In this article we shall deal with the modern period of Bengali literature.
It was through the immense influence of a towering personality like Ram Mohan Roy (1774 −1833) that Bengali culture, society, education and literature took a giant step forward. Roy used the Bengali language, for the first time, as an effective medium of transliteration, discussion and debates.
Pyari Chand Mitra (1814 −1883) was also known as Tekchand Thakur. His book Alaler Gharer Dulal had received mass popularity. In 1854, he published a journal named Mashik Patrika for a short period. A lot of articles used to come out in this journal which was aimed at eradicating illiteracy and enlightening the masses.
Kaliprasanna Singha (1840 −1870) chose to write on the capricious, flamboyant and foppish aspects of the prevailing opulent middle class society. His mode of writing was humorous. He lampooned the contemporary Bengal and its society under the nom de plume of 'Hootom Pencha’ (common owl). His exquisite composition Hootom Penchar Naksha is regarded as a unique piece of Bengali literature.
Before 1753, an amphitheatre named 'Playhouse' was established in the north-eastern side of Calcutta's Lal Bazar. But that was primarily used for staging English plays.
Bengali drama originally imitated both English and Sanskrit plays. In the initial phase of Bengali Drama, pieces Kirtibilas and Bhadrarjuna had carved a distinct niche for themselves. In the mid-19th century many plays were authored whose themes revolved around issues like widow remarriage, child marriage etc., the notable ones being Kali Kautuk Natak, Sapatni Natak, Bujhle Kina to name a few.
It was Michael Madhusudan Datta who brought a remarkable change in the art of play writing. He introduced 'tragedy' in drama inspired by the Greek school of drama. He was equally unrivalled in writing comedies and satires. Some of his remarkable plays are Buro Shaliker Ghare Ron, Padmavati, Sharmistha etc. Infact Dutta’s play Sharmishtha was the first Bengali play to be publicly staged in 1858.
A distinguished playwright who succeeded Michael was Dinabandhu Mitra. His famous plays are Sadhabar Ekadashi, Nildarpan etc.
After this a novel style was introduced into Bengali drama. This was the 'opera' style or musical drama with sung or spoken dialogues. Man Mohan Basu was the epitome of this style, dominated by an unflinching religious faith and mythological themes. The towering theatre personality in this era was Girish Ghosh, often regarded as the father of modern Bengali drama. One of his immortal creations was Abhimanyu Badh.
After Girish Ghosh. Bengali drama flourished and eventually reached its golden phase under Dwijendralal Ray. Among his comic masterpieces figure, Kalki Avataar, and Punar Janma etc. He also wrote outstanding mythological and historical plays viz. Pashani ,Sita, Pratap Singh Shah Jahan etc.
Rabindra Nath Tagore enriched Bengali drama with his symbolic and intricate plays which were innovative and unique in concept. Some his immortal plays are Balmiki Pratibha, Dakghar, Mukta Dhara, Rakta Karabi Taasher Desh, to name a few.
Literary works based on the Epics
Michael Madhusudan Datta (1824-1873) will remain immortal in the history of Bengali literature as the founder of Amitrakshar Chhanda or blank verse (rhymeless verse) and as its best exponent. His first poem in this verse form was Tilottama Sambhava, which was published in 1860. Almost all his poems, save Brajangana Kavya were written by this blank verse pattern. His other notable poetic creations were Meghnad Badh Kavya, Veerangana Kavya etc.
Madhusudan culled the ingredients for his poetry from the Sanskrit Puranas and epics. At times, he even explored foreign literature and collected his theme or ingredients for poetry. Besides, he also composed a few sonnets and named them 'Chaturdash Padi Kavita'.
Hem Chandra Bandopadhyay (1838-1903) was highly influenced by Michael Madhusudan and deliberately imitated his style and grandeur. His first poem Chinta Tarangini was composed on a true story of a heart-rending accident. Chhalanamoyee was another rhetorical poem influenced by Dante's Divina Comedia. Some of his other remarkable poems are Asha Kanara, Dasha Maha Vidya etc.
Nabeen Chandra Sen (1847−1909) composed many opera-typed poems based on divine love and natural ecstasy, published in two volumes in 1871 and 1878, captioned Abakash Ranjini He wrote mythological poems viz. Raibatak, Kurukshetra, Prabasha etc. These were fundamentally inspired by the life and works of Lord Krishna.
Novels & Essays
In Europe, the Renaissance had embellished the spoken language to a tremendous extent. Realistic stories, earthly in essence, began to be composed in diverse European languages, but they had to wait till the 18th century to reach the zenith in the sphere of fiction and novels. Richardson, Goldsmith etc. in English and Goethe in German, introduced the novel as an exquisite art form. The 19th century saw the growth of several classic novels in English which greatly inspired the birth of Bengali novels.
Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838 −1894) was the first novelist in Bengali literature. In the last 22 years of his life, Bankim composed 14 novels (1865 −1887). His first Bengali novel Durgesh Nandini, was published in 1865.
The renowned novels of Bankim Chandra include Kapal Kundala, Mrinalini, Bishabriksha, Indira, Devi Chaudhurani, Chandra Shekhar and Ananda Math. Bankim wrote an astonishing variety of novels. Some of his novels were based on history and romance; others were steeped in patriotic fervour, while in a few other cases, Bankim relied on the confusion and impasse of social and conjugal life.
Rabindra Yuga ─ the era of Rabindranath Tagore.
Rabindranath Tagore enriched Bengali literature like never before and gave it classic dimensions in terms of matter and content. His writings epitomized the Bengali culture, lifestyle, and psyche in an inimitable style.
Tagore’s literary career, which commenced when he was barely 12, continued uninterrupted till he was an octogenarian. Though a school dropout, Rabindranath had amassed within himself a vast storehouse of wisdom, energy, poignant emotion, and romanticism. He brought about an unprecedented fusion of the earthly limits with infinity, of fragments with the whole, which lent an ethereal quality to his poetry. Few other poets have ever displayed such versatility as Tagore. His most popular anthologies of poems include Sonar Tari, Kheya, Senjuti, Patraput, Manasi” Chitra, Chaitali among others. Tagore experimented with poetry in prose format, devoid of rhyme, which culminated in a series of poems compiled under the title Lipika. Sonar Tari may be regarded as a symbol of Tagore’s life. The soul’s quest for the eternal, the desire to journey into a mysterious world, leaving behind the familiar, mundane one has been effectively brought out. Tagore became an icon of Bengali society, lifestyle and culture, after the publication of Gitanjali (The English translation of some of his selected poems) which fetched him the Nobel Prize in 1913.
Rabindranath was a multi-faceted gem, a gifted genius who left an indelible impression in the sphere of Bengali novels. Chaturanga , Chokher Bali, Nauka Dubi, Gora, Ghare Baire, Char Adhyay, Dui Bone, and Malancha are among his best.
Rabindranath is hailed as the first composer of short stories in Bengali. His collection of short stories was printed in three volumes of Galpaguchcha. Some of his short stories with eternal, universal appeal include Kabuliwallah , Durasha, Post Master, Samapti , Monihara, Nashta Neer, Megh O Raudra , Atithi, Kshudita-Pashan, Rabi Baar and Laboratory. As a writer of short stories, Tagore may conveniently be ranked with masters like Tolstoy, Maupassant, and Chekhov.
Tagore’s contemporary poets & authors
Satyendranath Dutta’s (1882 −1922) poems are an exquisite combination of beautiful rhythms, diction and melody. His famous poems are Benu O Bina', Tirtha Salil, Kuhu O Keka etc. He shot into fame by adjusting and adopting several foreign and Sanskrit verse patterns into Bengali, while keeping the indigenous Bengali essence intact.
Abanindra Nath Tagore (1871−1951), the illustrious nephew of Rabindranath reached the highest echelons of fame as a katha shilpi (master story–teller). His works are basically targeted at children but the adults too can enjoy reading them. His famous and highly popular works are Khirer Putul (Ricotta cheese doll), Rajkahini (tales of heroism and valour of the Rajputs, of Rajasthan state), Bhoot Patrir desh (land of ghouls), Buro Angla (the Indian TomThumb) among others.
Jatindra Mohan Bagchi (1878 −1948) had composed several interesting poems like Aparajita, Niharika and Maha Bharati etc.He dealt with a variety of emotions ranging from the
Kazi Nazrul Islam (1898−1976) was a rebel at heart and writing intensely patriotic poems; yet on the other hand was gentle, subtle and incredibly charming in his romantic poems. He was the most popular poet of his time. The rebellious songs and poems of Nazrul had inspired the freedom fighters to lay down their lives for the country. Even he was imprisoned several times by the British. Utterly secular in thoughts and spirits, Nazrul was unrivalled in the field of devotional songs as well. Some of his outstanding books are AgniBeena, Bhangar Gaan, 'Bisher Banshi etc.
Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1878 −1938) contributed a glorious collection of short stories as well novels to Bengali literature. Sarat Chandra’s works vividly depicted the welter of human emotions, sentiments, passions and ecstasies, joys and sorrows. Sarat Chandra was essentially a feminist who, by means of his stories and novels portrayed the hopes and aspirations, follies and weaknesses, dreams and desire of the women of his time, whose lives were totally at the mercy of the men. in that age. His works hold an instant appeal for all readers that continues to this day. He published 30 novels within a span of twenty two years. (His first printed novel 'Bardidi' was published in 1913, while his last novel 'Bipradas' was published in 1935). Some of his other widely acclaimed works include Bindur Chele , Parineeta, Pandit Mashai, Mejdidi, Palli Samaj , Arakshaniya, Mahesh, Grihadaha Dena Paona, Datta, Swami, Debdas, Shesh Prashna, and Pather Daabi.
Pramatha Chowdhury (1868 −1946) in spite of being an austere essayist, he briefly ventured in the domain of stories and novels. Chaar Yarer Katha and some other short stories of Pramatha Chowdhury reveal his power of keen analytical study.
Other Renowned Literary Personalities
Achintya Kumar Sengupta’s compositions were marked by variety of language, romantic zeal, symbolic gestures and gross sensuousness. His style made him immensely popular among the youth. His notable composition Bibaher Cheye Baro was accused of eroticism. Thereafter, he branched off into writing biographies of famous personalities including Sri Ramakrishna, using an emotional and lucid style.
Buddhadev Basu’s work Sara in the preliminary phase of his literary career, which created a sensation among the readers. Then came a novels like Jedin Phootlo Kamal , Ekoda Tumi Priye , Mauli Nath and Tithidore, which revealed a rather unworldly romance in Bengali life. Nevertheless, these were highly appreciated and admired by a particular class of young readers. Buddhadev Basu was the first person to indulge in experimenting with a new mode of writing poetry. He was the linchpin of Pragati, a newspaper published from Dacca in those days. His poetic genius started to blossom from his following poems viz., Bandeer Bandana. Some of books of his poems, Prithibir Prati , Kankabati, Damayanti, Draupadeer Shari , Shiter Parthana, Basanter Uttar deserve mention.
Sailajananda Mukhopadhyay (1901−1976) attempted to change the stereotyped, conventional mode of the Bengali novel and short stories prevailing in his youth. He was against any kind of artificial flavour in literary writing. Sailajananda depicted the dreary, lacklustre lives of the coal miners with great compassion, sympathy and infusing the narration with minute details. His works like Narimedha, Badhu Baran etc. reveal the harsh realities of life.
Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay (1894 – 1950) was an author par excellence. He was an ardent lover and worshipper of nature, like Wordsworth the British poet. The salient feature of his writings is the inscrutable relationship between man and nature, based on which he wrote the timeless novel Aranyak.
An immortal work of Bibhuti Bhushan is Pather Panchali and its sequel Aparajito, besides Drishti Pradeep , Adarsha Hindu Hotel, and Ichhamati; he wrote adventure novelettes like Chander Pahaar. Maraner Danka Baaje etc. Bibhuti Bhushan charmed millions of readers with his lucid, pictorial and elaborate writing style. He wrote about nature, Man and everything with which an ordinary man can identify himself.
Tarashankar Bandopadhyay (1898 –1971) made a significant contribution to Bengali literature through classic novels like Raikamal, Dhatri Devata, Kalindi, Gana Devata, Neel Kantha, Hansuli Banker Upakatha, etc. His other master pieces are Jalshaghar, Bedeni, Chhalanamoyee and Arogyo Niketan. Few other authors have recorded the varied and multitudinous colours of life so immaculately within the circumference of short stories.
Manik Bandopadhyay (1910 – 1946) was an outstanding author with distinctly different qualities. Like Tarashankar who vividly portrayed the lives of inhabitants of what is today known as West Bengal, Manik Bandopadhyay was acquainted with the ambience and lifestyle of the inhabitants of East Bengal (modern Bangladesh).He was attracted by the intricate and paradoxical relationship between Man and Woman. Manik Bandopadhyay looked at human beings from a cynically materialistic perspective. He avoided portraying human life and society under the false pretence of sentimental and emotional ecstasies. His most famous novel happens to be Padma Nadeer Majhi His other works include Pragoitihasik, Diba Ratrir Kavya, Putul Nacher Itikatha, Shahartali etc.
Rajshekhar Basu (1880–1960) who used the nom de plume of 'Parashuram' has been universally appreciated and admired as a prodigy in the comic style of writing. He was a minute observer of life and society, and his satires have touched human manners, mannerisms, conversations, contemplations, joys and woes and the ambience all around as well as the different shades of the human psyche. Some of his outstanding works include Gaddalika , Kajjali, Hanumaner Swapna.
Post Rabindranath Era
Sukumar Roy (1887−1923) was the father of the internationally renowned film director Satyajit Roy. He was one of the greatest writers and illustrators in the history of Bengali literature.
His profound sense of humour, coupled with his creativity and powerful imagination led him to bring forth mtaserpieces like Abol Tabol (nonsense gibberish) Khai Khai (desire to hog) Hajabarala (a mess) and Pagla Dashu (crazy Dashu).Though actually meant for children, these works,replete with humour may be enjoyed by the old and the young alike.
Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumder (1877–1957), was at literary enthusiast who collected together some folk tales of Bengal and compiled them under the caption of Thakurmar Jhuli (grandma’s bag of stories), which since then, has become a household name in West Bengal and Bangladesh and is avidly read by children of all age groups.
Premendra Mitra (1904–1988) wrote poetry, having been inspired by the humanitarian American poet Walt Whitman. Some of his anthologies of poems are Prathama, Ferari Fauj, Samrat, Sagar Theke Phera, Hareen, Chita, Cheel etc. His poems depict emotional ecstasy, and are marked by an optimistic outlook and precision of thought. Mitra mesmerized the youth of the society by his highly gripping adventure/detective stories. In addition, Paank and Michil are two of his modernistic novels which are remarkable for the treatment of themes.
Jibanananda Das (1899 –1954) can easily be regarded as the most versatile modern Bengali poet. He is regarded as the greatest wonder of modern Bengali poetry. His solitary and maverick lifestyle was an enigma even to those who were close to him. Das is regarded as the epitome of the post-Rabindranath Bengali poetry. It will not be an exaggeration to say that he was the pioneer of the refined and authentic form of modern Bengali poetry.
Das was the pioneer of establishing 'surrealism' and 'existentialism' in Bengali poetry. Through out his poetic career, Das endeavoured to find the link between the individual and the world at large. He felt and powerfully expressed the intensity of the exuberance and splendour of life through unique symbols and metaphors. He always tried to trace the unknown, know the inscrutable and perceive the intangible, through beautiful imagery. His collections of poems, Dhusar Pandulipi, Banalata Sen, Maha Prithivi , Sat ti Tarar Timir, Rupasi Bangla are noteworthy..
Bishnu Dey (1909 –1982) was a powerful contemporary poet. Some regard his poems as intricate and incomprehensible to a great extent. Some of his remarkable books are Urvashi O Artemis, Chora Bali, Purba Lekh , San deeper Char, and Naam Rekhechi Komal Gandhar. His poetic vision was universal, his approach was that of an urban cosmopolitan. His poetry is rich in imageries both visual and cerebral. His poetic response to the changing patterns in society elevated his creation to a higher level of social consciousness. Dey remained steadfast in his search for truth among his country's people and their lore and never wavering from his belief of the ultimate triumph of his people who have continued to suffer silently in an unjust society.
Some of Amiya Kumar Chakrabarty’s well-known poetic works are Khasra, Ek Mutho, Matir Dewal, Parapar etc. Chakrabarty was greatly influenced by Rabindranath Tagore, which is why his poems display fine sensibilities of love, beauty and romanticism.
Contemporary Bengali Poets & Authors
Bimal Mitra (1912−1991) emerged as one of the foremost Bengali novelists of the post World War II period. Mitra was also a prolific writer with over five hundred short stories and a hundred novels to his credit. His other major works include Begum Mary Biswas, Kori Diye Kinlam, Ekak Deshak Shatak, Pati Param Guru, Ami and Raja Badal.
Balai Chand Mukhopadhyay (1899-1970): a doctor by profession, who wrote under the pen name of Banaphool (literally wildflower) vividly captured vignettes of our daily lives in his literary works. His short stories probe the innermost depths of human psyche, while at the same time being rooted in ground realities, utterly devoid of frills and fuss. His major works include Hate Bajare, Baitoroneer Tire, Sthabar, Jangam, and Pancha Parba all of them depicting his masterly art and command over the language.
Ashapurna Devi (1909-) is known for the female protagonists in each of her novels. Her Sahitya Accademy award winning trilogy Pratham Pratisruti, Subarnalata and Bakul Katha covered the life-stories of three generations of women, against the backdrop of the changing rural and urban milieu in Bengal during the twentieth century. In her novels, Ashapurna Devi touches on the contradictory expectations from women in contemporary Bengali society - at times oppressed, demure, follower of husband's wishes, at times the apparently modern, well-groomed and well-dressed companion for her spouse. The author also explores the inner desires and aspirations of her women characters, who attempt to break the social barriers of all kinds.
Sukanta Bhattacharya (1926 −1947) within his short life span of twenty one years, wrote poetry which is acclaimed not only for its revolutionary fervour but also for artistic excellence. He wrote brilliantly as a young Communist, deeply involved with the cause. He wrote for a better world for his people forever toiling and suffering. His poetry contributed to the development of social awareness in the mainstream poetry. Sukanta’s language has stark beauty and youthful zeal. His use of metaphors and symbols portray his deep commitment to the cause of the people.
Subhash Mukhopadhyay made his debut in the world of Bengali poetry as a rebel poet. He set aside all human emotions and hoisted the flag of his intrepid life with a robust spirit. His poems are a medley of colourful language and exquisite rhythm pattern. But in course of time, he entered the more profound, serene and mysterious zones of life.
Shakti Chattopadhyay (1933−1995) was one of pioneers who spearheaded the poetic movement of the fifties. He was successful in casting a spell on his readers through his poems with his unique rhythm, vocabulary, and pictorial imagery. He was immensely popular for his bohemian nature and ability to compose poems spontaneously. Some of his immortal works of poetry ─ Hey Prem, Hey Naihshabda, Chaturdash Kavitabali, Jete Pari Kintu Keno Jabo. Shakti Chattopadhyay was greatly influenced by Jibananda Das’ poetic style and outlook. The salient features of his poetry are a keen consciousness of nature, a feeling of alienation ─ a void, a deep realization of the ultimate truth i.e. death, and a robust optimism in life and beauty. He had profound love and sympathy for people, which was the source of his poetic genius.
Sunil Gangopadhyay (1934−) is a prolific writer who has excelled in different literary genres but declares poetry to be his "first love". He founded and edited Krittibaas, a seminal poetry magazine that became a platform for a new generation of poets experimenting with many new forms in terms of themes, rhythms, and words. His Nikhilesh and Neera series of poems have been widely acclaimed.
Joy Goswami’s poems reflect his high idealism and values which mark the occasion called life.
This makes his poems stand out among others, reflect the emotions, sentiments and all minute aspects of human life. His poems reflect the sentiments and emotions, ways and procedures, success and failure of mankind which is universal. From his first book of poems, 'Christmas O Sheeter Sonnet Guchha' to his latest works, his poetry depict a host of images and objects which transcend the barriers of time and space and become truly universal in nature. His magic pen coupled with his fertile imagination, renders a Midas touch to the eternal themes of life and death, joys and woes, love and agony etc. His style and diction are simply inimitable.