The burden of a song

By Farrokh Dhondy

The Archbishop of Canterbury wants to kill the tradition of singing hymns in colonial places. I can’t imagine Bishops School, Pune, without the hymns, alien songs to the alien god we learned to love.

But Arch is in trouble. He is a shepherd in danger of losing half his flock. His American congregations want to ordain women Bishops and gay priests and his African flock believes that these developments are abominations unto the Lord.

The African Anglicans, the majority on god’s earth, have to be pampered and thrown a concession now and then.

So Archy throws the Africans a piece of decolonisation. He denounces the tradition of hymn singing, wondering aloud if the hymns in the Anglican hymn book are ‘relevant’ to African congregations.

When I sang from the very same hymn book as a boy in Bishops School, Pune, I was so colonised that the question of being subjected to mental colonisation didn’t occur.

Or perhaps they did and I enjoyed singing hymns. It was obvious even then that these were compositions of a different culture from that of the Parsi household in which I was born and grew up, but I couldn’t see that as a matter for anti-colonial denunciation.

I did, though, have trouble with the lyrics. A particular hymn whose tune I loved left me confounded till late in life. It went: “As pants the hart/For cooling streams/When heated in the chase/So longs my soul/Oh Lord for thee/And thy refreshing Grace.”

It was the first line that gave the most trouble. I didn’t know that a ‘hart’ was a female deer and took it to be a printer’s error, an omission of the ‘e’ in’ ‘heart’. And ‘pants’ didn’t strike me as a verb.

I thought it was the English word for ‘chuddis’ — underwear. I couldn’t, for the life of me, think why the pants were being heated up.

Needless to say that ‘So long’ was, for us comic-reading juveniles, a cowboy farewell and I couldn’t reconcile it with the rest of the lyric. The same was true of the songs our headmaster, who also conducted the school choir, got us to sing for concerts.

The school choir sounded good and Mr Bunter, our Indian-Christian music master and piano accompanist, tuned our tones to Pune perfection. We sang “Shenandoah, I love your daughter,” without the least inkling that it was a song of the American deep south.

We sang: “A far croonin/Is pullin’ me away/As step I with my cromach/To the road./The far Coolins/Are puttin’ love on me/As step I with the sunlight/For my load.”

It was a Scottish ballad which neither my headmaster nor Mr Bunter bothered to explain to the singers. They probably understood nothing of it themselves, having inherited some musical scores from the British teachers of the past.

We sang heartily of ‘Shiel Water, Ayliot and McMorra’ without knowing where or what they were. Only this very year, drunk as skunk in a bar in Cannes with Scottish friends, did I learn the meaning of, and geographical locations contained in, the song I sang as a ten-year-old.

Such is the colonial legacy and it did me no harm, and perhaps some good, to reproduce the song verbatim to the astonishment of my Scottish hum-naffasson.

At a concert of the National Cadet Corps in Khadakvasla, the army encampment near Pune and home of the National Defence Academy, several companies from various NCC Armoured Corps from Maharashtra had camped for summer training.

At the variety line-up I made a spectacle of myself singing, ‘Lipstick on your Collar’, dressed as a girl, trying to imitate the voice of a long-forgotten pop idol called Connie Francis.

My friends (or so they pretended) put me up to it, insisting that I sounded exactly like her when we played the vinyl ‘78’ and did a karaoke over it — But a purdah over that embarrassment!

The memorable stars of that concert were the boys from what was then a small town called Sangamner.

Their song, 12-strong in Marathi, to the tune of the then popular film number ‘Theyl Maalish, Chumpee’ was: “Sangamner cha platoon aala/Khad-ak-a-vyas-a-la-la/Ithkey motthay/Captain pa-hoon/Thhoda gad-bad-la/ Thhoda gad-bad-la!”

Okay, it wasn’t Andrew Lloyd-Webber and it was a bit sycophantic to Captain Belvelkar who was our commandant, but everyone understood the words, they had set them to their immediate experience and we all, city slickers included, went with the sentiment.

Original article here

  • Neil Nadkar

    Hi Farrokh,
    Introduce myself , as Philip Bunters son in law.
    Used to live on Sachapir street, few doors down from you, my wife Clair and our sons
    are here in U.K . Having visited the School in Pune recently and hearing , the Song it is now defragmented ( as Poona is gone I T)and you need to strike the batton and correct it.
    keep in touch . meet up at waterloo sometine at ShellCentre, where I work
    Rdgs
    Neil