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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Nationalism over verse

When poems become anthems.

Written by Khaled Ahmed |
Updated: June 12, 2015 12:06:20 am
national anthem, Rabindranath Tagore, pakistan national anthem, national anthem pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, indian national anthem,  Bangladesh national anthem, Khaled Ahmed column, indian express column, ie column Rabindranath Tagore set the tune to both the national anthems of India and Bangladesh; the tune for the Sri Lankan national anthem was also suggested by him.

In the last week of April, Abdul Majid Sheikh’s book, Lahore: 101 Tales of a Fabled City (2015), was released. It again brought to the forefront that Pakistan’s anthem was first written by a Hindu poet of Lahore, Jagannath Azad. Three other national anthems — of India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh — were composed as poems by another great Hindu, Rabindranath Tagore.

Sheikh says, “The Lahore poet Azad was commissioned by Quaid-e-Azam to write Pakistan’s national anthem three days before the creation of Pakistan in 1947.” He claims that Muhammad Ali Jinnah actually approved the song by Azad and the text was publicised, but can quote only the two top lines: “Ae sarzameene paak/ Zarray hain tere aaj sitaron se tabnaak/ Roshan hai kehkashaan se kaheen aaj teri khaak/ Ae sarzameene paak (O, sacred land of Pakistan, the stars themselves illuminate each particle of yours/ rainbows illumine your very dust).” Azad thought the task was urgent and finished the poem in three days.

When the politicians surrounding Jinnah objected to the anthem’s authorship, Jinnah is supposed to have snubbed them. But after his death, the National Anthem Committee (NAC) apparently ignored his choice and commissioned it afresh. It finally chose the present anthem in 1954. Unlike Tagore, who wrote his work and then composed the music to it, Pakistan got another greatly talented man, Ahmed Ghulamali Chagla, to write the tune for it first. He was a member of the NAC. So was poet Hafeez Jullundhri, whose verse was finally chosen from 723 submissions. Needless to say, Jullundhri was greatly admired by the Muslims of India for writing a history of Islam in verse. Chagla had died in 1953, before the committee selected the verse to his music.

Interestingly, both Jinnah and Chagla were from Gujarat and wrote their names in the Gujarati tradition: Ghulamali instead of Ghulam Ali and Mohamedali Jinnah, instead of the current Muhammad Ali Jinnah, as appearing in his school register. Both were Shia and would be under great risk today living in Pakistan. The Taliban would have added both to the list of the Hazaras they have massacred in Quetta. Jinnah’s resthouse, not far from Quetta in Balochistan, has been blown up by Baloch nationalists and was recently reconstructed. Today, Jinnah would have been in the crosshairs of both the Baloch insurgents and the Taliban.

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Jullundhri’s anthem was a work of genius. But for one preposition (ka) that makes the lyric Urdu, the lines are all in Persian, to lend gravitas to the message (Persian has always been a discourse of persuasion for South Asian Muslims). But today, under the new brand of Islam inherited teleologically by the state, he would have attracted the mischief of the Taliban for using “khuda” for god, instead of “allah”. The Taliban has killed for lesser transgressions. Most Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have changed the traditional goodbye word, “khuda hafiz”, to “allah hafiz”. “Khuda” has been rejected as a pagan word. Today’s Pakistan would have rejected the anthem.

In Bangladesh, the national anthem is, in fact, Tagore’s poem, “Amar Sonar Bangla (our golden Bengal)”, which he wrote in 1905, not as a national anthem to a nation, but “as opposition to division of east and west Bengal by the British”. Today, an internally divided Bangladesh is poised for a controversy over a national anthem “imposed on the state” by the founder of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Of course, accidental anthem-writer Tagore, wrote what became the Indian anthem in heavily Sanskritised Bengali. Tagore wrote his poem in 1911. “Jana Gana Mana” was officially adopted by the Constituent Assembly as the Indian national anthem in 1950. Another poem by him about Sri Lanka was actually translated into Sinhalese and set to music by Sri Lankan genius Ananda Samarakoon, a Tagore pupil, in 1940; it became the national anthem of Sri Lanka in 1951.

One word about the irony of it all: Tagore was the non-Western genius who prophetically opposed nationalism that was to destroy not only Europe but also greatly damage the nation-states of South Asia. National anthems are unfortunately used by all nations as war songs.
He foresaw nation-states suffering from the disease of nationalism invented by demagogues to keep the nation united through fear of a designated external enemy.

Tagore set the tune to both the national anthems of India and Bangladesh; the tune for the Sri Lankan national anthem was also suggested by him. He didn’t know the poems would become the anthems of three nation-states that would often brawl with one another. The fourth state ignored its “national poet” Allama Iqbal while choosing its national anthem, but in India, a poem of his, “Saare Jahan se Accha”, is an unofficial national song. Thus the two great poets must mourn as they look down and see how the nations that loved their works are treating one another.

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

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