Representation of Indian Independence in Art and Literature

What crops up in your conscious state when you cogitate of the Indian freedom struggle—perhaps, protests, marches, shouts, slogans, non-violent activism, and jailed comrades? Cacophonous, ear-piercing, harsh endeavor is an inherent feature of any movement. But it is only one side of the tale. Considering the other dimension of this saga, one could find that such actions have always been descendants of quieter, gentler, and more restrained acts of rebellion. But these are no less powerful.

There is no doubt that Indian independence is a collective result of the active participation of freedom fighters who devoted themselves all in all to achieve the ultimate goal named swaraj. But freedom fighters, as perceived by many, is not a term denoting men with arms and ammunition marching forward to gain independence. This term encompasses artists, writers, poets, musicians, painters, dancers, oral storytellers, and other custodians of culture who transmogrify the elements observed and absorbed from the outer world, embedded in their hearts, through their art, and in the process, resuscitate the collective soul of the people they are looking to inspire. Needless to say, people are moved to action when they are moved by words. To encounter the question of what moved our heroes to fight without the fear of consequences, ask yourself what makes you care about the causes you care about.

The pamphlet by Mayhew, Dickinson, and Paine shook American society in its entirety. Common sense & American Crisis both by Paine, were read by over a million people and stand as examples of the criminal responsible for instigating the Declaration of American Independence. The same goes with the writings of Montesquieu, Locke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, who oiled the wheels of the French Revolution(1789). Phillip Veit’s Germania lit up the dull desire of the Germans to see their land free from all.

India is not an outlier. As we ace up our to celebrate flamboyantly the semi-sesquicentennial anniversary of Indian Independence from the British Raj, the fluttering remembrance of iconic leaders like Rani of Jhansi, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Bhagat Singh further zeals up our spirits. Rooting out the true sense in words of Edward Lytton, “Pen is mightier than a sword”, one could realize that the word ‘pen’ is a synecdoche for the pen, the ink,  the paintbrush, the canvas, the musical notes, the dance beats, the theater-play so on and so forth, if an arsenal of an art-army. These terms make us recall the great personalities who kept them under their usage namely, Amrita Sher-Gill, Sadat Hasan Manto, Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu, Munshi Premchand and Raja Ravi Verma. People who fought wars; people who used pens; people who stroked colors; people who sang and danced; people who stood against any form of unjust oppression and injustice; people who participated in any way. It was a result of this amassed toil that we rejoiced on August 15. But this date compels us to think about the role played by art and literature in the pre-independence era.

Newspapers like Bande Matram by B. C. Pal, Kesari by B. G. Tilak, Voice of India by Dadabhai Naoroji, and Harijan by Gandhi attempted to make Indians not only socially and politically attentive but also wreathed them squarely against the colonial oppressors. Pamphlets written in lingua-franca and distributed at different places handed in useful information and served as an agent that spreads rational and right hatred against the oppressor, amongst the oppressed. The pole bearers of the freedom struggle soon realized the significance of prose and verse that possessed the potential to spark off a wildfire inside the boiling hearts of the colonized. Bankim Chandra Chattopadya’s Anandmath (1882), set during the famine of the 1770 Bengal Famine, strengthens the feeling of patriotism through its characters, who fight against subjugation in service of their ‘Mother’. The National Song of India is a hymn extracted from this book. The true exponent of communal harmony and social amity, Munshi Premchand fuelled the independence struggle with his first collection of short stories, Soz E Watan, later banned by the then government. Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India, written during his Ahmednagar Fort imprisonment(1944–46), is an honour paid to the rich heritage of India, its history and philosophy, as evident from the gestures of a patriot fighting for his nation’s independence. The influence of Gandhi left Mulk Raj Anand to write books like Across the Blackwaters, The Village, and The Sword and the Sickle,  exploring the Gandhian ideology and the freedom struggle. Rajarao’s Kanthapura, showcases a caste-ridden village where a brahmin battles the practise of untouchability. K. S. Venkataraman’s Murugun Tiller and Kundan, The Patriot, highlight the economic impact of Gandhianism and the Civil Disobedience Movement, respectively.

All these writings emboldened the already towering personality of Mahatma Gandhi and made people blindly walk in his footsteps. For those battling against exploitation, Gandhi became a messiah who would soothe their life hurdles.

‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ for the contemporary populace is one of the quotidian phrases, but at that time it was quite unheard-of. The notion of India as a motherland was a colossally unfamiliar one. Abanindranath Tagore painted his famous Bharat Mata portrait in 1906, which crystallised the abstract idea of India as Motherland. Originally titled Banga Mata(against the Bengal Partition), he retitled it to Bharata Mata, a serene and aesthetic allegory in sari-clad,  holding four objects in her hands — food, cloth, learning and spiritual knowledge. The Bengal Famine Series by Zainul Abedin pierced through the psyche of Indians and enhanced their boiling rage. His haunting sketches of forgotten famine were exponential in fiercely fueling up the feeling of nationalism. The paintings of Amrita Sher-Gill, as considered by Jawaharlal Nehru, dispensed similar propaganda as propagated by the Indian National Congress.

Rabindra Sangeet,  a new style in Bengali music was evolved by Rabindranath Tagore. As a versatile composer, he has 2,232 songs, enshrined in Gitabitan, to his credit. The popular Amar Shonar Bangla (now the National Anthem of Bangladesh) tried to tie Hindus and Muslims in a harmonious cord. Another song, Jana Gana Mana, first sung at the 1911 Calcutta Session of Congress, was later adopted by the Constituent Assembly of India in 1950.

The establishment of the Indian People’s Theatre Association in 1942 created social awareness and national integration. It soon became Indian movement having a far reaching effect. It tried to revive the cultural heritage of the country and also encouraged freedom and economic and social justice. Founded by stalwarts like K A Abbas, Dr Bhabha, Anil D’Silva, Ali Sardar Jafri, and Dada Sharmalkar, many prominent artists, writers, musicians, directors, dancers, and singers have been a part of ITPA. The emergence of regional classical dances like Kathak in UP, Odissi in Odisha and Kathakali in Kerala also paved the way for a new creative way of making people connect to the feeling of patriotism.

The torch bearers of the Independence Movement were men and women from homespun walks of life who joined the freedom struggle and became unforgettable heroes. They were not born scholars, some even illiterate but they educated us with what is rational and right. They hailed from different parts of the country, spoke differently, ate myriadly, wore clothes at odds.  But they never appeared like chalk and cheese when the idea of Independent India came. There they believed in the same ideology—one which led them to denounce every personal pleasure in quest of a better quality of life for all, with the first step being kicking the colonizer. As a result, art and literature catered to the sense of collective belonging and enshrined Indian Independence within its bosom.




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