India @75: Freedom songs that catalysed struggles against colonialism

How poets of pre-independent India redefined the concept of nationalism in their own way

India @75: Freedom songs that catalysed struggles against colonialism
In other words, poets like Rabindranath Tagore, Aurobindo Ghosh, Subramania Bharati, Vallathol Narayana Menon, Sarojini Naidu, Mahadevi Verma and others in India rejected the racialised territorial notion of nationalism during the freedom struggle and linked it to the larger cause of humanity and cosmopolitan patriotism.

By Ashwani Kumar

Imagining’ a nation and nationalism has always attracted poets and writers all over the world. And they have forged their poetry in the crucible of a collective experience, a musical fusion, a leela of ancestral, racial and genetic memories of the survivors of history and their claims to freedom and justice for all. Though aware of the narcissistic instincts and ethnic prejudices of nationalism, poets have played a major role in catalysing struggles against colonialism and imperialism in various parts of the world. India is no exception to this. True, in contrast with monocultural and ethnocentric ideas of a nation in Europe, there was nothing inherently unified about the diverse cultures, religions and languages that comprised India under colonialism. In this sense, nationalism was an impossibility in a country like India. That’s why Indian poets and writers began to imagine national unity and freedom of the country through the narrative strategy of diverse social, textual, and fictional affiliations with each other. To put it differently, Indian poets started negotiating the nation as a journey between local history and universal history, claiming authenticity of the past and future as sovereign people’s ‘here and now’. In other words, poets like Rabindranath Tagore, Aurobindo Ghosh, Subramania Bharati, Vallathol Narayana Menon, Sarojini Naidu, Mahadevi Verma and others in India rejected the racialised territorial notion of nationalism during the freedom struggle and linked it to the larger cause of humanity and cosmopolitan patriotism.

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Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’ added new possibilities of viewing nationalism outside a territorial domain during colonialism. Aurobindo Ghose, widely regarded as the poet-prophet of Indian nationalism, elevated nationalism to the mystical and spiritual consciousness of self-realisation as a necessary stage in the social and political evolution of man towards human unity. For him, “Nationalism is not a mere political programme; and India was no mere geographical entity, no sheer physical and material landmass, no mere intellectual concept, but a Goddess incarnate, a mighty mother who for centuries has cradled and nourished her children and who, at that time, was groaning under the yoke of a foreigner oppressor—her pride shattered, her glory ground to dust.”

Further, dwelling on nationalism as the psychic and spiritual expression of the ‘cosmic consciousness’ of a diverse people, he writes, “I have wrapped the wide world in my wider self/ And time and space my spirit’s seeing are/I am the god and demon, ghost and elf/ I am the wind’s speed and the blazing star.” Not surprisingly, arguing that “our ideal of patriotism proceeds on the basis of love and brotherhood and it looks beyond the unity of the nation and envisages the ultimate unity of mankind”, Aurobindo pleaded for independence for India in the wider interest of humanity. Thus, while western thinkers believed that homogeneity was essential to build the idea of a nation-state, Indian poets looked at nationalism as the source of spiritual energy and moral enthusiasm to the nation. Rabindranath Tagore, who famously said, “I will never allow patriotism (read nationalism) to triumph over humanity as long as I live”, also wrote India’s national anthem Jana Gana Mana as our sacred obligation to celebrate freedom. If Tagore celebrated provincial freedom in his poems such as Banglar Maati Banglar Jol (Earth of Bengal, Water of Bengal), he also expanded the notion of nationalism by transgressing the boundaries of narrow walls of geographical and ethnographical prejudices, saying, “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, Where knowledge is free, Where the world has not been broken up into fragments, By narrow domestic walls, Where words come out from the depth of truth, Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection, Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit, Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

And this awakening of the nation found multiple ways of cultural, linguistic and poetic expressions. For instance, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Vande Mataram (I Praise Thee, Mother), originally in Bengali, for the first time, personified India as a mother goddess and the love of one’s country was construed as the highest spiritual act. It also acquired the status of national song in the context of India’s struggle for independence and was sung in the political context, for the first time, by Rabindra Nath Tagore at the 1896 session of the Indian National Congress.

Mother, I salute thee!
Rich with thy hurrying streams,

Bright with orchard gleams,
Cool with thy winds of delight,
Dark fields waving
Mother of might,
Mother free…

Reclaiming nationalism as the extended space for cosmopolitanism and internationalism, Sarojini Naidu, known as Bharatiya Kokila (The Nightingale of India), presented a much broader humanist vision of nationalism in her poems. In her remarkable poem ‘To India’, she writes:

O Young through all thy immemorial years!
Rise, Mother, rise, regenerate from thy gloom,
And, like a bride high-mated with the spheres,
Beget new glories from thine ageless womb!
The nations that in fettered darkness weep
Crave thee to lead them where great mornings break…
Mother, O Mother, wherefore dost thou sleep?
Arise and answer for thy children’s sake!

In contrast, Subramania Bharati, the Tamil poet known as ‘Mahakavi Bharathi’, whose nationalistic poems sold like ‘kerosene and matchboxes’, articulated the anguish of the oppressed people and awakened them to fight against the British yoke and also proclaimed his faith in the pantheistic philosophy with crystal clarity. In his poem Freedom, Subramania Bharati sings:

When will this thirst for freedom slake?
When will our love of slavery die?
When will our Mother’s fetters break?
When will our tribulations cease?

Similarly, Vallathol Narayana Menon, a poet in Kerala, wrote a series of poems on various aspects of the Indian freedom movement linking anti-colonial struggle with battles against caste restriction, tyrannies and orthodoxies. Anticipating liberating influence of feminist aspects of national struggle, Savitribai Phule, considered the first modern, radical Marathi poet, raised issues pertaining to caste and gender through her writing and speeches, as well as through direct intervention. In her book of poems Kavya Phule, she wrote about ‘breaking the shackles of caste’, and gave a clarion call to the lower caste, saying: 

Rise, to learn and act
Weak and oppressed!
Rise my brother
Come out of living in slavery.

In other words, poetry in India has served a purpose beyond art or entertainment and attempted to unify communities and fight oppression and injustices (internal and external). Also, most poets in India transcended the parochial confines usually associated with European nationalism and expressed nationalism as a much larger notion of humanity encompassing diversity of flora and fauna in nature. Jai Shankar Prasad, one of the major pillars of romanticism (chhayawad) in Hindi literature, expressed the subliminal nature of nationalism in his beautiful lines:

Arun yeh madhumay desh hamara
Jehan pahunch anjaan kshitij ko milta ek sahara
Saral taamras garbh vibha par, naach rahee tarushikha manohar
Chhitka jeevan hariyali par, mangal kumkum saara.
Consider Makhanlal Chaturvedi’s famous poem Pushp Ki Abhilasha
(A Flower’s Desire):
Chah Nahin Mai Surbala Ke Gehnon Mein Guntha Jaaon.
Mujhey Tod Lena Banmali,
Us Path Par Tum Dena Phaink,
Matra Bhoomi Per Sheesh Chadhaney,
Jis Path Jaayen Veer Anek.
(It is not my desire to be weaved in the ornaments of a beautiful girl.
It is not my desire to be weaved into a lover’s garland and tempt a beloved.
O, gardner, all I desire is
That you will pluck me and throw me on that path
On which our brave soldiers tread to sacrifice their lives for the motherland).

Though known for his melodic, metaphorical work Madhushala, widely celebrated for its deeply Vedantic and Sufi philosophical reflections, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, in his poem Azaadi Ka Geet (Song of Freedom) writes:

Ham aise aazaad, hamara jhanda hai baadal,
Chandi, sone, hire, moti se sajati gudiyan,
Inse aatankit karne ki beet gayi ghadiyan,
Inse saj dhaj baitha karte jo hain kathputle
Hamane tode abhi fainki hain bedhi hathkadiyan.
(We are free and our flag flies like clouds
Toy-girls are adorned with diamonds and pearls,
The time to play with them is over now.
Only puppets sit adorned with them
We have broken and thrown away the shackles at our feet).

As we are celebrating the ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’ campaign, part of India’s 75th independence day celebrations (Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav), it’s timely to recall that flag song (Zanda Geet) was written by poet Shyamlal Gupta and it was given the status of national song at the Haripur Congress of 1934. Rising above the narrow confines of politics of  nationalism, the flag song became a source of inspiration for patriots during the freedom struggle. Savour some of the evocative lines of the Flag Song:

Jhanda Ooncha Rahe Hamaara…
Vijayi vishwa tiranga pyaara,
Jhanda ooncha rahe hamaara,
Sada Shakti barsaane waala,
Prem sudha sursaane waala,
Veeron ko harshaane waala
Matribhumi ka tan man saara
Jhanda ooncha rahe hamaara
(The conqueror of the world, our Tricolour

Let our flag always fly high
It showers strength always
It oozes out love nectar
It gives pride to the brave
It is the heart and mind of Motherland
Let our flag always fly high).

Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, a renowned poet from the Hindi heartland, further extended the universe of nationalism by giving a brilliant tribute to the valour of Rani of Jhansi with her immortal lines:

Khoob ladi mardaani woh toh Jhansi wali Rani thi
Sinhasan hil uthey raajvanshon ney bhrukuti tani thi,
budhey Bharat mein aayee phir se nayi jawani thi,
gumee huee azadi ki keemat sabney pehchani thi,
door phirangi ko karney ki sab ney man mein thani thi.
Chamak uthi san sattavan mein, yeh talwar purani thi,
Bundeley Harbolon key munh hamney suni kahani thi,
Khoob ladi mardani woh to Jhansi wali Rani thi
(Thrones shook!  
Monarchs revolted!
A new youthfulness emerged from India aged
A heavy price was paid for freedom lost
The foreigners had to leave at any cost
The year was 1857, the enemy—the British 
Swords old were sharpened to bring their rule to a finish
The Bundelas and Harbolas told this story of grit
Of how she fought like a man every bit
A woman fearless and defiant was she
This brave warrior—our Jhansi ki Rani!)

In the hands of poets like Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, hailed as a Rashtrakavi (national poet), patriotic poetry found a new fervour of veer rasa and also poetry of rebellion. One can’t forget chilling lines of his poem Singhasan Khaali Karo Ke Janata Aaati Hai (‘Vacate the throne, for the people are coming’). Similarly, Ram Prasad Bismil, one of the founding members of Hindustan Republican Association, galvanised millions of youths with his revolutionary poem Sarfroshi ki tamanna during the freedom struggle:

Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamaare dil mein hai
Dekhna hai zor kitna baazu-e-qaatil mein hai
(The desire for revolution is in our hearts
Let us see what strength there is in the arms of our executioner).

The revolutionary tradition of nationalist poetry found expressions in most parts of India. Ambikagiri Raichoudhury, the famous Assamese poet, called himself Moi bipalabi moi tandabi (I am revolutionary, I am dance of fury). In fact, the popular slogan  Inquilab Zindabad! during the freedom movement was written by Hasrat Mohani, a poet and one of the main founders of the Communist Party of India. In short, nationalism appears like a ‘language art’ experimenting with its form, tone and text during the freedom struggle. This has lent unique voice to the nation and nationalism, blurring binaries of secular and sacred or nation and region in India. It is instructive to note here that poets during the freedom struggle were aware of how social diversity adds to nation building and progressive elements are harnessed for constructing a more inclusive and egalitarian notion of nationalism. That’s why Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem Subh-e-Azadi brings back haunting memories of the freedom struggle and partition. Expressing his pain and anguish with the destructive forces of religious nationalism, Faiz writes:

Ye daagh ujala, ye shab gazeeda seher
Wo intezaar tha jiska ye wo seher tau nahi
Ye wo seher tau nahin, jis ki arzu le kar
Chaley thay yaar ke mil jaye gi kahin na kahin
Falak ke dasht mein taaron ki aakhri manzil

Kahin tau hoga shab-e sust mauj ka saahil
Kahin tau ja ke rukayga safeena-e gham-e dil.
(This stained light, this night-bitten dawn;
This is not that long-awaited day break;
This is not the dawn in whose longing,
We set out believing we would find, somewhere,
In heaven’s wide void,
The stars’ final resting place;
Somewhere the shore of night’s slow-washing tide;
Somewhere, an anchor for the ship of heartache).

In other words, civic nationalism representing Indians’ India rather than religious or ethnic nationalism can indeed regenerate the spiritual and cultural sources of civilisation and foster the spirit of solidarity amongst us for a peaceful and prosperous India. To conclude, as a poet, I recall the haunting words of Derek Walcott: “I had no nation now but the imagination… Either I’m Nobody or I’m a Nation.” And I can see the flags being unfurled in the pink and gold early morning horizon; the sun of freedom is shining, let it shine forever…

Ashwani Kumar is a poet and professor at TISS, Mumbai. Widely published, anthologised and translated into several Indian languages, his major poetry volumes include My Grandfather’s Imaginary Typewriter and Banaras and the Other

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