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Singing to the gallery

Uday Pratap Singh. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

The ruling Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh created an interesting bit of history in 2013 when it bought the copyright of the classic English number ‘We didn’t start the fire’ by Billy Joel.

It was Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s idea that the Grammy-winning song be adapted into Hindi and dedicated to his father. It is ironic that the party, whose stand against English needs no reiteration, would borrow from an English song to compose its official campaign anthem. One can also see it as Akhilesh Yadav’s effort to project himself as a more progressive and cosmopolitan leader than the man-of-the-rustic-heartland image cultivated by his father Mulayam Singh Yadav.

As in the past, octogenarian poet and a party-old timer Uday Pratap Singh was assigned the task of composing the lyrics. The poet, more conversant with Hindi, did try to wriggle out of the assignment, but was persuaded by the Chief Minister to do it.

The mandate was simple: the song would have to incorporate three things: the names of all Socialist leaders; a rundown of the existing government’s welfare schemes; and the Samajwadi Party patriarch’s ‘dreams’. And thus was created Mann se hai Mulayam, irade loha (‘He is soft at heart but iron-willed’). The song, a runaway hit with SP supporters, was a punch line for all party ads during the 2014 general elections.

“It was not only the first time I wrote something to an English tune, but it was also my first free-verse composition,” says the poet, who presently holds the prestigious Chair of the UP Hindi Sansthan.

Sharp slogans and jingles are vital to Indian politics, especially in the Hindi belt where election campaigns are very high on drama. Catchphrases not only set the mood during the polls but also encapsulate different periods of political history, define a party’s ideological inclination, or underline a leader’s targeted electoral constituency. Be it Indira Gandhi’s Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan or Garibi Hatao slogans, or the Hindutva chant of the 1990s that went Hum mandir wahin banayenge or the more recent Sabka Saath Sabka Vikaas made famous by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, these catchy one-liners have become an intrinsic part of electioneering.

Uday Pratap has composed 40 songs for Samajwadi Party, most of them dedicated to party patriarch Mulayam Singh. Born in a well-to-do Yadav family of civil servants in Garhiya of Mainpuri district, Uday Pratap armed himself with Master’s degrees in Hindi and English and in 1958 joined the Jain Inter-College in Karhal as an English lecturer. Among the many students taking their exams at that time was a stocky young lad who caught the fancy of his peers with his vigour and political zeal. His fellow mates nicknamed him ‘Netaji’. “I taught him English, which he never learnt,” laughs Uday Pratap, referring to Mulayam’s political opposition to compulsory English.

In his early political life, Mulayam led a series of campaigns against the dominance of English in education and jobs. Today, the Samajwadi Party is viewed as being opposed to the English language. Uday Pratap feels it is a wrong perception. “Mulayam’s opposition was based on the political stand of the Socialists. It was not anti-English, but suggested that English should not be the language of prestige. There should be social-politico-economic justice, and that could only happen through one’s mother tongue.” Uday Pratap would later serve as a member of the National Commission for Backward Classes.

With time, the Uday-Mulayam relationship metamorphosed from student-teacher to that of friends and colleagues in the Socialist movement. The poet recalls how he used to ride pillion on Mulayam’s bicycle through the dusty tracts of Etawah. And in 1984, a new trend was set in motion. It was in praise of the Kranti rath yatra that Uday Pratap composed his first verse for Mulayam: Keval neta nahi, Mulayam Singh toh ek vichaar hai (Mulayam Singh is not just a leader but an idea). It was followed by an ode to Mulayam’s efforts to stitch together a Third Front. Naam Mulayam Singh, lekin kaam bada fauladi hai. Sab Vipaksh ki bikhri taaqat ek maanch pe ladi hai. (The soft-named Mulayam has brought the scattered Opposition together with steely determination.)

The simplicity of the phrases resonated with the common man. And, according to Uday Pratap, Mulayam values the power of poetry. He recalls how during an Etawah kavi sammelan, Mulayam said that the song ‘ Naya Savera Lana Hai’ helped his party win. ‘ Kavita mein bahut shakti hoti hai’, poetry is powerful, he said.”

Over the last 45 years, Uday Pratap has participated in numerous such poetry kavi sammelans or gatherings in India and abroad. In 1993, he led the Indian delegation to the Third International Hindi Sammelan in Suriname. And from poetry to politics was a short leap. In 1989, Uday Pratap won a Lok Sabha election from Mainpuri seat, which went on to become a Mulayam pocket borough. In 1996, Uday Pratap gave up his seat for Mulayam. “My relationship with Mulayam Singh was of a guide-cum-colleague,” he says.

The long association with Mulayam Singh has indeed brought favourable moments for Uday Pratap. In 2002, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha, and after Akhilesh Yadav came to power he was rewarded with a Ministry. In 2015, he won the title of ‘Sahitya Sirhomani’, conferred on him along with veteran poet Gopal Das Neeraj.

Detractors compare him to a durbari poet, and say Uday Pratap has been unduly favoured by his long political and personal association with the Samajwadi Party chief. But that does not bother the man. “I am a non-political politician,” he smiles.

There is one year to go for the 2017 UP Assembly elections, and his latest song is already out. ‘ Pragati ka sriganesh, Akhilesh’ it goes, now praising the son instead of the father.

In 2012, Uday Pratap’s ‘ Yeh Samajwadi Jhanda’ serenaded the junior Yadav to power. Will Uttar Pradesh sing to Akhilesh next year as well? Uday Pratap certainly hopes so.


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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 10:15:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/Singing-to-the-gallery/article14015997.ece

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