Our national anthem Jana Gana Mana could have remained just a set of verses, but for the tune set to it by Irish woman Margaret Cousins to be sung the way it is rendered today. That the memorable event happened 99 years back on the historically-significant Besant Theosophical College campus in the small town of Madanapalle in Andhra Pradesh is even more gratifying.
The poem was written as early as 1911 by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore and was first sung, though in a different tune, at the annual session of the Indian National Congress at Calcutta on December 27 the same year. It was only in February 1919 that a refreshingly new tune was set to the composition. What followed suit is history.
Tagore was on a tour of South India and was very exhausted when he reached Bangalore in the last week of February 1919. On the advice of educator and his personal friend C.F. Andrews, he decided to take rest at the Theosophical College in Madanapalle, located 120 km south-east of Bangalore, in view of its cool and salubrious climate. That it came to be known as “Andhra Ooty” later is another matter. The college had been established by Dr. Annie Besant, who had a great liking for Madanapalle as it was the birthplace of the famous philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthy. On knowing of Tagore’s visit, the college Principal, James Henry Cousins, and his wife, Margaret Cousins, made all arrangements and were eagerly waiting to meet the Gurudev.
Tagore reached Madanapalle Road station by train in an exclusive compartment on the evening of February 25, 1919 and stayed in a cottage on the college premises, now called as “Tagore Cottage”. The Gurudev happened to attend a poetry reciting class conducted by Dr. Cousins, where he sang one of his poems. Little did the audience expect that they were to hear a poem rendered by its very author. Narrating how the song was first heard as sung by Tagore, Dr. Cousins had recounted thus: “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 in India. The refrain to the first verse made us pick up 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, Jaya hai, Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya hai ”.
When explained its meaning, Margaret Cousins was highly gratified at the effervescent content and the patriotic thought that had gone into its making. She immediately decided to give suitable tunes to the poem. After carefully studying the meaning of each line, she composed the music notes and briefed Gurudev on the “Swara” she composed. “With the help of her students and to the accompaniment of some simple musical instruments, Margaret rendered the song to the new tune she had composed, in the presence of Tagore. The assembled audience was thrilled when Tagore spoke a few words appreciating the melody. From then on, Jana Gana Mana was sung regularly at the daily morning assembly of students at the Theosophical College as well as the school in the adjacent building.
As the national anthem got its new tune, Madanapalle’s tryst with the national movement simultaneously started seeing light and became known to the outside world.