EVERY INDIAN SCHOOLCHILD KNOWS — or ought to know — that Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), India’s “national poet”, wrote our national anthem Jana gana mana. The song, 52 seconds long in the singing, was first presented by Tagore to a session of the Indian National Congress in Calcutta in 1911; in 1919 it was taken up by Principal James Cousins of the Theosophical College, Madanapalle, in South India, as a college prayer that he called the “Morning Song of India”. The song was debated throughout the 30s and 40s on a variety of occasions, attracting both support and criticism. In January 1950, two days before the promulgation of the Indian Constitution, it was formally adopted by the Constituent Assembly, under the stewardship of President Rajendra Prasad, as free India’s national anthem.
Tagore died aged 80 in 1941, well before independence in 1947 and almost a decade before the birth of the new republic in 1950. But his brief and lovely paean to the idea of India remained as one of his many gifts to the nation – gifts including Asia’s first Nobel Prize (for literature, in 1913), the university at Shantiniketan (founded in 1901), a visionary critique of nationalism (1917), and of course a body of poetry, fiction, drama, criticism, music and painting unparalleled in the history of modern India.
Nor did Tagore’s role as a founder remain restricted to India: in 1971, his song Amar shonar Bangla became the anthem of the new nation of Bangladesh. He must be the only poet in the world to be the author of the anthems of two nations, as Amartya Sen pointed out in an essay a few years ago. In post-Partition South Asia Bengalis – Indian and Bangladeshi alike – take Tagore to be a founding father. Modern Bengali identity is inconceivable without Tagore’s songs, poems and his original style of music, Robindra-shongeet (literally, “Rabindranath’s music”).