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Towards a Vocabulary and an Aesthetic of Nationalism- II

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Towards a Vocabulary and an Aesthetic of Nationalism- II
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During the heyday of Indian nationalism at the close of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the nationalistic idiom that our poets had forged may be divided into two broad categories: one, the idiom of direct expression and two, the idiom of suggestive expression. Let us explain what these two broad categories entail, with concrete examples representing each category from Bengali poetry. Our readers may recall that in the first part, we had used Rasa theory to show why poetry may fail in providing an effective vocabulary and aesthetic of nationalism. We will reconsider that position by analyzing different kinds of poetic expression and see if we can work around the problem of non-existence of (or no-exposure to) the vāsanā-s or seed-desires which ultimately give rise to nationalistic instincts in the human heart when it contemplates the right kind of poetic signifier. This will enable us to work out the propositions and principles of a possible meta-language for Indian nationalism.

The first category of poetic idiom for Indian nationalism that we will look into is what we have called ‘the idiom of direct expression’. The choice of such a title can be traced to the fact that this sort of poetry has been expressing the nationalist heart’s feelings and emotions directly, in order to appeal to whatever similar strains of feelings the audience/readers might have been harbouring in their own hearts. A good example of this kind of poetry is Rabindranath Tagore’s nationalist song “Tomari Tore Ma”. Before we analyze the lyrics of this song, it’ll be pertinent here to have a look at its illustrious journey. The website geetabitan.com, an online repository of Tagore’s songs, notes:

This song was published in the Ashwin number of Bharati [in] the year 1877-78 [Bengali year 1284] as a poem titled ‘Utsarga-geeti’. Sangeet-kalpataru, a book published by Swami Vivekananda [as Narendranath Datta – he was yet to receive initiation into saṁnyāsa at the time] in 1887/88 included this song in its ‘Jatiya-sangeet’ section. Bichitra, a novel published in the year 1920-21 written by Swarna Kumari Devi also included an abridged version of the song in its seventh chapter with some minor changes. This song was the first song to be selected as the National Anthem in ‘Swadesik-der Sabha’, an association for swadesi-minded people. Founded by Raj Narayan Basu, this association was the mother of ‘Hindu-mela’. Dwijendranath [Tagore], Gonendranath [Tagore], Jyotirindranath [Tagore] were all members of this association.[1]

Both Dwijendranath and Jyotirindranath were elder siblings of Rabindranath Tagore. And both had exerted a great influence on the poetic career of their more illustrious younger brother. Along with his first cousin Gonendranath and an ardent nationalist activist from Kolkata named Nabagopal Mitra, Dwijendranath Tagore – the eldest of the Tagore brothers – founded the ‘Hindu-mela’. As a teenager, Rabindranath Tagore took up a very active role in building the cultural capital upon which the Hindu-mela laid the foundations of what was to become the Swadeshi movement in the first decade of the twentieth century, and subsequently of what came to be known as the ‘Agni-yuga’ – the age of fiery nationalist movement that dawned on Bengal chiefly under the influence of Swami Vivekananda and his Irish disciple Nivedita (Margaret Elizabeth Noble). In its scope and influence, the Hindu-mela is comparable with the Ganesha Utsav and the Shivaji Utsav – both initiated by the nationalist leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak in Maharashtra a few decades after the initiation of Hindu-mela in the Bengal province. In the backdrop of such a historical context, we will try to analyse the poetic idiom of direct expression as reflected in “Tomari Tore Ma”. We reproduce the song’s lyrics as it is, using the Roman alphabet with suitable diacritics as and when necessary in order to represent authentic Bengali pronunciation, followed by a line-for-line English translation (by the author of the present essay):

tomāri tawre mā śopinu ē deho

tomāri tawre mā śopinu prān

tomāri soke ē āñkhi bawrośibē

ē binā tomāri gāhibē gān

jodio ē bāhu awkkhawmo dūrbawl

tomāri kārjo śādhibē

jodio e ośi kawloṁkē molin

tomāri paśo nāśibē

jodio hē dēbī śonitē āmār

kichui tomār hawbē nā

tobu ogo mātā pāri ta dhālitē

ako-til tawbo koloṁko khālitē

nibhātē tomār jātonā

jodio jawnonī jodio āmār

ē bināy kichu nāhiko bawl

kī jāni jodi mā ēkti śawntān

To thee, O Mother, I dedicate this body;

To thee, Mother, I dedicate my life-breath.

These eyes shall well up only in thy misery,

And this lute will sing thy songs only!

Tho’ these arms are unskilled and weak,

They shall work thy works only;

And tho’ this sword is tarnished with rust

’Twill break the chains that restrain thee!

Though, O Goddess, my blood

Shall not suffice to serve thy cause;

Still, O Mother, I can pour it all

To clean even a speck of the stain on thee –

To extinguish thy anguish.

And although, O Mother,

This my lute is utterly powerless,

What if, Mother, even one of thy children

jāgi uthē śuni ē bīnā-tān

Awakens by the music of these strings?

A close reading of these poignant verses (not to mention the nuanced emotional thrust perfected through the peaks and troughs of Raga Desh employed in the song) reveals the craftsman’s intent to arouse love of country in the listener’s / reader’s heart. Tagore makes sacrifice – that is, the individual patriot’s sacrifice – the cornerstone of his direct appeal to his countrymen in this song. The appeal is made by way of pledging for exemplary and sacrificial action, an idea that permeates the entire Vedic universe, and is indeed a replication of the idea of the Vedic yajña, which is symbolic sacrifice celebrated and exemplified through ritual. To be more accurate, sacrifice is foregrounded in the Vedas not merely as an idea, but rather as a value to be inculcated and internalized. This value-instruction finds its clearest articulation perhaps in a phrase contained in the opening mantra of the Ishopanishad: “tena tyaktena bhuñjīthā” (literally: may you consume through sacrifice). The song lyrics also highlight the attitude in which this sacrifice is to be performed. Every offering made to the sacred fire during the Vedic yajña is followed by the utterance “idam tvam idam na mama”, which literally means: this (offering) belongs to You, this is not mine. Compare this utterance with lines 1 through 13 of the song under consideration. The repeated emphasis on tomari, achieved by adding the suffix ‘i’ (which connotes uniqueness – ‘yours and yours only’) to the word ‘tomar’ (meaning yours/thine) is a replication of the repeated chanting of “idam tvam idam na mama” at the end of each individual sacrifice performed during the Vedic yajña.

Clearly, the agency in this poem is personal in nature, viz. the ‘autos’ of the performer of the sacrifice. It is the agency of a passionately patriotic being, who unilaterally expresses her emotions through her commitments, without caring to justify the same. The engagement entered into herein is between that autos on one hand and the conscience of the listener / reader on the other. It is left to the listener / reader to choose whether she would empathize with such emotions and commitments as displayed by the autos in the poem (or the poetic voice) and from there proceed to act upon them, or not. This is what we have decided to call ‘the idiom of direct expression’ in nationalistic speech. This idiom is high on strong feelings, and indeed it is very effective in churning the emotions of such souls who already harbour the vāsanā-s or seed-desires conducive of a nationalistic mind. This idiom is highly instinctive, it is powerful.

To look into the other kind of expression, we will consider the song “Tawbo Chawrono Nimne”, written and composed by Rajanikanta Sen (1865 – 1910), a less-known yet powerful poet from Bengal. He was a contemporary of Tagore, and was known in Bengal for his extraordinarily strong spiritual bent of mind and its reflection on his sublime songs. “Tawbo Chawrone Nimne” is set in the solemn Raga Bhairavi, which is usually employed to bring out the emotions associated with bhakti. Let us recall that in the first part of this series we had alluded to the bhakti dimension in Indian nationalism. But what is to constitute the substratum of such bhakti – a person, a people, a landmass, its history, a deity, or an ideology? This has been a contentious issue for a motley group of nationalists in India, and this question continues to haunt them till this day. Let us see how the song currently under consideration resolves this question by depicting the seamless and organic integration of the individual in the people, the people in the landmass and its history, and these last two in the divine. In doing so, the song completely bypasses the need to allude to any theory or ideology. It relies on logic, on common sense, which according to us is an inalienable aspect of nationalistic tendencies – a theme that we have touched upon in the first part.

This particular song that we are going to consider has also been utilized as a song track in an excellently made old Bengali biopic on Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, titled Subhash Chandra (1966), which depicts the formative years from the life of the firebrand nationalist leader. To understand what it has in offer with regard to both content and style of communication of nationalist instincts, let us reproduce the song’s lyrics as it is, using the Roman alphabet with suitable diacritics as and when necessary in order to represent authentic Bengali pronunciation, followed by a line-for-line English translation (by the author of the present essay):

tawbo chawrono nimnē utśawbomoyī śǣmo dhawronī śawrośā

(Underfoot, you have a moist earth adorned with the festive green,)

ūrdhē chāho awgonito moni-ronjito nawbho-nīlānchawlā

(Look up, and you’ll see a sky draped in blue, studded with countless gems –)

śoummo modhuro dibbāngawnā śānto kuśawlo dawrośā, śǣmo dhawronī śawrośā

(A handsome, sweet, and divine dame, a serene and blessed sight!)

dūrē hǣro chawndro-kirawno-udbhāśito gawngā

(Behold! There flows the Ganga, illuminated by the cool rays of the moon,)

nritto-pulawko gīti-mukhawro koluṣo-hawro tawrongā

(Dancing with joy, singing a hundred songs, remover of all impurities,)

dhāy mawtto hawroṣē śāgoro-pawdo pawrośē

(Her waves rush with maddening joy toward the Ocean’s feet)

kūlē kūlē kori poribeśawno mongolomawyo bawroṣā, śǣmo dhawronī śawrośā

(Delivering all the while to her banks the gift of benevolent waters.)

phire diśi-diśi mawlawyo mawndo kuśumo-gawndho bohiyā

(The cool mountain breeze roams in all directions, carrying the fragrance of flowers)

ārjo-gorimā kīrti-kāhinī mugdho jawgote kohiyā

(Recounting to an awestruck world the glories and tales of the noble arya-s)

hāśichē digobālikā kawnṭhē bijawyo-mālikā

(The guardian-dames of horizon smile, adorned with victorious garlands)

nawbo-jibawno puṣpo-briṣṭi korichē punno hawroṣā, śǣmo dhawronī śawrośā

(Bestowing the blessed joy of new life through a shower of flowers.)

oi hǣro snigdho śobitā udichē pūrbo gawgonē

(Lo and behold, the soothing sun rising in the eastern sky –)

kāntojjawlo kirawno bitori ḍākichē śupti-mawgonē

(Radiating its bright rays to call upon the slumbering souls into awakening 😉

nidrālośo nawyonē ǣkhono rawbē ki śawyonē

(Would you still remain in your bed, lingering, with languid eyes?)

jāgāo biśśo pulawko-pawrośē bokkhē toruno bhawrośā, śǣmo dhawronī śawrośā

(Rise up with new hope in thy heart, and awaken the world with your joyous touch!)

This too is an appeal, but with a crucial difference from the one made by Tagore in the previous poem. The appeal made herein is directed to reason, at least predominantly if not completely, rather than to the emotions. The utter privilege of being born amidst this rich geography and relatively pleasant climate – resourceful, kind, and instructive; the reputation of its dwellers, the spiritually uplifting orientation of its environment and history – all of these have been referred to in the poem in a progressive manner, alluding to the uniqueness, gift, and beauty in one stanza after another. In doing so, the integration of the landmass of Bharat, its people, their history and their deeply inspired-from-nature spiritual inclinations is accomplished in the poem. The painting is made complete. There is no lacunae to be filled in anymore – either in terms of that painting’s logical and aesthetic structure, or in terms of its emotional value, which gives it a moving quality (especially when it is performed as a song in accordance with the prescribed tune set in Raga Bhairavi).

This poem highlights the value of the country, viz. India, in both material as well as cultural terms. The poetic voice in it exhorts the listener / reader to wake up (metaphorically at a time when the fortune of the country is rising after a prolonged night) and recognize the value and power of its natural, cultural and spiritual capitals. And it is precisely on the basis of this cognition of the country’s potential in physical as well as metaphysical terms that the poetic voice has built its case for nationalism. This strategy is effective in more than one way: firstly it appeals to those who already possess the vāsanā or seed-desire conducive to a nationalistic bent of mind in the listener / reader; and secondly it helps to plant such seeds in the minds of those who have hitherto not been exposed to any such experience. Due to this layering of operational modes, we are calling this mode of communication ‘the idiom of indirect expression’, which can be applied in the nationalist discourse effectively. Nationalism ensures that the nation acquires a structure as well as a direction. The strong foundation that is needed to keep such a structure standing, and the fuel that is required to keep it moving towards a desirable direction are both provided by nationalism. The said structure is by no means a hindrance for pursuing freedom – individual as well as collective – because such freedom follows from the maintenance of the structure. Structure helps maintain order in an otherwise chaotic and violent world, which is why it is a necessary condition of freedom. Freedom has no meaning if the human and the natural world are thrown into the overwhelmingly chaotic whirls of Nature and they end up being dead or barren in an inevitable clash arising out of mistrust and a poor understanding of one another. It is only when human beings have been able to establish relative order (by organising themselves into society) amidst this perennial and overpowering chaos of Nature and learn civility (through their fragile but necessary construction of civilisation) that freedom attains any semblance of sense. In the upcoming part in this series, we will address this complex relationship between freedom and civilised order, and try to find out how nationalism can help in conciliating the oft-conflicting interests of the two.


[1] Notes within the square brackets [] are provided by the author of the present essay

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.
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Sreejit Datta

Sreejit Datta teaches English and Cultural Studies at the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Mysore. Variously trained in comparative literature, Hindustani music and statistics; Sreejit is an acclaimed vocalist who has been regularly performing across multiple Indian and non-Indian genres in India and abroad. He can be reached at sreejit.datta@gmail.com Blogs: https://medium.com/@SreejitDatta | http://chadpur.blogspot.in/