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Chatterji, Bankim Chandra


CHATTERJI, BANKIM CHANDRA (1838–1894), Bengali novelist and social reformer. Bankim Chandra Chatterji was born in Kantalpur, near Calcutta. He graduated from British Bengal's Presidency College, and then was one of only two Bengali students to receive bachelor of arts degrees from Calcutta University's first graduating class in 1858. He was immediately appointed a deputy magistrate in British Bengal's government, and he remained in the British Indian service for more than three decades, serving as assistant secretary to Bengal's government, and subsequently honored by the British Raj, first with the title of Rai Bahadur (Great Person), and several years later elevated to Companion of the Indian Empire (CIE) before his retirement in 1891.

Bankim Chandra wrote his first novel in English, a romance titled Rajmohan's Wife, published in 1864. After that, however, he wrote all fourteen of his other novels and social commentary in Bengali, from Durgeshnandini, published in 1865, to Kamalakanter Duptar, published in 1885. His greatest novels were social critiques, disguised as romances or fictional history, the most famous of which was Anandamath (Abbey of bliss), published in 1882. That story of a Hindu abbey's sannyasi revolt against the tyrannical pre-British Muslim rulers of Bengal gave India its first national anthem, "Bande Mataram" (Hail to Thee, Mother), which Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) set to music during the nationalist struggle ignited by Britain's first partition of Bengal from 1905 to 1910. The words, however, remained those of Bankim Chandra, who has since been hailed by countless millions of Indians as one of the grandfathers of their nation:

Mother, I bow to Thee!
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
Bright with thy orchard gleams . . .
Mother of might, Mother free . . .
Mother, I kiss thy feet . . .
Who hath said thou art weak in thy lands,
When the swords flash out in ten million hands,
And ten times ten million voices roar
Thy dreadful name from shore to shore? . . .
Thou art wisdom, thou art law,
Thou our heart, our soul, our breath . . .
the love divine . . . that conquers death . . .
Mother sweet, I bow to thee,
Mother great and free!
(Translated from Chatterji's Bengali original by Sri Aurobindo)

None of his British colleagues in the Bengal service understood how truly "subversive" a Hindu-Indian nationalist Bankim Chandra was, for unlike his sannyasi heroes he never drew a sword against the British Raj, yet his pen proved mightier, inspiring generations of young Indians to march and die, proudly singing his hymn to their "Mother India," demanding "freedom" (swaraj) from foreign rule of any complexion or faith. Chatterji also started a Bengali literary magazine, Bangladarshan, in 1872, which helped restore faith in Hinduism among many Bengalis who had been educated in English schools, where they were taught to appreciate the primacy of Western science and philosophy, and to denigrate not only their faith but the genius of India's civilization and the glories of its ancient culture. Afflicted with diabetes, Bakim Chandra died on 8 April 1894, only a few years after he retired, almost a decade after he published his last novel. In Bengal he has never been forgotten.

Stanley Wolpert


Bose, Sunil Kumar. Bankim Chandra Chatterji. New Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1974.

Das Gupta, Jayanta-Kumara. A Critical Study of the Life and Novels of Bankimchandra Chatterji. Calcutta: Calcutta University, 1937.

Kopf, David. British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969.

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