It was in September of 2013, at a news conference in the constituency office of Virbhadra Singh, then minister of higher education in the Indian government, in Jammu and Kashmir, that I first heard India’s family farmers sounding their call for fair prices for their produce. It was my first-ever chance to speak to them. They were fielding questions about the severe winter loss of crops during the cool Indian winter months and a shortage of fertilizers and other inputs. They turned out to be no ordinary farmers, but a courageous band of thousands who in their youth had staged an unprecedented strike that September in thousands of villages across India. What they lacked in experience or in knowledge of the operation of the day, they made up for in mutual understanding, in the sheer fire in their hearts, in a spirit of “Do, If You Have To,” as reflected in our shared national anthem and the eternal hymn of solidarity for men and women of another century, Bharat Mata ki Jai.
They used to sing about Bombay, their home in Bombay, India’s financial capital in an imperial city of a colonial India. They didn’t have to sing so, as it turns out, that some time in the 1960s, a string quartet from Western Ontario, Canada, visited Bombay. It was their musical journey to India, focused on Indian music of the time, that prompted the beginning of their tour of India — a journey that eventually led them to the streets of India’s villages and small towns, and made them realize their core raison d’être: It was not as a wealthy visiting musician, but to experience the universal, even transcendent, spiritual power of music itself, no matter the language. In the summer of 1967, they taught at the Telugu Arts College in Hyderabad. In the midst of their groundbreaking musical journey of India, they met D. P. Gadgil, a man in a shapeless mauve cotton suit who had gone to India to teach South Indian music to Canadians. They played a tune on the Kalpana dhanrajil (mysterious classical Indian music) called pilyar (A Lush Life, a gorgeous melody with a premonition of spring into the new world). It sounded like peace music. Mr. Gadgil understood. In 1967, when Canadians could hear it, they called for a big gathering at Western Ontario University and their music soon moved to India.
Mr. Gadgil and his students would travel to India, teaching music and spreading their message. Mr. Gadgil would soon be found in Vidisha (in the southern Indian state of Madhya Pradesh) teaching Western Indian music. The dancers of the Maharaja’s Dance College were recruited to dance a Maharaja’s tribal dance. The Maharaja’s students would join the demonstration, immediately made into a spectacle. On the note of that dance were old heroes of the three Indian kingdoms: Alauddin Khilji, the last Maratha great warrior, led his armies into North India in 1639. And Adi Ram, the first Sikh ruler, from the northern Indian state of Amritsar, created the kingdom known as Rajpura in 1564, roughly three years before the establishment of our country. Another Maharaja’s dance moved the masses in the streets.
Alauddin Khilji, the last Maratha great warrior, led his armies into North India in 1639. And Adi Ram, the first Sikh ruler, from the northern Indian state of Amritsar, created the kingdom known as Rajpura in 1564, roughly three years before the establishment of our country.
Teachers helped guide that dance in its efforts to recreate the majesty of the old Indian King. It was the old-style dance as the stories of women turned into women, daughters into daughters. It was the music, with the sheer beauty of the music and the intimacy of its way of expressing so much inner soul and spirit, playing through the imperfectly magnified ball of gold, played by women.
In the villages of Madhya Pradesh, rural India, there was not a woman, a single woman, who was not a dancer in the dance. And that dance was an invitation, perhaps a plea, from the forces of India’s power elite to women to listen, to respect the sweet, wistful beauty of the elders,