Indian Poet, English King and A Case of Infantile Nationalism

The Governor of the Indian state of Rajasthan has a new issue. He thinks the Indian national anthem is somewhat not right, as it praises the then English king, George the Vth. He has a specific, poetic suggestion to make - he wants to replace the word Adhinayak (meaning Leader, though he thinks it stands for Ruler) with Mangal (Good) in the lyric (see the latest here).

Governorship is political retirement, but some people refuses to fade away. The governor in question, Kalyan Singh, presided over the demolition of Babri Masjid, the coming-out party of political Hiduvta which now triumphant in India, when he was the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. That was the crowning contribution in his career, one that he would be long remembered. He seems to be trying best it now, by dismembering the National Anthem - and by implication, its writer, Rabindranath Tagore, a bête noire for nationalists for good reason.

Though the poetic suggestion is a new thing, the accusation is not. The song was written for the occasion of Calcutta Convention of Indian National Congress, then a loyalist organisation, and was first sung in December 1911, coinciding with the coronation of George the Vth as the emperor of India. Besides, Tagore was long accused of being somewhat aloof and disconnected from Indian Nationalist movement, despite his close association with nationalist leaders, such as Gandhi and Nehru. He was active in the agitation against the division of Bengal in 1905, but then decided to withdraw from political life, citing his unsuitability in institutional politics. While he remained a deeply influential and internationally visible figure (he is the only Indian Nobel Laureate in Literature), he was never comfortable with nationalism and his lectures to that effect attracted scornful criticism in Japan, China and United States in the heady days of pre-war nationalism. That he was not a nationalist was rather clear and self-proclaimed, and therefore, his work, Indian National Anthem, was always a suspect with extremist nationalists like Mr Singh (and strangely, with the Communists too, who accused him of loyalty to the British, though they themselves supported the Colonial administration even in the dying days of the empire).

I have written about this song and its lyrics before (see here). Any reader familiar with literature (as distinct from propaganda, that is) would be able to recognise the subtlety of Tagore's art, as he sought to use the occasion of the Imperial coronation to talk about the God of India. Though he was no nationalist, in this song, he invokes a very nationalist theme - Dormission of nationalism, or the sleeping nation - and portrays India as one in deep slumber, which will be awaken by this unifying Leader and will be led to its destiny. Mr Singh is indeed in that zone of confusion between the literal and the metaphor, where so much literature gets slaughtered by plain minds. Tagore indeed stands accused - only of being a poet!

To illustrate this point further, good literature may mean more than what is apparent. Put aside for a moment the infantile nationalism, of European heritage as I must add, and one could almost read the song as a prophecy, for the coming of Gandhi (who would unify the nation), or Nehru (who would lead to its destiny) or even Mr Modi (who claims to awake and protect), justifying its position as a national anthem - a deeply religious vision of a religious nation! In a rather virtuoso performance, it is a God which no one could really object to - an unnamed, abstract God, quite unlike the ones the animistic Hindus worship to, quite like the absolute God of Christians and Muslims - and a God of India is one that even the most ardent nationalists, the ones criticising the anthem, want to build temples for. In a way, this is an anthem which combines Indias past, present and future, ties together its many varieties, puts its misery in context and its hopeful vision.

One last observation. Marx observed history repeated itself, first as a tragedy and then as a farce. Tagore wrote the national anthems of two nations, India and Bangladesh, and wrote the lyrics for a third - Sri Lanka (an unique feat which highlights his influence on South Asian nationalism). Tagore drafted the music and lyrics of what would become the national anthem of Sri Lanka in 1938, which, his student, Ananda Samarakoon (who spent a short time in Tagore's school), would eventually translate. This song was officially adapted as the National Anthem of the newly formed nation of Sri Lanka in 1951. But then, its words were found to be inappropriate by the Sri Lankan nationalists and the words - Namo Namo Matha were changed to Sri Lanka Matha - without his consent. Samarakoon could never come to terms with the changing of his lyrics and committed suicide in 1962, allegedly for this dismemberment of his most famous song. That was the tragedy. Now, it is time for a farce.



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