National anthems constitute a sub-genre of poetry that deserves to be read and interpreted by its own peculiar set of aesthetic and historical-political criteria, in the same way as the hyperbolic Persian/ Urdu qaseedas. Khaled Ahmed (‘Nationalism over verse’, IE, June 12) treats some of our national anthems with his customary wit, but the theme bristles with further resonances and ironies.
Urdu was adopted as Pakistan’s national language as it was seen to be quintessentially Muslim, even though only 7 per cent of the population knew it — and that did not include M.A. Jinnah. But the Pakistani national anthem is in Persian because that was the language in which Muslims had ruled India. The language of the anthem was, so to say, Urdu raised to the power of Persian.
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Perhaps because the Pakistani anthem is in Persian, Khaled Ahmed and others think it only fair to assert that the Indian anthem is in “heavily Sanskritised Bengali”. But Bengali is a heavily Sanskritised language anyhow, far more so than Hindi. In any case, the first stanza of that long poem is highly accessible because it is largely toponymic and language-neutral. Lines like “Panjab, Sindhu, Gujarat, Maratha, Dravid, Utkal, Banga…” constitute rather more a basic geography lesson than an ideological Sanskritic/ Hindu overload.
In fact, the truly Sanskritic anthem of India is not “Jana Gana Mana” but “Vande Mataram”, which was what numerous freedom fighters sang as they went to jail.
It was rejected upon Independence, because Muslims objected to the anthropomorphic deification of India as “Mother”. But in Sri Lanka, where Muslims are about 10 per cent, not far below the Indian proportion of about 13, the anthem begins by hailing the country as Mother: “Sri Lanka matha”.
In an earlier version, it was “Namo namo matha”.
The urge to personify one’s country as a parent is perhaps universal. The Belgian national anthem takes the cake here, by calling the country mother in the first line and then also father (as in “patrie”, or fatherland) in the third. Even in Mohammad Iqbal’s “Saare Jahan Se Achha”, there is more than a hint of similar personification. The Himalaya is described in human terms as our santri and paasbaan, guard and watchman, and in the next line, it is seen as a father, if not a mother, in whose lap play a thousand rivers as do its little frolicking children: “Godi mein khelti hain jiski hazaron nadiyan.”
Iqbal wrote that jingoistic anthem in 1904, but by 1910 he had already changed his worldview. In a substantially revised version of that song, not half as widely known, the second line is not “Hindi hain ham watan hai Hindostan hamara”, but the vastly different “Muslim hain ham watan hai sara jahan hamara (We are Muslims and the whole world is our home),” wishfully recalling when Muslims ruled half of Spain. This was such a pan-Islamic pipedream that several other Urdu poets duly mocked it. Akbar Allahabadi said it was only “vaham-o guman hamara (our misapprehension and illusion)” that made us think that, and Kaifi Azmi was even more scathing: “Rahne ko ghar nahin hai, sara jahan hamara! (We don’t have a house to live in, and yet we claim the whole world is ours!)”
The Indian national anthem is rather less expansionist and vainglorious, but it has been subjected to equally trenchant political satire. Raghuvir Sahay has a poem that begins (in English translation): “Who is this in our anthem then, this Bharat-bhagya-vidhata/ That every rag-clad urchin sings so blithely his guna-gatha?”
But now, we seem to have moved on from those rhetorically charged and grandly sonorous times when anthems could be sung in full-throated rapture. Many of us cannot even recall all the words of our national anthems, and to help us out, A.R. Rahman has kindly provided us with executive summaries: “Maa Tujhe Salaam” for “Vande Mataram”, and simply “Jai Ho!” for the palpably wasteful “Jaye hey, jaya hey, jaya hey/ Jaya, jaya, jaya, jaya hey”. How short and sweet and handy for this SMS/ Twitter generation.
The writer is a former professor of English, Delhi University