As India celebrates its 75th Independence Day, contributions of literary figures who invoked a sense of nationalism to fuel Indian freedom movement should be acknowledged
There is a popular saying in English – "The Pen is mightier than the Sword". History of the world would testify that poets, philosophers, and performing artists through various genres of art and literature have influenced the thoughts of millions by inspiring acts of valour and protest against deprivation. The French Revolution got ignited by the works of Rousseau; the writings of Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky provided an impetus to the Russian Revolution. In India, when the struggle for Independence was gradually taking the shape of an organized movement, Indian literature of that era along with the performance of drama and other forms of art played a significant role in bringing the movement to the masses. Words give the power to imagine things beyond ordinary understanding. In the combat against British oppression, this imagination imbued with words led to the creation of fiction as strong as 'Anandamath' by the eminent Bengali novelist Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay. The cry of Indian Freedom –'Bande Mataram' is a part of Anandamath. This cry echoed in the air with a reverberation of longing for freedom. The British administration was so scared of 'Bande Mataram' that anyone uttering it would be considered a nationalist and anti-British. In pre-Independent India poems and songs invigorated feelings of oneness for the motherland. Moreover, these pieces instilled pride in us by glorifying our historical, geographical and cultural legacy.
Despite being a geographic entity, India before the advent of the British did not have nationalism in the sense of the term. Owing to this condition, people of different provinces considered their native places as their nation. With the gradual decline of the Mughal empire, the princely states succumbed to the British power game. The Urdu poets were one of the earliest to express their anguish over British rule. Even before 1857, they composed the poetic genre 'Shahr-Ashob' to point out their understanding of socio-political realities. Related to incidents of the Battle of Plassey, Battle of Buxar or defeat of Tipu Sultan, Urdu poetry emerged as a voice of protest. The revolt of 1857 saw a conscious growth of Urdu Nationalist Poetry. Some poets like Hadi Sambhali and Ismail Fauq among many others were punished by the British. When the Indian National Congress became the face of the Freedom Movement, Urdu writers like Mirza Bacchu Beg and Akbar Allahabadi proclaimed themselves as propagandists of Indian heritage. There was huge fanning of discontent found in Urdu poetry of the times disapproving of British activities like the Rowlatt Act or the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. Muhammad Iqbal's 'Sara Jahan Se Accha Hindustan Hamara' became an ode expression against British Raj.
After the First World War, the dynamics of the Indian Freedom Movement took a different dimension. With the emergence of Gandhiji as the new leader of the movement, the flow of protest turned into a mass movement where even the lower sections of society started participating. With the Non-Cooperation Movement, a sense of great awakening prevailed. The novelty featured in the writings of some contemporary poets to whom freedom was not just breaking the shackles of colonialism but also meant boundless optimism. They wanted a society bereft of disparity and injustice. Hence they called for liberty in its psychological aspect. Kazi Nazrul Islam was one such poet who epitomized the spirit of Nationalism in Bengal since the early twenties of the last decade. His involvement in the First World War and consequent political activities made him a poet of enfranchisement. As a mark of protest, he even went to a fast in prison which eventually was withdrawn only after Rabindranath Tagore sent him a personal letter. His works like 'Dhumketu' articulated the urge of a new era in a full-throated voice. It was largely revolutionary and militant. It was somewhat ironic to the policy of the then Congress who were actually trying to make Constitutional discourse with the British. Nazrul became a factor in the revival of revolutionary activities in Bengal as organizations like Jugantar acknowledged the poems of Nazrul. No wonder incidents like the Chittagong Armoury Raid (1930) erupted as an extremist means of protest. Nazrul embodied a spirit of total revolt against the forces of tyranny. He could summon the vibrance of youth in his works. Tagore rightly dedicated his work 'Basanta' to Nazrul. In Bengal, there were other poets like Mukunda Das who contributed to the spread of the Swadeshi Movement in rural Bengal. Mukunda Das also staged plays like 'Matripuja' that aroused patriotic feelings in the masses. The British Government was disturbed by the content of the play and its impact for which the play was eventually banned. His compositions became a part of popular utterances in Bengal.
If Bengali poets like Nazrul and Mukunda Das captivated the imagination of the masses then contemporary Bengali Theatre encouraged participation in the freedom struggle. It also offered an antidote to spreading cultural colonization. This theatre reflected the national character and shaped a figure of national behaviour. The beginning of the Proscenium theatre of Calcutta and Bombay coincided with discontent against colonialism. The effect of theatre on public minds could be easily felt when we learn that way back in 1876 the Dramatic Performances Act was passed which barred the show of any play focusing on the seditious political message. Lord Curzon's Partition Of Bengal Act of 1905 set fuel to the fire of Nationalism. The Swadeshi movement spread and theatre acted as a catalyst. Girish Ghosh's plays like 'Siraj-ud-Daula' along with Mir Qasim (1906) and 'Chattrapati Shivaji' (1907) fell under strict censorship. Dwijendralal Ray's play 'Mebar Patan' or Fall of Mewar spoke about national unity. Writers like Kshirod Prasad Vidyavinod in plays like 'Palasir Prayaschitya' and 'Nandakumar' brought a kind of humanitarianism to the plays that appealed to the rationalism of the masses. Nationalism as a subject was used both in a psychological as well as in social sense. Thus, theatres gained National character.
When we discuss the Indian Freedom Movement we must acknowledge the contributions of the poets, dramatists and composers of popular ballads. The imposition of the Vernacular Press Act by Lord Lytton in 1878 readily testifies to the concern of our colonial masters about things published in black and white. The flames of patriotism were spread through literature in various parts of the country ranging from the south to the northeastern region. In Hindi Literature, we find eminent writers like Munshi Premchand, Ramchandra Shukla who delineate social consciousness by unfolding the exploitation of the downtrodden. In his famous novel 'Godan', Premchnad unfurls a rare example of Peasant Nationalism. Tagore, though he was more noted for his internationalism, was also in tune with the spirit of Nationalism in his songs and poems like 'O amar deshermati tomar pare thakai matha'. Celebrating the 75th year of our long-desired freedom, we often discuss the movements of Gandhiji and the role of Pandit Nehru, the radical Nationalism of Netaji and the social struggle of Ambedkar. While doing so let us also glorify those who fought against British imperialism through the weapon of literary and cultural creativity.
The writer is an educator from Kolkata. Views expressed are personal