Singing a nation into being


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THANKS to cable television, the soap opera of the recent American elections reached the whole wide world. At one of the more serious of these debates in the CNN studios, I observed a commentator, Stuart Rothenberg, astonish everyone by putting the endless rounds of analysis aside for a moment and suggesting instead that it would be nice to have a ‘song or jingle’ which told the story of ‘The Florida Recount’! Now, what prompted this strange need for simple song in the middle of a fraught, twenty-first century presidential campaign?

In this essay, I will try to examine the role that a certain category of ‘songs of the nation’ – namely, national anthems – play in the construction of the modern state. What crises did they once communicate, and do such expressions of national pride remain relevant in today’s ‘global’ culture or have they pretty much lost their shine?

We must begin by noting that these are no ordinary songs. National anthems are psychological dynamos. They routinely succeed in getting whole countries to rise to their feet. Think about it – how on earth do the repetitive, often banal, compositions we call ‘national anthems’ manage this enormous physical arousal, this concerted magic? If one were scientifically inclined, one could begin with a simple experiment to measure the galvanic skin response (GSR) to these lyrics across social groups, and I feel sure that even the most sceptical would soon be convinced that the potent mix of emotive themes and energetic music in an anthem regularly contributes to a massive rush of adrenalin, no matter how phlegmatic or cynical its audience.

For a true visceral reaction displayed in the public spaces of modernity, one can confidently assert that, even now, national anthems offer soccer matches a run for their money. It is true that anecdotal evidence does indicate that in the last fifty years or so, post-war, the importance of national anthems has waned worldwide. Their soul-stirring strains are no longer heard in cinema halls or quite so often over loudspeakers at political meetings. At the same time, over thirty new nations have been added to the roster of the world’s countries and this sort of data promotes a contrary view. It implies that the national anthem still maintains a pervasive and ubiquitous presence, turning up everywhere from humble school functions in remote villages to presidential palaces amidst impressive pomp and glitter.



The anthem has also found smart new homes. Today, a primary search-and-find tool is undoubtedly the Internet – and here again we are in for surprises. The web-sites that have sprung up overnight in this new manifestation of the expanding arena of community reveal a very strong under-current of interest in the discourse of the national anthem. One such exemplary site is David Kendall’s ‘Anthem Reference Page’ which provides detailed and careful information about 98% of anthems currently in use!

Articles such as this one must be read in conjunction with these other efforts if we wish to understand the continuing role of the national anthem in a contemporary scenario where so much is changing so fast that it becomes urgent to ask: what remains stable and unchanging? Exploring the ‘meaning’ of the national anthem in the present ‘multicultural’ set up may in fact lead us to ask fundamental questions about who we are and about the factors which confer on us our core sense of ‘belonging’.



From the standard definition below, for example, we learn that nationalism counts as ‘the most powerful force in the history of the modern world.’ Despite the unsubtle nature of this claim, I shall take the risk of pursuing this line of argument further by suggesting that national anthems are possibly the most potent emotional expression of the force in question. So, what’s nationalism?

Nationalism refers to the political and social attitudes of groups of people who share a common culture, language and territory, as well as common aims and purposes, and thus feel a deep-seated loyalty to the group to which they belong, as opposed to other groups. Nationalism in the modern sense dates from the French revolution but had its roots in the rise of strong centralized monarchies, in the economic doctrine of mercantilism and the growth of a substantial middle class. Nationalism today is also associated with any drive for national unification or independence. It can also represent a destructive force in multinational states.

‘Exalts the nation state as the ideal form of political organization with an over-riding claim on the loyalty of its citizens... A moving force in the rebellion of colonial people and the resistance of nations and national minorities threatened with subjugation by more powerful states. Despite the rival claims of class-war on the one hand and internationalism on the other, nationalism as a mass emotion has been the most powerful force in the history of the modern world’ (The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought).

The history of nationalism, in short, has been synonymous with struggle. Those primitive loyalties that we naively thought we had left behind when we entered ‘the modern age’ are reborn in the context of the nation state. National anthems are thus new codes for old feelings of bondage and trust.



Befitting their etymological roots in the antiphonal chants of church music, contemporary national anthems contain at their emotional core sentiments akin to religious faith. They are secular prayers. As the Shorter Oxford tells us, an anthem may be defined ‘loosely as poetry; a song, as of praise or gladness... which is technically a hymn.’ Both in their origin and in their essence, national anthems cannot help but display their celebratory nature. Consider, for example, the anthem of Afghanistan, heading the alphabetic chain of anthems and that of Zimbabwe, closing the circle.



So long as there is the earth and the heavens;

So long as the world endures;

So long as there is life in the world;

So long as a single Afghan breathes;

There will be this Afghanistan.

Long live the Afghan nation.

Long live the Republic.

Forever there be our national unity;

Forever there be the Afghan nation and the Republic.

Forever the Afghan nation, the Republic and National Unity.



O lift high the banner, the flag of Zimbabwe

The symbol of freedom proclaiming victory;

We praise our heroes’ sacrifice,

And vow to keep our land from foes;

And may the Almighty protect and bless our land.

O lovely Zimbabwe, so wondrously adorned

With mountains and rivers cascading, flowing free;

May rain abound, and fertile fields;

May we be fed, our labour blessed;

And may the Almighty protect and bless our land.

O God, we beseech Thee to bless our native land;

The land of our fathers bestowed upon us all;

From Zambezi to Limpopo

May leaders be exemplary;

And may the Almighty protect and bless our land.


Eternity on earth appears as a utopian signifier within the Afghan national anthem. Faith in God is transposed to faith in an ideal community that exists in perfect unity – ‘so long as a single Afghan lives.’ In the Zimbabwean anthem, images of paradise are likewise summoned up by the vision of a ‘wondrously adorned’ landscape and the Almighty makes an explicit appearance as the final arbiter within a patriarchal hierarchy which includes national ‘leaders’. These anthems derive from widely divergent histories, locations and cultures, yet the similarities between them are striking – for instance, it is implicitly understood in both cases that the state is always under potential siege. Malevolent forces from outside, serpents, threaten the Eden enclosure of the state at all times. Hence, the sacrifice of national heroes, a spill of blood and guts, is ‘eternally’ needed to ‘protect’ it.



A complete narrative of the nation as a ‘house of God’ is thus incorporated within national anthems today, linking a religious past with a secular future. Instances such as these demonstrate that the divine roots of the national anthem have hardly been eliminated even when the themes they touch upon are supposedly mundane.

One of the lacunae in nationalist discourse which has always puzzled me is the fact that so few parodies of national anthems spring to mind. As formal structures, simple and moralistic, national anthems simply cry out for mimic versions. But where are the parodies? The distance between the song and the ‘jingle’ mentioned by Rothenberg in his plea for a record of the ‘Gush and Bore’ campaign, appears to constitute an almost unbridgeable abyss. Why is this?

My own hypothesis is that, just as there is a strong social taboo against mocking sacred literature, there exists a parallel injunction against ‘desecrating’ a national anthem – a psychological restriction that can sometimes lead to situations of delicious irony.



Consider, for instance, the case of our own national anthem, rich in anecdotal evidence about the strange predicament of Rabindranath Tagore, unarguably India’s most towering literary figure in the last century. Although in the forefront of India’s freedom movement, Tagore thought of himself as a staunch ‘internationalist’, bitterly opposed to a narrow nationalism, which he associated with fascism in Europe and religious fundamentalism within India. Even so, his version of the nation is dedicated, predictably, to a supreme ‘deity’ – bharat bhagya vidhata – who doubles up conveniently as Congress National Committee as well as, perhaps, the Prince of Wales.

Wales, veils, wails, wells, whales? If parody were indeed permitted within the arena of anthems, the possibilities would be endless. Yet no one, to my knowledge, has publicly crossed the Lakshman rekha that protects ‘Jana, Gana, Mana’ from its mimic, potentially hydra-headed, rakshasha counterparts. Many, however, are familiar with the seductive story that has circulated for several decades around Tagore’s composition of the Indian national anthem.

‘Jana Gana Mana is today India’s national anthem... Officially, it was written for the meeting of the Indian National Congress in December 1911, where it was sung for the first time. Most probably it was really composed for the occasion of George V’s coronation at the Durbar held in Delhi in the same month – but not sung at the Durbar because in was insufficiently "loyal"... The following year in London one of Tagore’s Bengali friends explained how the song came about to W.B. Yeats who told Ezra Pound, who then passed the story on to his father in the USA, calling it a joke "worthy of Voltaire" – "The national committee came to Mr. Tagore and asked him to write them something [for the Delhi Durbar]. And as you know Mr. Tagore is very obliging. And all that afternoon he tried to write them a poem, and he could not. And that evening the poet as usual retired to his meditation. And in the morning he descended with a sheet of paper". He said, "Here is poem I’ve written. It is addressed to the deity. But you may give it to the national committee. Perhaps it will content them".’ (From The Myriad Minded Man by Andrew Robinson and Krishna Dutta).



A joke ‘worthy of Voltaire’ comprises the complicated background to this particular national anthem. Yet its literary and political antecedents seem to have done nothing to prevent Tagore’s evocative words, set to music by Pandit Ravi Shankar, from being sung with gusto at every possible forum! From which evidence, it might be concluded that a national anthem, once established, seems to enjoy a sort of magical immunity. It ensconces itself as an indelible part of the cultural repertoire – resistant to mockery, to erasure and to contradictory impulses.

The paradoxes contained within the engagingly plain format of the national anthem are in fact incredibly complex. Sometimes a country turns out to have more than one national anthem – Denmark or Fiji, for instance. These different anthems often mark phases of a country’s history. One of Fiji’s anthems clearly dates back to the time when it was colony; the other is post-colonial, nationalist. Denmark’s second anthem harks back to a legendary past while the first belongs to contemporary times.

At other times, the cultural diversity that a modern state entertains is reflected in the fact that a single country may have up to three or four versions of an anthem in its different languages: Zimbabwe’s anthem is sung in Shona, Ndebele and English! Confusingly, states or groups not officially recognized by the United Nations may have national anthems. Former ‘colonies’ still loosely affiliated to a ‘mother country’ occasionally possess this unique characteristic. Aruba, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Isle of Man and Scotland – all have ‘national’ anthems but are not listed as ‘nations’!

Then there are ‘unofficial’ national anthems that can rival an official anthem in popularity. On our own subcontinent, both Indians and Pakistanis owe allegiance to Mohammad Iqbal’s exquisite ‘Sare Jahan Se Achcha’.



In India, crucial state occasions such as the Republic and Independence Day celebrations are graced by this ‘alternative’ anthem which seems to work like balm, a salve to remembered pain. Under trying circumstances where our neighbouring countries are locked in dispute, a common heritage of memories and aspirations is summoned up by Iqbal’s words.

Kashmir momentarily becomes not the current battleground where Kargil, Chitthisinghpura and a host of other searing images jostle for space; and the wounds of Partition are forgotten awhile as Iqbal merges visions of a faraway past and an ideal present. His Hindustan is an enchanted garden that its people inhabit amicably as bulbuls or songster birds. Who could fail to fall in love with this fairytale account? Indeed, many believe that if ordinary Pakistanis and Indians were to meet at the Wagah border armed with nothing more threatening than Iqbal’s poem, they would just fall into each other’s enchanted embrace!



On the contrary, if we compare the words of Pakistan’s present national anthem with our own, we find that both emphasize a down-to-earth territoriality. Tagore, of course, chooses the enumerative path idiosyncratically listing ‘Punjab, Sind, Guajrat, Maratha, Dravid, Utkal, Banga’ but not, alas, some other constituencies that are just as crucial today. At a time when the three new states of Uttaranchal, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh are coming into a troubled existence in this country, while Pakistan faces insurrection in Sind, it is worth looking again at the strategies of ‘unification’ that our national anthems adopted. Unlike Iqbal’s alternative anthem, there is less nostalgia here, less dreamy ambiguity and much more assertiveness. The Pakistani anthem is not as specific as the Indian, but it seems equally committed to territorial sanctity in its references to a sacred qaum, mulk, sultanat:


Latin Transliteration of the Pakistani National Anthem

Pak sarzamin shad bad

Kishware haseen shad bad

Tunishane azmealishan arze

Markazeyaqin shadbad.

Pak sarzamin ka nizam

Quwate akhuwati awam

Qaum, mulk, sultanat

Painda ta binda bad shad.

bad man zele murad

Parchame sitarao hilat

Rahbare tarraqio ka mal

Tarjumane mazishane

hal jane istaqbal

Sayyai, khudae zul jalal.


English Translation:

Blessed be the sacred land,

Happy be the bounteous realm,

Symbol of high resolve, Land of Pakistan.

Blessed be thou citadel of faith.

The Order of this Sacred Land

Is the might of the brotherhood of the people

May the nation, the country, and the state

Shine in glory everlasting.

Blessed be the goal of our ambition.

This flag of the Crescent and the Star

Leads the way to progress and perfection,

Interpreter of our past, glory of our present,

Inspiration of our future.

Symbol of Almighty’s protection.

A particularly interesting feature of the Pakistani anthem is its sophisticated focus on the national flag as a ‘symbol’ of the nation – ‘interpreter of our past, glory of our present, inspiration of our future.’ Here, one might also invoke another sort of evidence provided by recent cinematic ventures such as Dil Se or 1942 – A Love Story in which the tiranga jhanda figures prominently. These ‘frames’ demonstrate how evocative the graphic image of a flag can be in furthering not just a film’s narrative but its ‘interpretation’ of history.



My thesis is that the auditory passion ignited by a national anthem is akin to the visual arousal signalled by a national flag. When the two combine, as in the case of the frenetic genius A.R. Rahman belting out the alternative ‘anthem’ Vande Mataram, the people at large are also moved to near frenzy. And recently at the Wagah border in Amritsar, I witnessed yet another conjunction of these potent symbols – flag and anthem. Of course, that daily ritual in which our two nations match each others’ bravado in equal measure has been described often enough but here is one more rehearsal of a ‘story of nation’ repeated, as we know, with quotidian gusto and enjoyed by a capacity crowd, especially on the populated Indian side which has kindly built for us an amphitheatre-like structure to facilitate the show.

As I have written before, Wagah is authentic Toba Tek Singh country – the same identical strips of no-man’s land on both sides, the double jeep tracks, the sad, divided fields of wheat and the curious populace eyeing each other across tall, spiked gates painted with our respective ‘national colours’. As Gore-Bush brigade, so savvy about the superficiality of sign systems, would no doubt comment in their up-front American democratese – same difference.



Most of all at Wagah, we observe the strapping soldiers ‘on display’ plumaged to the hilt and stamping up and down in a border-dance that is at once touching and terrifying. But just as my trammelled academic mind is beginning to ask its customary questions about the semiotic significance of these tribal dances, the final bugles blow and the two flags are lowered. Harbir Singh, from the Guru Nanak Dev University, who has accompanied me, points out that there is a split second at the end when the two flags seem to meet as they come down, although they are several feet apart in reality! It is this synchronized moment that the cognoscenti wait for – when music and flags come together in a fantasy of eternal togetherness and separation.

But, says Harbir, if you look up at the cloudless skies above Wagah at that exact time, you are bound to perceive another phenomenon which usually goes silent, unnoticed. It is a flock of birds crossing the border – without fuss, without passports, without national anthems to sing them into existence! And far, far below these freedom flights, a clutch of families from the far corners of the peninsula – Kerala, Bihar, Maharashtra – now straggle, brightly dressed, out of the Wagah camp. There is a visible stimulation, an electric current running through the crowd at the end of the performance – and a sense of catharsis.

It strikes me that we have just witnessed our essential humanness, in all its vulnerability – its need for symbolic unity, however questionable. And so, I’d want to contend that its logical position as a ‘binding’ centrifugal discourse within the whirling vortex of modernity confers on the national anthem an undeniable authority. The diverse nation as one family is a comforting metaphor that we know well. To extend this comparison to the national anthem would be to assert that it functions as a kind of maternal lullaby – but with a dual purpose. It both soothes the nation, singing it into a moral calm reminiscent of a dream-state; simultaneously, it arouses sentiments that are self-protective and defensive. This psychological conflict between peaceful and aggressive instincts lies at the heart of the national anthem.



Pacifists may find the violence internalized in national anthems hard to take but righteous self-assertion seems to go with the terrain here. A national anthem abounds in cues about ‘membership’ because it works on a principle of exclusion. Some belong by virtue of birth, others don’t. One recalls at this point the Latin root nasci (to be born) of the word ‘nation’. The nation is, as it were, the scene or setting of a rebirth – an individual’s second birth as a citizen.

Specific references to a ‘womb’ environment of familiar rivers, mountains, landmarks and symbols thus inevitably shore up and redeem the otherwise bland reassurances of solidarity on offer in an anthem. Reactions to the sound of an anthem are as spontaneous as they would be to maternal speech. They compel us to listen – and to love – without question.

Consistent with my thesis that national anthems are Freudian lullabies for populations that can be as large as a billion, music seems an essential element of the structure of the national anthem. There can be anthems without words – such as those of Spain and Yugoslavia, for instance – but none without pulsating musical rhythms. Most national anthems are made to be marched to and danced to; they abound in choruses and repetitive elements that render them memorable and are consequently the one form of institutionalized poetry that even the most prosaic of a country’s citizens are unable to escape! Anthems, it seems, cannot by their very nature, be anathema.



That the national anthem is such a touchstone of certainties contrasts interestingly with its capacity to instigate uncomfortable queries. Will the nation state – without which the ‘national’ anthem would seem an anomaly – retain its centrality a century or two from now? Who will be responsible for the problems of an overpopulated, aging, environmentally polluted world – self-contained countries or a global community? How much will cultures and even human nature alter in response to the revolutionary, and unpredictable, technologies we have invented? Despite its naivete, the national anthem functions as a natural vehicle for the expression of such deep quandaries about once and future identity. They serve to replay the Ayodhyas of the mind.

Conventionally, we know that the beginning of a millennium marks intellectual disquiet. One useful route towards imaging this subliminal anxiety is to imagine yet unborn sub-versions and supra-versions of our present day anthems. We could begin with the notion of a ‘world anthem’ for instance, in which all the nations of the world want to raise their voices. Chances are that such a venture might turn out to be a contradiction in terms because, as I have said already, national anthems rely on exclusivity. If every one of the world’s six billion humans is included, who would be left out except denizens of outer space, animals or plants? I think we can safely conclude that some alien nation – say, of the Martian variety – will turn out to be a probable motif in any putative anthem which seeks to ‘unite’ the earth’s teeming peoples! And it may be worth recalling at this point that ‘untie’ constitutes a neat anagram of ‘unite’.



Plurality, after all, is the logical obverse of that pugnacious call to unity so characteristic of the national anthem. An anthem is predicated on difference, on strands of consciousness tied together that could also come untied. The strenuous avowal of togetherness in an anthem is not accidental, it verbalizes the fundamental unease that cultures have always felt when faced with radical difference. These apprehensions are not necessarily put to rest in an information-rich but empathy-poor world where we have to come to terms every day with so many unique ‘types’, such an assortment of individual human beings. Now, more than ever, we need to confront those ancient demons of inter-cultural conflict. And it is here that the national anthem may prove useful as a means of understanding ourselves – creatures who are designed by biology to thirst for union but who thrive on difference.

Karl Marx once called upon the workers of the world to unite for they had nothing to lose but their chains. While playing the game of fantasizing about the national anthems of the future, one might take a leaf out of Marx’s great failed book here. Intellectual capital – words, books, ideas – versus political capitals – Washington, Beijing, Pretoria. The national anthem draws proudly on both sources of history. Read via the lenses of a doctrine of liberation, an anthem is not just about unity. It is about unity as a form of emancipation, of freedom – recalling via its very existence memories of social fights against oppression and the cultural losses imposed by colonial regimes.

Is it possible, then, that the anthems of the future might become delinked from the political confines of nationality? Are national anthems only a step towards other yet unnamed anthems, such as anthems of gender, of race and of other major coalitions that also speak the language of resistance? Or is this a retrograde idea, throwing us back to a divisive past? I believe the answers to these urgent questions can be sought in the first instance at the dynamic but ambiguous intersection of cultures that national anthems so seductively offer.



Finally, I wonder about a whole new constituency. How would the children of this nascent century write or rewrite an anthem? For, until they are schooled into learning the story of their nation states, children have other illuminating narratives about how they came into being. I argued a little earlier that in its unselfconscious narcissism, the national anthem is related to the timeless universe of childhood. It is essentially a nursery rhyme for adults disseminated across an entire population, but in the end I want to add that there might well be a disarming wisdom to this process. An anthem, like a child’s tale, energizes a collective psyche by invoking foundational myths about self-creation; in this respect, they offer a valuable tool for looking back in wonder and also for looking into our imperilled future with caution. Jai Hind?