In advance of India’s Independence day today, India’s Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, unveiled this 10-minute version of the Indian national anthem, Jana Gana Mana on Friday. It includes all five verses written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1911, rather than just the first one.
Tagore translated the poem into English and set it to music in 1919 while staying at the Besant Theosophical College in Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh. He had been invited there by its principal, the Irish poet James H Cousins. On the evening of February 28, 1919, at Cousins’ request, Tagore sang Jana Gana Mana. Cousins’ wife, Margaret, was an expert in Western music and, with her help, Tagore set down the notation and harmonisation which is followed to this day. [Note that the photograph of the notation in the article is upside down.] The song was used by the College as its prayer song carried beyond the borders of India by the college students and was known as the Morning Song of India.
Now, it is sometimes suggested that the song was written by Tagore in praise of King George V because he wrote it for the Calcutta Session of the Indian National Congress on the occasion of the visit by King George V and Queen Mary to India. He recited the poem to the gathering on December 26, 1911. The source of the controversy appears to be that a different song welcoming the King was performed in Hindi by a group of schoolchildren at the same event, except that this was not how it was reported in the English press: “The Bengali poet Babu Rabindranath Tagore sang a song composed by him specially to welcome the Emperor.” (Statesman, Dec. 28, 1911).
The complete lyrics however reveal that the ‘You’ to whom the song is addressed is the goddess of India’s destiny. Tagore explained the background to Jana Gana Mana in a letter to Pulin Bihari Sen on 10 November 1937:
“A certain high official in His Majesty’s service, who was also my friend, had requested that I write a song of felicitation towards the Emperor. The request simply amazed me. It caused a great stir in my heart. In response to that great mental turmoil, I pronounced the victory in Jana Gana Mana of that Bhagya Vidhata of India who has from age after age held steadfast the reins of India’s chariot through rise and fall, through the straight path and the curved. That Lord of Destiny, that Reader of the Collective Mind of India, that Perennial Guide, could never be George V, George VI, or any other George. Even my official friend understood this about the song. After all, even if his admiration for the crown was excessive, he was not lacking in simple common sense.”
The myth about Tagore’s supposed praise of George V was revived more recently by some who attempted to suggest that Vande Mataram would be a more appropriate national anthem for India. Its lyrics were written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and set to music by Tagore. Although Vande Mataram had been a rallying cry for India’s anti-imperial struggle against the British, Tagore pointed out in a letter to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in 1937 that “The core of Vande Mataram is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it. Of course Bankimchandra does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end, but no Mussulman [Muslim] can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as ‘Swadesh’ [the nation]. This year many of the special [Durga] Puja numbers of our magazines have quoted verses from Vande Mataram – proof that the editors take the song to be a hymn to Durga. The novel Anandamath is a work of literature, and so the song is appropriate in it. But Parliament is a place of union for all religious groups, and there the song cannot be appropriate.”
In a statement made in Parliament on 25th August, 1948, Prime Minister Nehru said: ‘‘It is unfortunate that some kind of argument has arisen between Vande Mataram and Jana Gana Mana. Vande Mataram is obviously and indisputably the premier national song of India with a great historical tradition; it was intimately connected with our struggle for freedom. That position it is bound to retain and no other song can displace it. It represents the passion and poignancy of that struggle, but perhaps not so much the culmination of it.’’
Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana was chosen as the National Anthem of the 1947 Republic of India. Vande Mataram was rejected on the grounds that Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Sikhs, Arya Samajis and others who opposed idol worship felt offended by its depiction of the nation as “Mother Durga”, a Hindu goddess. Muslims also felt that its origin as part of Anandamatha, a novel they felt had an anti-Muslim message, was inappropriate.
Rajendra Prasad, who was presiding the Constituent Assembly on January 24, 1950, made the following statement which was also adopted as the final decision 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 honored equally with Jana Gana Mana and shall have equal status with it.”
The official, instrumental version of India’s national anthem lasts just under 1 minute and is evidently performed at twice the speed of the latest version.
This is the full-length version of the AR Rahman arrangement made for the 50th anniversary of India’s Constitution in 2000. There is a shorter version of this which has had almost 1.8 million views.
Finally, this is Tagore himself reciting (not singing, as the title of the video claims) the lyrics of Jana Gana Mana.
15 thoughts on “Tagore and the Indian national anthem”
Thanks for this! So many misunderstandings have been spread about Jan Gan Man, that I was very happy to read a rational and sensible post.
By the way, you forgot to mention/include Ram Singh Thakuri’s involvement in creating music composition for Jana Gana Mana. FYI, Ram Singh Thakuri was Indian Nepalis who also composed music for famous patriotic song “Kadam Kadam baraye ja khusi ke geet gaaye ja”.
Thank you for pointing this out. Captain Ram Singh Thakuri was born 99 years ago today (on 15 August 1914). As well as being a freedom fighter, he was appointed music director of the Indian National Army by its leader, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
Most of the evolution of Jana Gana Mana is mentioned in my original post:
1) Tagore recited the poem on December 26, 1911, at the Calcutta Session of the Indian National Congress on the occasion of the visit by King George V and Queen Mary to India;
2) Tagore set it to music in 1919 while staying at the Besant Theosophical College in Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh. He sang it there on February 28, 1919.
3) In the days that followed, Margaret Cousins, the wife of the college principal, helped Tagore to transcribe the tune in Western musical notation, including the harmonisation. The resulting notation is the third photo in this article. Although the photo has been reproduced upside down in the article (the melody starts in the bottom right-hand corner!), the harmonisation is clearly the one still used today.
4) After Jana Gana Mana was selected for the National Anthem of the newly independent India, Captain Ram Singh Thakuri and members of his orchestra band were invited to perform it on the occasion of the Prime Minister’s inaugural address to the nation at the Red Fort. To do so, he wrote the orchestral arrangement of Jana Gana Mana which is still used as India’s National Anthem at official functions.
I hope this clarifies the chronology of Jana Gana Mana.