“Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo”: The Anatomy of Patriotism in the 1960s

Lata Mangeshkar singing the song for the first time on 27 January 1963. Source: Akmal Hussain/ Facebook.

Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo is an iconic song which was first sung by Lata Mangeshkar, written by Kavi Pradeep and composed by C. Ramchandra in 1963 to honour the fallen soldiers in the 1962 Indo-Sino war. It was first sung by Mangeshkar on 27 January during the Republic Day celebrations. Since then, this song has been revered as one of the most patriotic and heartfelt odes to the Indian nation. 

However, alongside the inherent brilliance of the song, it was also the anxieties and fears of the Indian public in the 1960s which influenced the way they consumed and produced this text. Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo was first sung to an India fumbling the ball with international relations and defense strategies. The overwhelming defeat in the unexpected 1962 war with China had put India on the back-foot and made the recently decolonised citizens anxious and looking for someone to blame. Honourable defence minister Menon had to resign, and P. M. Nehru barely escaped with his dignity intact. Amidst these anxieties, the song came as a perfect articulation of the emotions of the masses, and eventually became the marching band for the heartbeats of a million Indians in 1963.

Therefore, the object of my analysis in this paper is the song, which I plan to analyse by placing it in the middle of its social, political and historical context. I also plan to analyse the song using the tool of the “period rhetoric” mentioned by Roland Barthes (1961) in his text “The Photographic Message” by drawing a contrast with the connotations the song held in 1963 vis-a-vis those it holds in 2019. Barthes (1961) also mentions that a text “clearly only signifies because of the existence of a store of stereotyped attitudes which form ready-made elements of signification” (p. 201). Therefore, I acknowledge at the outset that the nationalistic fervour, its associations with the army, and the anxieties of the Indian polity in the 1960s created this store of stereotyped attitudes which influenced the emission, transmission and reception of the song. Barthes’ (1961) claim that a “…. second meaning, whose signifier is a certain “treatment” of the image (result of the action of the creator) and whose signified, whether aesthetic or ideological, refers to a certain “culture” of the society receiving the message” (“The Photographic Message.”p. 196-197) is utilised in the paper through an analysis of Mangeshkar’s voice and the ways through which her distinct tenor influenced the reception of the song. 

In the first four lines of the song “ऐ मेरे वतन के लोगों / तुम खूब लगा लो नारा / ये शुभ दिन है हम सब का / लहरा लो तिरंगा प्यारा” (O! People of my country! / Keep on chanting the slogans [the slogans praising India]. / This is an auspicious day for all of us / Unfurl our beloved tricolour) the use of “mere” (i.e. “mine”) in the first sentence immediately binds the singer and the listener as a part of a collective whole, where each and every citizen feels the same way. The use of the term “watan” (i.e. “country”) instead of “desh” or any other term signifying “country” is really interesting here, for it harps back to its original meaning of “motherland” and “homeland” in Arabic over simply “country” and thereby establishes a deeper familiarity with the listener. The phrase “Unfurl our beloved tricolour” employed as a synecdoche for the entirety of the Republic Day celebrations is an acute exhibition of the relevance of the Indian flag, and symbols and images like the charkha and khadi used to connote nationalism in newly independent India (Virmani, 1999), especially on the auspicious day of Republic Day. The reference to the fallen soldiers in the next few lines “पर मत भूलो सीमा पर / वीरों ने है प्राण गँवाए / कुछ याद उन्हें भी कर लो -२ / जो लौट के घर न आये -२” (but don’t forget that at the borders / brave people have lost their lives. / Remember those / who never returned home) establishes the main spirit of the entire song: commemoration of the martyred. The call to not forget the warriors who have lost their lives on the border plays into the cultural context of the time wherein the memories of Indo-Sino war were overshadowing the entire country, and even an occasion as joyous as the Republic Day couldn’t be isolated from it. The repetition of the last two lines further reiterates this point. 

The most famous four lines of this song “ऐ मेरे वतन के लोगों / ज़रा आँख में भर लो पानी / जो शहीद हुए हैं उनकी / ज़रा याद करो क़ुरबानी” (O! People of my country! / Shed a few tears. / Of those who were martyred / Remember their sacrifice.) have over the years come to represent the spirit of this song. The call to shed tears over the fallen and remember their sacrifice remains till date an appeal with heavy overtones of patriotism. The connection presented here between the army, their sacrifice, and nationalism is an association born of its social and historical context, wherein the people who had laid down their lives in the independence struggle, the 1948 war with Pakistan and the Indo-Sino conflict are true patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice for their watan. In the next stanza “जब घायल हुआ हिमालय / खतरे में पड़ी आज़ादी / जब तक थी साँस लड़े वो / फिर अपनी लाश बिछा दी / संगीन पे धर कर माथा / सो गये अमर बलिदानी / जो शहीद…” (When the Himalayas were wounded [by Chinese forces] / when our freedom was in peril / as long as they had any breath left in them / they fought… ), the usage of Himalayas to represent the Aksai Chin border and North-East Frontier Agency (Arunachal Pradesh) becomes extremely important when placed within its historical context wherein it has served as the first insurmountable line of defense and a symbol of grandiose for India over the centuries. The wounding of the Himalayas, hence, connotes the wounding of India’s primary line of defense and therefore poses a serious risk to India’s security. Hence, the next line “खतरे में पड़ी आज़ादी” represents the overwhelming fear felt by the Indian populace post the conflict with China wherein a singular defeat is equated to a risking of freedom. The next five lines reemphasise the willing sacrifice of the martyrs, and how their conscious laying down of their lives for our country has brought them eternal glory. 

The lines “जब देश में थी दीवाली / वो खेल रहे थे होली / जब हम बैठे थे घरों में / वो झेल रहे थे गोली” (When it was [the festival] of Holi / they played [it] with their blood. / When we were sitting in our homes celebrating Diwali / they were being pierced by bullets.) brings out the theme of civilians living comfortable lives in their homes while the soldiers get their hands dirty in the process of defending the country and protecting the former. The contrasting usage of the festivals Diwali and Holi to present specific different scenes is based on the associated eliteness and purity of the festival of Diwali, vis-a-vis the “dirty” festival of Holi where regular social norms are suspended and “playful reversals of gender, generation, class, and caste are enacted in a variety of ways.” (Copeman, 2013. “The Art of Bleeding: Memory, Martyrdom, and Portraits in Blood.” p. 7) The trope of symbolising bloodshed with the fun festival of Holi — where brightly coloured substances are thrown as a part of celebrations — is quite common in pop-culture. It has famously been used as a part of a dialogue in the film International Khiladi (dir. U. Mehra, 1999): “Bachpan se aaj tak maine kabhi Holi nahi kheli … magar ab kheloonga khoon ki Holi” (“I’ve never played Holi all my life … but now I will play Holi with blood.”) and as the names of episodes in the TV shows Adaalat (2010-): S01e103 and in C.I.D (1998-): S01e933.

The next stanza “कोई सिख कोई जाट मराठा / कोई गुरखा कोई मदरासी / सरहद पर मरनेवाला / हर वीर था भारतवासी / जो खून गिरा पवर्अत पर / वो खून था हिंदुस्तानी / जो शहीद…” (Some were Sikh, some were Jat and some Maratha / some were Gurkha and some from Madras. / Whosoever died at the border, /every such warrior was an Indian. / The blood that fell on the hills of the Himalayas / that blood was Indian.) harps back to the 20th century theme of ‘unity in diversity’ wherein the boundaries between regions and regional backgrounds fade away amongst the bonds of army solidarity and ultimately, every fallen soldier on the enemy lines is an Indian. This denotation connotes the claiming of every martyr by the nation (and the state) as a feather in its own hat. The sanguinary visual of bloodshed of Indians on the mountains reflexively evokes intense feelings, which are usually associated with feelings of patriotism. This sanguinary visualisation continues into the next stanza where the denotation of “थी खून से लथ-पथ काया / फिर भी बन्दूक उठाके / दस-दस को एक ने मारा / फिर गिर गये होश गँवा के” (Their body was covered in blood / yet they picked up the rifle / each soldier killed ten enemies / and then fell to the ground on losing consciousness.) blends into the connoted idea of the ideal soldier who is aggressive and fights for his country till his last breath. This aggressiveness was even more pronounced in the aftermath of the 1963 conflict where India’s unpreparedness and submissive complacency had led to global embarrassment. This idea of the ideal soldier continues into the next few lines “जब अन्त-समय आया तो / कह गये के अब मरते हैं / खुश रहना देश के प्यारों / अब हम तो सफ़र करते हैं / क्या लोग थे वो दीवाने / क्या लोग थे वो अभिमानी / जो शहीद…” (When the moment of their death arrived / they said, “We are now going to die / be happy, my fellow countrymen / now we will go on this journey.” / They were brilliant men, / they were proud men.) where with his dying breath, he greets death like an old friend and wishes happiness for his fellow countrymen. The last two lines reemphasise this ideal by describing the men as brilliant and proud (alternatively: arrogant), and the connoted message transmitted to the public represented these traits as one and the same. 

The last stanza “तुम भूल न जाओ उनको / इस लिये कही ये कहानी / जो शहीद…” (Lest you forget them / this story has been recounted) reiterates how important it is to not forget their sacrifice. Following this, Mangeshkar ends the song with “जयहिन्दजयहिन्दकीसेना”(Victory to India, and victory to the Indian armed forces). The association between the victory of the army and victory of the nation is reestablished here. The usage of the lines “जो शहीद हुए हैं उनकी / ज़रा याद करो क़ुरबानी” (Of those who were martyred / Remember their sacrifice.) at the end of every single stanza (post the third stanza) in the song further emphasises the significance of this idea. 

A song, alongside its lyrics, also credits its reception to its tone and composition. The soulful, “shrill, adolescent-girl falsetto” (Sundar, 2008. “Meri Awaaz Suno: Women, Vocality, and Nation in Hindi Cinema.” p. 6) of Lata Mangeshkar, “”cleansed” of all those qualities that would in time be read as markers of decadence, immodesty, and by extension, in the warped logic of Indian nationalism, Muslimness” (Sundar, 2008. “Meri Awaaz Suno: Women, Vocality, and Nation in Hindi Cinema.”p. 7) is one of the most important reasons for the evergreen nature of this song. The increasing influence of fringe groups like the Hindu Mahasabha on the INC during the freedom struggle (Bose and Jalal, 2004) and the retention of this power can be credited for the overwhelmingly positive reception of “Mangeshkar’s “good” Hindu voice” (Sundar, 2008. “Meri Awaaz Suno: Women, Vocality, and Nation in Hindi Cinema.”p. 7). Her image as a simple, devoted and religious woman, placed alongside her unmarried status and refusal to sing “vulgar” songs had paid credence to her “virginal” status and thereby, represented her as a culturally positive symbol for the Indian state. Even today, the vocal style of “Lata didi” (big sister Lata) is mimicked by contemporary playback artists such as Alka Yagnik and Kavita Krishnamurthy. 

The connotations associated with the song in 2019, when analysed using Barthes’ tool of “period rhetoric” are revealed to be analogous to those in 1963. The similarity between these connotations over five decades can be credited to the resurgence of the influence of Hindu groups like RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), BJS (Bharatiya Jana Sangh) and BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) in the past few years post BJP’s victory in 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Plus, the escalating emphasis on “nationalism” over globalisation has led to an increasingly reactionary approach which is in line with militant Hinduism as “…in the minds of many Hindu nationalists, the ability to use force is intricately tied to India’s self-image as a nation.” (Vaishnav, 2019. “The BJP in Power: Indian Democracy and Religious Nationalism.” p. 79). This has been accentuated in instances like 2016 Uri attack, 2017 Doklam standoff with China and 2019 Pulwama attack. These events have contributed to the reemergence of a culture wherein military might is intricately tied with national glory, and ““pure” voices” (Sundar, 2008. “Meri Awaaz Suno: Women, Vocality, and Nation in Hindi Cinema.”p. 7) like that of Mangeshkar are deemed acceptable to represent the Indian nation. 

Therefore, the chosen text till date connotes deep-seated patriotism and inspires nationalism in the Indian populace. It is also an acute exhibition of the influence of a country’s hard power over its soft power, and how they interact to produce feelings of solidarity and pride in a suitable environment (i.e., culture). The production and consumption of art deemed “patriotic” in the 1960s was heavily influenced by the social, political and historical context of that decade of which the iconic song Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo is a prime example. The recent resurgence of BJP in the last few years can be credited for a similar reception of the song in 2019, thereby illustrating the utilisation “of the existence of a store of stereotyped attitudes which form ready-made elements of signification.” (Barthes, 1961. “The Photographic Message.” p. 201).



WORKS CITED 

Barthes, Roland. “The photographic message.” A Barthes Reader, edited by Susan Sontag, Hill and Wang, 1961. 

This paper argues that alongside on-the-surface denotations, an image also transmits various connotations. It also argues that these connotations are prone to influence by various elements prevalent in the image. For the purpose of this paper, I have utilised the concept of the “period rhetoric” mentioned in Barthes’ text, and the following two quotes:

  • “clearly only signifies because of the existence of a store of stereotyped attitudes which form ready-made elements of signification” (p. 201)
  • “…. second meaning, whose signifier is a certain “treatment” of the image (result of the action of the creator) and whose signified, whether aesthetic or ideological, refers to a certain “culture” of the society receiving the message.” (p. 196-197)

Bose, Sugata and Jalal, Ayesha. Modern South Asia. Routledge, second edition, 2004, p. 117.

This book is an analytical text on the political happenings in India since the coming of the Mughals through Partition. For the purpose of this paper, I have utilised the idea in this book which states that fringe groups like Hindu Mahasabha had started pressuring the Indian National Congress during the freedom struggle. 

Copeman, Jacob. “The art of bleeding: Memory, martyrdom, and portraits in blood.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Blood Will Out: Essays on Liquid Transfers and Flows, 2013, p. 149–71. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42001734

This paper analyses the genre of the Indian blood painting, and how different art forms are used to depict patriotism. It focusses on the sanguinary element in these art pieces, and its relation with preservation of memory of martyred soldiers. For the purpose of this paper, I have utilised Copeman’s translations of the Hindi lyrics Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo into English and one quote:

  • “playful reversals of gender, generation, class, and caste are enacted in a variety of ways.” (p. 7)

Sundar, Pavitra. “Meri awaaz suno: Women, vocality, and nation in Hindi cinema.” Meridians, Vol. 8, No. 1, Duke University Press, 2008. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40338915.

This paper analyses how playback singers’ voices contributed to the construction of a national identity post 1947. For the purpose of this paper, I have used four quotes:

  • “shrill, adolescent-girl falsetto” (p. 6)
  • “”cleansed” of all those qualities that would in time be read as markers of decadence, immodesty, and by extension, in the warped logic of Indian nationalism, Muslimness” (p. 7)
  • “Mangeshkar’s “good” Hindu voice” (p. 7) 
  • ““pure” voices” (p. 7)

Vaishnav, Milan. The BJP in Power: Indian Democracy and Religious Nationalism, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2019. 

This text analyses the rise of Hindu nationalism and its influence on BJP’s policymaking. It also talks about the relevance of these conversations on the eve of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. For the purpose of this paper, I have utilised one quote:

  • “…in the minds of many Hindu nationalists, the ability to use force is intricately tied to India’s self-image as a nation.” (p. 79)

Virmani, Arundhati. “National symbols under colonial domination: The nationalization of the Indian flag.” Past & Present, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 10-11. https://www.jstor.org/stable/651278.

This paper argues that during the freedom struggle various symbols gained prominence and became associated with nationalism, especially the national flag. For the purpose of this paper, I have utilised the examples of the charkha and white khaddar mentioned in Virmani’s text.

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