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Bengal Renaissance And The 19th Century History Essay

The 19th century Bangla literature is not a product of the continuous on-going literary tradition of the land, if we for a moment not consider the socio-political changes of the 19th century and the conquest of Bengal in the late 18th century by the British East India Company. It is neither a product of a sudden upsurge of literary geniuses who started to excel in isolation. The changes that characterise the Bangla literary tradition of the 19th century is deeply and thoroughly influenced by the social reform movement known as the ‘Bengal Renaissance’.

With the advent of the British East India Company’s rule over Bengal, the mainstream literary tradition of the land was transported from its rural base to a highly ‘sophisticated’ urban elite society. The roots from which Bangla literature had evolved for hundreds of years was soon sidelined and termed as ‘folk-lore’ (­m¡L-Lb¡) and ‘remote’ (fË¡¢¿¹L) and the rural storytellers whose narratives revolved around a specific religious or social aspect was soon substituted by the elite, educated and intellectual Bengali ‘babus’ of Calcutta, the then capital of the East India Company’s dominion.

The educational system of Bengal, as a whole, underwent a drastic change in the early 19th century. From a conventional learning of the Bangla, Sanskrit and Arabic languages, the holy Vedas or the Bangla folk-lore and ballads (N£¢aL¡) in the traditional makeshift schools (f¡Wn¡m¡ or ­V¡m), the educational reforms in the late 18th century and the early 19th century saw the establishment of institutions like the Asiatic Society (1784), Fort William College (1800), Serampore College (1817), Hindu College (1817), Sanskrit College (1824) and others which were exclusively meant for the elite Bengalis in order to educate them according to the European idea of education, learning and value judgement. This socio-political change in the educational scenario of Bengal quite naturally gave birth to a new intellectual class of Bengalis who perceived the idea of European education as the ideal form of learning and who would later give birth to the Bengal Renaissance and in turn change the scenario of the literary tradition of the 19th century Bangla literature.

According to historian Romesh Chunder Dutt, “The conquest of Bengal by the English was not only a political revolution, but ushered in a greater revolution in thoughts and ideas, in religion and society... From the stories of gods and goddesses, kings and queens, princes and princesses, we have learnt to descend to the humble walks of life, to sympathise with the common citizen or even common peasant… Every revolution is attended with vigour, and the present one is no exception to the rule. Nowhere in the annals of Bengali literature are so many and so bright names found crowded together in the limited space of one century as those of Ram Mohan Roy, Akshay Kumar Datta, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Hem Chandra Banerjee, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Dina Bandhu Mitra. Within the three quarters of the present century, prose, blank verse, historical fiction and drama have been introduced for the first time in the Bengali literature...” (Dutt, 1877). It is true what R.C. Dutt has tried to convey. Possibly very few literary traditions have had to deal with so many literary geniuses at one point of time.

Cultural dominance was a major part of the idea of European colonisation of the Indian subcontinent. Along with the ruthless prowess of the ‘Empire’ came the vaults filled with literature. And it is quite natural for the average Bengali intellectual elite to be mesmerised by the heroic epics of Homer and Virgil, the tragedies of Sophocles and Marlow, the blank verses of Milton and Shakespeare, the journey of Dante, the tantalising poetry of Petrarch and Sappho and the revolutionary ideas of Plato, Aristotle and Machiavelli, not only because of their literary expertise but more evidently because the colonised elite had to deal with the wide timeline of several literary genres at one point of time. Literary personnel like Romesh Chunder Dutt, Michael Madhusudan Dutt and others were so mesmerised with European culture and the English language in particular that they considered all non-European literatures to be of a little value as compared to the valour of the former; they even wrote letters addressed to their ‘Bengali’ friends in English.

Like the European colonisers, it was easy for the intellectual elite, who were under the grasp of European education, to divide the history of Sanskrit or Bangla literature, which can be categorised as ‘Hindu literature’ [1] , into three distinctive periods, the ancient, the medieval and the renaissance. The Occidentals believed that ‘Hindu literature’ was little of value before the advent of the Europeans. It was the colonisers who educated the colonised and in turn helped the native intellectuals of Bengal to revolutionise their literary tradition. The Orientalists, like Michael Madhusudan Dutta, Ram Mohan Roy, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and others, too were of a similar notion over the historiography of Bangla literature. However they, unlike the Occidentals, believed that there was a ‘Golden Age’ of ‘Hindu literature’, followed by a ‘Dark Age’ under the Islamic rulers and finally the coming of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ or the East India Company, in simpler words, who regenerated, revived and renovated ‘Hindu literature’ and more in particular Bangla literature bringing about a Renaissance in the literary tradition of the land. This submission of the intellectual class of Bengal to the dominance of the British or in a larger frame the European notion of education, art and culture brought about the changes in Bangla literature in the 19th century.

Bengali writers and authors started to explore and later imitate and improvise the different genres of European literature. Meghnadbadh Kavya (­jOe¡c hd L¡hÉ), the first Bangla secondary epic was written by Michael Madhusudan Dutta in 1861, which follows the poetic tradition of Milton’s Paradise Lost intricately. Sonnets were also introduced into Bangla literary tradition by Madhusudan. Novel as a genre found its way into the urban literary culture of Bengal with Hannah Mullens’ Karuna O Phulmanir Bibaran (Ll¦Z¡ J g¥mj¢Zl ¢hhlZ) in 1852 followed by Bankim Chandra Chattopadyay’s Durgeshnandini (c¤­NÑne¢¾ce£) in 1865. Just for the records, both Madhusudan and Bankim Chandra had started their literary careers with pieces of literature written in English. Madhusudan began as a composer of English poetry and Bankim Chandra’s first publication was Rajmohan’s wife.

Bengal renaissance in literature came along with the changes in the socio-political and religious outlook of the Bengali elite. It was an incident in the history of Bengal which widened the perspective of the orthodox Hindu-Bengalis. The advent of the Brahmo Samaj; the banning of Satidaha (pa£c¡q) [2] , child marriage and pursuing women literacy and widow-remarriage along with the acceptance of the ‘new wave’ of Bangla literature were all frames of the same picture, the Bengal renaissance.

Bengal renaissance did show the authors and the poets of Bengal, the way out from the orthodoxy of the Hindu religion and the conventional mind-set of the literary personnel of the earlier periods. As a matter of fact, in literary texts, women attained a new and a great importance due to this new wave in Bangla literature. In Bankim Chandra’s Durgeshnandini (1865), though it is set in a historical locale discussing the conflict of the Pathans and the Rajputs, the three female characters, Ayesha, Tillotama and Bimala are portrayed under the main spotlight. All the three characters represent the free-woman spirit; Ayesha, the brave; Tilottama, the beautiful and Bimala, the courageous. Bankim’s Kapalkundala (1866), Mrinalini (1869) and Debi Choudhurani (1884) also deal with female protagonists in a male chauvinist society. In most of Rabindranath Tagore’s novels the plot revolves around the female characters. The role of Charu in Nastanirh (1901); Bimala in Ghare-Baire (1916) and Damini and Nanibala in Chaturanga (1916) is revolutionary and is the most important in the ongoing storyline of the respective novels. Sarat Chandra Chattopadyay, though has dealt with the more inner part of the household as the subject of his literary works has shown the importance of women in the society. He has portrayed women as the main protagonist of the existing social order in his novels, for instance, Baradidi (1907), Parineeta (1914), Debdas (1917), Choritrohin (1917), Srikanto (1917-1933), Nishkriti (1917) and others. The Bengal renaissance saw authors who were actually politically sound and was particularly sensitive to the cause of women in the society and in turn the authors actually contradicts the conventional and orthodox perception of the male dominated society. For the first time in Bangla urban literature, women have been given the importance that she deserves. It was as if the rebirth of Mahua [3] as Kapalkundala, Mrinalini, Nanibala of Chaturanga, Charu of Nashtanir or Rajlakhhi of Srikanto.

Bengali authors, poets and intellectuals of the 19th century for instance Bankim Chandra Chattopahyay, Ram Mohan Roy and others had projected the rise of the middle class Bengali Hindus in their literary works and they are the same literary personnel who have paved the way for the later writers like Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay who have brought the middle class of the Bengali society in the limelight of their works of literature. Bangla literature was no longer written exclusively for the elite audience and with the rise of the printing press in Bengal, Bangla literature entered a new paradigm.

Free thinking and the authors’ points of view were the ruling characteristics of Bangla literature in the mid and the late 19th century. The projection of the daily struggle became an integral part of the literary tradition.

According to Nitish Sengupta, “The Bengal renaissance can be said to have started with Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1775–1833) and ended with Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), although there have been many stalwarts thereafter embodying particular aspects of the unique intellectual and creative output.” (Sengupta, 2001). He has emphasised that Bengal renaissance also incorporated a very vital aspect; the concept of the ‘Swadeshi’ (nationalist freedom movement) and it is in the works of Madhusudan, Bankim Chandra and Rabindranath that we actually find its great importance. Madhusudan’s Meghnadbadh Kavya (1861) though is based upon a part of the Valmiki Ramayana, yet it is through the author’s style and perspective that the point of view of the storyline shift’s from Ayodhya to Lanka. In this version of the story of Rama, Ravana is the tragic hero who loses the battle in the end. This shift in the perspective of the plot can be compared to Milton’s Paradise Lost where the audience sees the story of Heaven and Hell from the ‘other’ point of view, the point of view of Satan. Madhusudan has brought in the point of the ‘other’ in his version of Rama’s story, where Meghnad and Ravana are the protagonists and Rama is just a successful conqueror. Meghnadbadh Kavya may well have depicted the conquest of Bengal by the East-India Company. It was published in 1861 only four years after the first war for independence and Madhusudan wrote it in a state when he had already faced the failure of pursuing a European dream. Bankim’s Anandamath (1882) starts with the horrors of the Bengal famine in a colonised Bengal. He describes the famine as, “People sold their belongings, then their house, then their land, then their wives, then their children - even then the famine has no end. Everyone wants to sell, there's no buyer.” (Chattopadyay, 1882). Set in the background of the Sannyasi Rebellion in the late 18th century, it is considered one of the most important novels in the history of Bangla literature. Its importance is heightened by the fact that it is closely related with the struggle for Indian independence from the Anglo-Saxons. Bankim’s Debi Choudhurani (1884) which followed closely after Anandamath renewed the call for a resurgent India that fights against oppression of the British Empire with strength from within the common people, based on traditional Indian values of austerity, dedication and selflessness. Since it fuelled the patriotic struggle for Indian independence from the British Empire, the novel just like Anandamath was banned by the colonisers. In this novel, Bankim Chandra also reinforced his belief that an armed and face-to-face conflict with the Royal Army is the only way to win independence. Neel Darpan (The Indigo Planting Mirror) (1859) a play written by Dinabandhu Mitra was essential to ‘Nilbidroha’ (Indigo Revolt). Mitra wrote in the preface of the English translation “I present The Indigo Planting Mirror to the Indigo Planters’ hands; now, let every one of them, having observed his face, erase the freckle of the stain of selfishness from his forehead, and, in its stead, place on it the sandal powder of beneficence, then shall I think my labour success”. (Mitra, 1859). The play was all about the differences between the old and beautiful culture of Bengal which is being eradicated by the new and advanced perspective of the mass. It is about the upheaval between the Indigo planters and Indian Rioters in different parts of Bengal, Bihar and U.P. This conflict gave rise to the rift and division between the different classes of the society and between the different sections of the Government as well. Later, Rabindranath’s novels also do refer to the Swadeshi movement which sweeps over Bengal due to the impact of the Renaissance. Chaturanga, Shesher Kobita, Ghare-Baire, Noukadubi and others reflect the vibrant Bengali society. Ghare-Baire in particular illustrates the conflicting tendencies between the Moderate and the Extremist ideals, terrorism and religious zeal which were a part of the pre-independent Bengali community. Bengal renaissance in simpler words have brought the society a step closer to the middle-class readership, who would find it hard to escape the reality of the existing community.

Before the advent of the Bengal renaissance in Bangla literature, a literary work was confined to a single belief, a single community and a single mind-set. The mid-nineteenth century saw the inter-mixing of different sections of the society, different religious beliefs or contradictions and different ways of life, all inter-mingled in the same sphere of the literary work. Bankim’s Durgeshnandini deals with the contradictions and later the interactions between the Pathans and the Rajputs; Rabindranath’s Chaturanga immortalises the idea of atheism of ‘Jyathamoshai’ who crosses the barrier of religion and social structure to help the lower strata of the society and the needy; Sarat Chandra in Srikanto has depicted Rajlakkhi as a prostitute but yet dearly loved by the protagonist, Srikanto.

Another form of literature which took its birth in the mid 19th century in Bengal was essays (fËhå). Akshay Kumar Boral, Ramendra Sundar Tribedi, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore and others of the mid and the late 19th century are the pioneers of Bangla essays of that period.

Finally, in order to conclude, it is very important to understand that though Bengal renaissance was a product of the Bengali elite intellectuals under the deep-rooted influence of western education, which in a way has sidelined the indigenous literary tradition of Bengal, yet it has opened the minds of the audience forcing him to face the reality of the state of things. The changes that it characterised in the 19th century Bangla literature are great and inevitable and it is because of the renaissance in Bengal that Bangla literature has crossed all its barriers of religious and socio-political orthodoxy and closed-mindedness.

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