Ode to `Vande Mataram'

WHEN the saffron brigade first inched its way to the centre stage, the country was forced to stand mute witness to a controversy, which saw the Hindutva brigade pit the national song, "Vande Mataram" against the National Anthem, "Jana Gana Mana". Over the subsequent years, other controversies along similar lines relegated the "Vande Mataram vs. Jana Gana Mana" episode to the background; only to be resurrected in passing in discussions on saffronisation.

But, not many in India — and it is not just Generation Next — know that "Vande Mataram" has been dogged by controversy right through its over-a-century-old history. For this alone, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya's "biography" of the National Song ought to be read. Though academic in approach, the historian has chronicled its history in what he himself describes as the "Kathasaritasagara" style.

Nominated as one of the two most popular songs in India by listeners of the BBC World Service in 2002, the book looks at how "Vande Mataram" survived its various incarnates; from lyrical hymn to political chant to seditious slogan to communal war cry to national song. Its communalisation in the 1930s and `40s — with the Muslim League opposing it for being idolatrous and the Hindu communalists identifying themselves more and more with it — saw "Vande Mataram" having to shed some of its verse, which was seen as idolatry to acquire the status of National Song.

Though Bhattacharya dwells on how "Vande Mataram" earned its various descriptions, his pre-occupation here is primarily with issues that saw a "poetic paean to the nation become a symbol of communal dispute"; an issue that is as relevant today as it was when it first became a bone of contention.

Vande Mataram: The Biography of a Song, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Penguin, Rs. 150.


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