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Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay: Revolutionary genius

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay: Revolutionary genius

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay.

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

On Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 184th birth anniversary, a celebration of the exemplary novelist who gave us our national song Vande Mataram.

Born on June 27, 1838 into a Brahmin family, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay was the face of the Bengal Renaissance, an exemplary novelist, and the man who gave India its national song, Vande Mataram. Bankim, born in the mid-19th century in a nation that was still under Britain, the hegemon of the day, was a genius in his own right. He steered Bengali literature, social satire, and journalism in a direction that has a profound legacy even today.

Bankim may not be as common a household name as Rabindranath Tagore, but he was, in fact, the pioneer of Bengali literature that blossomed later through laureates like Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, and more. Tagore, who was highly influenced by the legend, was 23 years younger than him. When Bankim founded Bangadarshan, a monthly literary magazine that he wanted to be a medium of communication between the educated and uneducated classes ’, Tagore was a 11-year-old young boy who would yearn to read the magazine. Bangadarshan stopped publication in the 1880s but was revived in 1901 with Tagore as its editor. Therefore, he considered Bankim to be his mentor and wrote that “Bankim Chandra had equal strength in both his hands, he was a true sabyasachi (ambidextrous). With one hand, he created literary works of excellence; and with the other, he guided young and aspiring authors. With one hand, he ignited the light of literary enlightenment; and with the other, he blew away the smoke and ash of ignorance and ill-conceived notions.”

One must realise that not too many writers have enjoyed the universal and immediate acceptance that Bankim has in the subcontinent and the reason is simply that it was Bankim who ignited a wave of nationalism in a nation that had become drowsy in an oppressive colonialist regime. He began writing just around the time when the wounds of the First War Of Independence’s failure in 1857 were still fresh and the masses were dejectedly submitting to English subjugation.

One of his, and Indian literature’s finest texts, Anandamath (which was later adapted into a film starring Geeta Bali, and Bharat Bhushan in lead roles), is an anti-establishment piece of work that has nationalistic undertones and demonstrates how resurgence and rebellion are paramount. The song that we now know as the national song, Vande Mataram, was a poem in the novel. The novel as well as the film remain an example of excellence in attempting to use art in order to navigate the socio-political landscape of a country, one that remains relevant even today. In fact, especially today.

The novel remains monumental in recording India’s freedom struggle, which is why it’s no surprise that the British banned it. The story follows the Sanyasi Rebellion of the 18th century, when several fakirs, hermits, and monks in northeast India rose in objection to the British rule. Bengal, at that point in time, was suffering from one of the worst famines and droughts that mankind had ever seen. Anandamath asks questions that make you uncomfortable, but is also a guiding light in stimulating a voice of dissent that has the courage and the heart to fight for what’s right. It’s unfortunate that Anandamath, much like Bankim himself, doesn’t find a place in the popular consciousness today, which reminds us once again of the despondent reality of the mainstream mindset as well as the amusing spell of time.

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay was one of the first two people to graduate from Calcutta University, after which he obtained a law degree in 1869 and was appointed as the Deputy Magistrate of Jessore, a position that was formerly held by his father. He worked in government service for 32 years before retiring in 1891. Bankim was, thereby, a prototype of what it meant to challenge the system while being in the system. It was probably because of his position that he could see even more clearly than a common man could that the British were essentially hurting an entire civilisation for their betterment in the guise of development.

Bankim believed that the cultures of the West and the East did not have to be mutually exclusive, and were, in truth, complementary to each other, should both the cultures want to imbibe from each other, and together cultivate a more sincere and kind civilisation. However, he was staunchly opposed to the idea of coming under the influence of the West. He was a firm believer in Hindusim and claimed that it contained a vast knowledge that could be passed down to the people of India, who were, at that point in time, scrambling to understand Western ways.

That said, Bankim wasn’t a blind follower of myths and stories. Instead, he wished to look at religious texts with a keen sense of rationality and logic. Interestingly, in his novel Krishna Charitra, a classic, Bankim seeks to interrogate Krishna, not the lord the almighty and definitely not the manufactured product of some fantastical stories, but an actual human being who perhaps would share a glint of that vast knowledge that Bankim believed the Hindu scriptures encompassed. He wished to interpret ancient and archaic Indian and Hindu knowledge, without the myths and folklores that dilute them and make them implausible to a cynical youth awe-struck by western coherence.

On his 184th birth anniversary, one remembers and certainly celebrates Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, aka Chatterjee, for the revolutionary genius that he was and remains even today. His voice is still very much alive in the hearts and minds of those who wish to dissent, struggle, and fight for the right thing. He is a stark reminder of how we must remain true to our core and to ourselves and, in the process, embark upon a journey where we are mindful and considerate towards the direction our country and countrymen are taking. Although a deep and ignorant slumber might feel sweet, one has to inevitably wake up. Will it be too late then or will it be just in time?