We, the People of India, are markedly absent in our national anthem

Every once in a while, it dawns on an Indian citizen that, among the list of provinces of British India thoughtfully provided by Tagore in our national anthemSindh is an anomaly.

Hoax claim that circulated for a while
(Image added by Kafila for no good reason)

Sindh was a fairly significant part of the British Empire ever since it was absentmindedly conquered by General Napier in the 1840s. (He is believed to sent his superiors a brief message on the conquest, Peccavi, Latin for ‘I have sinned’, which is to say, Sindh. The man was an insufferable nerd).

However, the Partition of 1947 placed Sindh on the wrong side of the Indian border, and its continued presence in the national anthem does not sit well with some Indians. “Why Sindh?” they ask plaintively. “Why not Rajasthan or Jammu & Kashmir? What about the North East States? Isn’t it time we rewrote Jana Gana Mana to reflect our current political realities, etc?”

Passing lightly over the fact that replacing ‘Sindh’ with ‘the North East States and Sikkim’ would play hell with the scansion of the disputed line, there are apparently very good arguments for not tinkering with Jana Gana Mana as it has stood from 1911.  I have only the haziest notion of what these arguments are, but among other things, we are told it would “disregard its existence as a poem by Rabindranath Tagore and an associated ethic that you do not take other people’s poetry and make changes to them.”

Just for the record, the Constituent Assembly didn’t worry overmuch about this ‘associated ethic’, making it clear that the anthem was “subject to such alterations in the words as the government may authorise as occasion arises”.

As for its existence as a poem by Tagore, and whether the old man would have approved of replacing Sindh with the North East and former princely states, it’s a moot point.

Poets admittedly don’t take kindly to lesser beings tinkering with their immortal verse. Take the case of Tagore’s disciple and noted Sinhala versifier, Ananda Samarakoon, who wrote the lyrics of the Sri Lankan national anthem, Sri Lanka Matha. What Samarakoon actually wrote was Namo Namo Matha, but for reasons I fail to understand, the opening line was considered terribly inauspicious, and it was changed without the poet’s permission.

Samarkoon was so upset by this that he killed himself a year later, in 1962.

Tagore having died in 1941 of natural causes, and his works now being out of copyright, there would probably be few, if any, dire consequences to changing the lyrics without the poet’s consent.

But my grouse with Jana Gana Mana – beyond the tedium of having to stand up for it forty times at the last International Film Festival of India – lies not with its inclusion of Sindh and its contiguous districts.

Or even with the rather more controversial possibility that he wrote it to honour George, the King Emperor.

George was undeniably on a visit to these parts in 1911, when Bharot Bhagyo Bidhata – Dispenser of India’s Destiny – was composed. Now follow me closely here: the song was first sung at a convention of the Indian National Congress in Calcutta in December 1911. And it was sung on a day when the agenda comprised a loyal welcome to the dim-witted monarch (“he did nothing at all but kill animals and stick in stamps,” complained his biographer) on his visit to India.

Was Tagore praising the bewhiskered King Emperor, who would shortly bestow a knighthood on the poet for services rendered, or an altogether different and as yet unnamed dispenser of India’s destiny?

Of course, there is no reason why India’s destiny could not have been dispensed, jointly or singly, by entities other than King George. Tagore himself did not dispute contemporary reports on the putative subject of his hymn until 1937 — long after he had surrendered his knighthood, and shortly after George had succumbed to the ill effects of heavy smoking and falling off his horse – when he observed that the Reader of the Collective Mind of India could not be George V, VI or any other George.

(I have to say I agree. It should have been Edward VIII, a far more personable king than the notably colourless George VI.)

However, my problem with Jana Gana Mana is more essential.

Piqued by repeated calls to remove Sindh from the roll-call of British Provinces in the national anthem, one proud Sindhi has pointed out that the national anthem is a poem, and we should stop trying to turn it into “a cartographic document”.

Really? Not a cartographic document?

Though Jana Gana Mana is written in a form of highly sanskritised Bengali barely understood by deshbhakts, it’s readily available in translation. And it should be abundantly clear that – except for the first and last lines where the poet grovels before the Ruler of our Minds in a winning manner – the remainder of the poem is unapologetically cartographic.  In a few short lines, it demarcates the borders of British India through its colonial-era provinces, and fills in the map of India with physical details like rivers and mountains.

Granted, it’s rather sketchy, but the man was a poet, not a geographer.

And this insistence on geographic as opposed to demographic virtues, it should be noted, is common to all anthems written or inspired by our national poet.

Shortly after tripping over the poet, now prostrate with gratitude before the Eternal Charioteer, we are tempted to ask, where are the people? Surely, somewhere among the echoing mountains and singing rivers, surrounded by the great ocean that’s even now chanting the name of the Dispenser of India’s Fortune, there should be people, some 250 million of them even in 1911.  Where are the Tillers, the Pathmakers, the Travellers, the Maidens, and the Boatmen – wraith-like and largely metaphoric, to be sure – that surface randomly in the poet’s vast oeuvre?

One looks for them in vain. We, the People of India, are markedly absent in the national anthem.

Tagore, a fastidious member of Bengal’s bhadralok, loved people in the abstract but probably had a mild horror of them in the teeming mass. And even back in the late 19th century, they teemed like nobody’s business. Writing in the 1870s, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, a more muscular Bengali, had swords flashing out in seventy million hands – no doubt the population of undivided Bengal — and seventy million voices roaring “thy dreadful name from shore to shore” in Vande Mataram. Tagore set Bankim Chandra’s poem to music, but all this roaring and flashing was evidently not his style.

Had seventy million, or indeed fewer, voices roared anything at all in the proximity of his sensitive ears, one feels Tagore would instantly have departed for the Kumaon hills and written something profound about faded futile flowers and a languorous sorrow weighing upon his heart.

It is not recorded if he ever really encountered a Tiller, tattered and stained, in the sun-embroidered green of mist laden hills, but had he done so, I assume the poet would have been nonplussed.

One could, of course, argue that the absence of anything remotely human in the Indian national anthem was an oversight on the poet’s part, but let’s take a look at the other anthem penned by him, Bangladesh’s Amar Sonar Bangla, written in 1905.

Needless to say, the poem is replete with the aroma of mango orchards in the springtime, mature fields of paddy, banyan trees and what not. (Somewhere in the fourth verse – not included in the Bangladesh anthem – the poet glorifies a village and realizes, too late, that there are villagers. “Shepherds and farmers are my brothers,” he observes elliptically and moves on).

Ditto Ananda Samarakoon’s Sri Lanka Matha which, though laden with grain and luscious fruit, and fragrant flowers of radiant hue, is as deficient in living, breathing people as his preceptor Tagore’s Indian and Bangladeshi anthems.

I have little doubt that Tagore, faced with the daunting task of writing a hymn to the Lord of India’s Destiny, reached for the nearest and possibly only model he knew, said to be the oldest official national anthem in the world, God Save the [gendered noun for current British monarch].

The original lyrics of God Save the King/Queen, which coincidentally refer to yet another George, is terse and to the point: send him victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us, it insists, omitting altogether the fractious natives of the island kingdom and its colonies except as subjects to be reigned over. Armed with this misanthropic model, Tagore dashed off Jana Gana Mana, which, like God Save the King and Candle in the Wind, is admirably capacious in its ability to embrace whichever Ruler of Hearts is currently on the ascendant.

I am not suggesting that national anthems should not point with quiet pride to the geographical features of their respective nations and their associated flora and fauna, but surely a nation is more than the sum of its rivers and mountains.

Take, for instance, the Portuguese national anthem, which was officially adopted in 1911, when Tagore was laboring over Jana Gana Mana. 

Heroes of the sea, noble people,
Valiant and immortal nation,
Raise once again today,
The splendor of Portugal!

There, right at the beginning, you have people. It must have been pretty evident to the poet, a young bloke named Henrique Lopes de Mendonça, that a nation is its people and not its topography, though Portugal is well endowed with picturesque hills and valleys.

La Marseillaise, older than A Portuguesa by a hundred years, likewise has no time for lofty crests and mellow leas. “Allons enfants de la Patrie,” it begins, “Arise, children of the fatherland, the day of glory has arrived.” After observing that ferocious soldiers – Austrians, in this case – were “coming right into your arms, to cut the throats of your sons, your women”, it goes on to explain what Frenchmen do when faced with tyrants and bloodthirsty despots. (Not retreat behind the Maginot Line and dial the Pentagon, this was an earlier time). Blood soaked fields are invoked.

Similarly, the German national anthem begins with a rousing appeal for unity, justice and freedom for the Fatherland, on the broad principle that the Fatherland comprises its people. (Earlier verses praising German women, German wine and German song have regrettably been dropped from the Deutschlandlied). 
As I have observed earlier, Vande Matarm is actually a more robust poem, reflecting the kind of homicidal nationalism that’s so characteristic of European anthems. But you wouldn’t guess that from the wishy-washy two verses that are now identified as the “national song“. The original song begins mildly enough with orchard gleams, cool winds and blossoming trees, but things escalate quickly.

Unlike Tagore, who declined to identify the Protector of India’s Fate, Bankim Chandra tactlessly invokes Durga and Lakshmi, which kind of takes the shine off the poem for many Indians. But it’s otherwise quite a rousing number, as anyone who has heard Hemant Kumar’s song from the 1952 film, Anand Math, will agree.

A hundred years is a long time in a nation’s history, and national anthems aren’t carved in stone. The uneasy acceptance that anthems are subject to alterations is possibly one reason why Jana Gana Mana does not find a place in the Constitution of India, and was merely presented to the Constituent Assembly on 24 January 1950 in a statement read by Dr. Rajendra Prasad, who immediately moved on to more pressing matters like the falling number of women members in Parliament.

Should Jana Gana Mana be subject to alterations? Can Sindh be replaced with some other state or union territory or, indeed, be retained while other territories overlooked by the poet are added to the list? Or – and this is not uncommon – should we adopt a new anthem altogether, one that’s more in tune with the zeitgeist?

Back in school, while struggling with the incomprehensible language of Jana Gana Mana and Vande Mataram, I’d frequently wondered why a simpler song could not have been adopted as the national anthem.
Like Sare Jahan Se Accha. 

Muhammad Iqbal’s exquisite “Tarānah-i-Hindi” (quite literally the Anthem of the People of India), is liberally sprinkled with tall mountains and frolicking rivers, but it acknowledges the nation’s nightingales, the people of India, whom the poet evidently held in high regard. Maẕhab nahīṉ sikhātā āpas meṉ bair rakhnā, says the poet, Hindī haiṉ ham, wat̤an hai Hindositāṉ hamārāa, an observation on Indianness that resonates a hundred years later.

If only Iqbal hadn’t gone and mucked it all up by writing “Tarana-e-Milli“.

Sajan Venniyoor is an independent media consultant.

Courtesy: Kafila.online



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