It’s a tragedy that a man who has given so much to the nation, got just maligns and insults in response.
A poet who brought Nobel Prize to a bonded nation like India and in Asia too, an educationist with a global view, an ardent social reformer, one of the finest short story writers and novelist, a versatile composer and song writer, a world renowned painter and the first global ambassador of Indian culture… he was a true nationalist, who not only inspired and helped the freedom movement in India, he was the only one who gave up British Knighthood, after the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre!
1961 was Rabindranath Tagore’s birth centenary. There were Rabindra Bhavans, established in every State. But nothing was done beyond that. There is no knowledge among the new generation in India and the common people alike, about the works and thoughts of Tagore. Just a single university has become the sole flag bearer of his thoughts and inspirations!
Rabindra Bhavan, Bhopal. A showpiece?
Tagore was no wellhead of any ruling political ideology like Gandhi or Nehru, neither was his name associated with caste angled vote-bank potential like Ambedkar, he was not a socio-religious icon like Vivekananda, neither he was from the Hindi heartland, so he just remained somehow like a cult figure, ‘Gurudev’, to be adored on the walls, a saintly figure with a long flowing beards
People will always draw his name into controversy. Like Khuswant Singh who in his limited understanding, liked to call Tagore a mediocre writer.
There were critics who like to think that Tagore got Nobel Prize after pampering the British Monarch! And this vexing National Anthem controversy, that was brought to fore time and again!
Tagore and Gandhi
In fact, this is not a new phenomenon.
A 1998 documentary, Rabindra Bidushan (Maligning Rabindranath) by Bijon Ghosal brings to life the unrelenting viciousness of the critics’ attack on Tagore, both on the personal and professional front.
12 years of painstaking research by the film maker, revealed that attacking Tagore at vitriolic height had always become a pastime of many intellectuals. Tagore’s poems had been parodied in foul language, magazines like Modern Review, Shanibarer Chithi, Nava Bharat, and scores of others always came out with sarcastic and malicious articles or comments on him.
Then there was the gutter press, which called him a British Agent, an upper caste snob, a person who was spoiling, ‘good natured girls from good families’, involving them into dance, drama and songs! He was accused of gathering money by peddling the idea of ‘Vishwa Bharati’!
There were rumours that he was not talented at all, he won it simply by eulogising the British Empire!
Some of These Caustic Comments Are:
• “Rabindranath Tagore was a pro-British wealthy successor to the vast property left by his grandfather Prince Dwarakanath Tagore. He was the leading-most Bengali intellectual friend of the British Rulers in India.”
• “His winning of the Nobel Prize was a political consolation for the Hindu terrorist movements launched in Bengal in the early days of the 20th century.”
• “It appears, that Tagore was awarded Nobel Prize in consideration of his successful attempt to intermingle the Western Christian-Hindu philosophy.”
The documentary maker had commented: Most people think the acid-dipped pens got blunted after Tagore won the Nobel Prize. But this is not true.”
The process is continuing till date.
Sometime back, addressing students at the Azim Premji Foundation in Bangalore, Girish Karnad had called Tagore a second rate playwright and commented that, since Tagore had an elite upbringing, his plays lacked empathy for the poor. Another eminent playwright however said that, “Karnad is entitled to his own opinion, but he is wrong.” Another simply said: “Will it malign Tagore’s eminence anyway? Ignore it.”
Controversy Over Anthem
Many have objected about the use of the word Sindh in the national anthem – arguing that it was a province in Pakistan. But in the original Bengali version, the word ‘Sindhu’ was there and the river is already in India. So this was accepted.
Demands were made to Include Rajasthan, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Kashmir and North Eastern States into the Anthem. Vindhya is no State at all, it was argued.
In 2005, a petition filed in the Supreme Court demanded the inclusion of the word Kashmir in the National Anthem and the deletion of Sindh, which became part of Pakistan following Partition.
The Supreme Court in its ruling had said that a National Anthem is “a hymn or song expressing patriotic sentiments or feelings” and “not a chronicle which defines the territory of the nation”.
In 2007, controversy arised when Narayana Murthy, the Infosys founder was asked by the reporters, why only an instrumental version of the Indian National Anthem was played during President Kalam’s visit to its campus. His reply was that singing the national anthem would have “embarrassed” the company employees of foreign origin.
Later when strong objections were raised and he was reminded about the protocol, he “deeply apologised.”
‘Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971’ states that: “As provided in Section 3 of the Act, whoever intentionally prevents the singing of the Jana Gana Mana or causes disturbances to any assembly engaged in such singing shall be punished with imprisonment for a term, which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both”.
The Problem With Nationalism In India
This is the problem in India. ‘Vande Mataram’, these key words were the soul of Indian independence movement. Thousands faced the British brutality and firing, raising the slogan, “Vande Mataram!” Scores of martyrs went to gallows, proclaiming their last word, ”Vande Mataram!”
The Cambridge History of India wrote: “The greatest and most enduring gift of the Swedeshi movement was Vande Mataram, the uncrowned national anthem.” Vande Mataram” was the national cry during the Indian independence movement. Big protest rallies, were launched initially in Bengal, creating patriotic fervour by raising the slogan “Vande Mataram”! The British, fearful of the potential danger of a politically organised Indian population, banned the utterance of the slogan in public meets and rallies, and imprisoned many freedom fighters for disobeying the order.
Rabindranath Tagore sang Vande Mataram in 1896 at the Calcutta Congress Session. Dakhina Charan Sen sang it five years later at 1901 Congress session. Poet Sarala Devi Chaudurani sang the song in the Benares Congress Session in 1905. Lala Lajpat Rai started a journal called Vande Mataram from Lahore.
In 1907, Bhikaiji Cama made the first version of India’s National Flag in Stuttgart, Germany. It had Vande Mataram written in the middle. Netaji Subhas Bose’ led Indian National Army adopted it as the National Anthem. Gandhiji said in 1946 that “the song has found a place in our national life”: that it was “also like a devotional hymn”.
But protests railed from the Muslims. As they perceived their monotheistic religion prohibits praying to Motherland!
In 1937, the Indian National Congress discussed at length the status of the song. It was pointed out then that though the first two stanzas began with an unexceptionable evocation of the beauty of the motherland, in later stanzas there are references where the motherland is likened to the Hindu goddess Durga. Therefore, Congress decided to adopt only the first two stanzas as the national song.
In the late 1940’s when a debate broke out over what was to be the National Anthem. Many within the Congress wanted the Vande Mataram, a song that was popularly associated with the national movement.
But it’s left leaning members and the Muslim members objected, the words of Vande Mataram according to them, feature India as a homogeneous ‘Hindu’ nation.
On the other hand, for them, Jana Gana Mana (Which was earlier known as the Morning Song among Tagore’s English followers) evokes the country as composed of a multiplicity of regions and communities united in a prayer to a universal lord.
Many however said, categorically: “The song is a part of our history and national festivity and religion should not be dragged into such mundane things. The Vande Mataram is simply a national song without any connotation that could violate the tenets of any religion.” The nationalist newspaper of yesteryear, ‘Free India’ wrote: “The opposition of Muslim League to Vande Mataram, however, continued to wax and they started putting pressure on Congress leadership against the singing of this song. It was the height of irony on the part of the Muslim League, which was bent upon breaking the unity of India, emotionally, geographically, and in all other ways, to express its concern about ‘the growth of nationalism’. Those in Congress were eager to pander to every slightest wish of the League …. In such a situation CWC in 1937 decided to maim and curtail the national song.”
Presiding the Constituent Assembly, the future Indian President Rajendra Prasad, on 24 January 1950, made the following statement which was also adopted as the final pronouncement on the issue:
…The composition consisting of words and music known as Jana Gana Mana is the National Anthem of India, subject to such alterations as the Government may authorise as occasion arises, and the song Vande Mataram, which has played a historic part in the struggle for Indian freedom, shall be honoured equally with Jana Gana Mana and shall have equal status with it. (Applause) I hope this will satisfy members.
—Constituent Assembly of India, Vol. XII, 24-1-1950
The National Song is still an Anathema to many, based on religious ground.
While Pakistni National Anthem begins with: Arẓ-i Pākistān! Markaz-i yaqīn shād bād (O Land of Pakistan! Citadel of faith, stay glad.)
The Sri Lankite National Anthem ends with the stanza: Namo Namo Matha, Apa Sri Lanka. Namo Namo Namo Namo Matha”.
The Afghan National anthem ends with the lines: Wāyū Allāhu Akbar (We all say: “Allahu Akbar”) thrice in repetition.
Rabindranath speaks about his vision in the video
But India must not hint any religious connotation, in its national anthem…!
In 2006, however, the All India Sunni Ulema Board issued a fatwa saying that Muslims can sing Vande Mataram. “Singing the entire Vande Mataram is a Shirk (unIslamic) because some of the stanzas make you believe in ‘Ghairullah’ (other than Allah). But the first two stanzas are just praise and respect for the land which will make you bow towards it with respect,” the fatwa said.
“If you bow at the feet of your mother with respect, it is not ‘shirk’ but only respect,” said Board President Moulana Mufti Syed Shah Badruddin Qadri Aljeelani and other muftis Naseem Ahmed Ashrafi, Hasnuddin and Sajid Hussain.
Misconception About Jana Gana Mana
Forget about Rajasthan Governor and former UP Chief Minister Kalayan Singh’s unwarranted comments about the National Anthem, the malign started back in the twenties or earlier, when Tagore was alive. In the year 2000, a malicious E -Mail mysteriously started circulating stating that Rabindranath Tagore composed Jana Gana Mana to welcome George V and Queen Mary for Delhi Darbar and it should not be our national anthem. In recent times, the social media network followed the malign.
An erudite person like former Judge Markandey Katju, in his blog, also wrote: There is a controversy as to whether the Indian national anthem “Jana Gana Mana” was written by Rabindra Nath Tagore in praise of God, or as sycophancy in praise of the British King George the fifth.
In my opinion the evidence is strongly in favour of the second view.
The “Adhinayak” (Lord or Ruler) is being hailed. Who was the ruler of India in 1911? It was the British, headed by their King-Emperor.
Who was the “Bharat Bhagya Vidhata” (dispenser of India’s destiny) at that time? It was the British, since they were ruling India in 1911.
…The above facts almost conclusively prove that “Jana Gana Mana” was composed and sung as an act of sycophancy to the British king.
When And Why
This song was originally written as a prayer song of ‘Brahmo Samaj’ by Tagore and it was largely unknown except to the readers of the Brahmo Samaj journal, ‘Tatva Bodha Prakasika’, of which Tagore was the editor.
Well known Marathi literary personality P L Deshpande, wrote on 16 May 1980, in Marathi, in ‘Maharashtra Times’, in response of an allegation made by on 3, May 1980,by one Mr Bal Jere, that Rabindranath Tagore definitely composed the famous song Jana Gana Mana to welcome King George V. In support of his argument he refers to the issues of contemporary Anglo-Indian papers like the Statesman and the ‘Englishman’. A newspaper aligned to British rulers. Deshpande wrote: (The following portion has been translated from original Marathi)
“On the first day of 28th annual session of the Congress, proceedings started after singing Vande Mataram. On the second day the work began after singing a patriotic song by Babu Rabindranath Tagore. Messages from well-wishers were then read and a resolution was passed expressing loyalty to King George V. Afterwards the song composed for welcoming King George V and Queen Mary was sung. Thus there is clear distinction between the song composed by Tagore and the one composed by someone else for welcoming King George V and Queen Mary.”
‘Amritbazar Patrika’ (a nationalist newspaper) on 28 December 1911, reported, “The proceedings of the Congress party session started with a prayer in Bengali to praise God (song of benediction). This was followed by a resolution expressing constancy to King George V. Then another song was sung welcoming King George V.
On 28 December ‘The Bengalee’ (A Newspaper edited by Surendranath Banerjee) reported, “The annual session of Congress began by singing a song composed by the great Bengali poet Babu Rabindranath Tagore. Then a resolution expressing loyalty to King George V was passed. A song paying a heartfelt homage to King George V was then sung by a group of boys and girls.”
Thus it is quite clear that in the official record of the Congress Party as well as in the newspapers run by Indians, that the song composed by Rabindranath Tagore was a patriotic song, and that the song that was sung afterwards welcoming King George V was NOT Jana Gana Mana. The Anglo-Indian papers did not know the difference between the two songs and therefore created a wrong impression.
We find the concept of Bharata Bhagya Vidhata in Tagore’s novel ‘Gora’, one year before the song was composed. Towards the end of this novel, Gora the hero of the novel says to Pareshbabau, ‘…… only you possess the liberation mantra that is why you have not gained any position of authority in any sect. Consider me your child and give me the mantra honouring a deity, respected by all sects (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Brahmo and all others). The door to that deity’s shrine will never be closed to people of any community, or person at any time. That deity is not just of Hindus but of all the people in this land, Bharatavarsha.
The glorification of the deity of all India is central to the idea of ‘Bharata-bhagya-vidhata’ in the song ‘Jana-Gana-Mana.’ Tagore has repeated that idea many times in his prose and poetry. One of his poems begins with the lines:-
“Desha desha nanadita kari mandrita tava bheri
Ashilo jo to veera vrinda asana tava gheri.”
(Your war drums and trumpets respond in over India, blessing the brave who surround your throne.)
Mr Jere refers to the paper Statesman which in December 1911 describes the song – Jana Gana Mana as a welcoming song for the King Emperor and in 1917 the same paper described it as ‘a national (patriotic) song’ while referring to the annual session of Congress in that year. How can the song serve two widely different purposes?
Moreover in 1917 the Congress passed from being controlled by Moderates into the hands of Diehards. At the annual session of Congress in 1917 Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das drew attention to this song and said, ” It is a song for glory and victory of India.” How can a great patriot from Bengal, like Das who was an erudite scholar say that the song was sung to welcome King George V was also a song for glory and victory of India? That is absurd.
Tagore was always a global Indian, never involved in partisan politics
Tagore Was In British Black List
Just one month after Jana Gana Mana was sung at the Congress session, Director of Public Instructions of East Bengal issued a secret circular. Somehow it was discovered by the paper ‘Bengalee’ and they published it in their issue of 26 January 1919. The circular had banned Government servants from sending their children to Shantiniketan. It also warned that if children remained in Shantiniketan, it will affect the service of those parents. After this threat many government servants withdrew their children from Shantiniketan, which was seriously affected by this Government circular.
Mr Prabodhachandra Sen says, “If Rabindranath had sunk so low that he would praise the British King Emperor, there was no need for such a Government directive.” Anyone who has studied the life of Rabindranath knows that right from the start the British Authorities in India viewed his school Shantiniketan with suspicion. What Rabindranath himself has said about the reason behind composing Jana Gana Mana? For a number of years, a rumour was spreading that Tagore composed Jana Gana Mana to welcome King George V at the request of a high ranking government officer.
On 10 November 1937 Tagore wrote a letter to Mr Pulin Bihari Sen about the controversy. That letter in Bengali can be found in Tagore’s biography Rabindrajivani, volume II page 339 by Prabhatkumar Mukherjee. Rabindranath said:
” I was stunned to hear of the request by a high ranking government officer. I was furious. In the song Jana Gana Mana I have praised the God Bharat Bhagya Vidhata who is the constant charioteer of travellers through the ages, he who guides through all the difficult circumstances, he who is born in many ages. He can never be King George V or VI or any other George. That truth dawned on my ‘Loyal friend’, because however strong his loyalty to the foreign rulers was, he was not devoid of intelligence. I also did not compose this song especially for the Congress.”
Again in his letter of 19 March 1939 he writes, ” I should only insult myself if I cared to answer those who consider me capable of such unbounded stupidity as to sing in praise of George the Fourth or George the Fifth as the Eternal Charioteer leading the pilgrims on their journey through countless ages of the timeless history of mankind.
(‘Purvasa’, Phalgun, 1354, p738.)
Not just in 1911. In 1917, the Congress Session was held again in Calcutta under the Presidentship of Annie Besant, founder of the Theosophical Society of India, Tagore was invited this time to address the gathering. Jana Gana Mana was sung by Sarala Devi – invoking the song’s spirit as the life-force of freedom fighters- with instrumental aide provided by the musicians’ team of Maharaja of Nattore.
From ‘Morning Song’ to National Anthem
During 1918, Tagore accepted an invitation from friend and controversial Irish poet James H. Cousins to spend a few days at the Besant Theosophical College, Madanapalle in Andhra Pradesh.
Tagore wrote the English translation of the Bengali original and along with Margaret Cousins (an expert in European music and wife of Irish poet James Cousins, set down the notation at Madanapalle, while he was staying there.
In 1919, Tagore sang it at the Besant Theosophical College at Madanapalle. It so impressed the college authorities that they decided to make it their prayer song. It was then called, “Morning Song”.
The song ultimately became India’s National Anthem.
At the stroke of midnight on August 14, 1947, the historic session of the Indian Constituent Assembly opened with Vande Mataram and closed with Jana Gana Mana.
India’s Constituent Assembly, on 24 January 1950, made the announcement about making Jana Gana Mana as the National Anthem.
At the closing of the ceremony, the President of the Constituent Assembly, Rajendra Prasad,, on the request of the first Deputy Speaker, M. Ananthasayanam Ayyangar, asked all members to sing the National Anthem in chorus. The song was led by Purnima Banerji and sung in chorus for the first time after its adoption as India’s National Anthem.
Earlier, during the General Assembly session of the United Nations in New York in the year 1947, when the Indian delegation was asked to announce India’s National Anthem, the members produced a recording of Jana Gana Mana, which was played in front of the world gathering and it received applause for its distinctive tune.
The song was earlier sung in the original devotional rendition style.
However, when the National Anthem version of the song is sung, it is performed in the orchestral adaptation made by the renowned English composer Herbert Murrill.
Thus, from a devotional Brahmo Sangeet to National Anthem, it was indeed a long journey.
What Were Those Songs Sung In King’s Praise?
Which was the song sung at Delhi Darbar to welcome King George V? Find it here.
By Deep Basu
Images contributed by the author