Placing Our Anthem

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When I was a student in school and college during the 1960’s and early 1970’s, it was a standard practice for cinema halls in India to play the national anthem, sometimes before the start of the film, but usually at the end of the film. Listening to my country’s anthem has always been an emotional moment for me: till today my wife and I turn on the television every year to watch the beginning of the Republic Day Parade, solely to listen to how the ceremoniousness of the occasion imparts an added glory to the anthem; and the times we heard it in cinema halls in our youth probably played a role in ingraining this attachment within us. In those early days, I remember standing in the theatre for the anthem with respect and pride, filled with a warm glow, and most others also did so. Unfortunately, such sentiment was not unanimous to audiences of the time. When the anthem was being played after the film, many ignored it and started exiting the theatre. When it was played before the film, some kept moving to their seats, or continued to sit or converse. Eventually, in the mid-70’s, it was decided that the national anthem should not be subjected to such disrespect and this practice of playing it in cinema halls came to an end, even though a few theatres voluntarily continued to do so. The memory from those times that strikes me now is the behaviour of those who chose to offer respect to the anthem: they stood with pride, but remained immersed in their own allegiance, seemingly unconcerned with measuring what anyone else was doing, unaffected by the fact that many around them offered little or no respect.

Coming to recent times, towards the end of 2016 the Supreme Court, driven by a desire to promote pride in the nation, passed an order reinstating the mandate of playing the national anthem in cinema halls. There has been some controversy over whether it is appropriate that judges poke their nose into such issues, but that is another discussion that I will not get into here. The court order stipulated that the anthem be played before the screening of the film, made it mandatory for all in the hall to stand and show respect to it, and prescribed that the doors of the theatre be shut while it is played so that no disturbance or disrespect is allowed. This time a radically different element had entered the public mood: an assertive nationalism seemed to have taken root. People did not remain contained within their personal allegiance. Many cast a hawk-eyed gaze on other cinema-watchers to judgmentally measure how they met the required standard of devotion to the nation, and reports began to circulate of spontaneous verbal, sometimes physical, attacks being unleashed on those who did not stand for the anthem.

What has changed since the audiences of four to five decades ago? Why did patriots remain silent back then, and in contrast why do so many today monitor their fellow citizens like watch dogs? The earlier silence does not speak of a lesser patriotism. Rather, the two eras reflect a radical difference in the way we place the anthem in relationship to ourselves. In the earlier era, the relationship was direct and personal, so secure in its internal emotional bond that the discordant actions of others around appeared irrelevant. The presence of that bond seemed sufficient to construct one’s imagination of the nation. But today the anthem represents a nation placed as a god on a pedestal, the bond is no longer personal but dependent on the status of that pedestal to the point that an overwhelming agitation often results if the exaltation of that status is not consistent or comprehensive. It is not that the old attitude is no longer present: it is just that we often fail to see it for the new attitude attracts our attention by being far noisier. I had two recent experiences with the national anthem that delineated the difference between these two attitudes. The first was in a cinema theatre, and left me quite disturbed; and the second was in a club, and moved me to the point of inducing a lump in my throat.

In the cinema theatre experience, it was not the playing of the anthem that was disturbing. Far from it: while all stood respectfully, the anthem worked its usual magic on me with the same glow unfailingly warming my heart. It was what followed the anthem that was disturbing. Just as the last strains died down, a woman in the hall loudly shouted “Bharat Mata ki……” (To Mother India……), to which many in the audience dutifully echoed “Jai!” (Victory!). This sloganeering is new; it was never heard during my childhood experiences at the movies. The slogan received a chilling echo in the theme of the film we watched that night: the Sridevi starrer Mom. The film narrates how its protagonist deals with the rape of her step-daughter and the subsequent failure of the judicial system to punish the culprits. She characterises her situation as one where the choice is no longer between right and wrong for it is reduced to choosing only between wrong and greater wrong. This launches her on a path to wreak violent vengeance one-by-one upon the perpetrators of the rape. The audience watching the film, as well as reviewers of the movie, seemed untroubled by its unquestioning promotion of a vigilante justice that makes scant attempt to seek an ethical compass that could guide us toward what is right. Sridevi’s role is a metaphor for the Bharat Mata the woman in the movie hall shouted out to: a loving, yet powerful, mother whose love is so perfect and divine that those dissonant with it are rightful targets of her wrath.

Now for the second experience, which happened when a group of my friends from high school met for a Sunday reunion lunch at a club in central Bangalore in honour of the visit of a classmate from overseas. A temporary shelter had been set up that day on the main lawn of the club, and there was quite a crowd as it was also the day a significant cricket match (India versus Pakistan in the final of the ICC Champions Trophy being played in England) was being telecast live on a large screen. By the time the telecast of the pre-match ceremonies started at 2 pm, all of us in our group were full of beer and biryani, in a jovial mood echoed by the crowd surrounding us, and a loud and fun-filled buzz of conversation saturated the ambience. Then the national anthems of the two teams were played, starting with India. The sound of the anthem, as it began to play, was underscored by a radical transformation of the space we were in. It was as if a powerful divine force swept through, momentarily carrying the sound of everyone rising to their feet, but primarily sucking all conversation out of the place. The crowd went through a metamorphosis, the convivial roar of conversation abruptly vanished, and although a few people sang the anthem, it was primarily a silence that suddenly embraced us. The multitude from which this silence emanated gave it tangible weight and intoxicating presence, imbued with stillness reverence and pride that spoke louder than any words could. The evocative power of the moment brought goose bumps to my skin and it will remain forever etched in my memory.

This haunting silence had a paradoxical quality that drew my attention to the fact that it is not a literal and pervasive silence that is of significance, but one woven into the equation we strike with the fellow beings who surround us in such moments. We are silent with them: we do not attempt to speak to them, and we do not actively listen to hear them. Yet, the multitude of their silent presence, when directed to the same purpose that has consumed us, imparts a resonant significance to the aura of that purpose. It is the same phenomenon that resounds within the faithful in a crowded Indian temple. Every worshipper’s relationship with God is personal and intimate: they pray as though they are the only person in the temple. Yet somehow, the multitude of worshippers, who do not engage with each other but are praying just like each other, reverberantly underscores to every solitary worshipper the compelling presence of God.

This paradoxical silent engagement characterised the allegiance to the anthem demonstrated in the cinema theatres of old. But today, it is absent in those who launch attacks on any shortcoming of respect for the anthem or in that sloganeering woman I encountered. To the contrary, while directing one ear to the anthem they keep their other ear actively and anxiously directed to listening to those around them, with their anxiety rapidly escalating if they fail to hear an adequate echo of themselves. They seem unable to survive without that echo, and if it is absent they desperately act to create its presence, either by enforcing it through intimidation or by provoking it through slogans. Their anger is what immediately strikes us, but there is an underlying anxiety and fear that is palpable. To them, the angst of modern uncertainty is relieved by positing the nation as something glorious and pre-existent. The imagery of a divine mother is powerful and appropriate to this quest: a goddess who has created us and nurtures life within us through her selfless and perfect love. But her pre-existence is fragile for, however glorious it may be, its perfection is threatened by any attempt to bring her into coexistence in the present moment with us, messy and flawed beings. She can only be there through an affirmation of her perfection constructed by an unquestioning and dutiful reflection of that wonderful love back toward her. If we fail to produce that reflection, fail to produce the echo, we blasphemously undermine her very presence: an intolerable existential transgression that compels her faithful believers to enforce or provoke the echo by by recasting themselves as proxies for the mother’s wrath.

These are two radically different ways of placing our anthem. One lifts the anthem on to a public pedestal above us, casting it as an emblem of the nation as pre-existent divine mother. And the other seems to offer no public definition of the nation, content within personal engagement, but seeming to draw solace and public affirmation from the silent resonance of those around.

The true difference in these worldviews can be best appreciated by allegorically comparing the cinema halls of yesteryear and today: specifically, the moving image of the flag projected on the screen as the anthem is played. In the 60’s and 70’s, we saw a film of an actual flag fluttering in the wind. The colours may have been clumsily touched up, and the breeze may have been produced by a fan lying outside the camera’s cone of vision, but there was no doubt that the image we watched was that of a real flag. In contrast, today we watch a flag that has been digitally constructed and animated, moving in the breeze in a gently swaying wave whose evenness is so perfect that the artificiality of the image is pronounced. The myth of a pre-existent glorious nation cannot exist in a messy and complex world: it must be a constructed image, and the illusion of its reality continually propped up by a devotional chant that can neither cease nor be tainted by non-conformance. Whereas a real flag fluttering in the wind has a living force within it, for the presence of the wind, even if simulated by a fan, embodies a physical energy.

I see the latter as an emblem representing that we the people are the energy, the wind, that keeps the flag flying. The nation does not pre-exist us: it is continually constructed in the way we pour our ideals, visions, thoughts, dreams, art, dance, culture, community and kinship into her public realm; and this outpouring is the wind that energises the flag so that it does not hang limp but flies gloriously. We must remember that the freedom of our country was not won by a nationalist call to restore a divine mother to her pedestal, but by an insistence on the inalienability of swaraj (self-rule). And if it all begins with the freedom, autonomy and potential of swaraj, then we must not seek to control what our neighbour’s voice speaks. Our silence with our fellow citizens is our pledge to support the authenticity of their voice. We will all be free beings who speak with different voices, and the core challenge of nation building will be to construct and sustain a public realm such that these diverse voices do not descend into anarchy or narcissism, but silently align to keep the flag flying. The uneven flutter of the flag in the wind will be representative of this inherent diversity. That will be good, rich and resilient; for that is the way that real flags fly.

(Originally published at https://premckar.wordpress.com)

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