Sujalaam, suphalaam, malayaja shiitalaam,
Sukhadaam varadaam, maataram
(I bow to thee, Mother,
cool with the winds of the south,
dark with the crops of the harvests,
(first stanza of Vande Mataram; based on original translation by Aurobindo Ghose)
Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, an influential figure of the Bengali renaissance and the man who composed India’s national song ‘Vande Mataram’, lived and died in the 19th century, but his body of work left a lasting impression on readers long after his death.
Born in Bengal’s Kanthalpara village (in North 24 Parganas) on 27 June 1838 to a Brahmin family, he died on 8 April 1894.
His father, Chandra Chattopadhyaya, was an official in the British government who later became Midnapur’s Deputy Collector. Bankim Chandra had two elder brothers, one of whom, Sanjeeb, was also a writer.
Bankim Chandra studied at the Hooghly Mohsin College and the Presidency College, securing a degree in arts. He later studied law as well. He too became a Deputy Collector, of Jessore, and later, Deputy Magistrate.
English to Bengali
His first published work of fiction was in English, titled Rajmohan's Wife. One of his early major works in Bengali was Kapalkundala. He went on to write numerous novels, stories and essays. His works of fiction include Mrinalini, Vishabriksha (The Poison Tree), Indira, Chandrasekhar, Rajani, Anandamatha and Sitaram. Anandamatha is the story of a group of sanyasis who fight against the British rule. Vande Mataram, the song which later became the rallying cry for Indian freedom fighters, is often referred to in this novel.
In an essay first published in the New Republic in 1999, the writer and critic Amit Chaudhuri wrote: “[Bankim Chandra], a Bengali magistrate who worked for the British, wrote the first Indian novel in English, Rajmohan’s Wife, an economical exploration of the Bengali family and domesticity. Partly from a feeling of nationalism, [he] crossed over to Bengali, and embarked on the project of creating the first modern corpus of Bengali, indeed Indian, fiction.”
An inspirational figure
Bankim Chandra has an important place in Indian literature both as an early nationalist writer and novelist. Besides, he was an intellectual who took a deep interest in the effects British colonialism was producing in India and her ancient civilisation. He believed that India’s Hindu heritage had some answers to the vexing problems of the day.
As the scholar Partha Chatterjee wrote in a 1985 essay: “There were three kinds of knowledge, Bankim argued: knowledge of the world, of the self, and of God. Knowledge of world consisted of mathematics, astronomy, physics, and chemistry. These, one would have to learn from the West. Knowledge of the self meant biology and sociology. These, too, one would have to learn from the West. Finally, knowledge of God. In this field, the Hindu sastra contained the greatest human achievements — the Upanishads, the darsana, the Puranas, and, principally, the Gita.”
Bankim Chandra’s works were translated into several languages and they provided inspiration to many Indian freedom fighters in the 20th century.
The legendary Nirad C. Chaudhuri wrote in his masterpiece The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian: “The problem of culture was the main preoccupation of [Bankim Chandra]; for he believed that the proper cultivation of all the faculties resulting in action and knowledge was the natural function of man. . . . His life-long search was after the means of expanding and deepening culture.”
Also on this day:
1966 — Anandmurti Gurumaa, spiritual guru, was born
Sources and references:
- Clearing a Space by Amit Chaudhuri
- Empire & Nation by Partha Chatterjee
- Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad C. Chaudhury