Soldiers of Piece: A Tribute to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Creating this piece was an intensely emotional experience, as I delved into the experiences of people fighting for important human values. The massive scale of the collective sacrifices made by previous generations that fought for my right to be who I am today as a person of color brings me to tears. From the power of historical footage, to the familiar anthems of resistance in “We Shall Overcome” and “Raghupati Raghav Rajaram”, to my poetry in rap form, this composition is my humble attempt at building bridges between people of different cultures, finding common ground between their struggles, thereby highlighting a worldview of intersectionality. 

On the third Monday of every January, Americans observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day (held around his birthday of January 15). On January 26, citizens of India will celebrate Republic Day, which marks the date that the Constitution of India went into effect. The Civil Rights movement in the United States of the 1950s and 1960s has much in common with the Indian independence movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps the most recognizable face and leader of the US Civil Rights movement took inspiration from the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience espoused by Mohandas K. Gandhi (a.k.a. Mahatma Gandhi) for the liberation of Indians from the grips of the British Empire. Given these significant historical ties, and my connection to both nations as an Indian-American, I created this tribute to these stalwart figures of the 20th century.

I chose select speeches by Gandhi as well as Robert F. Kennedy speaking about King. Unfortunately the use of King's speeches are subject to copyright as per Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc. so I was unable to incorporate his voice into this piece. All footage used is, to my knowledge, in the public domain.

The composition opens with an abridged quote of Gandhi from a speech in Geneva where he said

"I regard myself as a soldier, though a soldier of peace."

I named this track "Soldiers of Peace" after this line. Gandhi's speech was translated in real-time into French, and I was so struck by the enthusiasm in the translators voice. I decided to include his emphatic "UN SOLDAT DE LA PAIX!" to emphasize the Soldier of Peace. The passion was reminiscent of the French Revolution which overthrew France’s absolute monarchy. During this portion of the video, American artist Robert Templeton's  collection of Civil Rights artwork titled "Lest We Forget: Images of the Black Civil Rights Movement", prominently features King and Gandhi amongst others.

My musical arrangement moves into a simple but powerful beat consisting of drop kick and snare that reverberate as the backbone of the music. I open song with the words "Pioneers, Set us free, R.I.P. soldiers of peace," paying my respects to Gandhi and King as pioneers in their movements which eventually brought about freedoms for millions of Indians and African-Americans. In the video you see images of Gandhi, King, and their followers joining in the struggle. I wrote and performed the rap that comes next: 

"From homespun cloth, to the salt march, we rocked the foundations of the imposter Raj"
The British were selling textiles to Indians at high costs, and a major part of Gandhi's movement was to call on Indians to spin their own cotton into cloth (i.e. homespun cloth) and encourage self-reliance.  The British also exercised a tax on salt production, and the Salt March was a defiance of this tax by which protesters marched 240 miles to the sea to produce salt from seawater without paying the tax. This march inspired numerous acts of civil disobedience against the British Raj salt laws on a large scale by millions of Indians. The British rule in India was called the "Raj", from the Hindi word literally meaning "rule"; I mock this "Raj" as an imposter, as the British took this word from another culture and imposed their will on people who were never theirs to rule.

"From the Taj to the land of an imperfect God, we took our places at the countertops"
I then move from the land of the Taj Mahal (i.e., India), to the United States. There is a biography of George Washington by author Henry Wiencek called "An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America" that tackles the contradictions around America's revered founding father being a slave-owner. I took this title as an inspiration to refer to America as the land of an "imperfect God." As we are taught in the schools about settlers from Europe setting in what is now the United States to escape religious persecution, I thought the phrase "imperfect God" was even more poignant in surfacing the hypocrisy in the religious roots of our nation coexisting with a slaveholding culture. The reference to the countertops is from acts of civil disobedience in the United States, when African-Americans sat at restaurant counters meant for white people and refused to leave after being denied service. I use the word "we" to refer to the collective group of oppressed people (Indians under British Rules and African-Americans, Native-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latino-Americans, and other minority groups in segregated Jim Crow America).


“Segregated, Regulated, Agitated, ‘Heathen Natives’”
These words reflect the plight of the oppressed. "Heathen Natives" espouses the general racist European colonial attitude towards the people they subjugated. On those words, I show a painting by artist Spiridione Roma called "The East Offering its Riches to Britannia" (1778) representing British celebration of their imperial and colonialist domination. This painting was commissioned by the British East India Company, who paved the way for British dominance in the subcontinent.


"The real savage of the Middle Passage the man who trafficked so he could sip Molasses"
Playing up on the notion of "heathens", the word "savages" often comes up in racist reference to conquered peoples. I turn that term on it's head, pointing out the true savagery of slave trafficking on the Middle Passage (the slave route from Africa to the Americas) to brutally work people to death on sugarcane plantations so that Europeans could indulge their sweet tooth. The images shown to these words represent these ideas, from European branding of African slaves, to cramped slave ships, to slave traders "herding" their "cargo", to a European family enjoying their fancy delicacies.


"Laid out the ingredients for civil disobedience, brought us to deliverance now this is our experience"
Through the practices of civil disobedience, Gandhi and King set the foundation to uplift entire generations of oppressed people. The ending shot of this sequence shows a smiling Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, another leader of the Indian Independence movement, and modern India's first Prime Minister, riding on horseback, symbolizing an optimism for the future.


"From humble roots, by the bootstrap of yesterday’s youth, opportunity knocks we dress in suits."
My family roots in India, while middle to upper caste socially, are from very modest economic circumstances. Thanks to Gandhi and Indian freedom fighters, my grandparents and parents had the change to uplift themselves in a new nation free of foreign oppression. Thanks to King and all the Civil Rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Act was passed, and paved the way for people like my parents to be able to immigrate to the United States and provide even better opportunities for me. Many Indian-Americans like me have benefited from these movements to be able to work professional jobs "dressed in suits".


"Yet still in quarters at our borders, victims of point, click, shoot"
Despite the advances of civil rights and general tolerance, racism is alive and well today in the United States, and nothing is more emblematic of this reality today than the tragedies happening at the US-Mexico border, or of police shootings of African-Americans.


Ending my rap on this somber truth, I aim to bring some hope in Robert F. Kennedy's words, taken from his celebrated improvised speech to a crowd in the heart of Indianapolis's Africa-American ghetto, where he announced the assassination of King. I took the following excerpt:

"We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization,[…] filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love."

These words are accompanied by scenes of African-American protests supported by allies of many races--any oppressed group will benefit from the support of allies, especially those with more agency.

The piece culminates into a blend of two iconic songs that represent the movements celebrated in this piece. For the US Civil Rights movement, I chose "We Shall Overcome",  and for the Indian Independence movement I chose "Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram". We Shall Overcome" is said to have been being lyrically descended from Charles Albert Tindley's hymn "I'll Overcome Some Day", published in 1900. The version we all know today is first said to have been sung by tobacco workers led by Lucille Simmons during a 1945 strike in Charleston, South Carolina. "Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram" praises God as the uplifter of the fallen. Gandhi popularized this devotional song in his freedom struggle and it is a striking piece in its inclusion of faiths. While it begins by revering God in the form of the Hindu deity Rama, it continues to say that all names of God refer to the same Supreme Being, including Ishvara (a Sanskrit word for God used by Hindus), and Allah (the Arabic word for God used by Muslims). It continues to request God to give peace and brotherhood to everyone, as God's children, and that this eternal wisdom of humankind prevail. Gandhi was known to transcend boundaries between castes, creeds, and gender, and fought for the spirit of unity of the people of the subcontinent regardless of their background. It is no surprise that he chose this song among his favorite anthems.

The music begins with the tune of "We Shall Overcome" in a choral sound, and soon after I blend in my rendition of "Raghupati Raghav" in an unmistakably Indian style, played on a synth accompanied by the sounds of strings.  The percussions kick up a notch to add more intensity. Throughout this section there are powerful images of protesters and activists as the music builds. 

Next, I bring everything back to the "Soldiers of Peace", with images of the March on Washington in the United States, British soldiers boarding a ship and leaving India for good, and images of women and children specifically as among the soldiers of peace. 

I conclude the track on a spiritual note. Both Gandhi and King were men of faith and inspired by their faith in their movements. Gandhi of course was a practicing Hindu, but he found solace in the Christian Bible as well, and on occasion even gave lectures on the Bible. Author Eboo Patel writes about King's use of faith as a bridge between people. He writes "King’s life has as much to say to us on the question of interfaith cooperation as it did on the matter of interracial harmony. A prince of the black church, deeply rooted in his own Baptist tradition, King viewed his faith as a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division. When, as a seminary student, King was introduced to the satyagraha (‘love-force’) philosophy of the Indian Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi, King did not reject it because it came from a different religion. Instead, he sought to find resonances between Gandhi’s Hinduism and his own interpretation of Christianity." This is a way of viewing the world that I often feel is slipping away, and highlighting that view inspired me with purpose for this project.

With this context in mind, I chose visuals of temples, mosques, the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu scripture), and the Bible, all from a 1955 documentary celebrating the Mahatma's life.  The piece ends with words by Gandhi from an essay he wrote about God, recorded in 1931 by the Columbia Gramophone Company. Gandhi says:

"There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything, I feel it though I do not see it. It is this unseen power which makes itself felt and yet defies all proof, because it is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses. It transcends the senses."

Transcending is what this is all about.

Gaurav Venkateswar