Last month, this music column talked about how music captures the sentiments of voters. This month, we continue with the patriotic theme, but through a more enduring musical track, the National anthem: that of the United States and South Asian countries.
Every country seeks to fuse its hopes along with national pride and history into its anthem: it is a collective rallying cry to connect all. The United States anthem, written by Francis Scott Key adheres to these principles but some have questioned the principle behind the lyrics.
NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick shone a spotlight on the lyrics in August this year, saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” He was referring to the rarely sung third stanza, which has the lines:
“No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”
There has been much debate in mainstream media about the matter of Kaepernick’s stance and whether the original lyrics did indeed refer to African-American slaves and whether the lyrics should be interpreted differently now compared to what they may have signified then. That particular stanza is never part of the official version, but it is bound to roil Americans from time to time.
At the Rio 2016 Olympics, American gymnast Gabby Douglas was twitter-shamed into an apology for not putting her hand on her heart when the anthem was playing. Swimmer Michael Phelps shocked everyone when he burst out in laughter when others were singing the Star-Spangled Banner. He later explained that he was reacting to fellow Baltimorians roaring the “Oh!” at the end, a tradition that signified support for the Baltimore Orioles.
South Asian countries have their own share of controversies when it comes to the national anthem. Pakistan’s first national anthem is believed to have been written by Jagan Nath Azad. Azad is reported to have said that Pakistan’s first President Mohammad Ali Jinnah wanted a Hindu who knew Urdu to write it. According to Wikipedia, the current anthem Pak Sarzamin or Quami Tarana was performed for the first time, but without lyrics, during the state visit of the Shah of Iran to Karachi on March 1, 1950, many months after declaring Independence.
Nepal had two anthems, with the current Sayaun Thunga Phool Ka, being adopted in 2007. The previous anthem Rastriya Gaan served more as an homage to the monarchy rather than the country itself. What’s not popularly known is that the music composer of Rastriya Gaan, Bakhat Bahadur Budhapirthi, was the grandfather of the musician Louis Banks (born as Dambar Bahadur Budhapirthi)!
Unbelievably, Sri Lanka continued to use the British national anthem as its anthem after Independence; however, a version of the current anthem, Sri Lanka Matha was sung as a national song at its first Independence day ceremony in 1949. Sri Lanka is one among the few countries of the world to have the same anthem in two languages. Afghanistan has had three national anthems and for a period during Taliban rule, there was none.
India’s Rabindranath Tagore has the distinction of writing the national anthems for two countries—Bangladesh and India,. He penned the song, Amaar Sonar Bangla, which was adopted as Bangladesh’s national anthem. Interestingly, a World Record was set in Bangladesh for the most people (about 300,000) singing a national anthem at the same time in 2014.
India’s Jana Gana Mana written by Tagore, was first rendered in 1911 at the 27th session of the Indian National Congress at Calcutta. The Anglo-Indian press at that time believed that it was written in honor of Emperor George V. Tagore, later said in a letter that while he was indeed asked to honor the King, he was not “capable of such unbounded stupidity. I pronounced the victory in Jana Gana Mana of that Bhagya Vidhata (God of Destiny) of India who has held steadfast the reins of India’s chariot through rise and fall, through the straight path and the curved. That Lord of Destiny, that Reader of the Collective Mind of India, that Perennial Guide, could never be George V, George VI, or any other George.”
In 1985, in Kerala, believers of Jehovah’s Witness stood, but refused to sing the Jana Gana Mana at school, on grounds that it was in conflict with the non-idolatry beliefs they held. The Supreme Court ruled that no part of the Constitution obliged anybody to sing the anthem, stating, “Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our constitution practices tolerance; let us not dilute it.”
Other questions continue to be raised: Why must Jana Gana Mana mention Sindh, when that region is no longer in India? Why not substitute Sindh with Kamarup, so the North East feels included? Why must we adhere to a lyrical geographic map as an anthem, why not instead sing something that evokes a country’s passion such as Vande Mataram?
It is evident that national anthems are living hymns, designed to represent the reigning ethos and hopes of their citizens. Mark Clague, musicologist and the founding board chairman of the Star Spangled Music Foundation sums it best when talking about the American anthem, “For me, it’s the punctuation that ends the part we sing. After “land of the free,” we have a question mark, not an exclamation point. Are we winning the battle for freedom that this country was founded on?” This, in itself, allows time for reflection, every time we sing it. He also believes that if too many rules are constructed around an anthem, then people will be forced to do it, rather than be motivated to do it out of love.
Indeed, we must all ask ourselves, what can we do to include more of us, to excite meaningful debate and create an actionable agenda to ensure that each of us understands what the collective We stands for.
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music, and avidly tracks inbtersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.