Before Independence, patriotism often took the shape of mother-worship. The rhetoric of ‘sacrifice’ or balidaan bridged the gap between the political and the religious. In these post-patriotic times, should we, globalized urban intellectuals, indulge in the easy reductive ‘analysis’ of Kalification of the homeland as a psychosis of the colonized bhadralok’s threatened masculinity, the quixotic blood-thirst of a bunch of emasculated wordy nerds?
In certain quarters, not only is it ‘cool’ to deride Bankimchandra’s Vande Mataram and Sri Aurobindo’s Motherland obsession but it would be ‘positively uncool’ to be aroused by the part of Tagore’s Janaganamana where the country is hailed as a mother. When that song was sung in a National Congress session, in the presence of, but not in praise of, King George V, certain cynics spread the rumour — apparently all the way up to Yeats and Ezra Pound — that the adhinayaka addressed was the King of England. In response to this debunking spin, Rabindranath had the following to say: “That great Charioteer of man’s destiny in age after age could not by any means be George V or George VI or any George. Even my ‘loyal’ friend realized this; because, however powerful his loyalty to the King, he was not wanting in intelligence.”
Unfortunately, among 21st century www-intellectuals, there seems to be no want of such people wanting in intelligence. Some of them may scream in post-colonial petulance: “How could even Rabindranath, who disliked nationalism as much as he hated fascism, address the ‘divine dispenser of India’s destiny’ as a ‘Maa’ (4th stanza)? How disappointingly communal!”
Of course, Rabindranath was no Tantrik Hindu. Indeed, it would be an understatement to say that Rabindranath was uncomfortable with the image of Kali the Mother about whom Vivekananda wrote one of his most majestic and deeply personal poems.
For Rabindranath, a sophisticated aniconic Brahmo, Kali’s nudity, her skull-necklace, her bloody sword, and lolling tongue must have been abhorrent on multiple levels. As a colonial subject, valourizing the Indian civilization as philosophically majestic, morally pure, aesthetically enchanting and spiritually lofty, he must have found goddess Kali to be much more of an embarrassment than Krishna, the other dark and devious divinity with whose iconography at least the young Rabindranath (of Bhanusingher Padaavali) was almost in love. His novel Rajarshi as well as his play Visarjan feature a Kali temple on top of a hill in Tripura as a seat of violence and intrigue. The plot centres on the abolition of animal sacrifice by a humane king of Tripura who is pitted against the machinations of a power-thirsty priest called Raghupati, who tries to inflame a mutiny, dethrone the king, and abet the weak, envious younger brother of the king to fratricide. The play — a passionate argument against the divisive religious politics of bloodshed — climaxes at the scene where this devout Kali worshipper, now badly defeated, rebukes the stone idol and throws “her” out from the temple down into the river, out of sheer frustration and a crisis of faith.
Interestingly, the young Rabindranath would act in this very role of a disillusioned priest-villain and would imaginably enthral the audience with the vitriolic crescendo of an anti-Kali speech.
“Kali the Mother” does not afford us any softer face in Swami Vivekananda’s English poem, “For Terror is Thy name/ Death is in Thy breath/ Thou ‘Time’, the All-destroyer!/ Come, Ov Mother, come! Who dares misery love/And hug the form of Death/ To him the Mother comes.” It would be a mistake to associate the word “Terror” here with the ‘terrorism’ of the Ullaskar or Jugantar brand. Before ‘hugging the form of death’ at half the age till which Tagore lived, Vivekananda had gone to Kashmir where he wrote that poem. During this stay, while ritually worshipping Khir Bhavani, he had the thought: “Mother Bhavani has been manifesting Her Presence here for untold years. The Mohammedans came and destroyed Her temple, yet the people of the place did nothing to protect Her. Alas, if only I were then living, I would not have borne it, I would have protected the temple from the invaders.” He, then, distinctly heard the voice of the goddess saying: “It was my desire that the Mohammedans destroy the temple. It is my desire that I should live in [a] dilapidated temple, otherwise, can I not immediately erect a seven-storied temple of gold here if I like? What can you do? Do I protect you or do you protect me?” The present day chariot-driving ‘protectors’ of Ram and Durga should heed these words of the Mother, in front of whose idol we have always sung:
“My mother’s image by error with clay I want to shape/ this Ma is not earth’s girl, vain toil, with clay I sweat… My mother has three eyes: sun, moon, and holy fire. Is there an artisan, to build me such a one?” (Translation: Gayatri Spivak).
If the maternalization of language or land is necessarily abjured because of its suspected Hindutva roots, then what do we do with the national anthem of Bangladesh — also composed by Rabindranath — which uses “Ma” as a refrain, with no trace of militarism?
This whole essay was sparked off by a sequence of emotions I felt when I first heard the new 2011 Janaganamana recording by 39 musicians on YouTube this year. First I was just viscerally moved to tears by it, simply by the variety and richness of styles. The emergent rasa that enraptured me was not Veera but a sublime blend of Adbhuta and Shanta rasa, like one relishes the cosmic form of Krishna, in the 11th chapter of the Bhagavadgita, with. But then I was embarrassed by my own reaction. I had never noticed the presence of the ‘Mother’ in that song (4th stanza) before. Durga Puja was drawing near. There was nostalgia in the air, reminding me of the completely non-sectarian atmosphere of our home Puja at Mominpur where the local rich Muslim family would pay for the sweets on the Ashtami day’s bhog. Was there a secret Hindutva skeleton inside my anti-nationalist closet? Or is senility softening me like the Marxist Manik Bandyopadhyay whose last alcoholism-rehab days were permeated by Kali bhakti?
We have all learnt “the illegitimacy of nationalism” from Rabindranath via Ashis Nandy. We know that patriotism is one thing and nationalism is quite another. Tagore and Gandhi were patriotic, Bipin Chandra Pal and Netaji were nationalistic. National pride is immoral because un-universalizable. Believing one’s own cultural heritage or religion to be the greatest in the world is unethical because you cannot consistently will that this maxim be universally and sincerely embraced as objectively true by all other peoples of the world. But even Rabindranath’s cosmopolitanism would surely be inimical to the grotesque globalization which would let AIG and Merrill Lynch settle the Kashmir dispute.
Echoing the Atharva Veda, Rabindranath famously pays homage to the Earth Mother, yet he would extol Divine Mother in a patriotic spirit, when the occasion demanded it. Hiskirtan-tuned “Ek baar toraa maa bolia daak” is a patriotic invocation of the motherland. “Aji Bangla desher hridoy hote kokhon aponi” is such a patriotic song which oozes withbhakti towards a motherland portrayed in words uncannily similar to the standard descriptions of Kali: “In your right hand blazes the khardga/ The left hand takes away our fears and cares/ Two eyes emit the smile of affection/ But the eye-on-the-forehead is of the colour of fire/ The more I see you, Ma, the more I fail to take my eyes off/ Your golden temple has thrown open its door today.”
This dark mother is daughter, mother, country and poor neglected mother-tongue at the same time. When it comes to lamenting the languishing vernacular culture and language, Rabindranath, in a heart-melting song, depicts the same goddess as a spurned mother whom the Anglicized Indians are ignoring while she awaits their return home morosely in her humble holy hut. One characterization of this country-mother is “one whose language everyone is dying to forget (kaahaar bhashaa haai, bhulite shobe chaai, she je amaar janani re)” — a nice reminder to the average reader of this newspaper.
When Abanindranath — greatly inspired by Sister Nivedita who imbibed the love of Kali from her master — painted Bharat Mata, he replaced the sword and the bleeding head with a book and placed a bunch of rice twigs (food) and a piece of home spun white cloth (clothing). Should we vivisect this painting to detect traces of a militant nationalism in it?
The world’s earliest convocation speech, in Taittiriya Upanishad, urges the new graduate to “make your mother your God”. We deify our mothers, and the earth we live and die on, and we call our first language, if any, our mother too. When the mellifluous multiculturalism of our national anthem, in its recent YouTube version soulfully sung by such diverse artists as Balamuralikrishna, Ghulam Mustafa Khan, Ajoy Chakrabarty, Hariharan, Sonu Niigaam, Usha Uthup, Sunidhi Chauhan, Leslie Lewis and others (while the English translation is recited by Harsh Neotia in an unabashed Indian accent), touches that chord of maternal thinking, it is okay to cry in uncritical worshipful joy.
Arindam Chakrabarti teaches Philosophy of Language and Mind, Kant, Wittgenstein and Indian Philosophy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa