History of Bengali

1818 to 1947     

1818 to 1905
Growth of Bengali Prose -
As noted above there was no prose literature in B before the 19th century. The history of B prose literature started with the foundation of Fort William College in Calcutta in 1800 a.d. The college was established with a view to training the officials of the East India Company in the different languages of the country. It had a B section headed by Willaim Carey with eight teachers under him.

Carey felt very keenly the lack of textbooks so the authorities encouraged the teachers to come out with B books. A large number of books were composed by authors in the first ten years some of whom are Ramran Basu, Rajib-lochan etc. The most eminent was Mrityunjay Vidyalankar, four of whose works were published in 1813. For the first time he developed an artistic literary style and fully deserved to be called the ‘Father of Bengali Prose’. The credit is usually given to Raja Ram Mohan Roy but his first book was published in 1813. He made a contribution nevertheless but cannot be regarded as a pioneer in the field of B prose literature.

The early B books were mostly translations from Sanskrit, English and Persian but there were three original compositions all of historical character. Ramran basu and Rajib-lochan wrote the lives of Pratapaditya and Krishna-chandra Ray while M Vidyalankar wrote a history of India from the earliest period to the time of Warren Hastings.

Carey too made a significant contribution to the language. He composed a grammar of B literature in 1815 and a B-English dictionary in 1815. Another book written by him was Itihasamala or a collection of stories. On the whole the contribution of Carey to B prose is very great indeed. The following passage from the Introduction to his Bengali Grammar shows his appreciation of the B language –

“The Bengalee may be considered as more nearly allied to Sanskrit than any of the other languages of India, four-fifth of the words in the language are pure Sanskrit. Words may be compounded with such facility, and to do great an extent in Bengalee, as to convey ideas with the utmost precision, a circumstance which adds much to its copiousness. One these, and many other accounts, it may be esteemed one of the most expressive and elegant languages of the East”. Carey has rightly pointed out that B was more allied to Sanskrit than other Indian languages. One of its effects was the close imitation of Sanskrit prose style by B writers. Vidyashankar adopted Sanskritized style in some of his books to be followed by others later.

By doing so (looking to Sanskrit for sustenance & development) the authors of those times did a great service to B language which was saved from the dominating influence of Persian and Arabic, something that Hindi could or has not been able to avoid. While the language was thus remodeled and simplified, the B writers drank deeply at the fountain of English literature, which was gradually becoming accessible to them due to the spread of English education.

The first manifestation of the new spirit was the growth of B periodicals starting 1818. Three papers Bangal Gejeti (weekly Bengal gazette, did not last for than a year), monthly journal named Digdarsana and a weekly called Samachara-darpana (mirror of news). The last two were brought out by the Baptist missionaries of Serampore. Atleast seven other B periodicals were started between 1820 to 1850. These periodicals have historical value, people and life of that time, how people were waking up from a thousand years of slumber to enter into a new world.

They were also landmarks in the development of B language and literature. It became gradually free from Sanskrit compounds, which rendered it possible for masters like Bankim-chandra Chatterjee and Rabindranath Tagore to transform it into one of the most beautiful and highly developed languages of the world.

The Samachara-darpana got increasingly popular with time. It published news of what was happening in other countries especially England. From an historical perspective it is important because India’s downfall started when as a cultural unit it reduced its contact with the outside world – went into a shell. Towards the closing centuries of Hindu rule this is exactly what happened. Al-Biruni noted this as a great defect in the character of Indians as far back as 1030. Unfortunately there was no improvement on this count during the Muslim rule. It was left to the Brits to do so then. Today in 2002 it is the Internet and World Wide Web that has helped Indians connect / communicate as never before.

Poetry - While the B prose style was of recent growth, B poetical literature has a long history before the 19th century. However, most of the works were based on religious themes. The last great master of poetic styles that came into style in the 18th century was Dasarathi Ray 1806-57, best known for his spontaneity of diction and smiles.

The first poet to break a new ground was Iswardas Gupta 1812-59 who wrote poems on social and political themes and translated English verses. He was part old and part new school. The first great poet of the new school was Madhu-sudan Datta 1824-73 who brought about an epoch-making change in the form and spirit of B poetry. He introduced blank verses and his epic Meghanada-vadha-kavya breathes a new spirit. He used Indian themes but treated them in a distinctly European way. In his Vrajangana-kavya, based on the Radha-Krishna story he caught the depth of the old Vaishnava poets but in his own way.

Rangalal Banerjee 1827-87 wrote some poems on Rajput chivalry and other historical themes. Two of the greatest poets after Shri Datta referred to above were Hem-chandra Bandyopadhay 1838-1903 and Nabin-chandra Sen 1847-1909. The former is better known for his patriotic poems inspired by fervent nationalism. The latter is the author of a triology of epic poems, giving a new interpretation to the life and message of Sri Krishna. His best-known work is Palasir Yuddha based on the decisive Battle of Plassey. This epic and many short poems breathe a fervid sense of patriotism.

The next phase of development was the romantic poems, which began with Biharilal Chakravarti 1835-94 and culminated in Rabindranath Tagore.

Novels - The B novels, inspired as it were by English novels, did not reach the heights of excellence of B poetry. The greatest writer in this field was Bankim-chandra Chatterji 1838-94 whose first novel Durgesa Nandini was published in 1865. It heralded a new style in B literature for two reasons. One he introduced a new style of B prose that continued throughout the 19th century. Two he simplified the language and removed difficult Sanskrit words.

Bankim’s novels showed an astounding vigor of the present B language, combined with beauty and simplicity. They also revealed a new world of romance and idealism. He showed for the first time that the ordinary life of a middle class B can be a subject matter of a high class novel, and that religious / social views can be preached through novels without detriment to their artistic merit. Some of his novels were translated into English. What Bankimji did most importantly was to revive amongst Bengalis pride in their own literature. Besides novels he wrote religious treatise and essays on a variety of subjects. His Ananda-math (Abbey of Bliss) which contains the famous song Vande Mataram has attained all India fame on account of its patriotic fervor in the form of a quasi-historical romance. While Bankimji was influenced by European thought and literature his originality is beyond question. For half a century he remained the uncrowned king of Bengali literature.

Drama - It was only in 1831 that Prasanna-kumar Tagore set up the first B stage. However, the first public stage was enacted in 1872. It was named National Theatre. These performances led to the development of B drama.

Here again Madhu-sudan Datta’s play Krishnakumari based on the story of the princess of Udaipur and several comedies exposing social abuses were works of high order. The next dramatist Dinabandhu Mitra 1830-73 also showed great dramatic powers. His drama Nila-darpana that exposed the oppressions of indigo-planters created a sensation at that time. Rajakrishna Ray 1849-94 wrote on a number of dramas on Puranic themes and introduced the regular free verse – remarkable innovation in B dramas. Another playwright was Giris-chandra Ghosh 1844-1912 raised the genius of B dramas to a high level. There were other dramatists too.

Others  - There were a number of stalwarts who wrote on a variety of subjects during this period. There was Keshab Chandra Sen, Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda. When Rabindranath made his debut various branches of B literature had already attained a position of eminence. Poems, novels, short stories, dramas, satire, autobiography and essays of all kinds is where Tagore contributed to. But he was a real pioneer in lyric poems, in songs in the modern spirit and in short stories.

Before we conclude this period it is important to emphasize the debt, which B prose literature owes to English literature and Western ideas. One of the serious charges levied against English literature was that vernacular literature has suffered. In this case the fact remains the B literature attained the highest development in Bengal where English education was the most advanced. We may contrast this with Bombay, Madras and other parts of British India where the main stress was on vernaculars and not on English, as in Bengal. Having said that if we were to look at India in 2002 regional languages have suffered because of the importance given to the learning of English language. I see most parents today speaking to their children in English rather than in their mother tongues. I am not suggesting that we do not learn English but not at the expense of our mother tongue.

1905 to 1947
Many of the seeds sown in the previous century began making an impact during this period. Prose which had caught on thanks to the efforts of Bankim-chandra soon caught up with poetry. The most rapid progress was achieved in the filed of novel and short story. Drama achieved significant triumphs with the setting in of the flood tide of patriotic emotion in the early 20th century. The growth of monthly journals and magazines signified the widening interests of the ordinary reader. Above all, the genius of Rabindranath Tagore (RT) whose life span equally divided between two centuries but whose amazing record of achievements were fully disclosed during this period blazing a trail of almost blinding glory on the entire domain of B literature.

Rabindranath Tagore (RT – 1861 to 1941)
RT carried over the spirit of the 19th century with its deep religious convictions, its firm faith in the idealistic values of life and its all-pervading sense of beauty and order, into the somewhat unsettled 20th century. He assimilated the lessons of the revolutionary transition with an unshakeable faith in the ultimate benefance of the meaning of human life. The whole of his literary career affords a unique evidence of the triumph of beauty and moral order in a word disintegrating before his very eyes. It is this, which makes his appeal cut across religions, countries although he wrote in a provincial language.

Poetry  - RT’s poetry falls into six well-marked divisions. The first period 1882-1886 comprises of Sandhya Sangit 1882, Prabhat Sangit 1883, Chhabi-O-Gan 1884 and Kadi-O-Komal 1886. These youthful productions are marked by a vague learning of the poetic soul not sure of itself and in the last poem an overcharged sensuousness of passion presented with some maturity of powers. Through these immature exercises, RT is not only learning his poetic craft but also discovering himself. The dreamland through which the poet moves is pierced through with occasional flashed of genuine vision and master passion of love, which gradually supplies him with the key to understanding of life.

In the second period consisting of Manasi 1890, Sonar Tari 1893, Chitra 1896, Chaitali 1896 and Kalpana 1900 RT attains the fullness of self-realization in one of its great aspects. The mists have lifted, clear, bright, sunlight floods the landscape, the imagination has grown steady, the sense of form has deepened to keep pace with the penetrating suggestiveness of ideas and the poet’s distinctive philosophy of life. Poems of nature and Love show a surprising diversity of form and inspiration. This period is remarkable for the Jivana-devata conception, a realization of the inscrutable workings of the mystery of poetic imagination, touched sometimes by the playful fancy of love and spiritualized into a kinship with the sportive Divine Lila pervading both human life and the cosmic universe. In Kalpana there is a wonderful realization of ancient Indian life and manners and of the glamour of Sanskrit poetic style, whereas in the Kshanika we find the sportive fancy of the poet making light of all his philosophies of life and love.

The third phase comprising of Naivedya 1901, Kheya 1906, Gitanjali 1910, Gitimalya and Gitali 1914 is steeped in the fervor of divine love and of the yearning for divine communication. It is this with RT’s mystic passion for God that made him known to the western world, leading on one hand to lots of praise but later to undeserved neglect by people who came to know him as a religious poet. Katha o Kahani 1900 affords another proof of the versatility of RT, in which he makes the past heroic episodes of Indian history live before us with superb narrative directness, intermingled with reflections and comments but free from any excess of imaginative subtlety.

In the fourth phase of Balaka 1916, Purabi 1925 and Mahua 1929, RT breaks fresh ground. In Balaka RT introduces an intellectual profundity, a quickening awareness of social and political problems thrown up by the ferment of the First World War. Purabi and Mahua mark the resurgence of the poet’s old feeling for love and sinuousness, touched with a new intellectual vigor and the philosophical meditation of autumnal ripeness.

The fifth phase marks a new experiment in the abandonment of the time honored verse forms and the adoption of a bare, unadorned style shorn as far as possible of the special graces of poetry. These prose poems include Punascha 1932, Sesh Saptak 1935, Patraputa 1936 and Syamali 1937. The prose poems of RT, though reaching high standards themselves and urging the revision of our traditional notions about the essential appeal of poetry, have unfortunately set a pattern in modern B poetry, which is not quite happy in its effects.

In the last period RT, caught up in the meshes of acute physical suffering brought on by ill health and disease, reveals himself as a saint and seer to whom the last secrets of human life and the role played by Death in it have stood unmasked, as in a clairvoyant vision. The poems of Prantik 1938, Akash pradip 1939, Sejuti, Navajataka 1940, Roga Sayyaya, Arogya and Janmadine 1941 are bathed in transcendent light, which illuminates the experiences of life as a transparent medium through which the other worldly realities vividly make their presence light. The last three poems offer a wonderful poetic realization of the truths of Indian philosophy about the relation between the body and the immortal soul and show how deep and abiding was the poet’s faith in the spiritual institutions of his religion. They are like hymns of the Upanishads, brought back to life after the elapse of years.

Short Stories & Novels - RT’s contribution to the novel is extraordinary, though it has not the epoch-making character of his poetry. His earliest novels, Bauthakuranir Hat 1882 and Rajarshi bear the stamp of the same features of thought and style as his first characteristic poetical utterances like Sandhya Sangit 1882 and Prabhat-Sangit 1883, and appear almost like story versions of his poetic yearnings and wistful fancies and reflections. Still the novelists have to be firmly grounded in reality than poet and must show a more intimate acquaintance with the situations and problems of life.

After an interval of 17 years since his first apprentice work, RT returned to the form with a series of master-pieces – Chokher Bali 1902, Naukadubi 1905 and Gora 1909. In the meantime he had developed mature powers as a poet and also perfected the form of the short story. In these novels RT struck a distinctly new line of approach and treatment and shook himself free from the influence of his great predecessor Bankim-chandra who besides exploring with superb success the resources of the historical novel, also interested himself in the vein of romance and mystical, superhuman elements that were implicit in the rhythm of Bengali life.

RT relied upon the detailed psychological method in which incidents and intentions are marshaled in a close array and every step in the evolution of the story and character is subject to a process of a minute analysis. He seeks his relief not in romance but in the rich, transforming power of the poetic imagination, which he utilized in the interpretation of characters and elucidation of motives whenever he felt tired of the rigors of realism. The result is that most RT’S novel’s we seem to be breathing in two heterogeneous atmospheres, either simultaneously or in succession.

Gora is the greatest of RT’s novels, combining an epic breadth of canvas with a rich delineation of character and a crowded picture of contemporary life. The full turmoil of that age with its political passions and religious controversies threw up personalities at once representative and individual filled the pages of the novel with a dynamic and varied energy of life. Gorai, the hero was the son of Irishman, who having lost his parents in the Sepoy Mutniy, and ignorant of his birth was brought up as the child of a Hindu family. Very curiously he developed a stern and uncompromising Hindu orthodoxy with ardent, passionate patroticism that brought him with sharp conflict both will political authority and social / religious leaders. He sternly repressed his love for Sucharita on account of her belonging to the heretical Brahmin sect and for the first time felt the throes of self-introspection alien to his direct and forthright nature. The religious battle is much more interesting and drew within its orbit not merely fierce zealots on both sides but ardent and sincere souls striving to realize the essential spirit of religion. Paresh babu on the Brahma side and Anandamayi within the Hindu fold has to suffer ostracism because of their exceptional liberal outlook and neglect of dogmas / rituals. At last, Gora comes to know the secret of his birth and is restored to his right relations with his environment. The novel is a masterpiece in the conducting of religious disputes and presents us with a number of men and women throbbing with vitality and alive to the fingertips. The novel is an epic of the life of Bengal in the early years of the 20th century when modernity established itself as a stable shaping force in society.

Subsequent to this novel i.e. Vaire 1916, Chaturanga 1916, Yogayoga 1929, Sesher Kavita 1930 and slighter sketches such as Dui Bon 1933 represent a shift in emphasis and method. RT’s view of life was contracted to significant fragments marked by a special interest of situation and character instead of spread over representative aspects.

The situations that he explores are the problems of exceptional personalities in unusual circumstances. Ghar Vaire and Char Adhyaya deal with the terrorist’s movement in Bengal which unhinged the equilibrium of minds and created violent revulsions in the ideals of conduct. Chaturanga is a story of hectic changes in human relations and feelings brought about in theory-ridden minds under the influence of rapid shifting situations. Yogayoga and Sesher Kavita reveal brilliant, if uncoordinated powers, though they can hardly be acclaimed as showing mastery of form and consistent greatness as works of fiction.

As a writer of short story, RT stands easily among the master artists according to the most exciting world standards. Their variety of interests and subjects is wonderful; their insight into the spirit of Bengali life in all its phases is outstanding. The family life of Bengal, with its intricate network of rights obligations, its conflicts and contradictions, its flow and flux of feelings, has been probed with a surprising sureness of touch. The Bengali’s faith in the unexpected and supernatural finds expression in some stories, sometimes with a touch of picturesque exoticism and sometimes with a weird and uncanny effect ensured through deft psychological manipulation.

Near about the third decade of the 20th century RT’s short stories underwent a change of spirit and technique parallel to the change that overtook his novels. They came to acquire a sharp polemical tone, a tone of pungent social criticism and a pre-occupation with aggressively eccentric and abnormal individuality. RT was quick to sense and seize the change that came over Bengali manners as a result of gradual infiltration of the experimenting, irreverent Western spirit.

Drama and non-fictional Prose - The dramatic form was quite congenial to RT’s genius being intertwined with and partially obstructed by an excess of lyricism and song and by an over-insistent and ever recurring philosophy of life. He begins with song drama and ends with dance drama. His dramatic output is considerable in bulk and varied in its contents but one still feels that the dramatic spirit was not quite inevitable in him. He changes the forms of his dramas again and again and does not seem confident of having attained final perfection in any of his versions. Many of his dramas are dramatized versions of his novels and short stories written as a result of after-thought and not as a spontaneous, first time response to a given situation.

Among the best of his dramas in all kinds may be mentioned Raja O Rani 1889, Visarjan 1890 and Malini 1896 and Tapati 1929 a refashioned Raja O Rani designed to achieve more purely tragic effects but missing its mark because of the unbalanced shifting of focus, poetic dramas like Chitrangada 1892 where the dramatic effect is weakened by a predominantly lyrical treatment of passion. There were many other dramas written too.

As a prose writer RT shows the same inexhaustible variety of forms and richness of effects as in his other forms. Travel accounts, essays, literary appreciations, emotional and imaginative writings, prose to poetry testify to his astonishing versatility and the wide arching range of his interests.

His political, social, religious essays show a keen dialectic power, close knit logic and sarcasm but are too prolix, long-winded and repetitive to a fault, so inspite of their brilliance they are likely to prove a bit tiresome. His religious essays are marked by a fine spiritual intuition and offer new/striking interpretation of the inner import of customary observances and fossilized rituals of Hinduism. But his personal and imaginative essays are the best of the kind in world literature, combining a rare sense of style with a subtle play of the imagination and enshrining moods and outlooks of profound appeal.

RT’s literary criticisms offer fine examples of penetrating judgment and interpretation, and their originality / delicacy of perceptions has given them the rank of creative literature. His excursions in the field of ancient Sanskrit literature amount almost to re-creations of the literature and of the inspirations that gave it birth, and have opened new vistas in our mental horizon. His studies in modern literature are stimulating and replete with evidences of insight and discrimination. He also gives is a brilliant reconstruction of the background of folk-poetry. The volumes of literary criticism comprise Sahitya, Sahityer Pathe, Prachin Sahitya, Lok Sahitya and Adhunik Sahitya, the sheafs of personal essays collected in Bichitra Prabandha and lyrical rhapso-dies bound in prose rhythm in Lipika in which the dividing line between prose and poetry gets obliterated. These are gems in RT’s crown.

Post – R Tagore Bengali literature 
Poetry  - B poetry after RT and previous to the advent of the ultra-modern group is dominated by his influence. Among immediate disciples may be mentioned Jatindra-mohan Bagchi 1877 to 1948 and Karuna-nidhan Bandyopadhyaya 1877 to 1955. They try to apply RT’s technique and style to domestic subjects, glorifying the old ideals of social conduct and time honored spirit of religious devotion.

A second class consists of poets who were genuine admirers of RT but reconciled this worship of the master with following independent traits dictated by their own poetic needs. Among this class may be included Pramatha Chaudhari 1868-1946, Satyendra-nath Datta 1882-1922 and Mohit-lal Majumdar 1888-1952.

Satyendra-nath Datta was the poet of fancy and metrical innovations, having introduced and naturalized a great number of new and untried metrical patterns in B poetry. His poetry was more marked for topical interests, matters of ephemeral appeal than for deep and abiding inspiration. He adds a note of excitement of a restless, all-probing curiosity, and of mobile experiment in the somewhat staid and over-punctilious sphere of B poetry.

Mohit-lal Majumdar achieved greatness as a poet and a literary critic. His poetic output is rather thin and marked by the unusual feature of over charged sensuousness and a languorous magnificence of style. He boldly and unapologetically proclaims the pagan enjoyment of life as the highest ideal of man.

Jatinddra-nath Sengupta affects to repudiate the romantic and spiritual values in life so deep-rooted in the B temperament, and to proclaim an agnostic philosophy of extreme and unredeemed suffering. His poetry has an acid taste which is more enjoyable by reason of its contrast with the almost exclusive cultivation of sugared sentiments in contemporary poetry.

The present generation of poets in B literature stands alien to its past traditions. They have been deeply influenced by the pessimism and despair of contemporary Western poetry and bear upon them deep trace of influence of Elliot and Spender. Among the moderns, Jibanananda Das 1899 to 1954 stands alone though his influence upon the younger poets has been considerable.

Short stories, novels and prose writings - It is in the field of the short story and novel that the 20th century has surpassed and improved upon the record of the 19th. RT will always remain an unapproachable figure, but with this exception, B fiction in both its forms has forged ahead and hit more varied and difficult targets. The complexity of modern life, its vastly increased scope of interests and entanglements, its international contacts and expanding horizons, the emergence of a new rhythm of individual life – all have been reflected in the fiction of the day with much keener intellectual curiosity, if not with more impeccable artistic form.

Sarat-chandra Chatterjee 1876 to 1938 revolutionized the whole outlook of the cultured man towards the old social restrictions and ideals, and implanted the seeds of a new intellectual and moral freedom, which will regulate the human relationships of the future.

Sarat-chandra awakened our social conscience from the slumber of centuries by his deeply sympathetic treatment of the unmerited suffering of the victims of social justice. He showed up the iniquity of our treatment of women in denying them even elementary justice. His novels brought home to us that love is something elusive and unpredictable and no synonym for conjugal constancy that one recognizes in its true nature not through books but through the insight of direct experience. They also demonstrated the devious course of affection in our family life, which tends to flow through underground and unexpected channels. Though he protested against the abuse of social authority and the tyranny of customs, yet he was loyal to the old ideals in their unperverted purity. His women are dynamic figures and show a surprising initiative and clearness of vision, when his men are frequently wavering and undecided. Among his more outstanding works may be mentioned Palli Samaj 1916, Charitrahnina 1917, Srikanta in four parts 1917-33, Pather Dabi 1926, a novel on the revolutionary movement and Sesh Prasna 1931.

The 20th century is the age of women novelists who became equipped through the educational progress of women to put to use their loving and minute observation of family life and excelled particularly in unfolding the hidden soul of their own sex. The major novelists are Nirupama Devi, Anurupa Devi 1882-1958, Sita and Santa Devi who strike a definitely femine note in the B novel.

The tradition of the serious problem novel was maintained by Naresh-chandra Sengupta who introduced the motives of sex and crime with sufficient psychological power backed by a probing intellect. Charu-chandra Bandyopadhyaya, Buddha-dev Basu etc represent a younger generation with a new technique and wider / more diverse interests in life.

The romantic view of life is not without its exponents. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyaya 1894-1950 brought to bear upon the novel a cosmic range of imagination and a profound absorption in the peaceful beauty and benign influence of nature. His Pather Panchali 1929, Aparajita and Aranyaka 1939 inagurated a new genre, which has not been further explored. Tarasankar Bandyopadhyaya is most outstanding of the living novelists today and over and above initiating new trends of inspiration has a few masterpieces to his credit.

Non-fictional prose has not kept up the heights reached by RT.

And so ends this compilation on Bengali language and literature.

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