Friday, October 10, 2008

A Brief History of Bangla Literature

........In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered; the structure can be followed, 'run' (like the thread of a stocking) at every point and every level, but there is nothing beneath: the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced; writing ceaselessly posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it, carrying out a systematic exemption of meaning. In precisely this way literature (it would be better from now to say writing), by refusing to assign a 'secret', an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypothesis-reason, science, law...."Roland Barthes: Image, Music Text

Copper plate recording: a land grant in Banga, 1196. A cultivator appeals to god Bishnu

History of Bangla literature Bangla literature has its roots in poetry. Bangla poetry has its roots in its people. Long before the print medium was invented, folk tales had been told from one generation to the next by singing verses created by ordinary people. Stories were constructed in the course of their lives from materials collected from their own experiences and from famous stories or themes composed by past generations of "Kobials" (or folk poets) and bauls (or street singers). Kobials (folk poets) would often recite their compositions in front of appreciative audiences not only in their immediate neighborhood, but also often in far-away villages. The depth of logic, humor, wit, wisdom, emotive outpour and romanticism in their poetic pieces (created extemporaneously often in response to and as an anti-thesis of the points and arguments made by the rival poets sharing the same audience and performing stage) was informative and amazingly entertaining. Such was their melodious rendition that they would leave an indelible mark on the audience. The villagers would continue to recite these verses for a long time to come. The verses, which often included references to familiar characters from the great Indian epics Mahabharat and Ramayan would serve as beacons for thousands. The instructive power of some of these creations would later provide many with simple how-to guides to fulfillment in life and salvation after death.

Joydeb was one of the earliest and the most famous Bangla poets. His masterpiece Geetgobinda remains a fitting Baishnab poetry. Seeds of early Bangla literature were sown in the folkloric fertile ground. Madhusudan Datta who had a meteoric appearance in the Bangla literary firmament following Nabeen Chandra Sen, introduced blank verses and sonnets and presented to the world his masterpiece epic poetry Meghnad Badh Kabya. This is the true beginning of modern Bangla poetry. Shackles of the past thus destroyed by this rebel poet later helped Bangalees to reap a bumper harvest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bangla poetry reached its peak in the hands of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

Even though he was most widely known as a poet, Tagore was simultaneously a novelist, playwright, lyricist, music composer, painter and philosopher. His book of lyrics called Gitanjali translated into English by himself earned him the Nobel Prize in 1913 despite reported objections from the English members of the Nobel award committee. If there was a bigger and better prize for Tagore - it was to be the hearts and souls of millions of Bangalees who lived during his lifetime or will ever walk on this earth since his passing away.

History of Bangla prose is relatively new. Bangla prose form was largely developed and introduced by the missionaries of Srirampur and by the Fort William College. Both had pragmatic and utilitarian ends in mind. New British officers of the East India Company were taught Bangla so that they could converse with the natives. To this end Nathaniel B. Halhead published the Bangla grammar in 1778 - the title page clearly stated this obvious purpose. After Fort William College was established in 1800, the pundits were charged with the development of Bangla prose for the benefit of the English Administration. The missionaries of Srirampur, under the able guidance of William Carey (1761-1834; British orientalist and missionary born at Paulerspury, Northamptonshire, co-founder of the Particular Baptist Society, Professor of Sanskrit at the Fort William College), translated the Bible in Bangla in 1801 for spreading Christianity - noted as the pioneering work in Bangla prose. The Bangla prose thus developed in the early 19th century was nothing more than a cocktail of Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian words and "was pitiably amorphous in from". The first Bangla book of prose written by a Bangalee was the textbook Raja Pratapaditya Charita published in 1801. The author was Ramram Basu who later wrote another book Lipimala. In 1802, Batrisa Simhasana written by Mritunjaya Bidyalankar published. It was certainly an improvement on Ramram Basu. The same writer also published three other textbooks: Hitopadesh, Rajabali and Prabodh Chandrika.

It was not until 1815 when Raja Rammohan Roy published his first book of prose called Bedanta Grantha that a break with the tradition was established. The influence of Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian words was minimized. In 15 years, from 1815 to 1830, Rammohan wrote thirty books in Bangla. According to Soumendranath Tagore, "the excellence that the Bangla prose [later] achieved in literary form under Bankim Chandra and Rabindranath owes its beginning to the Bangla prose developed by Rammohan". The above observation appears quite valid except in one detail. It does not accord any recognition to the pioneering work done by such writer as Iswar Chandra Bidyasagar, Bankim Chandra, Pyarichand Mitra and Tekchand Thakur. Indeed, Rabindranath Tagore regarded Bidyasagar (inspire of the fact that he was not a pure literary figure) as the father of Bangla prose.

Evidently, English style short stories, novels and plays are of relatively modern origin in the Bangla literature. Despite its late beginning, Bangla prose soon went through a complete course of evolution since then, rather quickly. According to Professor Sukumar Sen, the evolution of Bangla novelist tradition can be separated into four well-defined periods.

1. The Loric Period
Fable-centered literature of this period has been classified into two distinct streams. The first stream was purely romantic. These stories often deal with religious beliefs and rely on fatalistic endings. Examples include the Lausen's Adenture from Dharmamangal. Events were exciting and happenings romantic. Characters and story lines were inspired by the omnipresence of God. In the end they were rewarded or punished for their deeds in accordance with the Mahabharatic tradition.

The second stream, not unlike its predecessor, continued to be laden with religious preaching’s and moral edicts. However, these were less exotic and less fanciful. Soon these started to deal with tales of ordinary people and their ordinary lives. The best examples of this period, according to Professor Sen, were the two stories in Kobikankan's poetry and in Bidyasundar by Bharatchandra. Stories in the Dharmamangal by the Seventeenth century poet Roopram Chakrabarty, who became as famous in his time as the best Bangla novelist Sarat Chandra Chatterjee would be almost three centuries later. In a century since 'Bidyasundar' was written by Bharatchandra quite a lot of stories were written - notable of which were Chandrakanta and Kaminikumar.

Most, however, resembled Bidyasundar and were reminiscent of the Loric style. These stories were written in verses and provided romantic setting for instructive materials for readers. A new era dawned with Pyarichand Mitra's trend-setting prose-based novel Alaler Gharer Dulal. Many criticized Mitra, however, for committing the same error, of not writing for entertainment value only. He too erred in making value judgments. It was claimed that he could not escape from the Loric past.

2. The Bankim Period
It is Bankim Chandra Chatterjee who finally dropped curtain on the Loric period by publishing his masterpiece Durgeshnandini. Bankim's novels can be classified into three groups: the first is full of English style romanticism; the second is modeled on Pyarichand Mitra (such as Bishbriksha, Krishnakanter Will and finally those novels that were based on historical events (such as Mrinalini, Rajshingha and Sitaram.

3. The Tagore period
The Tagore period, which followed the Bankim period and co-existed with the Sarat Period, has to date been the most defining period in Bangla literature. Its essentially distinctive universal appeal, richness and variety of literary styles demand separate treatment and stratification. Tagore was not just a Bangla poet or writer. Tagore was a world phenomenon. Tagore's short stories are many and varied in their contents, tastes, presentation, universal appeal and inherent literary beauty. They differ from those of his contemporary writers; they differ from even his own novels and plays. In the latter, Tagore used quite a distinct artistic license. He went on to draw a much bigger picture. Here he observed and depicted people in their family and social settings. His penetrating insight into human minds and the many intricate ways they relate to other people around them in love and in conflict, in victory and in defeat, in happiness and in misery allowed him to map characters and stories precisely with a language that derived its adulthood from his pen.

4. The Sarat Period
Inspired by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's writings, it was novelist Sarat Chandra Chatterjee who brought modern Bangla literature to the masses. His piercing analysis of human love, faith and frailties is unparallel. His intimate understanding of the social goings-on and the sympathetic albeit affirmative way he portrayed the unprivileged and the women in his stories testify his paramount love and affection for the deprived. His lovingly and masterfully crafted words, used by ordinary people of the street, and immaculate writing style made him easily one of the world's best-loved novelists. Like Bankim Chandra, he was a common man; he understood the common person's dilemmas with life and living conditions. His novels and short stories appealed to people of all walks of life. His mastery on this branch of the Bangla literature was so complete that it is not at all surprising to note that remaining under the full glare of Tagore’s creative genius, Sarat Chandra was never to be influenced by it. On the contrary, Tagore has been so moved by his stories that even he could not resist from the occasional foray into the latter's familiar territory. Other writers of the Sarat tradition included famous novelists like Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (celebrated author of the Apu trilogy), Manik Bandyopadhyay, Balaichand Mukhopadhyay (pen-name was Banaful), Abadhoot and Bimal Mitra.

Countless novelists of the modern era since have tried many a different style and technique; many of them succeeded in varying degrees to reach the reading public at large. To date, however, no one novelist has received the same degree of love and affection as Sarat Chandra can so naturally and so mesmerizingly command.

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Saturday, October 4, 2008


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