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National Anthem’s Madanapalle connection

K.S.S. SESHAN

With the help of her girl students, whom she used to teach music, Mrs. Cousins worked on the tunes for ‘Janaganamana.’


He sang something like a piece of geography… and in the second verse a list of the religions in India...




Author of the anthem: Rabindranath Tagore.

The National Anthem was written by Rabindranath Tagore as early as in 1911 and was sung at the annual session of the Indian National Congress at Calcutta on December 27 that year. But it was in Besant Theosophical College, Madanapalle, where Tagore s tayed for a few days in February 1919 that the now familiar tune was set. It was Margaret Cousins, wife of educationist, James H. Cousins, who composed the tune for ‘Janaganamana.’ Dr. James Henry Cousins was then the Principal of the Madanapalle College that was established by Dr. Annie Besant.

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 C.F. Andrews, he decided to rest at the Theosophical College in Madanapalle, about 120 km, south-east of Bangalore.

Besides several firsts of national importance, Madanapalle also had a first grade college started by Annie Besant in 1915. Besant’s involvement in the freedom movement prompted the Government to cancel its affiliation to Madras University. Undaunted, Dr. Besant named the college “Wood National College,” after Prof. Ernest Wood, educationist and a close follower of Dr. Besant. She got it affiliated to the National University at Madras, which was newly organised by the Society for the Promotion of National Education, (SPNE) for which Rabindranath Tagore was the Chancellor. When it was suggested that the quiet atmosphere at Madanapalle College as the right place to rest, Tagore was only happy for he felt that he would be with the staff and students of the college affiliated to the National University. Tagore also felt happy to be in the company of Dr. Cousins whose poetry in English he always admired.

Song set to tune

Rabindranath Tagore’s stay in Madanapalle College became momentous because the song ‘Janaganamana’ 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. People were signing it as they liked in varied ways with great regional variations.

It was the practice with Dr. and Mrs. Cousins to hold informal meetings with the college community on every Wednesday night after dinner called “sing song fun session”. It was usually a programme of healthy hilarity and fun. Tagore, who joined the gathering asked if he might sing one of his poems.

Writing about how the song was first heard by them as sung by Tagore himself, Dr. Cousins recounted thus: “In a voice surprisingly light for so large a man, he sang something like a piece of geography giving a list of countries, mountains and rivers; and in the second verse a list of the religions in India. The refrain to the first verse made us pick up our ears. The refrain to the second verse made us clear our throats. We asked for it again and again, and before long we were singing it with gusto: Jaya hai, Jaya hai, Jaya hai, Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya hai (Victory, victory, victory to thee).”

The large assembly gathered that night was overjoyed at listening to the song ‘Janaganamana’ from Gurudev himself who penned it. Mrs. Cousins, who was highly gratified at the rich thought content of the poem, decided to give suitable tunes to it. She was herself a musician having taken a degree in music from the University of London. The next day, she discussed with Tagore on the notations and the general theme of the song. Tagore explained the nuances of the poem and indicated broadly the “swara” for the song.

With the help of the girl students of the college, whom she used to teach music, Mrs. Cousins worked on the tunes for ‘Janaganamana.’ She carefully studied the meaning of each line of the song and composed the musical notes. 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 the same classrooms, where Tagore sang it the previous day, Mrs. Cousins with the help of her students, to the accompaniment of a few simple musical instruments and in the presence of Tagore, rendered the entire song to the tune she composed.

The assembled audience was thrilled when Tagore spoke a few words appreciating the melody of the tune and the efforts of Mrs. Cousins in composing it. Thus the poet had approved the tune making it as the final form of his popular Bengali song, ‘Janaganamana.’

About this event, Dr. Cousins in his autobiography states: “It made literary history and carried the name and thought of Tagore into the minds and hearts of millions of young in schools and colleges and outside them and ultimately gave humanity the nearest approach to an ideal national anthem. It happened, as so many great events of the spirit do, without anticipation and without collusion.”

English translation

It was during his stay in the college, that Tagore also translated ‘Janaganamana’ 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. ‘Janaganamana,’ line by line finding the equivalent words in English. He wrote in his own beautiful handwriting and named it as the “Morning Song of India.” At the bottom of the translated version, he signed his name, dated it as February 28, 1919 and presented it to Dr. James 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 started by Dr. Anne Besant, the “Morning Song of India” document in Tagore’s handwriting was sold to an American art collector for a fabulous but undisclosed price. The money thus collected was added to the college fund. However, a photocopy of it was made before the original left the country forever. This copy is preserved in the Madanapalle Theosophical College now.

Tagore, having fully refreshed and recouped, left Madanapalle on March 2, 1919, to continue his South Indian tour. It is said that before leaving, he called the Madanapalle College ‘Santinikethan of South.’ In 1937, when a fierce controversy raged over the selection of the National Anthem, it was James Cousins who fervently pleaded that ‘Janaganamana’ should be confirmed officially as the National Anthem of India. He wrote, “The poem would become one of the world’s precious documents… From Madanapalle, ‘Janaganamana’ spread all over India and is admired in Europe and America.”

Tagore’s ‘Janaganamana’ was declared the National Anthem, as Dr. Cousins assiduously pleaded during his lifetime, when India became a Republic on January 26, 1950.

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