A Tale of Two Anthems
By RAJAT DAS GUPTA **
In early 2003 "Vande Matram" was declared as the second popular most national anthem, the topmost being the Irish one. The news was first broadcast by BBC- World Service Radio, which really bewildered those who are habituated to listening it in the morning. While "Vande Matram" slogan used to pass a shiver down the spine of the British in the Raj days, are they themselves broadcasting this news! Were they really tuned to 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 in his novel ‘Anandamath’ in 1882 where it became a war cry for the crusading Vaishnavite monks in the famine afflicted land Bengal in the backdrop of the demising Nawab dynasty and the rising British power there 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 slogan/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 in as few words, which, in my inept translation also possibly does not lose all its inspiration:
1) “ Ek sutre bandhiachi sahasrati monEk karye sampiachchi sahasra jiban…..
In one string we stitchMany a thousand mind to pitch;In one mission we devoteOn the divine hymn to float -"Vande Matram"- (=Hail Mother/Motherland)Amidst disastrous storm, Facing many a hurdleOur daring heart will not fail;"Vande Matram" -Undaunted by fright's myriad formHurricane violent, sea in billowWill not put us low,Many a million waveWe'll brave;This life ephemeralWe'll not care to bail;Yet will remain unsnapped The solemnity that us trapped -"Vande Matram" To dispel our hibernation.***************************8 ‘Vande Matram’ drew attention of the Indian National Congress since the beginning. In its annual conference held in Calcutta in 1896, this song was sung and was tuned by Tagore and later on by several others. In its annual conference again in1905 it was accepted as our national anthem which was attended by Sister Nivedita, the Irish lady who had turned Vivekananda’s disciple about a decade back.
As it should be obvious from the reference in the song itself to a population of 7 Crore (as determined by the census of 1881 to be the strength of the 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 30 Crore) also in the then Bengal, the song itself may be absolved of the charge of communal bias, particularly when it peaked our nationalistic spirit sweeping away all our narrowness. It is a different matter that the song was voiced by the said crusading monks whose uprising happened to be 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 dilapidated one. Again, the narrow geographical concept of Bengal, as found in Annandamath, should not disqualify the song as a national anthem of India. It may be appreciated, it would be ridiculous if this song sung by Bhabananda, the monk character in the novel during the Nawab dynasty, would have indulged in nationalistic megalomania, by inflating 7 Crore to 30 Crore or so. It appears, Bankim figured his song quite discreetly to fit it well in 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, solidified our nationalistic concept/sentiment. To criticize the original format of ‘Vande Matram’ for 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.
Nevertheless, religious fundamentalism raised its head instead, and some Muslim clerics and politicians (irrespective of religion) argued that this anthem indulges in deity worship against the spirit of Islam and was so unacceptable to its followers. A compromise was arrived at by accepting only the first two stanzas (vide website of TUHL Indian/Hinduism Home page) of the song as our national anthem editing therein the said 7 Crore to 30 Crore, as aforesaid, 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 it 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 in our various institutions in 2006, on the occasion of it being the centenary year for its acceptance as our national anthem. After all, a song is an aesthetic creation and should be left to one’s finer faculties.
Later, 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 Matram..’, the latter is often referred as ‘national song’ while the former as ‘national anthem’. However, this hardly affected the appeal and inspiration of any of these songs. It may be noted, in case of ‘Jana Gano Mano..’ also only the first two stanzas have been accepted as our national anthem (vide the said website), while it comprises three more.
Now, while ‘religion’ was the bone of contention in the anti-‘Vande Matram..’ tirade, the aim of invectives against ‘Jano Gano Mono…’ was Tagore’s assumed sycophancy for King George V who had visited India in 1911, which happens to be the year of composition of the song too that gave scope for such scandal. 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 no way involve the King which were, Rothenstein, a British scholar, was a great admirer of Tagore’s nephew Abanindranath Tagore, a renowned artist and came to visit him at the ‘Thakurbari’, the ancestral house of the Thakur (Tagore) family. In the gathering Rabindranath was present whose beaming personality attracted Rothenstein who gathered from Abanindranath that Rabindranath was a poet. This was around 1911. However, Rothenstein was gradually attracted to Rabindranath and talked highly about him to other British poets/scholars of that time. Now, in Tagore’s own words, to quote from Maitrayee Devi’s ‘Mangpute Rabindranath’, (=‘Rabindranath at Mangpu’ -near Darjeeling- where Tagore had been intermittently Maitrayee Devi’s guest during the last 3 years of his life) the poet’s dialogue with her was as follows-
“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 big 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, overflowing 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 was in 1912 on 30 June or early July. It is this group of scholars/poets who had recommended Tagore’s name to the Nobel Committee in Sweden to culminate into the poet as a Nobel Laureate. However, I badly miss King George V in the entire episode!
Other relevant facts are, Tagore gave underhand support to the then ‘terrorists’ who had fought for India’s freedom and was a suspect of the British Govt. His novel ‘Char Adhaay’ (Four Chapters) on this theme of terrorism vouches this.
Secondly, Tagore’s dialogue with Maitrayee Devi may again be quoted in respect of his renouncing his Knighthood in protest against the Jalianwallabag (Punjab) carnage by the British police in 1919, as follows –
“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, on partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon in 1905, Tagore himself led some of the processions on the Calcutta roads in protest against this partition voicing 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…”
The song he had composed on this occasion became a national anthem of Bengal at least. Eventually, the British Govt. 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?
However, all these razzmatazz had indulgence due to our fiddling with the truncated first two stanzas of the song adopted as our national anthem, as aforesaid, overlooking the rest of it as if that did not matter in determining the real intent of the poet latent in the song. But, some people are not cursory like learned Mr. B. Bhattacharya, who highlighted the penultimate stanza of the song in his letter to the Editor (The Statesman) published on 15 September 2006 which may be quoted as follows-
“Dushapane atanke raksha korile anke snehamoyee tumi Mata….”
which, 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 an “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 not to escalate this point further as nothing stops one to argue that the ‘Mata’ in this song smacks of ‘deity worship’ for which its forerunner ‘Vande Matram..’ was put on the dock.
Yet, some highly relevant points need stress. Even a dunce with a bit of sincere probing of the song cannot miss that the “Eternal Charioteer” in the 3rd stanza of the song leading “the travellers 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 at large, across the world not fragmented by ‘parochial walls’. This internationalism from humanist angle that Tagore displayed since late 19th Century, as opposed to the politico-commercial noises we hear now-a-days 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 ‘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 Matram’ and ‘Sare jahanse Acchha’ (by Iqbal), all of which are myopic in their eulogy for a certain population within a geographical confinement. 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. At length, Mr. Ram Jethmalani fought the issue successfully in the Supreme Court which gave its verdict against the petition for deletion of ‘Sind’.
These two anthems, much pilloried for decades, however eruditely, have still retained their 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 morphed to non-issues long before.
One may ponder, quite distressingly, why they have not! We have observed above that it is the British who had forged ‘nationalism’ in India, not as unmixed blessing though, but it heightened our best human qualities like patriotism, courage, determination, self-sacrifice, foresight etc., whereas, after Independence, with the earlier trials and tribulations gone, our worst qualities are surfacing with the wane of the said best ones. Our long persisting tangle on this non-issue is only a symptom of the forces 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 than this duo.
** The author, professionally a Chartered Accountant, also authored a few books including ‘The Eclipsed Sun’, a translation of Tagore’s poems & songs. He lives in Calcutta.