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RewindColumn: Jana Gana Mana and the foreign touch

Column: Jana Gana Mana and the foreign touch

Published: 15th Aug 2021 12:22 am | Updated: 27th Aug 2021 8:11 pm

By KSS Seshan

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Jana Gana Mana
Illustration: Guru G

It is well known that the lyrics of the Indian National Anthem Jana Gana Mana was written by Rabindranath Tagore as early as 1911 and was sung for the first time by himself at the annual Congress Session on December 27 that year.

What many do not know is that it was nearly eight years later that a tune, which is commonly followed all over the country today, was set to it at Besant Theosophical College, at Madanapalle in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh — where Tagore stayed in 1919 — by Margaret Cousins, the wife of James Henry Cousins (1873-1956), a famous art critic, an Irish poet of repute, a close associate of Dr Annie Besant and who then was the Principal of the College. Dr Besant was attracted to Madanapalle for not only its salubrious and cool climate but also because it was the birthplace of Jiddu Krishnamurti, a renowned philosopher whom she had adopted and groomed to be the “World Teacher”

Tagore was on a tour of South India and was much tired when he reached Bangalore in the last week of February 1919. On the advice of CF Andrews, he decided to rest at the Theosophical College in Madanapalle, about 120 km South-East of Bangalore. Tagore stayed in a cottage within the college premises for six days, from February 25 to March 2, 1919. The cottage in which the poet stayed is now refurbished and preserved as Tagore Cottage.

Morning Song of India

It was during his stay at the Theosophical College that Tagore translated the Bengali song Jana Gana Mana into English. For a few days, early in the mornings, basking in the winter sun, Tagore sat on a stone-slab under the Gulmohar tree in front of his cottage and went over his Bengali song, Jana Gana Mana, line by line finding the equivalent words in English. He wrote in his own beautiful handwriting and named it the “Morning Song of India”. At the bottom of the translated version, he signed his name and presented it to Dr James H Cousins.

Later, when the College was in financial crisis due to the withdrawal of grants by the government of Madras consequent to the participation of the faculty and students of the College in the Home -Rule agitation led by Dr Annie Besant, the “Morning Song of India” document in Tagore’s handwriting was sold to an anonymous American art collector for a fabulous but undisclosed price. However, a photocopy of it was made before the original left the country forever.

Momentous Stay

Rabindranath Tagore’s stay in Madanapalle became momentous not only because of the literary history that was created on account of his translating the National Anthem into English but also because the song was given the melody of the musical tunes with which it is now sung all over the country. Till then, the song never had a uniform tune.

Margaret Cousins was interested in giving a suitable tune to Jana Gana Mana, the song she admired. She carefully studied the meaning of each line of the song and composed the musical notes. Though an Irish by birth, Margaret Cousins worked for the Indian National Movement as a staunch Theosophist. She was also the first woman Magistrate in the country. She was herself a musician having taken a Degree in Music from the then Royal University of Dublin (now Dublin University).

With the help of her girl students, whom she used to teach music, she worked on the tunes for Jana Gana Mana. When she was ready with the final version of her composition, she spoke to Gurudev and briefed him on the Swara she composed. With the staff and students assembled in one of the classrooms of the College, in the presence of Tagore, Margaret Cousins with the help of her students and to the accompaniment of a few simple musical instruments, rendered the entire song to the tunes she had composed.

The assembled audience was thrilled when Tagore spoke a few words approving the tunes which Margaret Cousins composed and thus making it the final form of his popular Bengali song, Jana Gana Mana.  On this, James H Cousins has written in his autobiography thus:

 “The event that made the literary history and carried the name and thought of Tagore into the minds and hearts of millions of the young in schools and colleges and outside of them ultimately gave the humanity the nearest approach to an ideal National Anthem. It happened, as so many of the events of the spirit do, without anticipation and without collusion.” 

Shantiniketan of South

Tagore, having fully recouped, left Madanapalle on 2 March 1919 to continue his South Indian tour. It is said that before leaving, he called the Madanapalle College as the “Shantiniketan of South.”

In 1936, writing about,  Jana Gana Mana, Cousins said:

“the poem would become one of the world’s precious documents….From Madanapalle, Jana Gana Mana spread all over India and is admired in Europe and America”.  

In 1937, when a fierce controversy was raging over the selection of the National Anthem, it was James H Cousins who fervently pleaded that Jana Gana Mana be confirmed officially as what it has for almost 20 years been unofficially true National Anthem of India.

Although the melody that Margaret Cousins composed in February, 1919, at Madanapalle, is more or less followed to this day, her notation was slow and reflective similar to the way Tagore sang it. Today, when the anthem is played, the pace is speedy and the music bouncy. This faster arrangement is the handiwork of Herbert Murrill, who was Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, London.

Before it was declared as our National Anthem on 24 January 1950, two days before the Republic was inaugurated, Pandit Nehru had asked Herbert Murrill to have a look at the tunes and give his opinion. Murrill felt that Margaret Cousins’ tunes were good enough, but felt that in rendering, it was a bit slow and as he pointed, was slightly “hymnal”. He, therefore, compressed the slow-paced music into a faster one without altering the tunes. He modelled this on the lines of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, which, in turn, was based on martial march, the highly inspiring war song of the volunteers from Marseille, during the French Revolutionary wars (1792).

Our National Anthem Jana Gana Mana is performed now in a mere 53 seconds!

Jana Gana Mana

(The author is a retired Professor of History, University of Hyderabad)

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