INDIA AT 75
Lady who saw the first Indian PM crying copious tears …
“Ae Mere Watan Ke Logo …” indisputably one of the most moving patriotic songs of India, replaced the traditional Christian hymn “Abide with me”, for this year’s Beating Retreat Ceremony marking the 75th year of Independence of India. ‘Abide with me’ was decades old, staple tune that concluded the musical extravaganza of Republic Day celebrations.
Incidentally, the British hymn ‘Abide with me’ was the favourite of Mahatma Gandhi – the Father of the Nation. On this milestone year of 75 years of the Nation’s Independence on the 29th of January, the colonial symbolic tune was dropped, and replaced with the poignant Bollywood creation- ‘Ae Mere Watan…..’.
‘Ae Mere Watan …’ is an iconic song that had driven the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru to tears. This happened on 27th January 1963, at Ramlila grounds in New Delhi. The song, a moving tribute to soldiers fighting battles and wars for the country touched a raw chord in the Nation’s first PM, who cried copious tears hearing the song so movingly sung by Lata Mangeshkar. “I noticed a teary-eyed Prime Minister and was afraid, wondering, if I had made a mistake! Backstage when I met Panditji, said said to me ‘Lata, tumne aaj mujh erula diya’ (Lata, you brought tears to my eyes today).” Lata – the Nightingale of India recalled this incident a few years back.
At that exact moment when the patriotic song reverberated in the Delhi-located stadium, sitting amidst the spectators was a petite girl who came with her friend to watch the spectacle of musical greats singing live. She was, Reena Chhibber.
Recalling that time Reena who turned 90, this year, and crossed all hurdles to visit her ancestral home in Pakistan in July in this historic year, for the first time, exactly 75 years after partition, articulates about that momentous day in history, in a conversation with the author – “On 27th January 1963, as part of Republic Day celebrations, my keen interest in music took me to Delhi’s National Stadium or the Ramlila grounds. The august gathering there included India’s first Prime Minister Pt Jawaharlal Nehru in the front row. I was sitting with my friend, only two rows behind Pt Nehru, when Lata Mangeshkar sang the moving patriotic song Ae Mere Watan Ke Logo, Zaara Ankh Mein Bhar Lo Pani …. Not only was the Prime Minister deeply emotional, his eyes brimming with tears, as India had seen its brave soldiers give their lives in the recent war then, but the entire audience was also in tears.
“This occasion at Ramlila grounds came merely 66 days after the Indo-China War that started on 20th October and ended on 21st November 1962. Through newspapers and other oral communication it was learned that the PM was deeply shattered by the debacle in this war,” Reena recalls.
It was surmised that Nehru’s health deteriorated after India’s defeat in the Sino-India war which he perceived as a betrayal of trust by China. The PM spent months recuperating in Kashmir.
“Along with Lata Mangeshkar, were three other top singers of the times – Mahendra Kapoor, Talat Mahmood, and Mohammed Rafi. Mahendra, was then a promising newcomer in the music world of Indian cinema. I remember Talat Mahmood sang Hungama’e gumm se tang aakar… He was my favourite, and Mohammed Rafi sang – Ae Gul Badan….. It was the most prized moment to see the live performance of adorable singing greats, as well as the opportunity to see the first supreme head of the country in one place,” Reena recollects.
Recalling her younger days, Reena further recollects, “I met Nehru Ji many times in my life from the time I was a little girl in Rawalpindi and Nehru ji delivered a lecture and attended a tea party thrown in his honor, near our house.”
In pre-partition times Reena’s family which was quite well off possessed a gramophone and a radio. She recalls her father getting the latest LPs (long Playing) at home. Her home in Rawalpindi, she remembers, was an oasis of music and many in her family were good singers including her brothers, and herself.
Reena fully relived the moment of her childhood recently in full public glare from Pakistan media and public, when she hummed an old Bollywood song on ‘Rains’, while holding on to the balcony grill of her ancestral home, like a little girl. She visited Rawalpindi a month back, for the first time after 75 years of separation, and regaled the Pak people with many old songs during her 10 days in Pakistan.
Reena braved it alone to reach her home in Pakistan and even spent a night in her room, which she holds as the most precious moment. She was granted a visa by the Pak Minister for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar.
“This love for melody goaded me to see the musical program at Ramlila grounds which turned out to be a historic moment”, Reena said smilingly.
The nonagenarian had also witnessed another history in the making – of the hoisting of the ‘First Indian flag of Independence’ at the Simla Ridge on 15th August 1947, after traversing a 30-mile long trek from Solan to Simla to watch the spectacle along with her family. Reena and her family left their home, hearth, and heart, in Rawalpindi, when she was 15, during the Indo-Pak Partition 1947. None of her pre-partition family is alive today. Incidentally, famous writer Ruskin Bond too witnessed this historic moment in Simla, at the age of 13, and penned it vividly in his memoirs.
Coming back to the unparalleled patriotic song, known to make even stones weep, ‘Ae Mere Watan…’ it was penned by Kavi Pradeep and composed by C. Ramchandra. Lata Mangeshkar was hesitant to sing it at first as she had rehearsed it only once. Moreover, she wanted to sing it with her sister Asha. Eventually, the poet persuaded her to sing in the presence of the PM and it turned iconic, owing to its content and the way it was polished and carolled by Lata. Significantly, the song is played daily at the beating retreat ceremony at the Wagah Attari Border, Amritsar, and conjurers up the patriotic spirit amongst nearly 10,000 spectators that watch the Beating Retreat Ceremony at the border. The number of spectators doubles on weekends.
As per history -The British hymn ‘Abide with me’ was written by Scottish Anglican poet and hymnologist Henry Francis Lyte in 1847. Ironically, less than three years after the declaration of Independence from the British in 1947, the British hymn became a part of India’s Beating Retreat Ceremony in the year 1950.
Early this year the army released a brochure on dropping the British Hymn and listed 25 other tunes to be played on Republic Day 2022, marking the 75th Year of Indian Independence. A senior officer in the army stated –“The country has wilfully distanced itself from the symbolism of shackles of slavery of the British era.” These 26 tunes included –‘Kadam Kadam Barhayejaa….’, and ‘Hind ki Sena…’ played at a musical extravaganza ceremony concluding the Republic Day celebrations at Raisina Hill to Vijay Chowk, New Delhi.
The patriotic Hindi song –‘Ae mere watan ..’ that captivated the collective psyche of the nation was introduced as part of efforts towards “Indianisation” of the military, including its tunes, traditions, and customs, some of which were drawn from the British era.
Beating retreat is a century-old military tradition when troops disengage from the battle at sunset with the lowering of flags against the backdrop of the setting sun.