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INDIA BEATS

A song for the nation

VANI DORAISAMY

Did you know that Rabindranath Tagore set Jana Gana Mana to music in Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh? Here's how it happened.

PHOTOS: VANI DORAISAMY

OF HISTORICAL INTEREST: The house where Tagore stayed.

THE balmy air hangs over the town like a protective mantle. But the climate apart, there is nothing that distinguishes Madanapalle from scores of other middling, Malgudi-type small towns across India.

The paraphernalia is in place: a dirty sliver of river, the riverside Ganesha, the tongas, the siestas and the pan-chewing chaiwalla. The broadband revolution is yet to arrive in full force. The town is almost too genteel to attract any attention, so not many tourists end up here.



The courtyard where Jana Gana Mana was first sung.

But make no mistake, this 388-year-old town in Andhra Pradesh's west Chittoor district is not your average small-town: it was here, nearly 87 years ago, that the Jana Gana Mana took its first tentative steps towards becoming the Song of India. It was in Madanapalle's salubrious and rustic environs in 1919 that a travel-weary Rabindranath Tagore and a group of students first sang out "Jaya hai, Jaya hai" in unison, a song that reverberated across the Indian airwaves and is still sung to the same tune that this self-effacing Rayalaseema town gave it.

The Tagore trail in Madanapalle throws up interesting surprises: from a dilapidated cottage at the Besant Theosophical College where Tagore is said to have penned Jana Gana Mana's first English translation to Jiddu Krishnamurthi's well maintained house to a non-existent colonial bungalow in the upper reaches of Horsley Hills (where, a local informed us with deceptive authoritativeness, was a room stacked full of Tagore memorabilia, "even the pen with which he wrote Gitanjali") to the two-room library of a archival newspaper collector whose collection includes the first editions of several by-now-extinct publications.

The serendipitous story of Jana Gana Mana's birth as the national anthem — told with interesting minor variations — goes like this: though the Bengali song had been written in 1911 itself, it had remained largely confined to the pages of the Arya Samaj journal, Tatva Bodha Prakasika, of which Tagore was the editor.



The first musical notation of the national anthem.

During 1918-19, the great man accepted an invitation from friend and controversial Irish poet James H. Cousins to spend a few days at the Besant Theosophical College, of which Cousins was the principal. On the evening of February 28, he joined a gathering of students and upon Cousins' request, sang the Jana Gana Mana in Bengali.

The vibrant refrain "Jaya hai" was enthusiastically picked up by the students. In the days that followed, Tagore wrote down the English translation of the song and along with Cousins' wife, Margaret (an expert in Western music), set down the notation which is followed till this day. The song was carried beyond the borders of India by the college students and became the Morning Song of India and subsequently the national anthem. On August 15, 1948, a year after independence, the Sikh regiment played it from the Red Fort and the tradition continues to this day.

Though he spent the last days of his life in comparative oblivion, James H. Cousins was no ordinary personality himself. An important figurehead of the Irish literary and political establishment, he was rebuffed by his countrymen and spent the last days of his life in India. In one of his memoirs, Cousins writes of the evanescent moment when Tagore sang out Jana Gana Mana in Bengali: "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 a second verse, a list of the religions of India. The refrain to the first verse made us prick 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"



An English translation in Tagore's hand.

When he left, Tagore gave Madanapalle another legacy, which the town is still trying to live up to: he called it the Santiniketan of the South.

Sitting in her little home, 75-year-old Jolepalli Mangamma, a retired broadcaster from All India Radio, remembers the Tagore spirit which seized her hometown nearly five years before she was born: "He lent us his grace and his spirit and to this day, many of our lives are touched by his memory."

Today, however, Madanapalle has little or no time for the memory of the great man who once lent it his fame. The cottage where Tagore stayed is crumbling upon itself, burying within its ruins the embryo of the national anthem. And in the college library, the framed original English translation hangs in mute obscurity.

India Beats features stories on the unusual, the exotic and the extraordinary.

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