A Tale of Two Anthems


A Tale of Two Anthems

By – Rajat Das Gupta (+) – [Courtesy- Ramkrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Gol Park, Kolkata700 029, INDIA- published in their monthly bulletin of May 2007 issue]

(Note: This essay is having place in this volume as it reflects some important involvement of the Poet in a sensitive issue in our national life)

In early 2003 ‘Vande Mataram’ was declared to be the second most popular national anthem, the topmost being the Irish one. The news was first broadcast by the BBC World Service Radio, which really bewildered those who are habituated to listening it in the morning. While the thunderous ‘Vande Mataram’ call used to send shivers down the spine of the British in the Raj days, are they themselves now broadcasting this news! Were they really tuned to the BBC? Yes, they had to rub their ears to ensure that.

To look back, the song was composed around 1875 by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the pioneer of modern Bengali literature. It was later inserted into his novel ‘Anandamath’ in1882 where it became a war cry for the crusading Vaishnavite monks in the famine afflicted Bengal against the backdrop of the dwindling Nawab dynasty and the rising British power in the 18th century. Later it became the war cry of the revolutionaries, both violent and non-violent, rising against the British Raj for independence of India. Thousands went to the gallows voicing this patriotic song which was a major motivating force at that time for the freedom struggle of India. It goes with the compliment- “The greatest and most enduring gift of the Swadeshi movement was ‘Vande Matram’, the uncrowned national anthem” (The Cambridge History of India, Vol: IV, p. 608- courtesy, website TUHL Indian / Hinduism Home Page. The status eventually given to it is ‘national song’ as has been elaborated below). However, nothing can depict the spirit of ‘Vande Matram’ better than the following song of Tagore- ‘Ek sutre bandhiachi sahasrati mon / Ek karyesampiachi, sahasra jiban…/ Vande Matram…’- which, even in my inept translation does not possibly lose all its fervour:

In one string we stitch
Many a thousand mind to pitch;
In one mission we devote
On the divine hymn to float-
Vande Matram’(=Hail Mother / Motherland)
Amidst disastrous storm,
Facing many a hurdle
Our daring heart will not fail;
Vande Matram’
Undaunted by fright’s myriad form,
Hurricane violent, sea in billow
Will not put us low,
Many a million wave
We’ll brave;
This life ephemeral
We’ll not care to bail;
Yet will remain unsnapped,
The solemnity that us trapped-
Vande Matram’
To dispel our hibernation.

Vande Matram’ drew attention of the Indian National Congress since the beginning. In its annual conference held in Calcutta in 1896, the song was sung and was tuned by Tagore and later on by several others. Again, in its annual conference in 1905, it was accepted as our national anthem.
As it should be obvious from the reference in the song itself to a population of 7 crore (=70 million, as determined by the census of 1881 to be the strength of Bengalis, including the Muslims, in the eastern part of the country), ‘Vande Matram’ speaks more of ‘Mother Bengal’ rather than the whole of India. Yet, its appeal transcended this narrow geographical concept surfacing in its original wordings obviously because ‘Mother Bengal’ has been identified here with the Goddess Durga who is an inspiration to all Hindus where no regionalism stands. Besides, the 7 crore was edited to 30 crore around 1905 (the then Indian population) by those concerned with the song to extrapolate it in the new national scenario. Now, as the original 7 crore included the Muslims (so does the figure 30 crore) also living in the then Bengal, the song itself may be absolved of the charge of communal bias, particularly when it boosted our nationalistic spirit sweeping away all our narrowness. It is a different matter that the song was voiced by the crusading monks who stood against the misrule of the then Muslim Nawabs of Bengal. Eventually, they also had preferred British rule to the Nawabs’, not to swap Islam for Christianity, but to hail good governance to replace the wobbly one. Again, the narrow geographical concept of Bengal, as found in the ‘Anandamath’, should not disqualify the song as a national anthem of India. It would be ridiculous to presume that Bhabananda, the monk character in the novel, indulged in a nationalistic megalomania by inflating 7 crore to 30 crore or so. It appears, Bankim figured his song quite discreetly to fit it well into the plot of his novel. This aside, the fact is, India was never a ‘nation’ in the Western sense before the advent of the British rule which, along with its gradual expansion to the rest of India, starting from Bengal, with atrocity and Western enlightenment also as its integral part, fuelled our nationalistic sentiment. To criticize the original format of ‘Vande Matram’ on the ground of regionalism is to miss this historical relevance in which context, its said extrapolation to our modern national psyche has been only judicious, without diluting its original core inspiration in the enlarged horizon.

Fundamentalist viewpoint

Nevertheless, religious fundamentalism raised its head and some Muslim clerics and politicians (irrespective of religion) argued that as this anthem indulged in deity worship, it was against the spirit of Islam and was therefore unacceptable to its followers. A compromise was then arrived at by accepting only the first two stanzas (vide website TUHL Indian / Hinduism Home page) of the song as our national anthem editing therein the said 7 crore to 30 crore, and where Goddess Durga also does not occur. Notwithstanding this, the ghost of ‘deity worship’, if not regionalism also, ambushes even to-day to mar the true spirit of the song to the extent that has been accepted as our anthem. While I fail to be overwhelmed by the wisdom of such zealots, I also fail to appreciate the highhandedness of the Govt. trying to impose this song on our various institutions in 2006, on the occasion of its being the centenary year, as our national anthem. After all, a song is an aesthetic creation and should be left to the judgment of one’s finer faculties.

Rabindranath Tagore composed ‘Jana gana mano‘ sometime in 1911 which was officially accepted as the national anthem of independent India. Since then, in an attempt to distinguish it from ‘Vande Mataram’, the latter is often referred to as ‘national song’ while the former as the ‘national anthem’. However, this hardly affected the appeal of any of these songs. It may be noted that in case of ‘Jana gano mano’ also only the first two stanzas out of five have been accepted as our national anthem.
Now, while ‘religion’ was the bone of contention in the anti- ‘Vande Mataram’ tirade, the aim of invectives against ‘Jano gano mono’ was Tagore’s alleged sycophancy of King George V who had visited India in 1911, which happens to be the year of composition of the song too that provided scope for such calumny. However, Tagore himself denied such allegation and I never could find any details as to who felicitated George V with this song, if at all he was, and who were the organizers and if at all Tagore himself was involved in it. Yet, it may be speculated if Tagore tried to entice the King to draw his support for some international accolade for him, say, the Nobel. There also, facts in no way involve the King. It was Rothenstein, a British scholar, who was a great admirer of Tagore’s nephew Abanindranath, a renowned artist. He came to ‘Thakurbari’, the ancestral house of Tagore family, to meet the artist. In the gathering Rabindranath was present and his beaming personality attracted Rothenstein who learnt from Abanindranath that Rabindranath was a poet. This took place around 1911. However, Rothenstein gradually felt the pull of Rabindranath and talked highly about him to the British poets / scholars of that time. Now, I quote Tagore’s own words from Maitrayee Devi’s book ‘Mangpute Rabindranath’ (=Rabindranath in Mangpu, near Darjeeling which was the workplace of her husband), translated with the title ‘Tagore By Fireside’ by the authoress herself. The poet said to her:

“When I first started translating them (poems of Gitanjali, on which basis he was awarded the Nobel) into English, I never thought they would be readable. Many have insinuated that Andrews was doing it for me. Poor Andrews felt sorry and ashamed. When Yeats arranged a meeting of distinguished people at Rothenstein’s house, I cannot tell you how embarrassed I felt. Yeats would not listen to me. He was undaunted. A galaxy of people came. Gitanjali was read. They never said a word. They listened in silence and in silence they left- no criticism, no approbation, no favourable remark, no encouraging comment. Blushing in shame and disgrace, I wished the Earth would have opened and swallowed me. Why did I ever listen to Yeats? How could I write English, had I ever learnt it? I was filled with remorse, I could not raise my head. Next day letters started coming, they flooded in, overwhelming with enthusiasm. Everyone wrote. Then I realized they were so moved that evening that they dared not talk. English people are reserved, it is their nature. It was not possible for them to express their feelings at once. What a surprise it was, unexpected and unimaginable. Friend Yeats was pleased.”

The event took place in 1912 on 30 June or in early July. It is this group of scholars / poets who had recommended Tagore’s name to the Nobel Committee in Sweden. However, I badly miss King George V in the entire episode!
Other relevant facts are that Tagore gave underhand support to the then ‘terrorists’ who had fought for India’s freedom and was a suspect of the British Government. His novel ‘Char Addhaya’ (=Four Chapters) on this theme of terrorism proves this.
Secondly, Tagore’s dialogue with Maitrayee Devi may again be quoted in respect of his renouncing his Knighthood in protest against the Jalianwallabag carnage by the British police in 1919. Tagore said: ‘They (British people) took it as a great insult. In England people are very loyal. So, this disavowal of the King did hurt them very much’
Again, Tagore himself led some of the processions on the Calcutta roads in protest against the partition of Bengal by Curzon singing in chorus with thousands of his followers ‘Amar sonar Bangla, ami tomay bhalobasi / Chirokal tomar akash, tomar batash amar prane bajay bansi’ (=Oh my golden Bengal, I love Thee / Thy azure, Thy breeze play flute forever in me). Eventually, the British Government was forced to redress the partition on that occasion. Now, how are these compatible with the story of Tagore’s sycophancy of George V as had been spun?
All these razzamatazz was due to our fiddling with the truncated first two stanzas of the song adopted as our national anthem, overlooking the rest of it as if that did not matter in determining the real intent of the poet. But some people are not cursory like a learned correspondent, who highlighted the penultimate stanza of the song in his letter to the Editor of a Calcutta daily (The Statesman) published on 15 September 2006. There is a line in that stanza- ‘Duhsvapne atanke raksha korile anke snehamoyee Mata.’ This, according to the faithful translation of the correspondent, comes to- ‘O affectionate Mother! You have protected me so long in your lap from all nightmarish terror’. Now, the correspondent leaves the question to us if George V would like to be addressed as ‘Affectionate Mother’! My conviction is, such effeminacy would be a contempt of the top royal personality (a male at that time!) and Tagore would instantly find himself behind the bar for this offence, which he never did! Hopefully, this hits the last nail in the coffin of the ‘sycophancy thesis’. However, it may be wiser no to escalate this point further as nothing stops one from arguing that ‘Mata’ in this song smacks of ‘deity worship’ for which its forerunner ‘Vande Mataram’ was put on the dock.
Yet, some highly relevant points need stress. Even a dunce cannot miss that the ‘Eternal Charioteer’ in the third stanza of the song leading ‘the travelers through ages along the ups and downs of the rugged path resonant with His chariot wheels’ could not be a flesh and blood entity, but a spiritual one illuminating India’s people over millenniums aiming proliferation of peace, benignity, welfare and harmony among humanity across the world not ‘fragmented by parochial walls’. This internationalism that Tagore evinced since the late 19th century, as opposed to the politico-commercial noises we hear nowadays in the name of ‘globalization’, manifests again in the second stanza of the song- ‘East and West come / By the side of Thy throne’. Of course, ‘throne’ smacks of a ‘king’ and the sleuths in their relentless effort to detect George V here may jump up to cry ‘Eureka!’ We should be content only with our envy for them for the extra grey matter they are endowed with. Now, leaving the sleuths aside, we may further observe that no other national anthem thus looks beyond its concerned national boundary and ego, not even our ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Sare Jahanse Acchha’ (by Iqbal), all of which are myopic in their eulogy for a certain population within a geographical limit. Such international overtone flashes in a large number of poems /songs of Tagore, including patriotic ones, a widely quoted one being- ‘Where mind is without fear.
All these, by no means acquit ‘Jana Gana Mano’. In early 21st century a legal petition was moved to drop the word ‘Sindhu’ from the text of the song as Sind is no more a part of India after its partition. The Supreme Court, however, gave its verdict against the petition.
These two anthems, much pilloried for decades, however, still retain their charisma and dignity due to their great intrinsic values. All invectives against these have undergone thorough scrutiny of highly eminent and knowledgeable persons many times and nullified also, after which these should have become non-issues long before. One may wonder, why they have not! We have already observed above that it is the British who had forged ‘nationalism’ in India, not an unmixed blessing though, but it heightened our best human qualities like patriotism, courage, determination, self-sacrifice, foresight, etc., whereas, after Independence, with our earlier trials and tribulations gone, our evil propensities are surfacing. Our long persisting tangle on this non-issue is only a symptom of the forces which are fast disintegrating our nation, if not pushing us to the pre-British days. In fact, history never records an anthem which had united as well as divided a nation at different points of time more that this duo.

(+) Rajat Das Gupta is the author of a few books including ‘The Eclipsed Sun’, a translation of Tagore’s poems and songs.