Through his writings, this man breathed a new passion and life into an entire civilisation, particularly his native region of Bengal, which became kindled with religious, nationalistic and artistic fervour after being infused with the powerful visions contained in his writings.
Born on 27 June 1838 in the Kantalpara district of Bengal, the first striking event we have of his life was that he mastered the alphabet as a child in a single sitting. This was an image and prophecy for the rest of his life.
Apart from the breathtaking legacy of his literary works – his life was quite “normal” and not in any way out of the ordinary. He was a man who never clamoured for place or power, but did his work in silence for the love of his work, even as nature does. And just because he had no aim but to give out the best that was in him to his people, he was able to create a language, a literature, a freedom struggle, and steer the course of history.
Bankim was 19 years of age when India’s First War of independence (known in the west as the “Sepoy Mutiny”) was waged. The following year (1858) India had lost the war. Bankim was finishing his studies at the time, and in that same year graduated from the University of Calcutta. The British authorities immediately appointed him to the post of Deputy Magistrate.
Young Bankim had suffered a shock in seeing the failure of India’s War of Independence. He could not rest until he knew why the great movement for liberation ended up being crushed in the manner in which it was, and that too with the help of many Indian’s themselves (most notably the Sikhs). In his effort to discover the causes of that failure he set his sharp intellect to the task of analysing the great problems that India was facing. Influenced and inspired by three great figures of that epoch, Raja Rammohan Roy, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar and Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi (the Hindu queen who led her soldiers against the British during the war) – he soon recognised the existence of a number of startling facts.
Foremost among these was that the people of India were fast becoming denationalised by English manners and customs, English fashions, and English whiskies and wines – not to mention the Christian missionaries (who had made Bengal their storm centre). The British government used their educational system to further this agenda (after abolishing and outlawing the traditional Indian education systems). Chatterji’s soul winced when he perceived that the Indian who spoke good English was more honoured by his own people than the man who spoke and wrote their own tongue exquisitely. Wherever he looked, he saw educated Indians jumping frantically on the bandwagon of British culture.
From the moment he had first learned to think for himself, Bankim realised that there was a titanic struggle ahead to reverse the trend and bring physical and cultural freedom to the sacred motherland. He felt that he had his own divinely ordained effort to make in this veritable battle – which he played silently and humbly. If India was to be uplifted, her children must once again create literature and language dynamic and inspiring to enlighten and inspire the entire people of India.
Soon, the profound effect of Chatterji’s novels and essays, with their compelling beauty, subtle humour and inspiring themes could be seen, firstly in Bengal and then spilling over into greater India. Indians who were nurtured on Shakespeare, Milton and Shelley began to read the works of Kalidas, Bhavabhuti, Chandidas and Vidyapula. They turned eagerly to the Puranas, Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Whereas before, elite Indians took pride in their knowledge of the Magna Carta strugle, the times of Oliver Cromwell and the tragedy of Charles the First, they began to relish the ballads of Rajasthan and Maharashtra. A new feeling was born. Millions began to hold their heads high once again and talk in terms of “our language”, “our literature”, “our history”, “our country”.
His Literary History
Bankim began his literary career with a desire to write in English, and wrote a novel called Rammohan’s Wife.” He at once realised his mistake with the realisation that the his work was much more natural and powerful in his own mother tongue.
The major novels he wrote were: Chandrashekhar, Kishna Kanta’s Will, Debi Chaudhurani, Sitaram, Indira, Kamal Kanta and Anandamath.
The last of these, Anandamath deserves special mention here. It wasn’t necessarily the best of Bankim Chandra’s works, though still great in its own right. Yet because of its astonishing political consequences, with no other of his works is Bankim so closely identified.
The Anandamath story is set in 18th century India, when a group of warrior sannyasis mounted a guerilla war against Muslim rule (based on a true historical attempt by sannyasis to do precisely this). It was a riveting story line with amazing characters and meaningful dialogues. Yet more importantly, hundreds of thousands of Indians (primarily Hindus) took the story as a metaphor for their own present day situation, understanding it as a call to arms to drive the new tyrants (the British) away from the sacred soil. Indeed, the main revolutionary group in Bengal chose its name as that of the sannyasin group from Anandamath. The most important and widely known section of this book was the poem “Vande Mataram” which means “Hail to the Mother(land)”. The song became the battle cry for India’s freedom struggle. It was set to become India’s National Anthem, but was rejected because a section of Muslims considered the song as idolatrous due to its metaphor comparing India to the tiger-borne Goddess Durga “with instruments of punishment in each of her ten hands”. To placate the Muslims (and Jawahalal Nehru) the constituent assembly rejected it as the National Anthem. Incidentally, Rabindranath Tagore, the great poet whose “Jana Gana” eventually became India’s National Anthem had stated on several occasions that he desired very much that Bankim Chandra’s “Vande Mataram” should become the National Anthem of free India. For example, in 1928, he said in an interview with Mulk Raj Ananda “I share his ideas of inheriting the past – if made relevant for the present! Bankim Chandra is our master in this respect. In our school here, students sing “Bande Mataram” every morning…..I hope it becomes the national anthem of free India!”
Bankim Chandra’s Anandamath demonstrated the most powerful example in modern history of how art can affect real life to a tremendous extent – especially in an artistically orientated civilisation like that of the Hindus.
Towards the end of his life, Bankim Chandra turned his attention to write about spirituality – the very essence of Hindu civilisation. A Life of Krishna and a book on the Essence of Religion, a rendering of the Bhagavad Gita and a commentary on the Vedas were his aims to give to his fellow countrymen. The first two he managed to complete, and the rendering of the Bhagavad Gita was three parts finished, but the commentary on the Vedas, which should have been a priceless possession, never got into the stage of execution. Death, in whose shadow he had so long dwelt, with his ailing health, took the pen from his hand before he could accomplish this feat. Yet his contributions to literature are enough to immortalise his memory.
Vande Mataram is the national song of India. The song was composed by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee
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