(Imagi)nation without the subaltern

Exclusionist logic: The song may be iconic but it is full of misrepresentation.

Exclusionist logic: The song may be iconic but it is full of misrepresentation.   | Photo Credit: Photo: P.V. Sivakumar


This Republic Day the iconic song, Mere Desh ki Dharti, will be heard yet again. But take a look at the unbalanced choice of icons the song celebrates and the sweeping erasures it nonchalantly effects.

Mere Desh ki Dharti, an extremely popular patriotic song from the film “Upkaar” (1967), is played on television, radio and at street corners to celebrate Republic Day every year. We will hear it yet again this January 26. In this song, one sees Bharat, the son of the soil played by Manoj Kumar (also the director of the film), praise the bounteous earth, its natural resources and its leaders.

The third and last stanza goes: ye baag hain gautam naanak kaa, khilate hain aman ke phool yahaan/gaandhee, subhaash, taigore, tilak ayese hain chaman ke phool yahaan/rang haraa hari singh nalawe se, rang laal hain laal bahaadoor se/rang banaa basantee bhagatasing rang aman kaa veer jawaahar se (In these gardens of Buddha and Nanak, flowers of peace prosper/Gandhi, Subhash, Tagore, Tilak – such are the flowers that blossom here/Colour green stands for Hari Singh Nalava, and red for Lal Bahadur/Colour saffron is drawn from Bhagat Singh, and white from brave Jawaharlal.)

Although the entire song needs close attention at various levels, I shall focus only this verse and the elisions it smoothly makes. A few facts have to be taken into consideration before engaging with the discourse of the song. First, the filmmaker Manoj Kumar (born Harikishan Giri Goswami in Abbottabad in Northwest Frontier Province) has Partition and displacement in his family history and is a ‘high-caste’ Hindu. The lyric writer, Gulshan Kumar Mehta, popularly known as Gulshan Bawra, shares a similar background. The playback singer Mahendra Kapoor was a Punjabi from Amritsar. The point in mentioning their regional identities is to suggest that while envisioning the ‘nation’ and its political leaders, the filmmaker and his team were selective: all males, mostly from Central and North India.

New colour

While the song begins by fleetingly mentioning the Buddha, it superimposes the images of Mohandas Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose on the Buddha. Ironically, Tilak, an ‘extremist’ nationalist leader, a Brahmin who openly criticised Gandhi’s views on non-violence and peaceful negotiations, also finds a place in the same breath. What is surprising though is the invoking of the colour red: rang haraa hari singh nalawe se, rang laal hain laal bahaadoor se… (the colour green represents Hari Singh Nalava,a relatively unknown Punjabi), the colour red ( laal) stands for Lal Bahadur Shastri). Nowhere on the flag of India does one see the colour red. The mention of Lal Bahadur Shastri, India’s third prime minister, owes to the fact that “Upkaar” was made in 1967, and Shastri died in 1966. His inclusion perhaps could be justified but who is Hari Singh Nalava and how has he been slipped in here?

The song seeks to associate the key colours of the Indian tricolour with “nationalist/political” leaders. But the invocation of the non-existent red is, in a sense, yet another misrepresentation. While the song systematically associates each of the colours — green, red, orange and white — with certain leaders and their spirit, what is rendered invisible is the dark blue coloured Dhamma Chakra right at the centre of the tricolour. Not only does the song ambiguously undermine its symbolic colour blue but also the 24 arcs of the wheel of Buddhist dhamma (not Hindu dharma) and its central place in the flag. Although the song does mention the Buddha in passing, when it comes to symbolically associating and emphasising upon the Dhamma Chakra’s significance, it suffers from selective amnesia. Of a piece with this exclusionist logic, among all the ‘national’ leaders mentioned, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s name and image are conspicuous by their absence. The man who framed the Indian Constitution gets excluded whereas a virtually unknown Hari Nalava marks his ‘green’ presence, thanks to a poor pun on his name.

Ample liberties

Dr. Ambedkar’s role in ensuring a place for the Dhamma Chakra in the flag effectively resisted the effort to pass off the flag of the Indian National Congress as the newly formed Republic’s flag. Crucially, it has to be understood that the colour blue and the Dhamma Chakra adopted from the Ashoka Pillar in Sarnath, are not representative of communal or regional identities. The 24 spokes in the wheel represent 24 virtues such as love, courage, patience, empathy and humility. However, the “Upkaar” song takes ample liberties in associating the national flag with an unbalanced choice of political leaders, and in a sense communalises the flag.

Another major absence in this song of ‘nationalism’ is the absence of women leaders. Even the ‘usual suspects’ are absent. This absence is symbolic and itself points to the patriarchal nature and ideology of the song and its creators. Although I do understand that the token representation of images of ‘women leaders’ along with male political leaders may have limited influence on the conditions of and on womenfolk in India, the inaudibility and invisibility of women among the ‘valorised’ leaders in Mere Desh ki Dharti is yet another symptom of brahminical patriarchal bias.

As we remember the formation of the Indian Republic this year, we must hear and see this iconic song critically and be alive to its ambiguous erasures.

The writer is pursuing his Masters in Cinema and Media studies at York University, Toronto. Email: >

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