In one way or another, all art is political. And any visible shift in the social and political discourse of the times has artists at the forefront. But what is a little puzzling is how a song which was meant to be an enchanting elegy to a writer’s physical setting, acquires a sinister political edge.
In a recent decision by the new Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Kamal Nath, at 10:45 am on the first working day of every month, “a police band will play the tunes that encourage patriotic feelings during their march from Shaurya Smarak to Vallabh Bhawan in Bhopal. On arrival at the Bhawan, the national anthem and Vande Mataram will be sung.” This has come only days after Nath ordered that it was no longer mandatory to sing the Vande Mataram in the Secretariat, a practice that was started by three-time former Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The order had provoked protests from Chouhan and the Opposition, with many BJP members criticising the decision to not sing the national song.
The national song has been a bone of contention for decades now. A battle cry for Indian independence, it compares certain qualities of the motherland with that of Goddess Durga and Lakshmi in the later paragraphs.
A few months ago, BJP President Amit Shah had accused the Congress of appeasing Muslims by retaining only two paragraphs of the song and not including the latter ones (with mentions of Durga and Lakshmi) during the freedom movement. In 2017, it caused a rift between BJP members of the Meerut municipality and Muslim councillors. The latter walked out during a session of the Meerut Municipal Corporation when the piece was sung. When the seven Muslim councillors returned, they weren’t allowed back in. The cries of “Hindustan mein rehna hai to Vande Mataram kehna hai” were heard.
Shafiqur Rahman Barq, BSP member from Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh, had also walked out of the Lok Sabha in 2013 when the song was played.
In the 1870s, about 35 km North of Calcutta, on the banks of the Hoogly where the Malik Ghat is, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, deputy collector of Jessore under the British government, sat in an ivory-hued house and wrote Bande Mataram (I pray/bow down to thee, Mother). This poetic identification with Bengal, written in Bengali and Sanskrit, was inspired by the Sanyasi Rebellion of the late 18th century and the rebellion of 1857 — both against the East India Company. While the former took place in Murshidabad and Baikunthpur forests of Jalpaiguri, the Mutiny was in Meerut.
First published in his magazine Bangadarshan to fill up a blank page, the poem eventually ended up becoming one of the significant highlights of the Bengal Renaissance and also found itself in Chattopadhyay’s seminal book Anand Math — written after three famines ravaged Bengal. The story was that of the Fakir Sanyasi Rebellion and described a group of monks that fought the British.
Chatterjee would have never thought that his ballad for Bengal will have leading politicians of the nation and its people contend over its meanings and patriotism. Bande Mataram, the first phrase of this poem, an ode to Bengal, like all Hindi pronunciations of Bengali words, became Vande Matram. The words go Saptakotikantha kala kala ninadakarale, Dbisaptakoti Bhujaidhrta kharakarbale (When the swords flash out in 70 million hands, and 70 million voices roar). The population of Bengal at the time the song was penned was about 6.2 crore. So 70 million makes sense. The population of undivided India was about 23 crore.
Jadunath Bhattacharya, the court musician of Panchetgarh and poet Chatterjee’s teacher, set the poem to raag Desh. A sweet sounding, hymn-like melody from the Malhar family, the ascent of the composition first found a taker in Rabindranath Tagore, who sang it in the 1896 session of the Indian National Congress, thus turning it into a rallying cry for the days leading up to Independence. Lata Mangeshkar sang it in the 1952 film Anandmath and singer Hemant Kumar’s debut composition became earmarked as one of the finest pieces of compositions in Indian cinema, reaching people via radio and 72 RPMs.
While Tagore considered it universal and made it about India, many made it about religion, and about politics. In an atmosphere rife with tension and insecurities, one wonders if the only way forward is to treat art as just art.