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Those were the days: Margaret alias Gretta Cousins — the musician who set Jana Gana Mana to tune

In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes

Those were the days: Margaret alias Gretta Cousins — the musician who set Jana Gana Mana to tune
Margaret alias Gretta Cousins


Margaret Elizabeth Cousins, popular as Gretta in her distinctive circles of interest, should be remembered for at least two impressive achievements though she had a huge portfolio of feats to her credit.

Gretta threw a broken flowerpot and broke the window of 10, Downing Street, the official residence of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, protesting against the delay in voting rights for British women. The second was the fact that the most recognised and revered tune in India, Jana Gana Mana was done by this Irish woman.

In spite of multiple interests, political and social, Gretta was influenced by the happenings of Adyar for a long time, so much that she chose to shift continents to be in the place she loved, Madras.

Actively involved in the suffragette movement, Gretta’s agnostic state, which had lasted for several years, now gave way to an interest in theosophy. As much as she was interested in votes for women, symbolism, magic and religions started taking space in her intellect.

James Cousins and Gretta embarked from Birkenhead on a ship during World War 1 with a blackout every night being an indicator that the ship was not quite beyond the reach of war. Rumours were rife that a German submarine was awaiting the ship ahead of the Suez Canal.

After ten years of dreaming and aspiring, they reached Madras in 1915 where James began his job as literary sub-editor of ‘New India’, Mrs Besant’s newspaper for her Home Rule project. At first, he daily rode a bicycle to the office in Georgetown some nine miles away from Adyar.

An Arts League was formally opened in Adyar and this artistic aspect of their life continued to develop strongly in the years ahead, including a long-term friendship with Rabindranath Tagore. Gretta was getting drawn towards self-determination for Indians and accompanied Mrs Besant to a political conference at Palghat (now Palakkad) on the subject of Home Rule.

The couple sustained on James’s salary at the newspaper. However, politics had never suited his poetic temperament, and shortly after Arundale’s arrival, he was fired with a return ticket to England. James and Gretta explained to Mrs Besant that they had come to serve India and that they would use the compensation money until they found some new ways of service. She agreed because she knew they, like her, had fallen in love with India’s people and its culture. Jim was asked to consider taking up a post in a new Theosophical College in Madanapalle and offered a monthly salary of Rs 100, plus an extra Rs 50 if Gretta would agree to teach English.

Political times were changing and a wave of the Gandhian noncooperation movement spread all over. Students were allowed by the couple to attend rallies but advised not to take part in the politics. ‘Observe and learn’ was Gretta’s advice to them. When Mrs Besant was released after internment, a holiday was declared and a procession announced which the police banned. Finally, Gretta convinced the authorities that it was just a school outing and not a protest march.

The Montagu-Chelmsford inquiry into possible political reforms travelled all over India. The Viceroy and the Secretary of State for India were both coming to Madras and a women’s deputation in which Gretta was a member received them there. They presented their petition composed by Gretta and it was read out to the Secretary of State and the Viceroy by Sarojini Naidu.

“We have asked for a portion of your valuable time because the women of India have awakened to their responsibilities in public life and have their own independent opinions about the reforms that are necessary for the progress of India...,” it read. Gretta had asked the government to provide for women teacher training colleges, homes for widows, medical colleges for women and institute for short-term maternity courses.

When Tagore was on a recuperative visit to Madanapalle, Gretta would hear him recite a patriotic song he had penned and rushed to the piano to set it to tune. Nehru later made minor martial modifications to this tune and adopted it as the national anthem for the newly independent country.

In spite of her political views, she was invited to be a magistrate by the Chingelpet Collector. When she started administering justice at the Saidapet court, she happened to be the first woman magistrate in Indian history under British rule.

But that did not stop Gretta who would speak after Kasturbai Gandhi at a beach meeting. Soon she graduated to be the chief guest at a freedom meeting where she urged the people to exercise free speech. Two days later she was arrested and would spend a year in Vellore prison.

Gretta found her skills in organising meetings where Indian women came together. Always concerned with the interests of women and their welfare, Gretta started the Abala Abhivardini Samaj — The Weaker Sex Improvement Society. This model was used to form the Women’s Indian Association in Madras (of which she became secretary) which today has more than 2,00,000 members.

Unfortunately, Margaret was struck down with paralysis and spent her last years confined at the Theosophical Society, Adyar, supported by a grateful Indian government.

— The author is a historian

(Reference: Through the Eyes of Margaret Cousins by Keith Munro)

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