It takes just 52 seconds to sing and yet that brief minute brims with the pride of a nation. If you haven’t guessed already, we’re referring to Jana Gana Mana, the national anthem of India. But here’s something that will probably astonish you – the song was composed in 1911, 39 years before it became India’s national anthem.
‘Jana Gana Mana’ is the first stanza of a five-stanza devotional hymn in Bengali composed by poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Titled ‘Bharoto Bhagyo Bidhata’, it means ‘Dispenser of the Destiny of India’ and refers to God as the dispenser of the nation’s destiny.
So how did Tagore’s ‘Bharoto Bhagyo Bidhata’ become India’s national anthem?
The first-ever public recital of Tagore’s poem was in 1911, at the Indian National Congress session in Calcutta. It was sung by his niece Sarala Devi Chowdhurani along with a group of schoolchildren, for an audience of prominent Congress leaders.
The first rendition of the song outside Calcutta was in Andhra Pradesh, where Tagore himself sang ‘Bharoto Bhagyo Bidhata’ at the Besant Theosophical College in Madanapalle, in 1919. He had been invited to visit the college while touring South India and inspired the students here with his rendition.
Margaret Cousins, the wife of the principal and a music teacher, was so taken by the poem that she urged Tagore to translate it into English. He did, and titled it ‘The Morning Song of India’. Cousins set the translation to tune.
A modified, Hindustani translation of Tagore’s poem was adopted by Indian nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose as the anthem of his Indian National Army in 1941. It was titled ‘Shubh Sukh Chain’. In September 1942, the anthem was played by the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Hamburg, alongside the German national anthem at the inauguration of the German-Indian Society in Hamburg, at Bose’s behest.
By now, the song had struck a chord in the hearts of all Indians and the men and women leading the country to freedom. Although still not formally adopted as the country’s national anthem, ‘Jana Gana Mana’ closed the historic session of the Constituent Assembly, which met to usher in India’s independence at midnight on 14th August 1947.
Finally, on 24th January 1950, when the Constituent Assembly met to sign the Constitution of India, President Rajendra Prasad declared ‘Jana Gana Mana’ as the national anthem of India and Vande Mataram as the national song.