I counted. There was not one, not two, but 13 people on stage, the men in pristine white kurta pajamas, the women in white and gold saris with flowers in their hair.
And they were singing Ekla Chalo Re, a song about going it alone, in full-throated chorus.
Then I noticed there was only one woman dancing. Perhaps she was going ekla, I thought, true to the spirit of the song. But no, as soon as the chorus really got into the song, four dancers joined her on stage.
Finally, 18 people stood on that stage telling us to go it alone if no one heeds our call.
This was part of the cultural extravaganza that accompanied the grand Howdy Modi show in Houston where Narendra Modi was the headliner with Donald Trump as his supporting act.
I cannot blame the Houston organizers. Ekla Chalo Re is indeed a great favourite of choruses. My mother remembers singing it decades ago at a function in Kolkata, also in a chorus. The comedian Bhanu Banerjee was at the function. After the song was done, he asked perplexedly, Accha, why did you sing Ekla Chalo Re all together?
Yet, we still keep singing it that way. Its become the default Rabindrasangeet at these unity-in-diversity Incredible India-style functions, just as Where the Mind is Without Fear is the default Tagore poem trotted out whenever the poet needs to be saluted outside Bengal. The true spirits of both have long been snuffed out by the powers that be. Now Ekla Chalo Re is used to exhort us to build a Swachh Bharat. When Modi addressed students at Visva-Bharati, he made sure to slip in Gurudev and Ekla Chalo Re.
Catchy and sprightly
Ekla Chalo Re, a song Tagore himself recorded, was one of Mahatma Gandhis favourites. Since then, Amitabh Bachchan has lent his baritone to it in Kahaani (2012). A.R. Rahman used it in Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2004). Amjad Ali Khan played it on the sarod while Suchitra Mitra sang it in her bold clear voice in an album they did together. Gulzar has called it is his favorite Rabindrasangeet. Its tune, based on a famous Bengali kirtan, is catchy and sprightly and a staple of Bengali singing shows.
But a song is about more than a hummable melody. Its about the lyrics as well. This was a protest song written during the Swadeshi movement along with Amar Sonar Bangla. At that time, the agitation against the partition of Bengal was in full swing. Tagore wrote it because he felt isolated and upset that he could not gain the attention of mainstream nationalist leaders in the anti-Partition agitation, says his biographer Sabyasachi Bhattacharya. It became part of the Swadesh section of Gitabitan, the anthology of all Tagore songs.
Tagore translated it himself.
If everyone turns away, if everyone fears to speak, then
with open heart, without hesitation, speak your mind
If everyone walks away, O unlucky one, everyone walks
If no one looks back towards your unpredictable path,
then with thorn-pricked bloodied feet, walk alone
If no one heeds your call then walk alone.
Its not hard to see why it was such a favourite of Gandhis. In 1947, when the rest of India (and the Congress party) was celebrating Independence, he was walking alone. He came to Kolkata uninvited and fasted and prayed in a dilapidated mansion on the eastern fringes of the city trying to staunch the Hindu-Muslim bloodletting. Only when Hindu and Muslim leaders laid down their swords before him, did he break his fast.
This was the the living embodiment of Ekla Chalo Re. Many of those who pen gushing articles today trying to co-opt the Gandhi brand on his 150th anniversary would have probably dubbed him an anti-national for this lonely act of protest in the middle of Independence celebrations.
We live in a culture now that does not favour those who walk alone and hold on to their principles against the juggernaut of popular opinion. Lawyers who dare to do their job and defend even those accused of terror, writers who voice unpopular opinions, cartoonists who ruffle the wrong feathers, are branded seditious. We send them one-way tickets to Pakistan. Dissent is dubbed unpatriotic. Those who walk alone disturb the wonderful symmetry of a nation marching in goose step towards a glorious future. They stick out like sore thumbs. We troll them online even as we sing Ekla Chalo Re in a patriotic chorus onstage. God help those who truly walk alone in a time of lynch mobs.
Today, a song of lonely principled protest has been turned into the poster child of saccharine groupthink (or at least groupsing).
The writer is the author of Dont Let Him Know, and like many Bengalis likes to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not.