Ai mere watan ke logon: Story behind the song that moved a nation to tears
It touched a chord with the entire country traumatised by the debacle in the India-China war.
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- Koyi Sikh koyi Jat Maratha, koyi Gurkha koyi Madrasi,
- Sarhad par marnewala, har veer tha Bharat vaasi,
- Jo khoon gira parvat par, woh khoon tha Hindustani,
- Jo shahid huye hain unki, zara yaad karo qurbaani
Even as a six-year-old, these rousing words never failed to move me to tears. HMV had released a 78 rpm disc of "Ai mere watan ke logon" in 1963 which was played regularly on our record-changer. Lata Mangeshkar’s pathos-filled rendition of Kavi Pradeep’s stirring lyrics, set to a soulful melody by C Ramchandra, held, not only me, but the entire nation in thrall.
Even though it has been 53 years since Lata sang it on January 27, 1963 at the National Stadium, New Delhi, in the presence of Jawaharlal Nehru, the ditty remains the mother of all Indian patriotic songs. Yet, the song may not have had the above stanza.
In fact, except for the opening stanza, the remaining stanzas that appeared in the song may not have been there at all if C Ramchandra had not chosen them from a hundred (yes, a hundred) stanzas penned by Pradeep. The song may have had different stanzas.
The song may have been sung by Asha Bhosle instead of Lata.
Or it could have been a duet of Lata and Asha. The origin of this song – a national institution - is controversial and there exist many versions. In the wake of the Chinese back-stabbing in 1962, and the gloom and despondency that had descended on the country, film producer Mehboob Khan organised a fund-raiser at the National Stadium, New Delhi to augment the National Defence Fund.
The audience included then President S Radhakrishnan, prime minister Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Cabinet ministers, and virtually the entire film industry comprising stalwarts like Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar, and others.
The programme had songs from Naushad ("Apni azadi ko hum", from Leader), Shankar Jaikishan ("Hothon pe sachhai", from Jis Desh Main Ganga Behti Hai), Madan Mohan ("Kar chale hum fida", from Haqeeqat) and C Ramchandra, in that order.
According to Ramchandra, even though he had been selected, he had no song with him. All others were presenting their own film songs. He went to Pradeep and requested him to write a song. Pradeep jokingly responded, “Phokat ka kaam ho toh aate ho.” But he did write 100 stanzas of which Ramchandra selected five-six.
In fact, the opening stanza struck Pradeep when he was walking on the Mahim beach in Mumbai. He borrowed a pen from a fellow walker, ripped out the foil from his cigarette packet and penned it down.
They had decided to keep the lyrics a secret. All the earlier songs were fast-paced, forceful and about valour and bravery. Only Pradeep’s song spoke about the sacrifices jawans made and how much they suffered. If this concept was revealed, there would have been no element of surprise.
Also a sad, patriotic song may not have been acceptable to many. The song which was given for the souvenir was deliberately a differently worded song. Hridaynath Chattopadhyay translated the song in English and put his own name, without mentioning Pradeep’s.
Asha was chosen by Ramchandra to sing the song, not Lata because he was not on speaking terms with Lata owing to a rift between the two. Asha had also started rehearsals.
Six days before the programme, Pradeep called up Ramchandra saying that Lata was ready to sing the song. Ramchandra told him that Asha would be singing. When Pradeep insisted, he relented on the condition that both would sing it as a duet. Pradeep informed Lata and she agreed.
Two days later, he called up Asha and Lata, gave them the song and was about to begin rehearsals when Asha informed Ramchandra that she was not well and would not be able to go to Delhi. In spite of his entreaties, Asha refused to relent and walked out of the project.
Raju Bharatan, the eminent music historian, has a different take on the matter. Lata, who was not on good terms with Ramchandra agreed to give her voice only on one condition that it would be recorded as a solo. Ramchandra had actually tuned the song into a duet.
Lata, out of the blue, called Pradeep around six one morning to express her keenness to sing the song provided she could do it as a solo.
Asha had even rehearsed with the composer but was dropped when Lata insisted to record it solo. Pradeep found Ramchandra, too, to be jumping at this chance to have his very own Lata back to render such a hallmark number. Forgotten in a trice were Ramchandra's long-spread rehearsals for the number with Asha.
The truth according to Lata is, however, different. She stated in an interview that she had initially refused to be a part of the project. It was Pradeep who had approached her to sing the song. She declined because there was no time to rehearse. At that time she was working round-the-clock and to give special attention to one song seemed impossible. But Pradeep insisted.
Lata revealed that she wanted to sing it with sister Asha, but that didn't happen.
Pradeep wanted it to be a solo. Asha too opted out. Lata tried to convince her to change her mind arguing that her name had even been printed in the newspapers as one of the singers. But Asha did not agree. The singer revealed that she couldn't even rehearse the song properly before performing it in front of the distinguished gathering.
Ramchandra had to be in Delhi at least four days ahead of the performance so he was unable to rehearse the song with Lata. Instead, he gave her a tape of the song. Lata picked up the tune from the tape and flew to Delhi on January 26, 1963, one day before the function.
During the programme, Mohammad Rafi's "Apni Azaadi ko" from Dilip Kumar's Leader took the people by storm. It looked as if the show had been stolen by Rafi.
Ramchandra finally took center stage, with lively rhythmic beats of drums playing in the background. As the sound of the drumbeats faded, the prelude started with Basu Manohari’s flute. Then Lata began.
At the end when the chorus sang ”Jai Hind... Jai Hind Ki Sena” people started looking for the source of the sound, but Ramchandra had hidden the chorus behind the curtain for echo effect and to create an effect of the entire country singing together. The effect was electrifying! Till the song climaxed there was pin drop silence all around. When the song ended, the stadium vibrated with the thunderous sound of claps, whistles and applause.
According to Lata, she was very nervous before the performance and said she was much relieved to get it over with. After she finished, she went backstage to relax with a cup of coffee. Mehboob Khan then came looking for her saying "Chalo, Panditji ne bulaya hai." Lata stated that Nehru liked the song very much. The song had touched a chord not only with him but the entire nation traumatised by the Himalayan debacle. Pradeep was not invited to the function. When Nehru visited Mumbai two months later, he sang it especially for him at a function at RM High School and also presented the original handwritten poem to him.
Incidentally, Lata sang nine years later in 1972, again at a public function – this time at the Ram Lila Maidan in Delhi. Except this time, it was against the backdrop of the nation’s resounding victory in the 1971 war with Pakistan when the mood of the nation was upbeat.
Under Jaidev’s baton, she sang "Sarfaroshi ki tamanna" and "Satyamev Jayate". I was very fortunate to have met her and Jaidev, along with Usha Mangeshkar and Hridaynath Mangeshkar a day earlier when they had dropped in for a cup of tea at late music director Satish Bhatia’s residence.
The Hindi film industry is replete with what ifs, maybes and what might have beens. If SD Burman and Lata had not had a tiff, maybe Asha wouldn’t have got to sing his songs during that phase. If Rafi and Lata had not had their tiff, maybe Suman Kalyanpur wouldn’t have sung duets with him.
If OP Nayyar and Rafi had not had their tiff, maybe Mahendra Kapoor wouldn’t have been allowed inside OP’s recording studio. What matters is the final product. I can’t imagine Lata crooning "Deewana mastaana hua dil" with Rafi, nor singing "Na na karte pyaar tumhi se" with Rafi, nor Rafi doing "Badal jaaye agar mali". Asha, Suman and Kapoor are well and truly entrenched in our psyche with respect to these songs.
Just as Lata is with this iconic song! Never mind the history. The song still retains its relevance to this day and applies in equal measure to jawans of the armed forces, and paramilitary forces, who not only fight enemies on the border but within the country too.
These jawans sacrifice their lives and in return desire nothing but dignity and respect. If the song doesn’t stir us to acknowledge the society’s debt towards them, then the song runs the danger of degenerating into a shibboleth, dusted off and polished up on national days. And that would be a tragedy of Himalayan proportions!