Born on June 27, 1838, into a Brahmin family, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee) was the face of the Bengal Renaissance, an exemplary novelist, and the man who gave India her national song, ‘Vande Mataram’.
Chattopadhyay was, in fact, the pioneer of Bengali literature and is also often hailed as the father of the modern Indian novel. His works, crafted during the colonial era, reveal a deep exploration of socio-political themes that played a significant role in shaping Indian nationalism and fostering social consciousness.
Chattopadhyay’s writings not only depicted the struggles and aspirations of the Indian people but also served as a clarion call for unity, self-empowerment, and cultural resurgence of a sleeping nation, much needed to be awakened.
One of his early works, Bangadarshan, a monthly literary magazine, became what Bankim Chandra wanted, ‘a medium of communication between the educated and uneducated classes’. Bangadarshan stopped publication in the 1880s, but was revived in 1901 and Rabindranath Tagore, who was 23 years younger than Bankim, became its editor.
It was Rabindranath who later 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.”
The colonial rule had profoundly impacted Indian society, leading to a sense of cultural subjugation and disillusionment. Chattopadhyay’s writings emerged as a response to this, providing a voice to the aspirations of the people and nurturing a spirit of resistance against the British Raj.
Chattopadhyay’s literature celebrates the rich cultural heritage of India and explores the complexities of Indian identity. His works, such as Anandamath and “Durgeshnandini,” vividly portray the country’s historical past, replete with valour, heroism and pride.
Through his characters, he emphasises the need for Indians to reconnect with their roots, embrace their native traditions, and reclaim their sense of identity, thereby fostering a deep sense of nationalism. His novels expose the exploitative nature of British rule, the economic oppression faced by the Indian peasantry, and the cultural erosion inflicted upon the nation.
Anandamath, set in the background of the ‘Sanyasi Rebellion’ (late 18th century) when Bengal was facing a famine, too unveils the atrocities committed by the colonial regime and instills a fervent desire for independence among readers, igniting the flame of nationalism.
One of the striking elements of Bankim Chandra’s literature is also his progressive portrayal of women, where the female characters challenge societal norms and stereotypes, advocating for the empowerment and liberation of women.
Novels like Kapalkundala and Devi Chaudhurani feature strong, independent women who assert their influence in the nationalistic movement, as he depicted women as catalysts of change, which in turn helped in shaping social consciousness regarding women per se.
Through his writings, Bankim championed the nationalist imaginations and reiterated the greatness of the nation. He would scornfully remark that even if we yawn, the act should be acknowledged as one of the immortal glories of this world and hence duly recorded.
Chattopadhyay also laid great emphasis on vernacular literature. By writing in Bengali, he not only made literature accessible to this section of the masses, but also revitalised regional languages, challenging the dominance of English as the language of intellectual discourse, and simultaneously addressed the pivotal role of education in shaping a nation’s destiny.
Vande Mataram, the national song, from the book Anandamath on which a 1952 popular film was made — became a rallying cry for freedom fighters and a symbol of national unity. Chattopadhyay’s writings inspired countless individuals to join the struggle for independence, infusing the movement with a sense of purpose, determination, and cultural pride.
Historians, psychologist and theorists like RS Sharma, Romesh Chunder, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Ashis Nandy, respectively, has emphasised Chattopadhyay’s contribution to shaping Indian nationalism.
While Nandy argues that Chattopadhyay’s literature presented an alternative narrative to British colonialism and offered a sense of cultural pride and identity to the Indian people, Sharma points to how they shed light on the economic exploitation faced by the peasantry and the oppressive nature of British rule.
Similarly, Chakrabarty, in the context of cultural nationalism, says that Bankim Chandra’s emphasis on vernacular literature and his celebration of Indian cultural heritage challenged the dominant discourse of English intellectualism during the colonial era.
Scholars have also explored the influence of Chattopadhyay’s writings on Mahatma Gandhi, who in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, acknowledged the impact of Chattopadhyay’s novel Anandamath on his political philosophy and the concept of Satyagraha (nonviolent resistance). Chattopadhyay’s literature, with its depiction of sacrifice and devotion to the cause of freedom, resonated deeply with Gandhiji’s ideals of peaceful resistance and civil disobedience.
On his 185th birth anniversary that crossed our path on June 27, it would be apt to recollect what Shri Aurobindo (1872–1950) had remarked in 1894, in an obituary message that he wrote on the passing away of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya that Bankim had given his countrymen a language, literature, and a nation. This spirit remains eternal.