Going in search of Tagore

Hidden hamlets

Going in search of Tagore

As we prepared to drive to Horsley Hills in Chittoor district, Andhra Pradesh, we learnt that we would pass Madanapalle, en route to the summer resort. Reading about it before we left Bengaluru, we made an exciting discovery. Nearly a century ago, Rabindranath Tagore had graced the town with his presence.

Travelling through South India, the literary luminary had accepted an invitation from an Irish friend, James H Cousins, to spend a few days with him and his wife Margaret. Cousins was a writer, actor and teacher. Margaret was no less remarkable. An ardent supporter of worthy causes, she went on to become head of the National Girls’ School in Mangaluru and, later, the first woman magistrate of India. When Tagore arrived at Madanapalle, Margaret was teaching English at the Besant Theosophical College (founded in 1915 by Annie Besant) where her husband was the principal.

On the evening of February 28, 1919, the couple’s distinguished guest participated in cultural activities with the students. Tagore sang one of his Sanskritised Bengali compositions, dating back to 1911, and his youthful audience joined in the rousing refrain. When asked for an English rendition, Tagore complied and the gifted Margaret set down the musical notation for the melody. From Madanapalle, where James Cousins used the lyric as a college prayer that he dubbed the “Morning Song of India”, “Jana Gana Mana” garnered widespread acclaim, eventually attaining the supreme status of our National Anthem.

Once we had decided to stop at the site of those historic happenings, I googled the name and number of the present principal of Besant Theosophical (BT) College. When I called K Swarna Rani, she suggested that we drop by at 10 am. The following day, we duly descended on BT College.

A gentleman on the campus suggested that we first see the place where Tagore had stayed during his brief sojourn. It was down the road, and a caretaker unlocked the small house to reveal four rooms. The modest dwelling, which was being renovated, was a conspicuous contrast to Tagore’s ancestral mansion, which we had visited in Kolkata. Outside the Madanapalle cottage stands a bust of the ‘Viswakavi’ (as he is referred to on the pedestal), officially unveiled on January 24, 2012. Close by, a museum to display Tagore memorabilia is under construction.

Back at BT College, we were welcomed by the principal. She deputed a person to take us around, and he showed us the hall where Tagore had viewed dance performances from an elevated gallery. Of greater interest was the little art room where he had worked on the English translation of “Jana Gana Mana”. The ‘Tagore Room’ is now used for lectures and, entering it reverently, we were struck by its nondescript appearance. The Nobel Laureate completed his task in that simple setting. Anyone familiar with the finished product would find it hard to believe that the subject Gurudev disliked most as a child was — English!

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