Paul Robeson was described as "one of the greatest artists of our generation" by PM Jawaharlal Nehru in 1958, when his birthday was widely celebrated all over India. He was not only an ardent advocate of civil rights at home but his principled stand against US imperial forces tied him to the peace movement. While he was hounded and defamed by the US government, he found a home in India where millions welcomed him and were inspired by his music and devotion to justice at enormous sacrifice.
Hemanga Biswas with Bhupen Hazarika and Balraj Sahni.
The Indian artist Bhupen Hazarika would render a translation of 'Ol' Man River' to several Indian languages as 'Bistirno Parore' and 'Ganga Behti Ho Kyun'. IPTA artist Hemanga Biswas sang 'Negro Bhai Amar Paul Robeson' ('My Negro brother Paul Robeson'), translated by Subhash Mukhopadhyay from Nazim Hikmet's 1949 poem dedicated to Paul Robeson.
"They are afraid of the cries of the masses,
They are afraid of the intensity of unity,
They are afraid of the strength of courage,
They are afraid of destruction, Paul Robeson."
This recent article explores the deep friendship between Robeson and India.
Harry Belafonte was to become closely involved with the Civil Rights movement and a close confidant of Martin Luther King Jr. He also sang the famous African-American work-song 'John Henry'. Hemanga Biswas also translated and sang it in India:
"Every May Day the wide sky reverberates,
With the song of workers of the world,
Behind them you hear the tune of John Henry's hammer."
Mahalia Jackson in India. Photo from Creative Commons
Mahalia Jackson, the famous gospel singer, toured India in 1971. At her concerts, attended by Indira Gandhi, she would say "I have been gospel singing for forty-two years, but today I have very much for which to be thankful to God with great people like the prime minister sitting here." There she sang the civil rights anthem "We shall overcome" . It was translated to various Indian languages and remains to this day etched in the collective memory of India.
John and Alice Coltrane were greatly inspired by Indian musical traditions. John Coltrane performed a piece "India". Alice Coltrane travelled extensively in India, and eventually adopted the name Turiyasangitananda, and performed pieces like "Journey in Satchitananda" and "Turiya and Ramakrishna". They named their son Ravi, after Ravi Shankar whom they met.
Cover of albums, John Handy and Ali Akbar Khan
Jazz saxophonist John Handy and Indian sitarist Ali Akbar Khan produced the album "Karuna Supreme", which was a coming together of the best of both traditions. The name was taken from Coltrane's "A love supreme". Karuna means compassion.
The Year is organized by members of the Saturday Free School for Philosophy & Black Liberation, based in the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia, in partnership with the Gandhi Global Family.