VANDE MATARAM : Text and Context

*Surjit Das

There is perhaps no other symbol that captures the imagination of a nation more than a national anthem. The two most famous songs which celebrate the Indian nation and which have vied with each other for that status are Vande Mataram and Jana Gana Mana.

Vande Mataram is, of course, the older of the two and takes the form of a worshipful hymn to Mother India. It was published in Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s novel Ananda Math in 1882 but was perhaps written between 1872 and 1875. It was translated into Marathi and Kannada in 1897, Gujarati in 1901, Tamil in 1905, Hindi in 1906, Telugu in 1907 and Malayalam in 1909. By the 1920s, it had become widely known as the national song of India.

The first political occasion on which it was sung, was at the 1896 session of the Indian National Congress. It was set to music by none other than Rabindranath Tagore. It gathered mass appeal during the anti partition movement in Bengal and was sung during the Bengal Provincial Conference held at Barisal in April, 1906 under the president ship of a Muslim leader. It was later sung by Tagore himself on the opening day of the Congress session. In due course, the title of the song became the slogan of our nationalist movement although there were occasional protests from some sections of the Muslim community who alleged that the song had communal overtones. Thus, between the years 1915 and 1947, intermittent voices were raised by some sections that there were references in the song which offended muslim sensibility. In course of time this led to widespread resentment and acrimony and polarized communal sentiments.

In order to understand these reasons, let us examine the hymn in its original :

Vande Mataram
Sujalam suphalam malayaja shitalam,
Shasyashyamalam Mataram !
Shubhra jyostna-pulakita yaminim,
Phullakusumita-drumadala shobhinim
Suhasinim sumadhura bhashinim,
Sukhadam varadam Mataram !

Trimshakotikantha-kalakala-ninada karale
Dvitrimshakoti bhujair dhrita-khara karavale
Abala kena ma eta bale !
Bahubaladharinim, namami tarinin,
Ripudalavarinim Mataram !

Tumi vidya, tumi dharma,
Tumi hridi, tumi marma,
Tvam hi pranah sharire !
Bahute tumi ma shakti,
Hridaye tume ma bhakti,
Tomari pratima gari mandire mandire !

Tvam he Durga dashapraharana dharini,
Kamala, kamala-dala-viharini,
Vani vidyadayini namami tvam
Namami Kamalam amalam atulam,
Sujalam suphalam Mataram,
Vande Mataram !

Shymalam, saralam, susmitam, bhushitam,
Dharinim, bharanim Mataram.

As translated by Sri Aurobindo, it reads :
I bow to thee, Mother,
richly-watered, richly-fruited, cool with the winds of the south,
dark with the crops of the harvests, the Mother !
Her nights rejoicing in the glory of the moonlight,
Her lands clothed beautifully with her trees in flowering bloom,
Sweet of laughter, sweet of speech,
The Mother, giver of boons, giver of bliss !

Terrible with the clamorous shout of seventy million throats,
And the sharpness of swords raised in twice seventy million hands,
Who sayeth to thee, Mother, that thou art weak?
Holder of multitudinous strength, I bow to her who saves,
To her who drives from her the armies of her foemen, the Mother !

Thou art knowledge, thou art conduct,
thou art heart, thou art soul,
for thou art the life in our body.
In the arm thou art might, O Mother,
In the heart, O Mother, thou art love and faith,
It is thy image we raise in every temple.

For thou art Durga holding her ten weapons of war,
Kamala at play in the lotuses
And speech, the goddess, giver of all lore, to thee I bow !
I bow to thee, goddess of wealth, pure and peerless,
Richly-watered, richly-fruited, the Mother !
I bow to thee, other, dark-hued, candid,
Sweetly smiling, jeweled and adorned,
The holder of wealth, the lady of plenty, the Mother !

It may be seen from the first two stanzas that except for the reference to the country as Mother, the hymn does not contain any symbol or imagery which might offend communal sentiments. However, the next stanza equates the motherland to a goddess to be worshiped in a temple, in fact evoking Durga, the destroyer of enemies, holding her ten weapons of war. It is pertinent to mention at this stage that in the time of Bankimchandra, Bengal was under the rule of a Mughal Governor and the novel Ananda Math, which is the vehicle used by the author to launch this hymn, is a story based on the militant revolutionary activities of a group of Hindus in the background of the Sanyasi rebellion. In this view of the matter, the hymn attacked the Muslim rule of the day and in the larger context, it was a battle cry for a resurgent Hindu India while challenging the British imperialist rule.

In 1937, Sir Henry Craik, then Head of the Home Department and Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, wrote to Lord Baden-Powell that the song actually originated as a “hymn of hate” against Muslims. In April, 1938 at the All India Muslim League Special Session at Calcutta, Jinnah in his Presidential address complained that the Congress endeavoured to impose the Vande Mataram song in the Legislatures causing much bitterness and opposition. There were many other similar instances of protest and opposition to the singing of this song. During this period a Muslim Legislator of Madras objected to its singing by calling it an insult to Islam. In 1939, a little known Muslim Congress member from Madras wrote privately to Rajendra Prasad : “Vande Mataram is a Bengali word. The reactionary groups say that the meaning for this word is, we adore to (sic) the Goddess of the Earth. Is it right? May I please know how Vande Mataram became a National slogan?............. Is the picture Bharata Matha with numberless hands and wings a religious symbol or political?”

With the emergence of the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha in the first two decades of the 20th century, communal sentiments became polarized. Between 1922 and 1927, there are official records of atleast 112 incidents of riot and bloodshed which were precipitated by Hindu-Muslim conflicts in which Vande Mataram had some direct connection.

In 1937, the Congress Working Committee appointed a sub committee consisting of Maulana Azad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose & Acharya Narendra Dev to examine in consultation with Rabindranath Tagore the suitability of the song as a national anthem. In a letter to Nehru, in response to the sub committee’s request for advice, Tagore wrote, “To me the spirit of tenderness and devotion expressed in its first portion, the emphasis it gave to beautiful and beneficent aspects of our motherland made a special appeal, so much so that I found no difficulty in dissociating it from the rest of the poem and from those portions of the book which it is a part, with all the sentiments of which, brought up as I was in the monotheistic ideals of my father, I could have no sympathy”. This sub committee adopted the following resolution : “Taking all things into consideration therefore, the committee recommends that whenever Vande Mataram is sung at national gatherings, only the first two stanzas should be sung, with perfect freedom to the organizers to sing any other song of an unobjectionable character, in addition to, or in place of, Vande Mataram.”

It is interesting to note that after Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s escape to Germany in 1941, and the establishment of the Free India Center there, a need was felt to identify a National Anthem for free India. From records available of that period, it is evident that Jan Gana Mana was chosen in preference to Vande Mataram by Netaji. It was played to music for the first time on 11 September 1942 at the Hotel Atlantic in Hamburg at the Inaugural function of the German India Society. This found mention in the General Press.

Writing on this alleged communal aspect in the Harijan of 01st July, 1939, Gandhiji wrote, “. . . . No matter what its source was and how and when it was composed, it had become a most powerful battle cry among Hindus and Musalmans of Bengal during the partition days. It was an anti-imperialist cry. As a lad, when I knew nothing of Ananda Math or even Bankim, its immortal author, Vande Mataram had gripped me, and when I first heard it sung it had enthralled me. I associated the purest national spirit with it. It never occurred to me that it was a Hindu song or meant only for Hindus. Unfortunately now we have fallen on evil days. All that was pure gold before has become base metal today. In such times it is wisdom not to market pure gold and let it be sold as base metal. I would not risk a single quarrel over singing Vande Mataram at a mixed gathering. It will never suffer from disuse. It is enthroned in the hearts of millions. It stirs to its depth the patriotism of millions in and outside Bengal. Its chosen stanzas are Bengal’s gift among many others to the whole nation.”

In a statement made in Parliament on 25th August, 1948, Prime Minister Nehru said : ‘‘It is unfortunate that some kind of argument has arisen between Vande Mataram and Jana Gana Mana.

Vande Mataram is obviously and indisputably the premier national song of India with a great historical tradition; it was intimately connected with our struggle for freedom. That position it is bound to retain and no other song can displace it. It represents the passion and poignancy of that struggle, but perhaps not so much the culmination of it.’’

Alluding to the event that led to the choice of Jana Gana Mana as the national anthem, Nehru has stated in Parliament, “The matter came to a head on the occasion of the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1947 in New York. Our delegation was asked for our national anthem to be played on a particular occasion. The delegation possessed a record of Jana Gana Mana and they gave this to the orchestra to practice. When they played it before a large gathering, it was greatly appreciated and representatives of many nations asked for the musical score of this new tune which struck them as distinctive and dignified.

In his illuminating study of the evolution of nationalist thought in India, Partha Chatterjee has alluded to what he describes as the three stages or moments in its development, the moment of departure in which context he has analyzed the writings of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya, the moment of manoeuvre in which he has placed the contribution of Gandhiji and the moment of arrival, where he has positioned the work of Jawaharlal Nehru. He argues that for nationalist thought to reach its paradigmatic form, these three are necessary ideological moments. In the case of Bankim, he presents a dilemma in terms of its situation at the moment of departure. He avers that this is born out of the encounter of a patriotic consciousness with the framework of knowledge imposed by colonialism. To quote “in Bankim’s time, this vision could not find any political means to actualize itself. Instead, it became a dream : a utopian political community in which the nation was the Mother, once resplendent in wealth and beauty, now in tatters. Relentlessly, she exhorts a small band of her sons, those of them who are brave and enlightened, to vanquish the enemy and win back her honour”.

In trying to understand the passion and fury over this captivating hymn, it is important to remember that its author Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya (1834-1894) was a provincial civil servant imbued with nationalist and patriotic sentiment besides being a novelist, satirist and perhaps the most acclaimed man of letters of Calcutta of his time. He had a deep knowledge of European literature, 19th century sociology and political economy and was influenced by western positivism and utilitarian thought. To quote him in his own analysis of the reason why Hindu society has remained in a state of subjugation while European nations have triumphed : “Europeans are devotees of power. That is the key to their advancement. We are negligent towards power : that is the key to our downfall. Europeans pursue a goal which they must reach in this world : they are victorious on earth. We pursue a goal which lies in the world beyond, which is why we have failed to win on earth. Whether we will win in the life beyond is a question on which there are differences of opinion.”

While the above passage might serve as a pointer to Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya’s understanding of his social context, his concern was the resurgence of national spirit and the novel as a literary form gave him a platform to launch it. The controversies over its acceptance both by the Colonial administration of the day and sections of Muslim community could not have been anticipated by him and in any case these developments took place long after the author’s life time.

Not all Muslim intellectuals adopted this line of thought, however. In Bengal, Rezaul Karim, wrote a critique of Vande Mataram and Ananda Math during this period titled ‘Bankimchandra O Muslim Samaj’ in which he argued that the main reason for this concerted move around 1937 was to draw the Muslims away from the freedom struggle. He goes on to say that in spite of all the reservations, the song gave language to the dumb and courage to the faint hearted and this remains Bankim’s lasting gift to his country. Although many people have called him a communalist and anti-muslim, he is of the view that “the part of Bankim that is portrayed as hostile to Muslims is not a self-portrait but a picture of his age and the times in which he lived. For this, a writer should be forgiven”. He even went to the extent of arguing that “even if he was anti-muslim, is his literary worth any less? Literature should be read as literature. If writers bring literature into the confusion of the political arena, then it is killed — robbed of its delight. Bankim should be seen, read and understood in literary terms. We have no other claim on him, and even if we do, he is not obliged to fulfil them.”

Looking beyond the political and communal issues that the hymn has been dragged into, it may be appropriate to conclude in the words of Sabyasachi Bhattacharya in what may be it’s essence and spirit :

Vande Mataram is basically a series of evocations of the memory of a discourse that had been part of the world outlook of Bankim and his audience. The investment of a new meaning in an image remembered brings with it a shock of recognition. As distinct from the Derozians and other iconoclasts in the first half of the nineteenth century, Bankim’s was an effort to recover a part of something they had cut loose from, hence this piece of writing represented a recognition. But it was not merely an act of rediscovery of something that belonged to the past. It was also a revelation of something that was new, an old object of worship now reinvented as the motherland.”

* Mr. Surjit Das is a former Chief Secretary of Uttarakhand. He also served as Chairman, State Public
Service Commission, Uttarakhand. He has been engaging with issues of public importance, both
officially and in a voluntary capacity.

April – June, 2011