Marathas & Bengal: Chhatrapati Shivaji as a national hero
“Ek dharmarajyapase khanda chinna bikshipta bharat Bandhe Dibo Ami”
I will unite the various states of India under one dharma
— from Rabindranath Tagore’s poem Shivaji Utsav
Cries of “Bande Mataram” and “Shivaji ki Jai” rent the air. The man with the thick moustache looks around, pleased. He is Lokmanya Tilak, nationalist leader and organizer of that year’s Shivaji Festival. Suddenly, a few young men rush forward and unhitch the ponies drawing Tilak’s tonga. They would rather pull it themselves!
No, it is not a scene from Pune, Satara or Kolhapur. It is Calcutta of 1906! (1)
Chhatrapati Shivaji, had truly become a national hero in the pre independence era. From Punjab to Tamil Nadu and from Gujarat to Assam, various nationalist leaders, writers, poets and playwrights had sought to project Chhatrapati Shivaji as an inspiration for the grand struggle against the British.
But of all the states, the one where Chhatrapati Shivaji’s persona resonated the most apart from Maharashtra was in Bengal. Here he was seen as the phoenix championing the rise of Hindus against tyranny of the invader. Goddess Bhavani was identified with Durga herself, further inspiring the Bengalis.
While Lokmanya Tilak’s Shivaji festival greatly popularized Shivaji among Bengali masses, it was not the first time that the great Maratha king was being invoked. Nor was Tilak the only famous freedom fighter associated with Shivaji. In this article we shall explore how Chhatrapati Shivaji was an inspiration for Bengali patriots from 1857 onwards and how everyone from Tagore and Bipin Chandra Pal to Aurobindo Ghosh eulogized him.
1857 and onwards
In the year of the First War of Independence, in which the Bengal Regiment and Bengal as a whole played a major role, an author by the name of Bhudev Mukhopadhyay sought to inspire the people by writing a book on Chhatrapati Shivaji named Anguriya Vinimoy .2 It was a fictional story, little to do with facts, but the central theme was about projecting Chhatrapati Shivaji’s character as an ideal. He later wrote a second book – Sapne Labder Bharato Itihas, in which he spoke about India’s regeneration under the Maratha Empire. Both books sought to overcome the legacy of the 18th century bargir raids, which till then was Bengal’s abiding memory of Maharashtra. But through these works, Bhudev Mukhopadhyay found a common hero – Chhatrapati Shivaji, thus building a long desired bridge. (3)
Twenty years later, R.C Dutta wrote a book named Maharashtra Jiban Prabhat, in which he has described Chhatrapati Shivaji and his achievements. R.C Dutta’s aim was to write about various national heroes, so as to generate love and admiration for them among the masses.
In 1876, a magazine named Bangadarshan published a series of articles in Bengali on Chhatrapati Shivaji. Few years later, in 1880, Nabin Chandra Sen’s biography on the great warrior was published – named “Rangamati”. It spoke of Shivaji as a great symbol of swarajya and freedom. (4)
Finally, close to the end of the century, in 1895 a biography named Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Jiban Charit was written by Sarat Chandra Shastri.
Thus, thanks to the efforts of a host of Bengali writers and thinkers, the legacy of Chhatrapati Shivaji became well known in Bengal. It was on this foundation that Lokmanya Tilak began his Shivaji Festival in Bengal and truly took the great persona to the masses. Chhatrapati Shivaji became an idol as a result for many a freedom fighters in that province and the cries of “Har Har Mahadev” reverberated in Kolkata and Dhaka!
Sakharam Ganesh Deuskar, Lokmanya Tilak and the Shivaji Festival
During the Indian Freedom Struggle, revolutionaries were mainly concentrated in what was then Bombay Province, Bengal and Punjab. The ideological fountainhead was provided, among others, by the nationalist trio of Lal – Bal – Pal i.e. Lala Lajpat Rai, Balgangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal. Is it a mere coincidence that for all the three, Chhatrapati Shivaji was an abiding source of inspiration? Lala Lajpat Rai wrote a biography of the great ruler in 1896. It was in Urdu, published in Lahore.(5)
Lokmanya Tilak of course started the Shivaji Festival or Shiv Jayanti Utsav, first in Maharashtra, then elsewhere. It would find the greatest support in Bengal.
The first time it took place was in 1895, during a session of the Congress Party at Pune. The site was what is today known as the Mahatma Phule Market (Mandai) and Lokmanya Tilak spoke about Chhatrapati Shivaji and national rejuvenation to thunderous applause and adulation.(6) Perhaps it is important to note that Surendranath Banerjee presided over this session and also gave a speech regarding the great Maratha. As the then President of the Congress, he declared his unequivocal support for the Shivaji Utsav. Many years later, Banerjee would cite the example of Shivaji and his agrarian policies when arguing some case regarding farmers against the British Empire!
Nationalist leaders such as Vishnu Balwant Bopardikar began to carry the Shivaji Festival to Bengal in the same year, and it was resolved to inspire people with the ideals of Shivaji.
But the groundwork of the Shivaji festival in Bengal was laid by one Sakharam Ganesh Deuskar. He was employed as a teacher in a school at Deogarh in today’s Bihar. Here, he sought to inspire the children by regaling them with tales of chivalry from Shivaji’s life. The nearby hills became mock forts and the children became “mavlas” as they learnt about Tanaji and Baji Prabhu, about Murarbaji and Prataprao! One of those children was Barindrakumar Ghosh, a famous revolutionary, who was involved in the Alipore Bomb Case. We will look into the role Chhatrapati Shivaji played in life of Bengali revolutionaries later in this essay.
Barindrakumar wrote books such as Desher Katha and Shivajir Diksha (both Bengali). Apart from this, a number of articles on Shivaji were written by him. In 1902, through his efforts, the first Shivaji Festival was held in Bengal. A contemporary newspaper – The Voice of India – says about the event – ‘Those who have eyes to see need no one tell them that a new sense of nationality, a larger ideal of patriotism is springing up among the people.’ (7)
In that year’s event, Deuskar’s twenty page booklet about Shivaji, titled Shivajir Mahattva was distributed free. Two years later, it was renamed Shivajir Diksha and again free copies were given out. This latter book had as an introduction an immortal poem by none other than Rabindranath Tagore! We shall see some part of this poem and other contributions by the great bard to the growing Shivaji Movement further on in this write up.
And in 1906, Lokmanya Tilak himself came down to Calcutta to preside over that year’s Shivaji Utsav. Bipin Chandra Pal was also present in the august gathering as was Ashwani Kumar Dutta. The event was a resounding success drawing thousands of people. The Times of India reported that enthusiasm for listening to Tilak speak about Shivaji rivaled that in Pune or Mumbai! (8)
Bipin Chandra Pal also spoke that day, where he celebrated Shivaji as a great inspiration for Hindus: “Shivaji was a Hindu. He symbolized the religio-political ideal of Hindu people. In honouring Shivaji we honour that Hindu ideal.” Bipin Chandra Pal also started a festival to celebrate Raja Pratipaditya of Jessore. A king who had fought Islamic invaders.(9)
Also, through the 1906 Shivaji Festival, the great Maratha was truly taken to the masses. He became a strong source of inspiration for the budding revolutionaries of Bengal. Biographies of Shivaji began making their way in large numbers into the hands of men with nationalist thought and a strong desire to topple the British Government.
Chhatrapati Shivaji and Bengal Revolutionaries
Barindrakumar Ghosh, had received his education at Deogarh under Deuskar, where the ideal of Chhatrapati Shivaji had a great influence on him. He was the younger brother of the more famous Aurobindo Ghosh. Barindrakumar Ghosh was associated with the revolutionary magazine “Jugantar”, which published many articles on Shivaji’s life and sought to arise the Bengali people against the ruling British government. Not surprisingly, it was banned, but continued to be produced as a leaflet.
Barindrakumar Ghosh was also associated with the Alipore Bomb Case, in which a British Official was sought to be killed by the Anushilan Samiti of which Ghosh was a member. Barindra Kumar Ghosh was sentenced to deportation to the Andamans.
A British Government raid on the Dhaka centre of Anushilan Samiti revealed up to thirteen copies of the Bhagvad Gita in the literature kept for its members. Along with some other books, it was found that biographies of Chhatrapati Shivaji were particularly popular with the Anushilan Samiti. The Samiti also published a book named – “Mukti Kon Pathe?” (Which way lies Freedom?) It sought to arise the common Indian soldier against the British Empire. The book invokes Shivaji, describing how his leadership led to freedom. “Har Har Mahadev” was also adopted as a slogan by the Anushilan Samiti.
The revolutionary movement was dealt with most harshly by the British Government. Perhaps because it had the greatest potential to cause a repeat of 1857 – of which the British were mortally scared. Is the absence of Shivaji from post-independence history books also a function of the negativity with which the Congress treated revolutionaries? One wonders.
We now turn to contributions by Rabindranath Tagore and Aurobindo Ghosh in popularizing Chhatrapati Shivaji in Bengal.
Rabindranath Tagore and Shivaji
“Tomare korilo vidhi Bhikshuker pratinidhi
Rajyeshwar deen udaseen
Palibe je rajdharma Jeno taha mor karma
Rajya loye rabe rajyaheen
Vatsa, tobe ei laho mor ashirvad saho
Amar gerua gatravas
Bairagir uttariya pataka koriya niyo
Kahilen Guru Ramdas”
— From Rabindranath Tagore’s poem “ Pratinidhi” (1897) (10)
“So fate has made you the representative of a beggar
You will be a king but at the same time poor (deen) udaseen (detached)
You will follow the Raj dharma
As though it were my karma
Despite having a kingdom you will be without one
Vatsa so with my blessings take this saffron attire of mine
Make this wanders’s (sanyasi) (bairagi) cloth your flag
Said Guru Ramdas”
The poem alludes to Shivaji and Samarth Ramdas. It sought to show the role Samarth Ramdas played in Shivaji’s life and also reflected on the ideal of Swarajya. Pratinidhi was a poetic rendering of how the ideal of Swarajya was greater than Shivaji himself.
Tagore’s more popular poem on Shivaji was written in 1904. Titled “Shivaji Utsab”, it was part of Deuskar’s twenty page book which was distributed free at the Shivaji Festival of that year in Calcutta. The poem begins with the following inspiring words (Translated from original Bengali):
“In what far away century on what unmarked day
I no longer know today
Upon what mountain peak, in darkened forests,
Oh King Shivaji,
Did this thought light up your brow as a touch of lightning
As it came to thee –
“The scattered parts of this land with one religion
‘Shall I bind for eternity.” (11)
The poems dwell more on the character of Shivaji and his relevance to contemporary India, rather than be just descriptions of events in his life. An article by him published in The Prabasi talks of Shivaji wanting to establish a Hindu kingdom. He was a big supporter of plays and jatras associated with the great person.
Shri Aurobindo Ghosh – Bhavani Mandir, Baji Prabhu
Shri Aurobindo Ghosh had a bigger role to play in the Indian Freedom Struggle than is normally attributed to him. He was well and truly the ideological foundation for Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar. Perhaps it is because he stepped away from public life to become a sanyasin in Pondicherry that his contributions have faded from memory. The Aurobindo Ashram containing the voluminous works of this staunch nationalist still exists in that city.
Here I shall describe his contributions with regards to Chhatrapati Shivaji. Bhavani Mandir, was a book alluding to Bhavani or Durga Mata and an invocation to Shakti to uproot the foreign rule. It was indirectly, via mention of Bhavani linked to Shivaji.12The other work was more direct – a ballad titled Baji Prabhu. Some historical facts are off in the ballad, but the central theme of Baji Prabhu’s sacrifice for swarajya’s cause cannot be missed.
I reproduce few lines here:
“ But Shivaji beside the dead beheld
A dim and mighty cloud that held a sword
And in its other hand, where once the head
Depended bleeding, raised the turban bright
From Baji’s brows, still glittering with its gems,
And placed it on the chief’s. But as it rose
Blood-stained with the heroic sacrifice,
Round the aigrette he saw a Golden Crown.” (13)
He also wrote an essay “Conversations of the Dead”, in which a fictional conversation between Shivaji and Jai Singh has been described.(14)
Chhatrapati Shivaji in Bengali Plays and Literature:
A play by Girish Chandra Ghosh – Chhatrapati Shivaji – ran to packed houses before it got banned. It was a Bengali play with a Bengali cast! As mentioned earlier, the Jugantar and Swadhin Bharat regularly published pro Shivaji articles.(15 )Apart from this, Swami Vivekananda is also known to have spoken on Shivaji on multiple occasions. (16)
Thus we see that Bengal had got rid of its abiding image of raiding Maratha bargirs and instead the Maratha Empire had come to be identified with the lofty ideals of Shivaji Maharaj. It is unfortunate that this combined effort of many years and many a stalwarts was totally forgotten in the post-independence years, and today once again all that Bengalis know is that Marathas were raiders and nothing more.
Looking back now from the twenty first century, it is up to us to decide what becomes more popular and what is important to us – the raids of 1740s or the nationalist efforts centred around Shivaji in the 1900s. The freedom fighters looked at history and found a route by which Shivaji could become relevant for the times they lived in, as well as tide over the one fifty year animosity between the two provinces.
Speaking of Bargirs, it is important to note what happened in the year 1911. In that year, the Maharaja of Burdwan enquired about the state of the Samadhi of Shivaji at Raigad! He wanted to know whether the upkeep of this Maratha hero’s Samadhi was being done properly. Not only is it unique that the Maharaja of Burdwan was curious about Shivaji’s Samadhi, it must also be noted that Burdwan was one of the places to bear the brunt of the Bargir invasions. (17)
Coming to the raids themselves, they were attacks by irregulars loosely attached to Raghuji Bhosale’s army on Aliverdy Khan ruled Bengal. The latter, for the record, attacked Durga Pujas organized by the Marathas and also killed Bhaskarram Kolhatkar by deceit (facts which are conveniently forgotten). Moreover, our most “reliable” source for the depredations during the raids is the singular work named ‘Maharashtra Puran’. (18)
Obviously, a question will be asked – if so much effort was made to bridge the Maratha – Bengali gap, what about the Hindu – Muslim divide? For the record, Bipin Chandra Pal mooted an Akbar Utsav also – only to be met with a cold shoulder by concerned community.
I shall conclude this eulogy to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj with a quote by eminent Bengali historian, Sir Jadunath Sarkar: “Shivaji proved, by his example, that the Hindu race could build a nation, found a State, defeat its enemies; they could conduct their own defence; they could protect and promote literature and art, commerce and industry; they could maintain navies and ocean going fleets of their own, and conduct naval battles on equal terms with foreigners. He taught the modern Hindus to rise to the full stature of their growth. He demonstrated that the tree of Hinduism was not dead, and that it could put forth new leaves and branches and once again rise up its head to the skies.” (19)
1- Tilak and Gokhale – A Comparitive Study: Mohd Shabbir Khan
2 – Shivaji, The Great Maratha – Vol IV, Ch 58: HS Sardesai; Shivaji and Indian National Movement – Ch 4: Anil Samarth.
3, 4 – Shivaji and Indian National Movement – Ch 4: Anil Samarth.
5 – Shivaji, The Great Maratha – Vol IV: HS Sardesai
6 – Shivaji and Indian National Movement – Ch 4: Anil Samarth.
7- Shivaji and the Indian National Movement, Ch 4
9- Revelry, Rivarly and longing for Goddesses of Bengal – Rachel Mc Dermott
11 – Anamikha WordPress, Shivaji and The Indian National Movement
12 – Life and Times of Aurobindo – Kaushal Kishore
14 – Shivaji and The Indian National Movement, Ch 4
15 – Ibid, Ch 7
16 – Swami Vivekanand in London – Mahendranath Dutta
17 – Shivaji and The Indian National Movement
18 – Maharashtra State Gazetteer; Seir Mutaqherin
19 – Sir Jadunath Sarkar Shivaji and His Times, 1919, p. 406