The ancient artisans of India have chiselled away and carved the dreams they carried for their nation into stone. Time and time again, these dreams have been dismantled; only to be resurrected once more. Different artists emerged in different eras to produce timeless art. Vande Mataram is the Ode to the Mother who claimed us all as her children.

Be it through literature, music or painting; artists have always sought the power of their soul to spur national movements and to weave a national identity where all are welcome. They have created songs, stories and buildings that have stood the terrible tests of war, natural disasters and even the mad terrain of the human mind.

Artists have synchronised their symphonies across successive generations; creating a sound wave that echos through time and space. Bharat Mata reminded her children that they were free and the children of her soil heard her war cry.

She reminded us that despite our differences–we are all her children; and despite our age, status or standing; we will forever be the sons and daughters of her soil.

Who hath said thou art weak in thy lands,
When the swords flash out in seventy million hands,
And seventy million voices roar
Thy dreadful name from shore to shore?
With many strengths who art mighty and strong,
To thee I call, Mother and Lord!

An excerpt of the translation rendered by Sri Aurobindo Ghosh

The Song of India

It is the land that many have called Matrubhumi–even if they were not born there; for India has always welcomed people from foreign lands to her shores. The Zoroastrians who found their home in Gujarat are a testimony to the tolerance and diplomacy of the people of the South Asian subcontinent.

India was and still is a far more complex and variegated country than any other country I can think of. It’s a vast land that is home to a myriad of languages, cultures, traditions and beliefs. It is a land of immigrants. It is a land of natives. It is a land of cities, clans and tribes.

But for so long, the consensus was zealously upheld that Indians stood divided on the basis of their language, religion, caste, occupation, economic background and even their gender. These differences became especially prominent during British Rule; when India had to fight hard to regain its freedom.

There were too many things separating us—pulling us against each other. But the struggle for independence craved unity. Indians, as a collective, needed something to bridge the gap that divided them.

Art became that thread which stitched them together into one single symphony. It was a symphony that would be heard around the world; a symphony that would inspire other nations and communities–all across the globe–to stand tall and fight for the freedom that was their birthright.

In India, artists from all over the country came together to produce art that would inspire everyone in their fight for freedom. Songs, novels, articles, poems and even paintings flooded the scene as the country underwent a time of enormous upheaval.

Writers like Rabindranath Tagore, Bankimchandra Chottopadhyay, Kazi Nazrul Islam put their best foot forward to revive the spirit of nationalism and instil a sense of unity. Even social reformers like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Raja Rammohan Roy took to the art of writing to spread their nationalistic message across the people of India.

Most noteworthy among these is the creation of the song Vande Mataram, composed by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay. Dedicated to the Motherland, who mothered all the children of her soil, Vande Mataram inspired the sentiment of nationalism among Indians at a time of political mayhem.

Ever since then, the patriotic song continues to inspire the national spirit of all Indians over different decades in different forms.

The Rich History of Vande Mataram

Vande Mataram was written by the Bengali writer Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay in 1865. It was included in his novel Anandamath in 1881 as the motivational song for patriotic youths. It was set to music and first sung at the 1896 session of INC by the famous poet Rabindranath Tagore. Ever since then, the song has defined the spirit of Indian nationalism.

Popularised by Aurobindo Ghosh and Bipin Chandra Pal, this ode to the Motherland became India’s foremost national anthem. The iconic cry of Vande Mataram attained mass popularity throughout India in the wake of the Swadeshi Movement.  

Every nationalist meeting began with the cry of Vande Mataram. Every protestant walked the streets and courted arrest with loud cries of Vande Mataram. Public functions adopted the song to commence their programmes. Rishi Aurobindo went as far as to attach great mystical significance with the song. He equated the discovery of Vande Mataram to a revelation—‘a sudden moment of awakening from long delusions’.

Not only that, the portrait of Bharat Mata was inspired by Vande Mataram. In his song, Bankimchandra envisaged India as a Mother figure bequeathed with power and militancy. The imagery he painted can be observed in the personification of Bharat Mata: the saffron-robed Sadhvi astride a lion with the map of India as the backdrop. This portrayal of Mother India as a Goddess soon became the central feature of nationalist iconography.

The patriotic poetry of the time–particularly in Bengal–complemented the image of Bharat Mata that had its roots in Vande Mataram. During the Swadeshi Movement, Rabindranath Tagore adopted the image to equate Mother Goddess with Shakti. Writer Dwijendralal’s Roy’s celebration of Bharat Mata was equally robust and powerful.

With the popularity of Vande Mataram, emerged a belief in the sacredness of Mother India and the Nation’s commitment to it. It’s no wonder that the song played a historic part in the country’s struggle for freedom. With everything that got encapsulated and immortalised within the song, Vande Mataram became a prominent icon of the Nationalism, which has endured till today, decades after the war cry was first heard around the world.

Swami Vivekananda once said—“A Nation in India must be a union of those whose hearts beat to the same spiritual tune”. The patriotic song Vande Mataram is perhaps that spiritual tune that has and will keep all the Indian hearts tied together in one single string of unity.

The saffron clad goddess Bharat Mata in a painting by Abanindranath Tagore

Art as a Device to Fuel Nationalism

Thou who savest, arise and save!
To her I cry who ever her foemen drove
Back from plain and Sea
And shook herself free.

During the 19th century, Indians came to the realisation that something drastic needs to be done to uproot the British from country and establish Swaraj self-governance. But even with so many patriots living emerging within and beyond the Motherland, India was struggling to throw the British off their game.

Many speculating minds of the era opined that the long prevailing British Rule had drained the spirit of nationalism from the souls of the Indians. They agreed that, unlike the British, Indians lacked a commonality of purpose. There was a noticeable absence of national pride among the people, who continued to stand divided at multiple levels. 

India has always been a land of diversity. That combined with the British’s shrewd policy of Divide and Rule, was draining the feeling of unity from the heart of its people. Even with their skills and power, leaders were facing a hard time dealing with the complexities of uniting India. 

The country stood divided on the grounds of religion. There were endless religious disputes, especially between the Hindus and the Muslims. Even within the same religion, the caste system and creed-based laws separated them further. Moreover, the distinction between the poor and the rich was a prominent blot to unity. The conflict born out the clash of beliefs between the orthodox and educated Indians further widened the gap.

To top it all off, patriarchy and gender discrimination didn’t allow for man and woman to match shoulders in their fight for independence. Women had to overcome their gender huddles first, before dedicating their time to work for their country. There were just too many barriers preventing India from radiating a sense of unity.

That was one of the major reasons why we suffered numerous failures at the hands of the British. There was nothing visible to unite us. 

The nationalistic leaders then decided and vehemently believed that the moment had arrived to recover the national self-esteem of the Indians. R.G. Bhandarkar was particularly convinced that—‘A regard for national interest must grow among us.’ 

Lala Lajpat Roy, too, questioned the British suppression of the Indians. He then came to the conclusion that it is ‘individual selfishness, greed and calculation’ which had prevented national unity so far. The political solution that he felt was necessary was to inculcate ‘a sense of social responsibility which requires each and every member of the organisation to place the interests of the community or the nation above those of his own.’

That was when the grand responsibility and burden fell upon the shoulders of the artists of the era. It was high time for the country to undergo ‘a new birth’ which only art could bring. Only art can break the sense of selfish concerns and unite the community for one great cause—Nation.

Artists stepped in with numerous patriotic songs and poems to stir every individual. For art alone has the power to motivate people to rise above their personal concerns and walk towards collective and nationalistic goals. It’s only through art that we relish the taste of freedom.

And hence, it’s art alone that can ignite in us the desire to be free. Art speaks from the heart and forges an emotional connection within its audience. Despite all our differences, we all feel the same emotions within. That’s what artists seek to achieve—make us feel through their art. 

Art thus became a powerful device to fuel the nationalistic movement–by uniting the hearts of people.

Poets like Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam wrote numerous poems and composed innumerable songs, expressing and giving voice to the patriotism in the hearts of all Indians. Their compositions triggered the innate sentiments of nationalism and instigated a sense of unity among the Indians.

Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, in particular, felt that freedom was likely to be imperfect without the people being liberated socially and intellectually. He felt that political assertion had to be preceded by the ‘cultural self-discovery of people’. This could be achieved through various means; art being the crucial one.

Putting his thoughts to paper, the writer and scholar, Bakimchandra Chattopadhyay produced several great novels that sought to achieve that spiritual liberation. His work contributed towards the political, social and cultural upliftment as well as spread nationalistic and patriotic sentiments among the people.

His timeless creation Vande Mataram played a great role in the endeavour to unite the entire country for one great nationalistic cause.

It was only art and artists alone who could achieve such an enormous feat—something that even the great politicians couldn’t. For, these artists weren’t producing art simply for entertainment or exhibition. They were creating it for the sake of the nation: the soil from which they all emerged.

They were creating it to inspire people to believe in their own power. Something that was most welcomed at a time when India was vulnerable. And it was something that provoked art to become the greatest device in instilling the feeling of Nationalism within the heart of the Indians.

A rare painting of Vande Mataram, published in 1923

Art as a Means to Express Nationalism in Contemporary India

Decades later, the song continues to inspire the Indians and fill them with nationalistic pride. Vande Mataram accompanies the countrymen whenever they gather for a national cause. Being an Indian artist myself, the song has special significance for me, too. 

Even though India gained independence long before I was born, Vande Mataram was still played as a popular patriotic song during my childhood. I remember being inspired by it as a kid when I first tapped my feet to the tunes of the song at a dance function in school.

“Vande Mataram” literally translates to—“Mother, we bow to thee!”. It is a powerful emotion. Even as a kid, the words stirred my emotions. It inevitably multiplied my love for my Motherland and my country in my heart.

Even today, when I hear those words being uttered, something lights up within my heart. And I believe the feeling is the same for all the Indians out there, despite our differences. It’s quite safe to say that the spirit of the song didn’t die out with the onset of independence. The resurrection of our national sovereignty didn’t dim its magnificence but made it glow brighter. 

Vande Mataram thus continues to act as the guiding force in contemporary India.

For art doesn’t perish with time. It spreads its roots and grows stronger. So does the spirit of Nationalism and the love for one’s country. The love that the great artists of India had for their country didn’t die with them, but lived on through their art and like the Banyan Tree; found new roots in the soil and within the souls of the next generation.  

As Indians, it’s our duty to keep that love alive forever. So, we must continue to create new art that mirrors the old. Art that would keep the lamp of patriotism burning in our heart.  The spirit of nationalism, unity and freedom is as important in this modern setting as it was in 19th century India. And so is the call for art as the greatest form of expression.

Since an artist’s work is never complete, new art emerges in the reflection of the old. New artists take forward the unfinished art to keep India united as a Nation.

India has walked a long distance away from the British rule onto the path of self-governance. But it still has a long way to go before it establishes a stable form. Hence, certain political disputes arise occasionally in the ‘ancient new nation’ which is continuously finding and re-finding its footing in this vast universe.

It’s truly a challenge to unite a country as vast and diverse as India. Absolute equality is still a dream. And political upheavals aren’t uncommon.

But art, like always, continues to keep us united in spirit.

And every time a threat to unity is observed, art comes to the rescue in some form. Be it through song, painting, poems or even comic portrayals, Indians still choose to voice their protest and express their political opinions through art.

Nothing can bring us together as effortlessly as art does. In just one moment of a wordless act, art can stir all our senses. Within just a few whispered words, art can speak volumes. Hence, art seeps in every time the spirit of nationalism erupts in the country.

When riots break, instead of swords, artists pick up their brush. Rather than shedding blood on our motherland, we bleed ink on paper. Instead of shouting protests, we rebel through art. Rather than raising our voice, we raise our pen.

And in the end, the pen always turns out to be mightier than the sword. Art always echoes louder than guns. So, we earnestly strive to keep the spirit of art alive.

Old art encloses the new. Vande Mataram continues to be sung at different occasions of national importance. While at the same time, new songs and poems are born to reflect the contemporary concerns.

The cause that drove India during its freedom struggles formed the ideas that shaped its contemporary politics. And it’s the same driving force that’s pushing the country towards progress. But a country’s true progress lies in the power of its people. Art is the weapon to awaken that power. 

It’s true that India still has a long way to travel in its path towards equality. Art inspiring nationalistic feelings holds the key to keeping us united in the long journey ahead. It’s crucial that we continue to create art that awakens the patriot in us.

The artists who left their precious art behind wanted us to continue fighting for what they believed in—equality for all and unity of all Indian hearts. And we can’t let them down.

We mustn’t forget that the quest for the New India is intimately tied to the rediscovery of the old India. One can’t exist with the other. And art is the string striving to bind the two together. So, for the Nation to reinvent itself, art must continue to thrive.

In India’s toughest struggle for unity and equality, Art still proves to be the strongest device. Perhaps that is the reason why, at the end of every conflict, Indians still manage to stay united. For art still lights our journey to find unity in diversity.

Vande Mataram still inspires us to bow down to our Motherland, transcending our differences. And we, the children of the soil, remember; with great reverence, that there is only one mother who created us all. And as long as Bharat Mata has the will to live and be free, we will forever be her children.

Thou art wisdom, thou art law,
Thou art heart, our soul, our breath
Thou art love divine, the awe
In our hearts that conquers death.

This article is authored by Sanchari Das and edited by Dipa Sanatani.

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