1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Chatterji, Bankim Chandra

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CHATTERJI, BANKIM CHANDRA [Bankimachandra Chattāradh-yāya] (1838–1894), Indian novelist, was born in the district of the Twenty-four Parganas in Bengal on the 27th of June 1838, and was by caste a Brahman. He was educated at the Hugli College, at the Presidency College in Calcutta, and at Calcutta University, where he was the first to take the degree of B.A. (1858). He entered the Indian civil service, and served as deputy magistrate in various districts of Bengal, his official services being recognized, on his retirement in 1891, by the title of rai bahadur and the C.I.E. He died on the 8th of April 1894.

Bankim Chandra was beyond question the greatest novelist of India during the 19th century, whether judged by the amount and quality of his writings, or by the influence which they have continued to exercise. His education had brought him into touch with the works of the great European romance writers, notably Sir Walter Scott, and he created in India a school of fiction on the European model. His first historical novel, the Durges-Nandini or Chief’s Daughter, modelled on Scott, made a great sensation in Bengal; and the Kapala-Kundala and Mrinalini, which followed it, established his fame as a writer whose creative imagination and power of delineation had never been surpassed in India. In 1872 he brought out his first social novel, the Biska-Brikkha or Poison Tree, which was followed by others in rapid succession. It is impossible to exaggerate the effect they produced; for over twenty years Bankim Chandra’s novels were eagerly read by the educated public of Bengal, including the Hindu ladies in the zenanas; and though numerous works of fiction are now produced year by year in every province of India, his influence has increased rather than diminished. Of all his works, however, by far the most important from its astonishing political consequences was the Ananda Math, which was published in 1882, about the time of the agitation arising out of the Ilbert Bill. The story deals with the Sannyasi (i.e. fakir or hermit) rebellion of 1772 near Purmea, Tirhut and Dinapur, and its culminating episode is a crushing victory won by the rebels over the united British and Mussulman forces, a success which was not, however, followed up, owing to the advice of a mysterious “physician” who, speaking as a divinely-inspired prophet, advises Satyananda, the leader of “the children of the Mother,” to abandon further resistance, since a temporary submission to British rule is a necessity; for Hinduism has become too speculative and unpractical, and the mission of the English in India is to teach Hindus how to reconcile theory and speculation with the facts of science. The general moral of the Ananda Math, then, is that British rule and British education are to be accepted as the only alternative to Mussulman oppression, a moral which Bankim Chandra developed also in his Dharmatattwa, an elaborate religious treatise in which he explained his views as to the changes necessary in the moral and religious condition of his fellow-countrymen before they could hope to compete on equal terms with the British and Mahommedans. But though the Ananda Math is in form an apology for the loyal acceptance of British rule, it is none the less inspired by the ideal of the restoration, sooner or later, of a Hindu kingdom in India. This is especially evident in the occasional verses in the book, of which the Bande Mataram is the most famous.

As to the exact significance of this poem a considerable controversy has raged. Bande Mataram is the Sanskrit for “Hail to thee, Mother!” or more literally “I reverence thee, Mother!”, and according to Dr G. A. Grierson (The Times, Sept. 12, 1906) it can have no other possible meaning than an invocation of one of the “mother” goddesses of Hinduism, in his opinion Kali “the goddess of death and destruction.” Sir Henry Cotton, on the other hand (ib. Sept. 13, 1906), sees in it merely an invocation of the “mother-land” Bengal, and quotes in support of this view the free translation of the poem by the late W. H. Lee, a proof which, it may be at once said, is far from convincing. But though, as Dr Grierson points out, the idea of a “mother-land” is wholly alien to Hindu ideas, it is quite possible that Bankim Chandra may have assimilated it with his European culture, and the true explanation is probably that given by Mr J. D. Anderson in The Times of September 24, 1906. He points out that in the 11th chapter of the 1st book of the Ananda Math the Sannyasi rebels are represented as having erected, in addition to the image of Kali, “the Mother who Has Been,” a white marble statue of “the Mother that Shall Be,” which “is apparently a representation of the mother-land. The Bande Mataram hymn is apparently addressed to both idols.”

The poem, then, is the work of a Hindu idealist who personified Bengal under the form of a purified and spiritualized Kali. Of its thirty-six lines, partly written in Sanskrit, partly in Bengali, the greater number are harmless enough. But if the poet sings the praise of the “Mother”

“As Lachmi, bowered in the flower
That in the water grows,”

he also praises her as “Durga, bearing ten weapons,” and lines 10, 11 and 12 are capable of very dangerous meanings in the mouths of unscrupulous agitators. Literally translated these run, “She has seventy millions of throats to sing her praise, twice seventy millions of hands to fight for her, how then is Bengal powerless?” As S. M. Mitra points out (Indian Problems, London, 1908), this language is the more significant as the Bande Mataram in the novel was the hymn by singing which the Sannyasis gained strength when attacking the British forces.

During Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s lifetime the Bande Mataram, though its dangerous tendency was recognized, was not used as a party war-cry; it was not raised, for instance, during the Ilbert Bill agitation, nor by the students who flocked round the court during the trial of Surendra Nath Banerji in 1883. It has, however, obtained an evil notoriety in the agitations that followed the partition of Bengal. That Bankim Chandra himself foresaw or desired any such use of it is impossible to believe. According to S. M. Mitra, he composed it “in a fit of patriotic excitement after a good hearty dinner, which he always enjoyed. It was set to Hindu music, known as the Mallar-Kawali-Tal. The extraordinarily stirring character of the air, and its ingenious assimilation of Bengali passages with Sanskrit, served to make it popular.”

Circumstances have made the Bande Mataram the most famous and the most widespread in its effects of Bankim Chandra’s literary works. More permanent, it may be hoped, was the wholesome influence he exercised on the number of literary men he gathered round him, who have left their impress on the literature of Bengal. In his earlier years he served his apprenticeship in literature under Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, the chief poet and satirist of Bengal during the earlier half of the 19th century. Bankim Chandra’s friend and colleague, Dina Bandhu Mitra, was virtually the founder of the modern Bengali drama. Another friend of his, Hem Chandra Banerji, was a poet of recognized merit and talent. And among the younger men who venerated Bankim Chandra, and benefited by his example and advice, may be mentioned two distinguished poets, Nalein Chandra Sen and Rabindra Nath Tagore.

Of Bankim Chandra’s novels some have been translated into English by H. A. D. Phillips and by Mrs M. S. Knight.