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It's Time to End All Speculation About the Composer of Jana Gana Mana’s Music

INA Captain Ram Singh Thakuri continues to be credited for setting its tune despite Rabindranath Tagore composing both lyrics and the music.
Indian national flag. Photo: Wikimedia commons

“Captain Ram Singh Thakuri was the person who not only wrote and set to tune the song ‘Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja’ but also had the glory of composing the music for our national anthem, ‘Jana Gana Mana’,” said the TV presenter in Hindi at the public service broadcaster Doordarshan’s DD National channel’s ‘Morning Show’ on August 14, a day before Independence Day. The show was titled ‘Remembering unsung heroes of the freedom movement.’

The guest at the show was Hindi writer Rajendra Rajan, who penned a book titled ‘Unsung Composer of INA: Captain Ram Singh Thakur – The Father Jana Gana Mana’. In 2021, it was released by Jai Ram Thakur, the chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, the state Thakuri belonged to. While Rajan referred to him as ‘Thakur’ in his book as well as in the show, Ram Singh’s surname was Thakuri, a surname common among the Gorkha community of India and Nepal. 

“Textbooks in all schools across the country inform that Tagore composed the lyrics but none mentions who composed the music. This needs to come on record so that we do not forget Ram Singh,” Rajan said. 

This is not the first time such a claim has been made. In April this year, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting described him in a social media post as the person who “composed the INA anthem ‘Qaumi Tarana’.” Rajan himself was featured in the public service broadcaster’s DD Himachal channel’s Bhagdhara show last year, where they made the same claim. 

In 2021, Times Now’s TN Plus, in a video report, said Thakuri “will forever go down in history as the man who composed the tune for the Indian national anthem, whose lyrics have been penned by Rabindranath Tagore,”. The same  claim has been made by Hindi writer Dharampal Sahil and multiple Gorkha-centric websites as well.   

Also read: How – and Why – ‘Jana Gana Mana’ Became India’s National Anthem

At the DD Morning Show, Rajan said that Thakuri himself told him about the history of creating the ‘Qaumi Tarana’ – which Rajan equated with the national anthem. According to him, the Subhas Chandra Bose-led Indian National Army (INA)’s Lieutenant-Colonel Lakhsmi Sehgal had mentioned Tagore’s ‘Jana Gana Mana’ when Netaji asked for an anthem but it was decided that the song required to be simplified because it was highly Sanskritised. 

Thereafter, “Abid Ali Safrani and Mumtaz Hussain, scriptwriters associated with the INA’s Radio Singapore, created a simplified version”, starting as ‘Subh Sukh Chain Ki Barkha Barshe’, Thakuri was asked to set it to tune, which he did in a week, Rajan said. According to him, it remained as the INA or Azad Hind Fauz’s national anthem for five-six months, as the organisation, on January 1, 1944, decided to revert to the lyrics of ‘Jana Gana Mana’ as the national anthem. 

One of the presenters asked Rajan to describe how the original song was. Rajan did not say anything on Tagore’s ‘Jana Gana Mana’. The presenters then played an old video showing Thakuri playing the violin in a rendition of ‘Subh Sukh Chain’ and informed the audience that it was “the original.” 

Delhi, 1945. Capt. Ram Singh Thakuri and other Azad Hind POWs sing the National Anthem during a visit by Gandhiji.
Source: https://thedarjeelingchronicle.com/special-article-capt-ram-singh-thakuri/

All these claims are baseless. ‘Jana Gana Mana’ as India’s national anthem is no different than how Tagore had set it to tune. It was first performed in public in December, 1911 at the Congress’ 26th annual session in Kolkata. Multiple records of the songs had been released much before the INA’s ‘Qaumi Tarana’ was composed in Singapore in 1943. The associated history is quite well-known in Bengal. 

The earliest recording of the song was released in 1934 when Hindusthan Records published (record number H 191) two Tagore songs on two sides of the disc – ‘Jana Gana Mana’ on one and ‘Ekla Chalo Re’ on the other. They were chorus renditions by Amala Dutta, Nandita Devi, Sudhin Dutta, and Santi Ghosh. 

This is also famous as the first song ever recorded by the legendary Rabindra Sangeet exponent Santidev Ghosh. His original name was Santimoy but he used only Santi in those days, until Tagore gave him the name Santidev in the mid-1930s. Ghosh used Santidev till his death in 1999. Ghosh was a young music teacher at Visva Bharati when this was recorded. 

Among others, Nandita was a member of the Tagore family and Amala and Sudhin were Tagore’s music students. Nandita was one of those who joined Sucheta Kripalani in singing ‘Jana Gana Mana’ on August 15, 1947, at midnight in the Constituent Assembly’s central hall, according to Chitra Deb’s book, Thakur Barir Andarmahal (Inside the Tagore residence). Thanks to digitisation, the recording has now become available online

The second recording of the song was released in December 1937, in the immediate aftermath of the Congress adopting a truncated version of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s ‘Bande Mataram’ as the national anthem after intense nationwide debate over choosing between ‘Jana Gana Mana’ and ‘Bande Mataram’. This disc, also released by Hindusthan Records, had the two songs on two sides. 

Tagore was the first person to publicly perform ‘Bande Mataram’ in 1896 and trained the singers himself for this recording, the label on the record states. The literature published along with the record attributes ‘Bande Mataram’s’ music to ‘Congress-e procholito’ The Bengali word ‘Procholito’ can be translated as traditional or conventional. Therefore, the attribution means it’s being sung in the tune that is traditional or conventional in the Congress culture. This is one of the reasons why the identity of ‘Vande Mataram’s’ music composer remains a topic of debate. However, for ‘Jana Gana Mana’, both lyrics and music were attributed to Tagore. 

Both songs were in chorus by Prova Ray, Jaya Das, Bejoya Devi, Dhiren Gupta, and Haripada Chatterjee. Of them, Ray is filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s mother, originally Suprabha, and Bejoya Devi is none other than Satyajit’s wife, Bijoya Ray. Bijoya mentioned this recording in her memoir. The Ray family was closely associated with the Tagore family and both Suprabha and Bijoya were trained in Rabindra Sangeet. Bijoya, a cousin of Satyajit, was not married to him yet. 

You can listen to the ‘Jana Gana Mana’ here and the ‘Bande Mataram’ here

How much do these recordings differ from what we know as the national anthem? There is no difference, except for the fact that the version popular since the INA’s interventions is faster. By the time filmmaker Bimal Roy used the song at the beginning of the 1944 film, Udayer Pathe, the pace had already gone up. But it was the same music nonetheless. 

You may also compare all these renditions with the ‘authoritative version’ recorded by Pankaj Kumar Mullick in the early 1950s at Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s request. This version was “played across the nation at almost every public place to familiarise every Indian citizen with the anthem of their newly formed independent country,” according to the Pankaj Mulluck Music and Arts Foundation. 

Now compareit to the ‘Qaumi Tarana’ that Thakuri is said to have set to tune. This is another recording of the song released by Sansad TV. And here is another version rendered by Lakshmi Sehgal, the commander of INA women’s wing, Rani Jhansi Brigade.  

The truth 

It was first publicly sung during the Congress’ 26th session in Kolkata in December 1911. The singers included Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, Amal Home, and Chitralekha Siddhanta, among others. It was performed again at the Congress’ 1917 session in Kolkata. However, no recording of these performances has been available. 

In 1937, Congress adopted a truncated version of the ‘Vande Mataram’ as the national anthem among heated debates over the choice and song and whether the whole song or the truncated version would be adopted. The then Congress president, Jawaharlal Nehru, asked Bose to take Tagore’s opinion and Tagore favoured the truncated ‘Vande Mataram’. 

After his ‘great escape’ from house arrest in Kolkata, Bose reached Germany in April 1941 and the Free India Centre was formally opened there in November when the Azad Hind Fauz also adopted ‘Jana Gana Mana’ as the national anthem. The Hamburg Radio Symphony Orchestra played the tune as India’s national anthem in Bose’s presence in September 1942. Netaji researcher Anuj Dhar shared an audio clip of that recording. 

On reaching Singapore, Netaji wanted a simpler version of the song written in Hindustani, which is a mix of Hindi and Urdu and which he wanted to be India’s national language. That was when his close associate Abid Hassan and INA radio’s scriptwriter Mumtaz Hussain penned ‘Subh Sukh Chain’ based on Tagore’s lyrics. The music remained the same, though the Thakuri-led INA band paced it faster under Bose’s instruction to make it more suitable for a marching army.

Stories around Thakuri being the real composer of its music have been doing the rounds for over 25 years now. In 1997, Thakuri, then in his 80s, claimed himself to be the composer of the music. On January 23, 1997, an advertisement by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF)-run Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in a Kolkata-based newspaper claimed Thakuri, a Gorkha, to be the real music composer. Around the same time, Thakuri also visited Darjeeling and made the claim while addressing a public event. Thereafter, he repeated the claim in media interviews as well. 

“It was sometime in 1943 in Rangoon, when Netaji called me over to say that a national anthem in Hindi was required for the provisional government of the Indian National Army. Jana gana mana was in Bengali, so Netaji, Abid Hasan, and another person got together to translate it. Subsequently, it was given to me and I set it to music,” he had claimed

Since then, Gorkha politicians of Darjeeling have kept the issue alive, and so have a section of people around Himachal. A few years ago, a website named Indian Gorkhas cited a video of Tagore reciting ‘Jana Gana Mana’ to claim that it conclusively proved Tagore’s ‘Jana Gana Mana’ was different. They were completely oblivious to the fact that Tagore was reciting it, not singing. 

Thakuri, the creator of ‘Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja’, one of India’s most popular patriotic songs, died in 2002. 

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