National Anthem Throwdown: Jana Gana Mana vs. Bande Mataram

A really informative piece by Pradip Kumar Datta has just been posted on SACW, on the history of India's national anthem. The current anthem is Rabindranath Tagore's "Jana Gana Mana." (See the entry at Wikipedia for the text and translation of the song)

The Hindu right has been casting aspersions on it recently (Datta cites Sadhvi Rithambara's "hate cassette" as well as websites like The reason: it was composed by Tagore on the occasion of King George V's visit to the Indian National Congress in 1911. Tagore was famously ambivalent about the commission, and wrote the song as he did as an act -- he thought -- of subversion. But I suppose it's also possible to say that the song, written to celebrate the visit of the English king, loses some autonomy through that history. Still, the details are worth pursuing, and the virtue of Datta's article is that he has access to the original coverage of the event in the English-language press of the day:

The confusion about the song was stirred up by the ineptness of the pro-British Anglo-Indian press. Their inefficiency was not surprising (The Sunday Times once ascribed the authorship of Bande Mataram to Tagore and described Jana Gana Mana as a Hindi song!) On this occasion the Anglo-Indian press -- led by The Englishman - almost uniformly reported that a Tagore song had been sung to commemorate George V's visit to India. The reports were based on understandable ignorance since the Anglo-Indian press had neither the linguistic abilities nor the interest to be accurate. Actually, two songs that had been sung that day. The Jana Gana Mana had been followed by a Hindi song composed specially for George V by Rambhuj Chaudhary. There was no real connection between the composition of the Jana Gana Mana and George V, except that the song was sung -- not written - at an event which also felicitated the king. The Anglo-Indian press [luckily for Hindutva enthusiasts and unfortunately for secularists!] heard Indian songs much in the way they looked at foreign faces: they were all the same!

In short, the English press was clueless, but that cluelessness might have actually slowed the adaptation of the song amongst Indian nationalists. Whatever the case, eventually the song would become strongly identified with the nationalist movement. It was even eventually adapted by Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army. You can't get more nationalist than that.

The critics of "Jana Gana Mana" would prefer to see it replaced by "Bande Mataram," also sometimes spelled "Vande Mataram") composed by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, also sometimes spelled as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. "Bande Mataram" (see the song here, with translation by the poet Sri Aurobindo) treats India as a Goddess to be worshipped. It was demoted from official anthem status, Datta says, because orthodox Indian Muslims (probably also Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, and Christians) would have had a hard time worshipping a "Goddess" of any form, even if, in the song, the "Mataram" isn't named as specifically Hindu.

[And if that's sexism, well, it probably is. But keep in mind that woman-as-Goddess isn't always a pro-feminist image -- it depends what kind of Goddess. But I digress.]

Finally, Datta makes a great point about the differences in the image of India in the two anthems:

But there is also an underlying reason that is really responsible for the controversy popping up at regular intervals. The words of Bande Mataram feature India as a homogeneous Hindu nation. Jana Gana Mana evokes the country as composed of a multiplicity of regions and communities united in a prayer to a universal lord. After all, Bande Mataram was composed by a colonial administrator who could only visualize the nation in Hindu terms: religious identity was the only available idiom for conceptualizing the nation then. In contrast, Tagore had seen the riots that broke up the Swadeshi movement and had divined the obvious: religious nationalism easily divided anti-colonial struggles. Jana Gana Mana can be seen as one of the fruits of Tagore's search to find an alternate inclusivist definition for the nation. Incidentally, it was one of the harbingers of a decade that was to see Hindu and Muslim politicians draw together. In short, the two songs embody different ideas, histories and aspirations of the country.

Well said.

Personally, I prefer Mohammed Iqbal's "Sare Jaha se Achcha." I find it easiest to understand (after all, the other two are Bengali songs originally), and easier to sing than either of the others.

But then, I didn't grow up with any of these songs. Rather, the national anthem I grew up singing (badly, without much comprehension), was written by one Francis Scott Key: "O say can you see..."