Fact check stress on PM Tagore claim

No evidence to suggest that bard penned or composed song, says professor

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 13.09.17
  •  

New Delhi, Sept. 12: Prime Minister Narendra Modi's claim yesterday that Rabindranath Tagore had composed Sri Lanka's national anthem is not supported by any evidence, though the poet left a deep influence on the island nation in the early 20th century.

Asia's first Nobel laureate, Tagore had travelled across East and South Asia, influencing nationalist movements across countries. The national anthems of both India - Jana Gana Mana - and Bangladesh - Amar Sonar Bangla - are recognised as based on poems penned by him.

But Modi yesterday claimed Tagore had also composed Sri Lanka's national anthem, lending credibility to a claim that has at times found its way into online posts but is not backed by historical evidence, experts on the poet's international associations said.

The only recognised connection between Tagore and the island nation's current national anthem, Sri Lanka Matha, is through the song's actual author and composer, Ananda Samarakoon, who studied at Tagore's Visva-Bharati in the 1930s.

Samarakoon viewed himself as a disciple of Tagore and the musical composition of the anthem carries shades of a Bengali influence, possibly from the composer's time at Santiniketan, said Sandogami Coperahewa, professor at the Centre for Contemporary Indian Studies at the University of Colombo.

But there's no ambiguity in the historical records from the time that show it was Samarakoon who penned the actual song and then set it to music - both in 1940 - three years after he returned from Visva-Bharati, Coperahewa said.

"Tagore's influence in Sri Lanka is immense, but there's absolutely no evidence to suggest that he wrote or composed our national anthem," Coperahewa said over the phone from Colombo. "That credit unambiguously belongs to Samarakoon."

History, both ancient and contemporary, isn't one of Modi's strongest suits. The Prime Minister has often blurred the lines between history and mythology, and betrayed a weak hold of facts.

During the election campaign that propelled him to power in 2014, Modi had made a series of gaffes. He referred to King Chandragupta as part of the Gupta dynasty, when he belonged to the Maurya dynasty.

He claimed Alexander's armies were defeated by Biharis - when they had never crossed the Ganga.

He referred to Taxila, the ancient seat of learning, as being in Bihar. Taxila is currently in Pakistan and was never in what is considered Bihar.

If those were slip-ups made during the heat of a tiring campaign - Modi crisscrossed the country - they didn't let up after the Prime Minister took charge of India's governance.

During his address to the Indian diaspora at Madison Square Garden in September 2014, Modi got the name of the Father of the Nation wrong - he called him "Mohanlal" Karamchand Gandhi, as opposed to Mohandas.

A month later, Modi claimed plastic surgery had existed in ancient India, and held up Lord Ganesh - with an elephant head and a human body - as an example. In 2016, Modi added 1,200 years to the actual existence of the Sun Temple in Konark, Odisha. He claimed the sculpture on the temple walls dates back 2000 years, when the Archaeological Survey of Indiainsists the temple was built in 1255 AD.

On Monday, Modi added to that list.

"I feel so proud when I go anywhere in the world and tell them that Rabindranath Tagore from my country composed the national anthem of Sri Lanka, composed the national anthem of India, and of Bangladesh too," Modi said in his address to youths to start celebrations marking the 125th year of Swami Vivekananda's famous Chicago address.

While the Prime Minister was right about India and Bangladesh, his claim on Sri Lanka was unfounded, said Lipi Ghosh, professor of history and international relations at Calcutta University.

"Tagore wrote two national anthems, and there's no evidence I've ever seen to suggest he composed a third," said Ghosh, who has researched Tagore's influence beyond India, especially in Southeast Asia.

The Indian poet had visited what was then British Ceylon thrice - in 1922, 1928 and 1934. His last international visit was to the island country. But Tagore knew Sri Lankans even before he visited the country. Sri Lankan art critic and historian Ananda Coomaraswamy, during his visits to India, developed a close friendship with the Nobel laureate, and many of Sri Lanka's most prominent intellectuals had studied at Calcutta University.

Apart from the three full-fledged visits, Tagore also passed through Sri Lanka in transit on four occasions - in 1915, 1924, 1929 and 1930 - Coperahewa's research shows.

He left a deep imprint, said Coperahewa. Some of Sri Lanka's leading artistes, poets, writers and thinkers - including Samarakoon, playwright Ediweera Sarachchandra and musician Sunil Santha - visited Visva-Bharati in the 1930s, and stayed years for their studies. Samarakoon returned in 1937.