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Tagore and Jana Gana Mana

By Monish R. Chatterjee

31 August, 2003

This article is written in response to the frequently perpetuated myth
that Rabindranath Tagore wrote the song Jana Gana Mana for the
British monarch. For as long as one can remember, in fact, from
the very early decades of this century, there has been a stubborn
mythology vis-a-vis the circumstances surrounding the writing of
Jana Gana Mana by India's greatest cultural figure, Rabindranath
Tagore. Such stubborn mythologies often arise out of extremely
limited knowledge of, or familiarity with, the life and works of a
great man (a mahapurusha, to coin a more appropriate Indian term).
Understandably, those not familiar with the Bengali language have
the Herculean task of turning themselves into Tagore scholars
in order to get a wider glimpse of the man and the scope of his
accomplishments. This limitation, in many cases, leads them
to narrow perspectives and hearsay, rather than the type of
direct examination necessary to draw objective conclusions.

Anyone even moderately informed about the life and works of
Rabindranath Tagore cannot have the slightest doubt about the
greatness of this towering figure of human civilization,
measured by any standard anywhere in the world. As the
great Indian saint Sri Ramakrishna would say metaphorically,
"The vulture flies high in the sky, yet his sight is set upon
the garbage heap upon the ground." True to this aphorism,
there is often a concerted effort to measure a man of Tagore's
magnitude by unjustifiable and contrived means which
apparently make him more life-size and flawed, and therefore
more everyday and run-of-the-mill. To critics who only
sample certain minuscule outer trappings of this astonishing
creative genius and extraordinary humanitarian, such forced
finitude perhaps brings a measure of parity and comprehension
against which one can safely stack everyday events and
human tendencies in all their glorious mediocrity.

I write this not as an apologist for flawed heroes, or the
frailties imbedded within human greatness. I am quite
aware of these realities, and feel as strongly as most about
the need to not deify a great human being and in the process
lose sight of his or her humanity (with its associated
limitations) and its inspirational values. However, there is
a rather meager "catch" when it comes to finding holes in
the gigantic canvas of Tagore's life (in this case, I am not
considering scholarly evaluation of his literary works), and
I have observed time after time recurrence of the same
tired allegations, or even worse, presumptions applied
to aspects of it observed through low-aperture eyepieces
and tunnel vision. The Jana Gana Mana controversy,
involving the time and circumstances of Tagore's writing
of the verse poem and song later chosen to be independent
India's national anthem, is one such rare, albeit convenient,

The mythology surrounds the 1911 visit to India by King
George V. To commemorate the occasion, the Indian National
Congress (INC) approached Tagore for a poem of welcome.
As Yeats (his Irish admirer of many years) recalled later,
Tagore was deeply troubled by the assignment. Early one
morning, he composed a very beautiful poem and handed
it over to his colleagues. He suggested that it was a poem
addressed to God, and that they should give it to the Congress
people. At the Calcutta Congress session which began on
December 16, 1911, the second day was apparently devoted
entirely to welcoming King George V. Jana Gana Mana was
sung on this occasion. Thereafter, the newspaper reports
maintained that it was sung as a salute to the King Emperor
(George V). Since Tagore did not immediately refute the
allegation, the perception spread that the song was a
eulogy to the monarchy.Obviously nothing could be farther
from the truth. As with many of his puja or devotional songs,
if there was a divine entity to whom Tagore addressed many
of his heartfelt yearnings for communion and eternal play,
it was a Monarch infinitely greater than any mortal King
Emperor could ever aspire to be. The Lord of India's Destiny,
to whom Jana Gana Mana is officially addressed, is the
perennial Bhagya Vidhata of India who has, from the very
dawn of civilization, guided India through great triumphs
and tragedies. The Lord of India is therefore India's eternal
guiding spirit, and could never be merely the king of a
colonial empire. It is hardly necessary to point out that if
Tagore had the slightest weakness towards, or preference
for the British monarchy, his staunch and steadfast opposition
to British rule would seriously contradict any such deeply
guarded fantasy. His relinquishing of the Knighthood honor
(received at the hands of the very same monarch to whom,
according to the detractors, he supposedly offered such
unabashed tributes) in protest against the Amritsar
(Jallianwallah Bagh) massacre in 1919, is likewise a
study in stark contrast.

To the copious writing and data that are extant with regards
to this grossly over-amplified issue, I need hardly add any
more information of my own. The fact that despite an
extensive personal reflection on this matter by Tagore
himself, whereby he has refuted beyond any controversy
the "charge" that he had written the song to felicitate the
King Emperor of England and her colonial empire, the
gnawing doubts in certain quarters persist, only goes to
show the severe problem associated with tunnel vision and
the age-old problem of a blind person visualizing an
elephant using vanishingly minuscule data.

In Tagore's collected works, it is mentioned that the INC
requested that Tagore write a felicitation to the King
Emperor as an appeasement gesture to the British monarchy
in response to the annulment of the Bengal Partition Act.
Not only was Tagore troubled by the request, he was
downright offended by it. It is said that Jana Gana Mana
was written more out of protest and rebellion than adoration
towards the monarchy. An objective reading of the song
should make it eminently clear as to whom the poet
decided to offer his worship. In a letter to Pulin Behari Sen,
Tagore later wrote, "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."

Not only as an inveterate admirer of Tagore, but also as
someone who believes strongly that allegations against
extraordinary human beings deserve extraordinary care
and a scrupulous contextual examination, I can only urge
those who choose to join the Jana Gana Mana controversy
to study Tagore more extensively before jumping on the
bandwagon or making unsubstantiated pronouncements.

Despite his noble birth and lineage, Rabindranath Tagore
used every fruitful moment of his long creative life to
understand, empathize with, and defend the history,
culture, and people of India. His sincere belief in India's
crying need to be freed of colonial oppression has been
expressed profoundly and eloquently in vast and profuse
areas of his writings, some of which can be traced back
to his late teens and early twenties. I cannot even begin
to cite examples of his wise and deeply insightful
proclamations and pronouncements in this regard;
suffice it to say that in each well-known episodic event,
Tagore's attempts and desire to align himself with the
oppressed, the downtrodden and the diverse people of
his beloved Motherland have a degree of consistency
which is simply mind-boggling. Tagore was nurtured
in the musical and mystical traditions of Vaishnavism
and the Bengali Baul, and was close to the enlightened
reformist views of Brahmo society. Yet, at no time in
his life was he narrowly religious. His family initiated a
tradition of Swadeshi Melas (National Fairs) as early as
the late 1800s, and Tagore's contributions to the cultural
expositions at these Melas are legendary. We cannot
forget his early dramatic work, Valmiki-Pratibha (The Genius
of Valmiki), or his colloquial verse collection, Bhanusimher
Padavali (The Verses of Bhanusimha Thakur). In these,
as in others, Tagore shows signs of his deep understanding
of India's cultural treasures and literary heritage. Building
upon these, and growing from strength to strength, Tagore
became one of the most exceptional vehicles of Indian
culture, perhaps in all of Indian history, in the subsequent
decades of his life.

Not too long ago, I had occasion to listen to a moving
collection of his songs, interspersed with short narratives.
In this collection, a fresh new light has been cast upon
one of his well-known songs, Amaye Bolo Na Gahite Bolo
Na. The story narrated therein simply bears testimony to
Tagore's deep and abiding compassion for India and
everything Indian. Since the genesis of this song takes
us to the very early years of the 20th century, I feel
impelled to briefly recount it here with the hope that it
will exemplify Tagore's exalted stature as an illustrious
son of India who devoted all his creative energies to
promote her cause before the world throughout his life.
As the story goes, at the end of several days of what
may best be described as "blow hot" political speeches
(or copious dissipation of what may unflatteringly be
called hot air) during a national convention of the then
young Indian National Congress around 1908, the Bengali
scholar and socialite Taraknath Palit had arranged a
reception of the prominent leaders of the INC at his
home. It needs to be mentioned that from its very
early years, the INC had close connections to Bengal,
and Tagore, though not a politician by choice or
temperament, was nevertheless associated with it.
This should come as no surprise, since the INC in the
first four or five decades of its existence had a
significant Bengali presence right up to its highest
ranks. In later years, especially since the repeal of
Lord Curzon's infamous Partition of Bengal proposition,
and definitely after around 1915 or so, Tagore
dissociated himself from any political affiliation. In
matters of national politics and the freedom movement,
he took on the mantle of a preeminent commentator
and penetrating observer and advisor. Returning to the
matter of Taraknath Palit's reception, it turns out that
Mr. Palit had invited Tagore, and specifically requested
that the already well-regarded poet and composer present
an original piece of work for the amusement of his
political guests. As Tagore's son Rathindranath reminisced
later, Tagore was greatly dismayed by the hollow and
pompous speechmaking that had preceded the event for
several days, and mulled over the impossible "entertainment"
role that had been tossed in his lap. Needless to say, the
great composer wrote a poignant song for the occasion,
and much to the dismay of the merry political crowd
which was more interested in pursuing narrowly zealous
creeds, he sang this sad yet uplifting song, filled with
gentle admonition, at Palit's home the next day. I present
below a prose translation by myself of this song, which,
as with hundreds of others, bears testimony to Tagore's
incorruptible love for India.

(Copyright (c), Monish Chatterjee, Nov. 14, 2000)