Come Republic Day and many of us will move our lips, mumble and try to recite the national anthem. It perhaps wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that half of us, if not more, would fail embarrassingly if asked to recite Jana Gana Mana…
Many amongst those of us who can recite the national anthem, don’t know what the words mean because the language is ancient and archaic. It has been described by scholars as “highly Sanskritized Bengali”. For most of us, Jana Gana Mana… sounds good to the ears and we really don’t care for the words. The words in this prayer to the Lord of Destiny- as conceived originally by Rabindranath Tagore in early 1900s- may have been explained to us as children in school. But how many of us remember how much of it today?
If we start examining the national anthem word by word, we’ll realize that it’s out of context too. The most jarring is the reference to ‘Sindh’ (...Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha…) in the string of states that comprise India. Finally, in 2011- the centenary year of the national anthem- the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) informed the Bombay High Court in response to a PIL that both the references to "Sindh" and "Sindhu" in the national anthem were correct and may be referred to the Sindhi community or the river.
"The word 'Sindh' and 'Sindhu' both refer to either the river or the Sindhi community. The anthem is not a chronicle which defines territory of the nation and does not enlist the states or regional areas which was part of India at the point of time when it was written," the affidavit by the MHA stated.
Then come the references to “Vanga” and “Utkala” which are not easily understood. From its sound we can guess that ‘Vanga’ stands for Bengal. But how many know that ‘Utkala’ means Orissa?
Jana Gana Mana became controversial more than a decade before it was adopted as the national anthem by the Constituent Assembly on 24 January, 1950. More than a quarter century after he wrote it, Tagore clarified in a letter in 1937 that his reference to 'Bhagya Vidhata' was not to the British Emperor but to the God of Destiny "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." As he stated categorically, "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.”
When the choice was to be made between Jana Gana Mana and Vande Mataram as the national anthem, the decision went in favour of the former essentially because of its powerful musical score. This was developed by Tagore with the help of Margaret, an expert in western music and wife of James H. Cousins, principal of the Theosophical College at Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh.
Scholars cite a letter by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in which he states that during the United Nations' General Assembly in New York in 1947, the Indian delegation presented a recording of Jana Gana Mana when asked to produce the country's national anthem. This was well received by the gathering "for its distinctive and dignified tune."
Glorious Thoughts of Nehru compiled by NB Sen and published by New Book Society in 1964 attributes the following words to Nehru and provides more clarity on the subject: “In regard to the national anthem tune, it was felt that the tune was more important than the words, and this tune should be such as to represent the Indian musical genius as well as to some extent the Western, so that it might easily be adapted to orchestra and band music, and to playing abroad. The real significance of the national anthem is perhaps more abroad than in the home country. Past experience has shown that Janagana tune has been greatly appreciated and admired abroad... Vande Mataram with all its very great attraction and historical background, was not easily suitable for orchestras in foreign countries.. It seemed therefore that while Vande Mataram should continue to be the national song par excellence in India, the national anthem tune should be that of Jana gana mana, and the wording of Jana gana be altered suitably to fit in with existing circumstances."
The tune and rhythm of the national anthem are truly captivating and yet it is worth questioning whether we need a national anthem which we haven’t fully absorbed or understood and which half the people can’t recite fully.
Every word in the national anthem ought to be clear to the smallest child. It ought to inspire, strengthen character, present a vision and make us feel proud of our collective endeavour and nationhood.
Tagore’s Chitto Jetha Bhayashunyo (Where the mind is without fear…) was penned around the same time as the national anthem and translated into English in 1911. Describing it as the “Indian Prayer”, Tagore recited it at the 1917 Indian National Congress session in Calcutta. It appeared as poem no. 35 in Gitanjali- a collection of poems published by India Society, London, which brought Tagore the Nobel Prize.
‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ is powerful because of its great vision and simplicity of language. It is a poem most apt for the times; deserving to be recited by every Indian. Many schools have already adopted it as their morning prayer and for many, it symbolizes the ideals they cherish. Why then can’t we change or modify our national anthem to incorporate the following words penned by Tagore?
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.