in Rishi Valley, I would have certainly ignored the song altogether, and run a hundred miles as fast as I could from both Nanak and his message. I would have rejected the wallow instantly.

Of course, there is no right answer. Others have sung it in very different tunes. Pandit Jasraj for instance in raag Bhairavi. This version seems to find a balance between the two versions above — neither nonchalant nor deeply desperate — more a sad cajole. Perhaps addressing the protagonist who is neither insouciant nor hopelessly incorrigible.

In the final analysis though, when presented with many tunes of the same song, the version that sticks with us tends to be the one we came across first.

And for me that is the less nuanced, more joyous invitation, not the version that is full of foreboding and dire consequence. A message that strikes a chord when things are going well is likely to have a more lasting impact and lead to behaviour change than a version that resonates when times are desperate. As Kabir says in his doha ‘Maati Kahe Kumhar Ko’: “Dukh me sumiran sab kare sukh me kare naa koi, Jo sukh me Sumiran kare to dukh kahe hoye…” [Everyone remembers God in tough times, not when the going is good. If they remembered God when they were happy, there would be no tough times].

‘Maati Kahe’ was another favourite from the Rishi Valley School assembly songs. Here is a recording from one such assembly:

Thank you.

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Vishnu Vasudev

I write mainly about my experience as a listener of Carnatic music.