Bankim Chandra Chatterjee: ‘Vande Mataram’ and beyond

Bankimchandra Chatterjee or Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, was an Indian novelist, poet and journalist.

He was the composer of Vande Mataram, originally in Sanskrit stotra personifying India as a mother goddess and inspiring activists during the Indian Independence Movement.

Chattopadhyay wrote thirteen novels and many serious, serio-comic, satirical, scientific and critical treatises in Bengali.

His works were widely translated into other regional languages of India as well as in English.

Chattopadhyay is widely regarded as a key figure in literary renaissance of Bengal as well as the broader Indian subcontinent. Some of his writings, including novels, essays, and commentaries, were a breakaway from traditional verse-oriented Indian writings, and provided an inspiration for authors across India.

He was born on 13th Ashard 1245, as per Bengali calendar, and 27 June 1838 as per English calendar in the village Kanthalpara in the town of North 24 Parganas, Naihati, in an orthodox Bengali Brahmin family, the youngest of three brothers, to Yadav Chandra Chattopadhyaya and Durgadebi.

His father, a government official, went on to become the Deputy Collector of Midnapur.

One of his brothers, Sanjib Chandra Chattopadhyay was also a novelist and he is known for his famous book “Palamau”.

Bankim Chandra and his elder brother both had their schooling from Midnapore Collegiate School (then Governmental Zilla School), where he wrote his first poem.

He was educated at the Hooghly Mohsin College (founded by Bengali philanthropist Muhammad Mohsin) and later at Presidency College, Kolkata, graduating with a degree in Arts in 1858.

He later attended the University of Calcutta and was one of the two candidates who passed the final exam to become the school’s first graduates.

He later obtained a degree in Law as well, in 1869. In 1858, he was appointed a Deputy Collector (the same type of position held by his father) of Jessore.

He went on to become a Deputy Magistrate, retiring from government service in 1891. His years at work were replete with incidents that brought him into conflict with the ruling British.

He was, however, made a Companion in the Order of the Indian Empire in 1894.

Chattopadhyay was married at eleven. He had a son with his first wife, who died in 1859. He later married Rajalakshmi Devi with whom he had three daughters.

Chattopadhyay’s earliest publications were in Ishwar Chandra Gupta’s weekly newspaper Sangbad Prabhakar.

Following the model of Ishwar Chandra Gupta, he began his literary career as a writer of verse. His talents showed him other directions, and turned to fiction.

His first attempt was a novel in Bengali submitted for a declared prize. He did not win the prize, and the novelette was never published.

His first fiction to appear in print was Rajmohan’s Wife. It was written in English and is regarded as the first Indian novel to be written in English.

Durgeshnondini, his first Bengali romance and the first ever novel in Bengali, was published in 1865.

Kapalkundala (1866) is Chattopadhyay’s first major publication.

His next romance, Mrinalini (1869), marks his first attempt to set his story against a larger historical context. This book marks the shift from Chattopadhyay’s early career, in which he was strictly a writer of romances, to a later period in which he aimed to stimulate the intellect of the Bengali speaking people and bring about a cultural renaissance of Bengali literature.

Chattopadhyay started publishing a monthly literary magazine Bangadarshan in April 1872, the first edition of which was filled almost entirely with his own work. The magazine carried serialised novels, stories, humorous sketches, historical and miscellaneous essays, informative articles, religious discourses, literary criticisms, and reviews. Bangodarshan went out of circulation after four years. It was later revived by his brother, Sanjeeb Chandra Chattopadhyay.

Vishabriksha (The Poison Tree, 1873) is the first novel of Chattopadhyay that appeared serially in Bangodarshan.

Chattopadhyay’s humorous sketches are his best-known works other than his novels. Kamalakanter Daptar (From the Desk of Kamalakanta, 1875; enlarged as Kamalakanta, 1885) contains half humorous and half serious sketches.

Chattopadhyay’s commentary on the Gita was published eight years after his death and contained his comments up to the 19th Verse of Chapter 4. Through this work, he attempted to reassure Hindus who were increasingly being exposed to Western ideas. His belief was, that there was “No serious hope of progress in India except in Hinduism-reformed, regenerated and purified”. He wrote an extensive commentary on two verses in particular – 2.12 and 2.13 – which deal with the immortality of the soul and its reincarnation

Anandamath (The Abbey of Bliss, 1882) his political novel which depicts a Sannyasi (Hindu ascetic) army fighting the British soldiers, was the source of the song Vande Mataram (I worship my Motherland for she truly is my mother) which, set to music by Rabindranath Tagore, was taken up by many Indian nationalists, and is now the National Song of India.

Critics, like Pramathnath Bishi, consider Chattopadhyay as the best novelist in Bangla literature.

He died on 8 April 1894.


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