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Literature & poetry

Hymn to Her that rallied a nation

Ãnandamath, or The Sacred Brotherhood

The Bengali novel Ãnandamath was first serialised in a leading Bengali literary monthly in 1881-82. It so stirred the public that it quickly became a patriotic touchstone that helped to fire the Indian nationalist movement of the early 20th century, pre-Gandhi. Its author, Bankimcandra Chatterji, is often described as the founder of the novel in India, and was certainly the first Indian novelist to have a commercial success. Although Ãnandamath was not one of his best novels, it was his most influential.

Set during a devastating famine in the 1770s, the plot explores the modus operandi of a band of Hindu warrior monks who are determined to overthrow foreign oppression. Although the British authorities figure prominently in the narrative, the author, as a working member

of the Indian Civil Service, consciously avoids criticising British colonialist rule. However, readers could easily detect allegorical similarity between the theme and some aspects of colonialism.

The story meanders through the lives of a few sanyasis at the eponymous monastery Ãnandamath . Chatterji modelled them on the rebellious sanyasis of north Bengal in 1773. In the novel, their mission is to liberate an imaginary goddess who represents Mother India. The monks see themselves as the goddess’s santans , or loyal sons. Against this historical backdrop and story, Chatterji randomly discusses ideas such as the position of Muslims and women in the new India, political agitation and violence versus law and order and the duties and responsibilities
of nation-builders.

The impact of the novel in Bengal was something like that of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the West. It was so popular that it went through five editions in ten years. Despite its tedious ideological elements, it succeeded with the public because of its stirring hymn Vande Mataram (or I Revere the Mother , in this translation by Julius Lipner), which Chatterji composed in a mixture of Sanskrit and Bengali.

In 1896, the poet Rabindranath Tagore famously sang the hymn at the 12th session of the Indian National Congress; and after the controversial partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon in 1905, processions of Bengali protesters regularly sang it in the streets of Calcutta. Active nationalists would chant the two opening Sanskrit words when greeting each other.

The British authorities became so alarmed that they banned all singing and chanting of the hymn. As for Muslims, they were upset by the song’s association of patriotism with a goddess of the Hindu pantheon. As antipathy between Hindus and Muslims increased in the 1930s and 1940s in the lead-up to the partition of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan, Vande Mataram acquired xenophobic connotations. "Matters have not been helped in recent times by the rise of a Hindu Right [the Bharatiya Janata Party] that seeks to appropriate both slogan and song for its political agenda," Lipner remarks. Although Vande Mataram could not become independent India’s national anthem — that honour is held by Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana — it remains an extremely popular national song.

Lipner, who is a specialist in Hinduism at Cambridge University, has used the fifth and final edition of Ãnandamath for his new translation. Previous translations were known as The Abbey of Bliss , but Lipner contends that this is inappropriate because the monks do not inhabit a blissful state but rather "sally forth to fight, kill, loot" for a cause. His translation is competent, and his introduction and critical apparatus informative, objective and unpedantic. Not only is he an impressive scholar, he draws effectively on Bengali artistic, linguistic and literary sources, as well as historical and political sources.

Krishna Dutta is the author of Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History .

Ãnandamath, or The Sacred Brotherhood

Author - Bankimcandra Chatterji
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 315
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 19 517857 2 and 517858 0
Translator - Translated with an introduction by Julius J. Lipner

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