Sudipto Chatterjee & Hasan Ferdous. Handbook of Twentieth-Century Literatures of India. Editor: Nalini Natarajan, Greenwood Press, 1996.
Literature of Pre-Independence Bengal (1900-1947) and West Bengal (1947-Present)
In the nineteenth century, Bengali (Beng. Baānglaā) literature was enriched by the fruits of the Bengal (Beng. Baānglaā or Banga) Renaissance, which led to the birth of several new genres and modes of literary expression. The novel, short story, epic poetry, journalese prose, and Western-style drama all matured independently in the nineteenth century in the hands of various talented writers who became both pioneers and, some of them, first masters of those genres. By the close of the century, however, a conservative smugness set in. The British colonial policy of divide and rule had successfully segregated the Hindu and Muslim communities among the Bengali, which, in turn, led to the rise of religious orthodoxy and dogmatism, especially on the Hindu side of the population. Reactionary journals like the Bangabaāsāī, led by people like Jogendracandra Basu (Ang. Bose) and Indranaāth Bandyopaādhyaāya (Ang. Banerjee/ji [1849-1911]), were vociferous in their expressions of Hindu orthodoxy and efforts at enforcing a Hindu hegemony over all aspects of Bengali culture. Among the few who resisted this regressive, reactionary trend was Rabīndranaāth Tagore (Beng. Thaākur [1860-1941]), who had started writing regularly from the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Independent, progressive thinking and accommodating the free circulation of a multiplicity of opinions and ideas were cardinal elements in Rabīndranaāth’s ideology. He gave vent to it in his editorial journey with, first, the Hitabādī (established April 1891) and, subsequently, Saādhanā (established November 1891). While in the former he experimented with the short story genre, in the latter he performed the role of the inspirational editorial manager who brought together several other talented writers.
Rabīndranāth Tagore (1900-1913)
Rabīndranāth’s figure dominated over at least the first half of the twentieth century. He stood like an enormous edifice whose shadow cast itself on all and sundry. It is not an exaggeration to say that there is hardly an aspect of Bengali literature (nay, culture!) that is truly free of Rabīndranāth’s influence. Any consideration of Bengali literature in the twentieth century, thus, must necessarily begin with the contribution of Rabīndranāth Tagore. Post-Tagore Bengali literature, as well, worked with the “anxiety” of Tagorean influence. In trying to do justice to both Tagore’s preeminence and the writers who were his contemporaries, the first part of this chapter (the Tagore period) has subheadings that mark either (1) phases in Tagore’s career or (2) all other genres/movements and time frames. This shall, we hope, allow the reader to observe the growth and development of Bengali literature in the present century as a whole but without undermining the role Tagore played in shaping it.
Rabīndranāth Tagore was born in an affluent and culturally progressive family, and, although he had little formal education, his literary talents flourished at a very early age. His literary ideals were formed under the peerage of his elder siblings, almost all of whom were artistically inclined, and his illustrious philosopher-cum-religious-reformer father, Debendranaāth. His early work in the last quarter of the nineteenth century is characterized by a certain exotic aura plugged right into the English Romantic tradition and a simultaneous Orientalist rediscovery of his own cultural heritage. Toward the end of the century, however, Tagore began to emerge as a more mature artist. His maturity was reflected most prominently in his firm rejection of religious orthodoxy, which had risen at the expense of secularism. He was writing poetry, prose, and drama—all concurrently—expressing in no uncertain terms his humanist view of civilization through all the literary genres over which he had command. His most important works from the last 15 years of the nineteenth century are the three books of poems Kaṛi o Komal (Sharps and Flats, 1887), Mānasī (The Heart’s Desire, 1890), and Sonār Tarī (The Golden Boat, 1893); the play Bisarjan (Sacrifice, 1890); and a crop of short stories—covering a huge range of subjects—between 1891 and 1903.
By the turn of the century, Rabīndranāth had recognized the joys of colloquial speech and set about to consciously incorporate it into his writings. This was an important change of direction for Bengali literature, which had hitherto favored a stilted, formal mode of writing over the language of everyday speech. Rabīndranāth’s journey to the earthy roots of his language was complemented at an ideological level by a rising patriotic consciousness. This new political awareness is exemplified in his epic collection of narrative poems, Kathā o Kāhinī (1900), and a collection of poems he put out the year after, Naibedya. In October 1905, the British administration, led by Lord Curzon, divided the province of Bengal into a western Hindu part and an eastern Muslim part. This was a direct result of the avowed divide-and-rule policy of the British government, geared toward nullifying the united momentum of the nationalist movement in Bengal. Almost immediately, the entire Bengali population burst into furious agitation. Rabīndranāth took an active part in the antipartition movement (although he was to withdraw from it later, disappointed with its increasingly Hindu chauvinistic character), and during this period he wrote his best patriotic poetry. But he was already ahead, with his work as an educator, of the political agendas pressed into action by the political parties. He established a school in SŚantiniketan in 1901 and worked simultaneously on several other projects for the spread of education and elimination of blind orthodoxy.
In 1907, he started serializing a new novel— Gorā (The Fair One)—in Prabāsī,a renowned Bengali magazine. The antiorthodoxy and secular theme is proposed urgently in the very kernel of the plot; the hero is a young man, Gorā, who is the adopted son of Hindu parents and who is an orthodox Hindu himself without realizing that he was born of Catholic Irish parents. The novel is about Gorā’s realization of the ineffectuality of orthodoxy and the liberation that can be obtained from a secularist view of the world. The novel was completed and published as a book in 1910. The ineffectuality of orthodoxy of any kind was a major theme with Rabīndranāth in this period. He explored the same issue, but in more general terms, in his next work, Acalāyatan (Unmovable, 1911), a play in which he ruthlessly criticized the repercussions of conservative social repression.
At around the same time, Rabīndranāth was also composing poetry of a very different kind. In 1910, he published a collection of poems that is better known to the English-reading world as Gitanjali: Song Offerings. The Bengali version of the same book, Gītāñjalī,is not the same as its English counterpart, which is a loose translation of the original poems along with some others interpolated from Naibedya (mentioned earlier) and Kheyā (another book of poems). The eight years that followed the failed partition of Bengal (1905) saw Rabīndranāth in the role of the dramatist in Rājā (The King, 1910) and Dākghar (The Post Office, 1912). In 1913, Rabīndranāth was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, which secured his fame at an international level and effectively silenced his local critics, making him a national celebrity. Rabīndranāth’s plays, however, were not particularly well received during his own lifetime, even after the Nobel Prize. They did not receive much more than some amateur attention.
By the first decade of the twentieth century, a professional theater industry was flourishing in Calcutta (Beng. Kolkātā), and many plays were being written. Among the playwrights whose works filled the theaters during this period, the leading name was that of Girish Chandra Ghosh (Beng. Giriś Candra Ghos [1844-1911]), who towered over the contemporary theatrical scene. He was not only one of the pioneering producers for the professional Bengali theater but also one of its greatest director-actor-regisseurs, an innovative designer, a lyricist-composer, and undoubtedly its first great playwright. His plays were imbued with a sense of deep social commitment that expressed itself both directly as well as metaphorically. In a career spanning over four decades, Girish wrote more than 40 plays—historical, mythological, social—and innumerable essays on theater and social issues. Besides his numerous contributions to Bengali theater, Girish gave Bengali poetic drama the gift of a resonant meter, commonly known as the “Gairiś” (the Bengali adjectival form of Girish) prosodic measure. He started his career with adaptations of already famous narrative and epic poems of the nineteenth century but soon achieved enough mastery over the dramatic form to write original plays. Writing copiously during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, Girish Ghosh gave Bengali literature its first volume of masterful drama that reflected the Bengali taste for theater. The last decade of his life, also the first decade of the twentieth century, was probably one of the most prolific periods of Girish’s career. During this period, he wrote two of his most dramaturgically accurate historical plays on the early days of British rule in Bengal—the serial plays Sirāj-Ud-Daulā (1905) and Mir-Qāsim (1906). In 1905, he also wrote the second of his 2 most celebrated social plays, Balidān (The Sacrifice). In 1907, he wrote Chatrapati Śivājī,a biographical play on the Mārāṭha king who daunted the mighty Mughals.
Among the other major playwrights writing at the turn of the century was Girish’s friend and colleague Amŗtalāl Basu (1853-1929), also an actor-producer, whose forte was comedy and social satire. Among his notable achievements after 1900 are a Bengali adaptation of Molieère’s The Miserin 1900, as Kŗpaner Dhan (The Miser’s Wealth), Ădarśa Bandhu (The Ideal Friend, 1900), and Nabaj̄auban (Early Youth, 1914). Another contemporary of Girish was Dwijendralāl Rāy (1863-1913), who gave to Bengali theater some of its best patriotic plays. Rāy was also a great composer and lyricist, whose songs continue to be sung and released on albums. Two of his best plays are Śājāhān (1910), on the last days of the second to last Mughal emperor, who died in captivity, and Candragupta (1911), set in ancient India. The other notable playwright at this time was Kṣirodprasād Bidyābiṇod (1863-1927), who will be remembered for his highly popular Bengali version of Alibaba (1897), from the one thousand and one Arabian Nights,and his historical and mythological plays, which include Banger Pratāpāditya (1903) and Naranārāyaṇ (1926).
On the prose front, a number of writers were producing thought-provoking work. Among them were Rāmendrasundar Tribedī (1864-1919), a professor of science, who was one of the most revered essayists of his time, considered second to none but Rabīndranāth. His extensive range of scholarship—from science, to religion, to philosophy, to linguistics—set him apart from his contemporaries. His major works include Prakŗti (Nature, 1896), Jijñāsā (Query, 1903), Karmakathā (Talks on Karma, 1913), and Śabdakatha (Talks on the Word, 1917). Akṣaykumār Maitreya (1861-1930) was a lawyer who doubled as a historian and contributed to Sādhanā,the journal Rabīndranāth edited (see earlier). His important works include Sirājuddaulā (1897), Mirkāsim (1904), and Phiriṅgi Baṇik (The European Merchants, 1922). The most important prose writer, after Rabīndranāth, during this period, however, was Prabhāt Kumār Mukhopādhyāya (Ang. Mukherjee/Mukerji [1873-1932]). He, too, was a lawyer who doubled as a writer. Under Rabīndranāth’s encouragement, Mukhopādhyāya produced some of the best short stories the Bengali language has known. They are characterized by an acute sense of observation and an uncanny sense of humor. Among his major works are Nabakathā (New Tales, 1900), Galpāñjali (Story Offerings, 1913), and Jāmātā Bābāji (Dear Son-in-Law, 1931). Prabhāt Kumār Mukhopādhyāya also wrote some novels, Ratnadīp (The Jeweled Lamp, 1915) being the best known.
The second decade of the twentieth century was marked by the rise of perhaps the most loved novelist in Bengali literature, Śaratcandra Caṭṭopādhyāya (Ang. Chatterjee/ji [1876-1938]), who had started writing in 1903 but was not noticed until 1913, when he started writing regularly for periodicals like the J̄amunā, Sāhitya,and Bhāratbarṣa. Drawing from his own experience, which was rich and varied, Śaratcandra wrote from the layperson’s point of view, with no literary pretensions; and although he wrote in the formal Bengali (sādhū-bhāṣā),his prose was pedestrian and addressed his readers directly. As a result, his writing stands out, not so much for literary polish but for its genuine warmth of understanding and poignant realism. The persistent theme underlying almost all his novels is a deep and sincere sympathy for women and their inhuman exploitation in a patriarchal society. Consequently, we meet several female characters in Śaratcandra’s novels who have shaken off social bondage, choosing the hazardous life of the outcast instead. Through his writing, Śaratcandra was responding to the rising consciousness of women’s rights in his own society and forwarding the cause by participating in creating a base of public opinion in favor of suffering Bengali women. Śaratcandra’s zeal for advancing women’s rights was nothing short of the social thinker and political activist.
Although Śaratcandra’s fame rests primarily on his novels, he also wrote short stories. Two of his best-known short stories are Maheśand Abhāgīr Swarga. Śaratcandra’s works continue to be read even today by the Bengali reading public with the same enthusiasm with which they were first received. Prolific as he was, his best novels include Debdās (written 1901, published 1917), Bindur Chele (Bindu’s Son, 1913), Rāmer Sumati (Ram’s Return to Sanity, 1914), Pariṇīta (The Married Girl, 1914), Birãj Bau (Mrs. Birãj, 1914), Pallī Samāj (The Village Commune, 1916), Śrikānta (4 volumes, 1917, 1918, 1927, 1933), Swāmī (The Husband, 1918), Gŗhadāha (Burning the Home, 1919), Denā-Pāonā (Debts and Demands, 1923), and Pather Dābī (The Demand of the Road, 1926). The last mentioned was very different from the rest of Śaratcandra’s corpus since its content was directly political, as a result of which it was proscribed by the British administration soon after publication. Almost all of Śaratcandra’s novels have been staged, made into movies and television series, and translated into almost all Indian languages. However, his overt emotionalism, which spilled very often into the area of sentimentalism, has prevented Saratcandra Catt.opadhyaya’s works from winning sustained popularity in the West. In fact, some literary scholars have proposed, albeit arguably, that the innately Bengali character of his writing has prevented Śaratcandra’s works from being successfully translated into English and other European languages.
Writing in Śaratcandra’s footsteps were several novelists, among whom was Nirupamā Debī (1883-1951), a noted woman novelist, whose collection of short stories Āleyā (Will O’ the Wisp, 1917) and more than a dozen novels secured her a place in the upper ranks of Bengali novelists. The very first novel she wrote, Annapūrṇār Mandir (Annapūrṇā’s Temple, 1913), remains her best-known work. Her other important work, Śyamalī (1919), about the awakening of a mentally challenged girl, was later turned into a stage play that received wide commercial success. The other woman novelist who cut ripples of controversy at around the same time was Śailabālā Ghoṣjāyā (1894-1973), who, like Nirupamā, was also doubling as a short story writer and novelist. She was a daring writer and braved subjects like interreligious relationships. Her first novel, Śekh Āndu (serialized 1915-17), was about the love between an educated Hindu girl and the Muslim chauffeur of her father. Śailabālā went on to publish several collections of short stories and some 24 novels.
Literary journals have always held an important place in Bengali literature, not only by allowing writers to make their first appearances but also by providing the site for major debates and identifying new trends. We have already mentioned nineteenth-century journals that continued to serve as cultural forums for the Bengali literati— Baṇgabāsī, Hitabādī,and Sādhanā. In 1914, yet another journal, Sabujpatra (Green Leaf), came out under the stewardship of Pramatha Caudhurī (Ang. Chaudhuri/Choudhury), a lawyer who taught in the Law Department of the University of Calcutta and who had married a niece of Rabīndranāth. This journal, too, was initiated by Rabīndranāth. Caudhurī’s incisive prose—lucid and thought-provoking—and the editorial choices he made strongly promoted the argument for the adoption of colloquial Bengali as the standard of writing as well. Pramatha Caudhurī wrote under the pseudonym of Bīrbal, the legendary courtier of the Mughal emperor Akbar, who was famous for his subversive wit and biting sarcasm. His important prose collections include Bīrbaler Hālkhātā (Bīrbal’s Accounts, 1917) and Cār-iyāri-kathā (Tales of Four Friends, 1916).
Another major journal in the second decade of the twentieth century was the revitalized Bhāratī, which had been taken over by a younger group of writers. The most important prose writer to emerge from the pages of the new Bhāratī was Rabīndranāth’s nephew, Abanindranāth Tagore (1871-1951). But Abanin-dranāth was more a peer for the Bhāratīgroup (he was the father-in-law of its editor, Matilāl Gaṇgopādhyāya [Ang. Ganguly]) than a product. He is better known as one of the pioneers of modern Indian art. His greatest contribution to Bengali literature lies in the large number of yarns he spun (and illustrated) for children, in ever so popular books like Bhutpatrīr Deśe (The Land of Ghosts and Goblins, 1915) and Khātāñcir Khātā (An Accountant’s Journal, 1916). Kṣīrer Putul,his famous fairy-tale novella for children, continues to remain one of the best stories ever written for the young in the Bengali language. Abanindranāth also wrote some scholarly monographs and articles on women’s folk rites in Bengal and their art, most notably Bāṅglār Brata (Folk Ritual Rhymes of Bengal, 1919).
The literary scene at this time was not confined to the Hindu Bengali community alone. There was a considerable amount of literary activity in the Calcutta-based Bengali Muslim community as well. The work of the Mohammedan Literary Society deserves to be mentioned, in this context, among the organizations that contributed to the literary fashions of this period. Also noteworthy were the contributions of publisher/editors like S. Wājed Āli and the journals Mihirand Mohāmmadī.
A major writer who emerged from the pages of Bhāratīwas Satyendranāth Datta (Ang. Dutta/Dutt [1882-1922]). Datta’s work in the second decade of the twentieth century presents a foil to the kind of poetry Rabīndranāth was producing at this time; Datta was more interested in experimenting with versification and prosody. Starting with Benu O Bīṇā (The Flute and the Lute) in 1906, where the influence of predecessors is clear, he produced more mature work in Phuler Phasal (The Crop of Flowers, 1911) and Abhra-Ābir (Mica and Vermilion Dust, 1916). The latter work is characterized by brave metrical experiments, unparalleled in Bengali poetry. Datta’s metrical accomplishments opened up the formal possibilities of Bengali poetry, and he is fondly remembered as its “Metrical Wizard.”
In general, the turn of the century was not a very productive time for Bengali poets. But among the few who wrote good poetry was Priyambadā Debī (1871-1935), whose work stands out prominently. Sukumār Sen, the literary historian, in writing about her, said, “Priyambadā’s poems are redolent with the soft fragrance of a woman’s heart; the tone is quiet, tender and subdued.” (Sen 330). Writing mainly for the revived Baṅgadarśan (Viewing Bengal, edited by Srīṣ candra Majumdār), a late nineteenth-century literary journal, she also published collections of her poems, namely, Renu (1900), Patralekhā (1910), and Aṇśu (1927). Two other poets who need to be mentioned here as followers of Tagore are Rajanīkanta Sen (1865-1919) and Atulprasād Sen (1871-1938). However, since they were both primarily songwriters, as opposed to poets, it is predominantly in the shape of songs that their creations have endured in Bengali culture. Their songs continue to be performed and recorded by leading Bengali vocalists for commercial consumption.
However, throughout this early period of the twentieth century, Rabīndranāth Tagore continued to dominate the Bengali literary scene. The Nobel Prize in 1913 had asserted his fame in the West as a mystical poet from the East, and Rabīndranāth himself fanned this rather partial view of his literary accomplishments for some time by continuing to write in that mystical-lyrical-religious fashion till 1914. The two works that reflected this continuing preoccupation with a spiritual view of the world were Gītimālya (Song Garland, 1914) and Gītālī (Songs, 1914); even the titles of the collections bear testimony to Rabīndranath’s continued allegiance to the Gitanjaliframe of mind. In 1916, Rabīndranāth changed gears with Balākā (Swans), in which he used the traditional Bengali payārmeter to express very different themes. In Balākā,Rabīndranāth replied to the youthful response the Indian nationalist movement had generated by welcoming the “new,” which also called for the smashing of the old and the degenerate. He changed mode once again with the publication of his next volume of poems, Palātakā (Fugitive, 1918), which was intended to communicate at a more social level, voicing the frustrations of the oppressed.
Palātakāsignaled Rabīndranāth’s return to the humanist frame of mind. The short stories that he produced during this period, too, reflected this renewed engagement with social conditions and the plight of the downtrodden, especially women. His most important short story of this period is Strīr Patra (The Letter of a Wife, 1914). The story revolves around Mŗṇāl, a young housewife, who leaves her family and husband to protest the oppressive social system that had forced her sister, who was married to a lunatic, to take her own life.
At around the same time, in 1916, Rabīndranāth’s novel Caturaṇga (The Quartet) was serialized in Sabujpatra (see earlier). The novel comprises four ostensibly disconnected episodes from the lives of four persons who control the destiny of the heroine. Immediately following Caturaṇgawas Ghare Bāire (The Home and the World, 1915-16), also serialized in Sabujpatra. Ghare Bāirewas written as a two-pronged ideological battleground where nationalist politics, on one hand, meets gender politics, on the other. In this work, Rabīndranāth goes back to the early days of the Indian nationalist movement, when all British goods were asked to be boycotted, notwithstanding the harm it wrought on local traders. One such nationalist demagogue, Sandīp, comes to visit his landowner friend, Nikhileś, for refuge. Nikhileś is a true liberal but does not believe in Sandīp’s brand of nationalism, which he finds to be mere lip-service. He is, however, a strong believer in women’s liberation and, going against the age-old Hindu custom, considers his wife Bimalā an individual on her own right and indoctrinates her with the same ideas. Sandīp, in order to fill both his lust and coffers, seduces Bimalā out of wedlock. Nikhileś, with full awareness of Bimalā’s extramarital affair, continues to honor her freedom of choice. Finally, Sandīp’s betrayal surfaces for both Bimalā and Nikhileś, who is killed while trying to rescue his villagers from the hands of the ultranationalists. This novel became highly controversial and enraged a number of nationalists. Artistically, too, it did not receive the acclaim that generally greeted Rabīndranāth’s work. E. M. Forster allegedly called the novel “a boarding-house flirtation that masks itself in mystic and patriotic talk” (Zbavitel 1976, 266). The novel was made into a film by Satyajit Rāy (1985), which, too, received lukewarm praise. Ghare Bāire continues to baffle readers; one is not quite sure of its political intent. What is sure, however, is that Rabīndranāth, in 1916, was steadily drifting away from the mainstream of the nationalist campaign, moving toward an internationalist view of the human race.
In the same year, he started his travels to Japan and America, delivering lectures on nationalism and the evils of imperialism. But his emphasis continued to remain on the social ills of India, not its political movement that was fermenting to shake off the yoke of colonial bondage. Rabīndranāth was more interested in awakening the nation’s “mind” than in a feverish brand of shortsighted nationalism. Although he did protest the 1919 Amritsar massacre by writing to the viceroy and declining the knighthood bestowed upon him by the British monarch, his eyes were set more on realizing his ideal of global sympathy and understanding, recognizing the common bonds between human beings from all over the world, “the spiritual unity of mankind” (Zbavitel 1976, 267). In May 1922, he officially founded the Vishwabharati (Beng. Biśwabharatī) University at Śāntiniketan. The word “Vishwabharati/Biśwabhāratī” literally means “the world of/in India,” Rabindranath’s vision.
In 1930, Rabīndranāth visited Soviet Russia and responded immediately with the epistolary collection Rāśiār Ciṭhi (Letters from Russia), where he openly recorded his positive impressions of the socialist system, comparing it with the colonial system of British India. The English translation of the book was promptly proscribed by the British government. Rabīndranāth’s trip to Russia gave him a parameter to judge the sociopolitical conditions of his own country. It came as a confirmation of the ideas he had explored a few years earlier in his full-length poetic play, Raktakarabī (Red Oleanders, 1924), of the fall of authoritarian monarchies and the freedom march of the working class. In 1932, he rewrote a one-act play he had written in 1923 into a full-length play, Kāler J̄ātrā, where he once again identified the oppressed as the immediate saviors of civilization.
His subsequent political essays and speeches, too, from this point on, began to ring with a decidedly firmer anti-British, prosocialist tone. In Pariśeṣ, too, Rabīndranāth took a stance in favor of the suffering millions, and the poems in this collection played the proverbial “still, sad music of humanity.” Especially noteworthy in this collection is the narrative poem Bāṁśī (The Flute), where Rabīndranāth plays with a deceptive meter that reads like prose, despite its unorthodox but measured prosodic scheme. Bāṁśī is about a young Calcutta clerk who is even poorer than the lizard scaling his tenement walls. This singular poem, more than anything else, stands as the cornerstone of the modernist movement in Bengali poetry. The modernist element in Rabīndranāth’s poetry revealed itself further in his next collection, Punaśca (Postscript, 1932), especially so in the “prose poem” Sādhārāṇ Meye (Ordinary Girl), where the female narrator in a letter to the novelist Śaratcandra Caṭṭopādhyāya (see earlier) implores him to write about an ordinary girl who “does not know French or German,/but who knows how to weep” (Zbavitel 1976, 270).
After Punaśca,Rabīndranāth revisited the world of novels for the last time with Dui Bon (Two Sisters, 1932), Mālañca (The Flower Garden, 1933), and Cār Adhyāy (Four Chapters, 1934). Of the three, the last brought Rabīndranāth back to the theme of the nationalist movement—this time, the terrorist movement—where he placed his protagonists, two lovers, both of whom are freedom fighters, amid the unavoidable contradictions inherent in any form of violent politics, the choices and sacrifices that have to be made. In 1935, Rabīndranāth published Śeṣ Saptak (The Last Sextet) and Bīthikā (The Flower Alley), both containing poems that took stock of the poet’s life thus far—74 years. In the same year, Rabīndranāth published yet another collection of poems, this time in “free verse,” entitled Patrapūṭ (Armful of Leaves), where he mixed his continuing look at his own life and creativity with a reflection on history and humanity. In 1937, Rabīndranāth fell seriously ill, but that did not stop him from working. He was back on the road by January 1938, when he published Prāntik (On the Borderline), where, as the title suggests, he was expressing his desire of drinking life to the lees. But in the last two poems of the collection, Rabīndranāth protested fascism. In the same year, he put out a second edition of Patrapūt with two additional poems, one of which, Āphrikā (Africa), was a direct invective against Western and fascist exploitation of the Dark Continent. Rabīndranāth was elected the president of the Indian Committee of the League against Fascism, also in 1937. In 1938 came Seṁjuti (Evening Lamp), Rabīndranāth’s next collection of poems, where he was, yet again, thumbing self-critically through the pages of a very long and rich life. At this time, he also became an active prose writer, moving back and forth among essays, speeches, and publishable epistles. But the poetic productions continued unhindered through thick and thin. In 1940 came Nabajātak (The Newborn), which anticipated the next generation, the nameless “newborn,” whom Rabīndranāth was inviting to take over. He put some other minor poems written between 1938 and 1940 in a separate collection entitled Sānāi (Shehnai). The year 1940 was also significant because of Rabīndranāth’s final formal experiments with the short story genre in the three pieces of Tin Saṅgī (Three Companions). In the same year, he also wrote an autobiographical account of his childhood for his younger readers, Chelebelā (Boyhood). Rabīndranāth fell ill again in September 1940, but in early 1941 he was publishing his next collection of poems, Rogaśaj̄yāy (In Illness), followed by a second one within a couple of months, Arogya (Reconvalescence). In May 1941, the entire Indian nation observed Rabīndranath Tagore’s 80th birthday, and he himself celebrated the occasion with two more books, Janmadine (Birthday) and Galpasalpa (Chitchat). On August 7, 1941, Rabīndranāth breathed his last. He had, in Janmadine,etched his final messages for the world, although the posthumously published collection Śeṣ Lekhā (Last Writings) actually carried his few last poems. He left his epitaph in one of the poems of Janmadine,where he called himself “a poet of the world” and invited the new poet “who is near to the soil” to be the “kinsman” of the voiceless who would “find glory in your glory.”
The Kallol Generation (1923-47)
Rabīndranāth’s new poets, the bearers of his mantle, were, indeed, singing for the downtrodden, and some of them had already been writing during his lifetime. The decade between the two world wars especially saw in Bengali literature the rise of an awareness of trends in world literature, coupled with a committed sociopolitical consciousness among writers in the wake of the first surge of the noncooperation movement and the disillusionment that came after World War I. Perhaps the most important writer during this decade was Kāzi Nazrul Islām (see later). Nazrul, although politically committed, was not a scholar-writer who responded to the literary fashions of the Western “modernist” schools. But a host of other writers, most of them belonging to the same generation, did respond to Western “modernism” and started expressing themselves through several journals, engaging in healthy debates on the state of Bengali literature.
A journal culture had developed from the nineteenth century in Bengali literary circles, some examples of which we have seen. They always played a major role in Bengali literature when it came to deciding which way the literature was heading. When Kallol (Stormy Current), the literary journal, was founded in 1923 by Gokulcandra Nāg (1895-1925) and Dineshrañjan Dās (1888-1941), Bengali literature was a crossroads of conflict where the “traditionalist” camp, consisting of older writers, faced the “progressive” promodernist younger writers. The young and unknown writers of Kallol,by their unorthodox literary means and products, raked the ire of the conservative/ traditionalist camp led by Aśok Caṭṭopādhyāya and Sajanīkanta Dās (1900-62), who replied with their own journal, Śaṇibārer Ciṭhi (The Saturday Post), founded in 1924. A virulent debate ensued between the “progressive” and “traditional” camps, and soon other journals were founded to bolster the Kallol camp, namely, Kālī O Kalam (Pen and Ink, 1927), edited by Premendra Mitra, Muralidhar Basu, and Śailajānanada Mukhopādhyāya from Calcutta, and Nareścandra Sengupta and Buddhadeb Basu’s Pragati (Progress, 1928) from Dhākā. The debate got so rough that Rabīndranāth, the only person respected by both camps, was forcibly pulled into its vortex: which way should Bengali literature go? In March 1927, Rabīndranāth presided over two meetings between the warring camps. He proposed a compromise, but not to the satisfaction of the “progressive” camp. More intellectual repartee followed in the literary journals until, finally, Rabīndranāth silenced all by his formally innovative novel Śeṣer Kabitā (1928) and the timely creation of gadya kabitā (free prosaic verse, a close approximation of vers libre), which culminated in the collection entitled Pariśeṣ (The End, 1932).
The influence of the Kallol generation had led to the birth of three more journals that were destined to have a major impact on Bengali poetry: Sudhindranāth Datta’s Paricay (Acquaintance, 1931), Purbāśā (Hope of the East), edited by Sañjay Bhaṭṭācārya (Ang. Bhattacharya), and Buddhadeb Basu’s Kabitā (Poetry, 1935).
Jatīndranāth Sengupta (1887-1958) and Mohitlāl Majumdār (1882-1952) were two important poets who consciously tried to be different from Tagore. Amiya Cakrabartī (1901-86) developed under the wings of Rabīndranāth as his secretary, and traces of Tagorean poetry can be seen in his first collection, Khaśṛā (Rough Draft, 1938). But Cakrabartī eventually developed his own voice, which was heard in his later books—Pārāpār (Crossovers, 1953) and Pālābadal (Change of Time, 1955). Samar Sen (1916-86) was one of the leading figures in the new poetry movement in the Kallol generation (see earlier) who, however, gave up writing poetry altogether but greatly contributed to the development of non-Tagorean Bengali poetry. His two most important collections are Kayekṭi Kabitā (A Few Poems, 1937) and Tin-puruṣ (Three Generations, 1944). Sudhindranāth Datta (1901-60), also the editor of Paricay,was close to Rabīndranāth in personal life, although his poetry was radically and consciously different from that of the maestro. It was deeply personal, but rich with linguistic inventions and neologisms in its effort to be free of clichés and hackneyed poetic norms. Datta was not prolific and published only a few, though important, books. His best works include Arkesṭrā (Orchestra, 1935), Uttarphālgunī (The Northerlies, 1940), and Saṅbarta (Cataclysmic Clouds, 1953). Buddhadeb Basu (1908-74) was not only the editor of Kabitā,but also a noted poet himself who ventured out into the world of prose, drama, and scholarship with equal aplomb. His best poetical works include Kaṅkābatī (1937) and Damayantī (1943). Among his plays the best known is Tapaswī O Taraṅginī (The Hermit and Taraṅginī, 1967). He also penned numerous short stories, novels, and scholarly essays on a variety of literary matters. Among the other Kallol generation writers, Premendra Mitra (1904-88), who was coeditor of Kālī-O-Kalam (see earlier), was a literateur of considerable versatility and also worked in the broadcast and film world. His poetry, however, was relatively free of the complexities that marked his modernist compatriots. Among his verse collections are Prathamā (The First, 1932), Samrāṭ (The Emperor, 1940), and Sāgar Theke Pherā (Return from the Sea, 1956).
The most prominent member of the Kallol generation, however, was the poet Jibanānanda Dāś (1899-1954). Though not recognized very much in his own lifetime, Jibanānanda Dāś has come to be regarded as probably the most important Bengali poet since Rabīndranāth. Starting tentatively with Jharā Pālak (Cast-off Feathers, 1928), he soon severed his ties with traditional Bengali prosody and began to play with different, highly original modes of poetic expression. His experimentations with metaphors—drawn out of the natural world and interwoven with shreds and dregs ripped out of his own unconscious and reconfigured in an incredible maze of images—conjure a rare, mystifying beauty that holds the reader in thrall. Jibanānanda’s yearning for a better world lurked wistfully, but surely, behind the ghastly images he portrayed in his phantasmagoric rendition of the contemporary; it is the same wish for better tidings that enlivened his impressionistic pen sketches of Bengal’s natural splendors, which he adored with almost pantheistic passion. Jibanānanda Dāś was a reclusive man and did not publish much, but what he did allow to appear in print comes down to us as, undoubtedly, some of the finest verses ever composed in Indian, if not world, literature. After Jharā Pālak,Jibanānanda published only four more collections of poetry: Dhūsar Pāṇḍulipi (The Faded Manuscript, 1936), Baṇalatā Sen (1942), Mahāpr̦thibī (The Great Earth, 1944), and Sātṭi Tarar Timir (The Darkness of the Seven Stars, 1948). He died untimely in a road accident, at the early age of 55, and Bengali literature lost one of its most original poets.
Probably the most important poet in the period immediately following Jibanānanda Dāś is Biṣñu De (Ang. Dey [1909-82]), although both are of the same generation. A professor of English by profession, De freely incorporated his study of Western literature into the mosaic of his poetry. Although a Marxist, his poetry stayed away from the slogan-based, party-line kind of propagandist writing. Heavily inspired by Pound, Yeats, Eliot, and the Greeks, the sophistication of Biṣñu De’s poetry rested mainly on complex imagery and references to obscure worlds and lost civilizations. Among his several volumes of poetry are Ūrbasī O Arṭemis (Urbasi and Artemis, 1933), Smrti Sattā Bhabiṣyat (Remembrance, Self, Future, 1963), and Saṇgbād Mūlata Kābya (News Is Essentially Poetry, 1969). His major prose work is a collection of essays on literature, Sāhityer Bhabiṣyat (The Future of Literature, 1952). Most of the poets of the Kallol generation lived on to pursue their careers well into the 1960s and some into the 1970s.
Not all writers from the Kallol generation were poets. Premendra Mitra, whose poetic works we have discussed, is better known in the Bengali literary circuit as a short story writer, as the creator of the inimitable Ghaṇādā—the Bengali Münchhausen—whose imaginary flights of fancy continue to fascinate both the young and the young-at-heart. Among his notable novels and short story collections are Pañcaśar (Five Arrows, 1929) and Kuyāśā (Mist, 1938). His short story “Janaika Kāpuruṣer Kāhinī” was made into a short film by Satyajit Rāy. “Telenāpotā Ābiṣkār,” another of Mitra’s acclaimed short stories, was turned into a successful Hindi feature film, Khanḍhar,by Mrinal Sen. Manīṣ Ghaṭak (1902-79), who wrote under the pseudonym of Jubanāśva (Young Horse), was another important member of the Kallol generation, although he did not write much. He is best known for his collection of short stories— Paṭaldāngār Pāṁcālī (The Ballads of Paṭaldāṅgā)—which has been identified by scholars as an emblematic document of the literary trend of the age. Maṇīndra Rāy (1919) is another major poet of the 1940s. His major work is the collection Mohinī Āṛāl (The Bewitching Veil, 1967).
We need to return to an earlier period to trace the development of Bengali prose after Śaratcandra Caṭṭopādhyāya. The most important fiction writer in Bengali literature after Śaratcandra was Bibhūtibhūṣaṇ Bandyopādhyāya (1899-1950), who, in a short life span, produced some of the most remarkable Bengali novels. His works evince more psychological depth than can be seen in Śaratcandra’s writings. Bibhūtibhūṣaṇ will be best remembered for his Apu novels, Pather Pāṁcāli (Song of the Road, 1929) and its sequel, Aparajita (Undefeated, 1932), a fictionalized version of the author’s own life. Pather Pāṁcāli,especially, paints a poignant picture of rural life and the journey of a poor Brahman (Ang. Brahmin) family through the eyes of a child protagonist. The two novels were turned into the famous Apu-trilogy films by Satyajit Rāy in the 1960s. Among his other works are Āraṇyak (The Wild, 1938), Ādarśa Hindu Hoṭel (The Ideal Hindu Hotel, 1940), and Anubartan (Recycle, 1942). He also wrote books for children and numerous short stories.
Two of Bibhūtibhūṣaṇ’s lesser contemporaries were Acintyakumār Sengupta (1903-76) and Śailajãnanda Mukhopādhyāya (1900-1976). Although Sengupta was very prolific and popular, he did not always succeed artistically. His best works include Bede (The Gypsy, 1928) and Prācīr O Prāntar (The Wall and the Distance, 1932). He is well known for a host of short stories that he wrote over a protracted writing career. Mukhopādhyāya’s fame rests mainly on his sympathetic depiction of the life of the coal miners in his home district of Burdwan (Beng. Bardhamān), whom he had observed very closely from childhood. His treatment is often realistic, and the stories tragic. His best-remembered works include two short story collections, Kaylākuṭhī (The Coal Miner’s Office, 1930) and Din-Majur (Day Laborer, 1932), and the novels Jhoṛo Hāoā (Stormy Wind, 1923) and Ṣolo-Ānā (Sixteen Annas, 1925).
Among the fiction writers who wrote their best works during the political transition period of India from British rule to independence (1947) are Sañjay Bhaṭṭācārya (1909-69), who wrote in the style of the “novel of ideas,” and Jagadīś Gupta (1886-1957). Gupta is also regarded by some historians as a member of the Kallol group. He is also the precursor of one of the most prominent novelists of this period, Mānik Bandyopādhyāya (1910-56). Bandyopādhyāya was an active political worker from East Bengal, and his work is imbued with impressions of the natural surroundings and the people of that region. Nature and human beings are shown to face each other as both adversaries and allies in his famous and mysterious novel Padmā Nadīr Mājhi (The Boatman of the River Padmā, 1936, English in 1948). Māṇik will also be remembered for his Putulnācer Itikathā (The Story of the Puppet Dance, 1936), also on the subject of nature’s unfair clashes with human beings, who are themselves deeply entrenched in the inescapable complexities of their own psychophysical desires. Māṇik Bandyopādhyāya also wrote several short stories, among which are Prāgaitihāsik (Prehistoric, 1937) and Āj-Kāl-Parśur Galpa (Stories of Today, Tomorrow and the Day After, 1946). A brilliant film version of Padmā Nadīr Mājhiwas made by Gautam Ghosh (Beng. Ghos) in 1992.
A contemporary of Māṇik Bandyopādhyāya was Tārāśankar Bandyopādhyāya (no relation), who hailed from Bīrbhūm, a district in West Bengal, and also used the familiar locale of his home as a setting for his stories. Like most Bengali fiction writers, Tārāśaṅkar wrote short stories as well as novels. His novels are marked with a remarkable clarity of expression, a keen sense of drama, and a heartfelt sympathy for rural folk. The last explains why the best of his stories and novels are set in village surroundings. His noted novels are Dhātrī Debatā (The Nursing Deity, 1939), Kālindī (1940), Gaṇadebatā (Dieux Populi, 1942), and Hāṃsuli Bāṃker Upakathā (The Legend of the Hāṃsuli Bend, 1947). Almost all of his novels have been turned into commercially successful films. His short story “Jalsāghar” (The Music Room, 1937), a touching tale of the last days of an impoverished aristocrat, was turned into an acclaimed film by Satyajit Rāy.
Nārāyaṇ Gaṇgopādhyāya (1918-70) was another noted fiction writer who emerged at around the same time as Tārāśaṇkar and Māṇik Bandyopādhyāya. Although he, too, started with rural life as his primary material, very soon he was dealing with life in metropolitan Calcutta. Two of his important novels, out of dozens, are Upanibeś (The Colony, 1943) and Megher Upar Prāsād (Castles upon Clouds, 1963). He also wrote several short stories and one-act plays for adults and children. Another major writer from this period is Narendranāth Mitra (1916-75), whose works include Bini Sutor Mālā (1962) and Anāgata (1972), a collection of short stories.
Rajśekhar Basu (1880-1960), mainly a philologist and a major translator of ancient literary masterpieces of India, is better known among Bengali readers as Paraśurām, a pseudonym he used for his creative writing that was predominantly satirical. One of his well-known stories, Mahāpurus, about an amateur sleuth who uncovers a holy man’s fraud, was made into a short film by Satyajit Rāy. Among his major translation works are the Rāmāyanaand the Mahābhārata, along with Kālidāsa’s famous Saṅskŗt poem “Meghadūta” into Bengali prose.
Śibrām Cakrabartī (1909-80) was one of the most popular humorists Bengali literature has known, along with Syed Mujtabā Āli (1904-74). The most dearly remembered humorist in Bengali literature, however, is Sukumār Rāy (1887- 1923), who is the progenitor of the nonsense-rhyme genre in Bengali. His famous book of nonsense poems, Ābol-Tābol (Gibber-Gabber, 1923), continues to be one of the first books read to a Bengali child. Sukumār Rāy also wrote several other humorous tales and plays and was the editor of Sandeś,a magazine for children founded by his father, Upendra Kisor Raycaudhurī (1863-1915). Sukumār Rāy was the father of Satyajit Rãy, the filmmaker, whose literary works are discussed later.
Bengali prose literature has always boasted a high output in prose productions of all standards throughout the twentieth century. The legacy of Rabīndranāth, Śaratcandra, Bibhūtibhūṣaṇ, and Māṇik Bandyopādhyāya has been carried forward bravely by forthcoming generations. Among the writers who have carried the Bengali prose tradition forward, besides those discussed earlier, there are many whose works cannot be discussed here for lack of space, but we can mention a few and some of their notable works. Among the older writers, predominantly novelists and short story writers, who continue to write or have passed away only recently are AnnaDāśakar Rāy (1904), Jarāsandha (1904), Jāj̄ābar (1909), Satīnāth Bhāduri (1906-65) (Jāgarī [The Vigil, 1965] and Digbhrānta [Lost, 1966]), Kamal Kumār Majumdār (1915-79) (Antarjalī Jātrā [The Final Passage, 1962] and Nim Annapūrṇā ), Bibhūtibhūṣaṇ Mukhopādhyāya (1896-1987), Prabodhkumār Sānyāl (1907-83), Subodh Ghoṣ (1909-80), Balāicāṁd Mukhopādhyāya (1899-1979), who wrote under the pen name of Baṇaphul, Manoj Basu (1901-79) ( Bhūli Nāi [Haven’t Forgotten, 1943] and Jaljaṅgal [Rivers and Forests, 1951]), Gopāl Hāldār (1902-93), Śaradindu Bandyopādhyāya (1899-1970), who is best known for his detective and semihistorical novels, Bimal Mitra (1912) (Sāheb Bibi Golām [King, Queen and Jester, 1953]), Śaktipada Rājguru, and Aśutoṣ Mukhopādhyāya (1920). Two other major novelists from this period are Dhūrjaṭiprasād Mukhopādhyāy (1894-1961) and Adwaita Mallabarman. Of the two, Mallabarman died prematurely but will be remembered for his singular work Titās Ekti Nadīr Nām (Titās Is the Name of a River, 1962), brilliantly filmed in the early 1970s by Ŗtwik Ghaṭak.
One writer who has to be set apart from this group in Samareś Basu (1923-89), generally referred to as the successor of Māṇik Bandyopādhyāya. Basu, also hailing from the leftist bloc of Bengali prose writers, has written prolifically, moving freely between rural and urban milieus, his subject the oppressed lower and middle classes. The tautness of his prose, its unforgiving realism, dramatic plots, and boldness in portraying sexual relationships have made Basu one of the foremost fiction writers in Bengali literature. His major works include Gaṇgā (1957), Bibar (The Chasm, 1966), Bi ṭi Roḍer Dhāre (On the Side of the B. T. Road, 1953), Joārbhāṁṭā (Ebb and Tide, 1960), Prajāpati (The Butterfly, 1967), Paṛ (The Crossing, 1978), and Dekhi Nāi Phire (Haven’t Turned to Look Back, 1988). Basu also wrote under the pen name of Kālkuṭ, producing semimythologicalnovels like Amŗta Kumbher Sandhāne (In Search of the Nectar of Immortality, 1971) and Śāmba (1978), the latter being a fictive biography of the son of Kŗsna. He was also a prolific master of the short story genre. A number of his short stories and novels have been turned into films and plays.
Among the older contemporary prose writers who started in the 1960s and are still writing, the most noteworthy figures are Sunīl Gaṅgopādhyāya (1934) and Śaṅkar (Maniśankar Bandyopādhyāya (1933). Gaṅgopādhyāya, who also doubles as a poet, continues to write prolifically and is one of the most popular writers of today. His novels are set predominantly in urban, middle-class environs. He also writes under the pseudonym of Nīlalohit (Blue-Blooded). His major works include Araṇyer Dinrātri (Days and Nights of the Forest, 1966), Pratidwandī (The Adversary, 1970), Arjun (1978), and Sei Samay (Those Times, 1980). Of these four, the first two were made into films by Satyajit Rāy. Śaṅkar commands the same popularity that Gaṅgopādhyāya does, if not more, and has also written novels that continue to be best-sellers. His best-known works are Cauraṅgī (196?), Nibeditā Risārc Lyāboraṭāri (Nibeditā Research Laboratory, 1966), Sīmābaddha (Ltd., 1971), Jana Araṇya (The Human Jungle, 1977), and Marubhūmi (The Desert, 1978, sequel to the preceding). Sīmābaddhaand Jana Araṇyawere made into feature films by Satyajit Rāy. Satyajit Rāy (1922-92) himself was an accomplished prose writer. Although he always called himself a filmmaker first, the lucid simplicity of his prose, the clarity of his thought, his characterization, and his adept incorporation of filmic details have earned him a spot among the best prose writers in Bengali. His greatest creation is the character of Pheludā, the detective, and his endearing cohorts Topśe and Jaṭāyu. He will also be remembered for his original screenplays and science fiction (especially the diaries of Professor Śaṅku)—both of which are relatively underexplored genres in Bengali literature—and Sandeś (see earlier), the childrens’ magazine he edited after his father and grandfather. The authors previously listed are known primarily for their association with leading commercial publishing houses. Sunīl Gaṅgopādhyāya, for example, is known for his longtime professional association with the Ānanda Bazār Patrika Group (of whom he is an employee), which, as one of the largest newspaper and magazine publishing houses in India, with its numerous newspapers, periodicals (English, Bengali, and Hindi), and a subsidiary book publishing concern, has come to dominate the Bengali book market at a commercial level. Besides Gaṅgopādhyāya, the group has, over the years, also employed many other prominent writers in editorial positions for its numerous publications. Writers who have worked or continue to work for Ānanda Bazār include poets Nirendranāth Cakrabartī (see later), Śakti Caṭṭopādhyāya (see later), Śyāmal Kānti Dās, and Jay Goswāmī (see later) and prose writers like Santoṣ Kumār Ghoṣ, Ramāpada Caudhurī (1922), Śīrṣendu Mukhopādhyāya (1936) (Ghūṇpokā [The Woodworm]), Sunīl Basu, Sañjīb Caṭṭopādhyāya (Śwetpãtharer Ṭebil [The Marble Table]), Gour Kiśor Ghoṣ, and Śekhar Basu. Many other authors have enjoyed commercial success through publishing with the Ānanda Bazār Group. Popular authors like Satyajit Rāy and Samareś Majumdār (Douṛ [The Run], Kālbelā [Latter Day], Uttarādhikār [Inheritance]), for example, mostly appeared first in Ānanda Bazār periodicals, or special issues thereof, before appearing as books from ānanda Publishers. However, the Bengali intellectual world has come to regard the role of this publishing group more as an agent of commercializing hegemony than an outfit that has genuinely contributed to the advancement of Bengali literature, in general. Many important writers continue to survive outside the Ānanda Bazār ambit.
Other major prose writers, writing both for Ānanda and otherwise, include Amiyabhūṣaṇ Majumdār, Bimal Kar, Jyotirīndra Nandī, Sandīpan Caṭṭopādhyāya, Debeś Rāy (J̄āj̄āti  and Tistāpārer Bŗttānta [Tales from the Banks of the Tistā, 1990]), Dīpendranath Bandyopādhyāya, Nanī Bhaumik, Guṇamay Mānnā, Śyāmal Gaṅgopādhyāya (Śāhājādā Dārāśuko, Vols. 1 and 2, 1991), Nimāi Bhaṭṭācārya, Mati Nandī, Baren Gaṅgopādhyāya, Saiyad Mustāfā Sirāj, Asīm Rãy, Bāṇī Basu, Atīn Bandyopādhyāya, and Ābul Bāśār, among many others. Other writers who have written or continue to write in an antiestablishment vein are Subimal Mitra, Udayan Ghoṣ, Jyotsnāmay Ghoṣ, Malay Rāy Caudhurī, Utpalkumār Basu, Sabyasācī Sen, Swapnamay Cakrabartī, Jayanta Joādār, and others.
Among the women prose writers who have made a major contribution to the genre are Āśāpūrṇā Debī (1909), Mahāśwetā Debī (1926), Maitreyī Debī (1914- 88), and Līlā Majumdār (1908). Āśāpūrṇā Debī is known for her remarkably perceptive and intimate study of the role of the woman in a patriarchal, middle-class milieu, best represented in her semiautobiographical trilogy—Pratham Pratisruti (The First Promise), Sūbarṇalatā,and Bakul-Kathā (Bakul’s Story). Daughter of the Kallol generation writer Manīś Ghaṭak (see earlier), Mahāśwetā Debī has contributed to Bengali prose writing with her extensive work on the subaltern aboriginal peoples of Bengal and adjacent Bihār. Her noteworthy works in this area are Araṇyer Adhikār (The Rights of the Forest, 1978) and Coṭṭi Muṇḍā Ebaṅg Tār Tīr (Coṭṭi Muṇḍā and His Arrows, 1981). She has also written extensively on the urban situation, best represented by Hājār Curāśir Mā (Mother of 1084, 1986), which was also made into a play, and short stories like “Stanydāyinī” (Breast-Giver, 1977) and “Rudāli” (Weepers, 1980). Maitreyī Debī is best known for her semiautobiographical novel Na Haṇyate (It Does Not Die, 1975) and her illuminating reminiscences on Tagore. Līlā Majumdār has written extensively for children and is currently the editor of Sandeś (see earlier), one of the oldest magazines for children in West Bengal. Among other major women prose writers are Pratibhā Basu, from the older generation, and Nabanitā DebSen, who is also a poet (see later), from the younger.
Contemporary Bengali poetry, too, like its prose counterpart, spreads itself over the older post-Kallol group of writers and a new crop of younger poets. Among the older generation are Subhaṣ Mukhopādhyāya (1919), the erstwhile champion of Marxist politics among Bengali poets, who continues to write and inspire younger poets. His important collections are Padātik (Foot Soldier, 1940), Jata Dūrei Jãi (As Far As I Wander, 1962), Kāl Madhumās (It’s Spring Tomorrow, 1966), and Ei Bhāi (Hey Brother, 1970). Aruṇ Mitra (1909) is the other senior poet who is still writing. His major books include Prantarekhā (The Borderline, 1943), Mañcer Bāire (Off-Stage, 1970), and Śudhu Rāter Śabda Nay (Not Just the Sound of the Night, 1978). Other poets of the same generation who must be mentioned are Magalācaran Caṭṭopādhyāya (1920), Birendra Caṭṭopādhyāya (1919-87), Nareś Guha (1921), Jagannāth Cakrabartī (1924-89), Rām Basu (1925), Sukānta Bhaṭṭācārya (1926-47), the talented poet who died very young, and, Binay Majumdār (Phire Eso, Cākā [Come Back, Cākā], 1962).
Śaṇkha Ghoṣ (1932) rose to prominence as a poet from the late 1960s, although he was writing since the mid-1950s. Today, he is regarded as one of the greatest poets to be writing in the Bengali language and continues to exert an abiding influence on the younger generation of poets. His undisguised antiauthoritarian stance and the distilled, laconic quality of his poetry, its economy of utterance, have made him one of the most respected poets in contemporary Bengali literature. Ghoṣ’s important collections are Dinguli Rātguli (Days and Nights, 1956), Mūrkha Baṛo, Sāmājik Nay (A Fool He Is, Not Social, 1974), Tumi To Teman Gaurī Nao (You Are Not the Gaurī I Thought You Were, 1978), Pāṁjare Dāṁṛer Śabda (Sound of Oars in the Ribs, 1980), and Mukh Ḍheke Jāy Bijñāpane (Advertisements Cover the Face, 1984). Śaṇkha Ghoṣ has also written essays and books on aesthetics and literature and is a revered scholar on Rabīndranāth, besides being an acclaimed translator of poems and plays.
His adventurous experiments with language, style, and complexity of images have made Śakti Caṭṭopādhyāya (1934) one of the foremost Bengali poets to have emerged in the post-Jibanānanda era. His major books include Dharmeo Ācho Jirāpheo Āche (In Religion, in Giraffes Too, 1972), Hemanter Araṇye Āmi Postmyān (Postman in the Autumnal Forest, 1977), Mānuṣ Baṛa Kāṁdche (Mankind Is Weeping Too Much, 1978), and J̄ete Pāri Kintu Kena J̄ābo? (I Can Go, But Why Should I?, 1982). The other senior poet we need to mention, before moving to the younger generation, is Nīrendranãth Cakrabartī (1924), whose major works are collected in Andhakār Bārānda (The Dark Veranda, 1954), Kolkātār Jīśu (The Christ of Calcutta, 1970), and Ulaṅga Rājā (The Emperor’s Clothes, 1971). Cakrabartī has also been the editor of Ānandamelā,a leading magazine for children. Sunīl Gaṅgopādhyāya, whose contributions as a prose writer we have discussed earlier, is also a major poet. His important poetic works include Bandī Jege Ācho? (Prisoner, Are You Awake?, 1969), Haṭhāt Nīrār Janye (Suddenly for Nīrā, 1978), and Sonār Mukūṭ Theke (From the Golden Crown, 1982). Special mention needs to be made here of their biweekly cultural journal, Deś (published by the Ānanda Bāzār Group), which has been a major outlet for poets and prose writers in Bengal ever since it was founded in the 1930s.
Among the important writers who started their careers in the late 1960s or 1970s and continue to write are Alokranjan Dāśgupta (1933), Tārāpada Rāy (1936), Amitābha Dāśgupta (1935), Praṇabendu Dāśgupta (1937), Śamsul Haq, Kabirul Islām, Pūrnendu Patrī (also a leading artist and filmmaker), Samarendra Sengupta, Sunīl Basu, Saratkumār Mukhopādhyāya, Buddhadeb Dāśgupta (also a leading filmmaker), Aśis Sānyāl, Siddheśwar Sen (1926), Ratneśwar Hājrā, Maṇibhuṣaṇ Bhaṭṭacārya, Partha Pratim Kāñjilāl, and Bhāskar Cakrabartī. Among the leading women poets from the same generation are Kabitā Siṇha (1931), Sādhanā Mukhopādhyāya, Bijayā Mukhopādhyāya, Debārati Mitra, Ketakī Kuśārī-Dyson (1940), and Nabanītā Deb-Sen (1938). Kuśārī-Dyson and Deb-Sen (see earlier) are also prose writers and scholars of renown. Ketakī Kuśārī-Dyson is the most recent translator of Tagore’s poetry into English (I Won’t Let You Go,1992).
Among the younger poets who are currently writing in West Bengal, the first name that demands attention is that of Jay Goswāmī (1954), whose daring and commanding play with words and brave infusion of colloquial Calcutta street jargon into poetry have already earned him a revered place in Bengali poetry. His poems are vibrant with unusual metaphysical imagery that is adeptly colluded with a masterful manipulation of prosodic possibilities. Among his major works to date are Pratnajīb (Archaic Organism, 1978), Unmāder Pāṭhakram (Syllabi for the Deranged, 1986), Bhūtum Bhagabān (Bhūtum, the God, 1988), and Ghumiecho Jhāupātā? (Asleep Are You, Fern Leaf?, 1989). Besides Goswāmī, two other poets who have been using a postmodernist diction in Bengali poetry are Añjan Sen and Amitābha Gupta. Among the other younger poets to reckon with are Jaideb Basu, Mŗdul Dāśgupta, Pārtha Pratīm Kañjilāl, Mahuā Caudhurī, Bhāskar Cakrabartī, and Soumya Dāśgupta. Several of the previously mentioned new-generation poets of West Bengal have consciously chosen not to publish their works with the Ānanda Bāzār Group publications (see earlier), which they feel have monopolized the literary scene and try to regulate the direction of Bengali literature according to vested political interests. Instead, these poets have gone to the numerous little magazines published in and around Calcutta, the leading ones among which are Anuśṭup, Prama, Paricay, Jijnāsā, Kourab,and Kabitīrtha. These magazines are also the main outlet for nonfictional prose writing in Bengali before their appearance in the book form.
Drama in West Bengal has always lacked the fertility enjoyed by its counterparts in prose and poetry. After the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century outburst of activity (see earlier), dramatic writing in Bengal petered out into a sorry state of mediocrity until it was revived during the 1940s at the behest of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA—the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India), which encouraged several playwrights like Bijan Bhaṭṭācārya (1907-77) and Tulsī Lahiṛī (1897-1959) to write new plays in the realistic mode that depicted the lives of the downtrodden and inaugurated what would eventually become the New Drama movement. Bhaṭṭācārya wrote Jabānbandī (The Statement) and Nabānna (New Harvest) in 1944, both of which had considerable impact on the Bengali theatergoers. Lāhiṛī wrote Pathik (Traveler, 1949) and Cheṁṛā Tār (The Broken String, 1950). In the wake of IPTA’s work, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, several theater groups were born and launched, what is now identified as the Group Theatre movement, which, in its turn, took the New Drama movement to different pastures and updated Bengali theater with what was happening in the West. New Drama, however, did not produce as many original playwrights, since it was mainly interested in bringing the best of Western theater—Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht, Wesker, Miller, and others—to the Bengali audience than creating its own. But the playwrights who copiously adapted foreign plays also wrote some significant original plays. For example, Śambhu Mitra (1915), who adapted Ibsen and translated Sophocles for the first time in Bengali, wrote Ṭerodyāktil (Pterodactyl) and Cāṁdbaṇiker Pālā (Cāṁdbaṇik’s Play); Ajiteś Bandyopādhyāya (1933-83), who specialized in adapting Chekhov and Brecht, wrote Saodāgarer Naukā (The Merchant’s Boat); and Cittarañjan Ghoṣ, who translated Annouilh (1928), wrote Nidhubābuand Dāo Phire Se Araṇya. The one person who prolifically wrote original plays in Bengali was Utpal Dutt (1929-93). In an amazing display of versatility as producer-director-actor-writer, Dutt (Beng. Datta) wrote more than 30 original plays in Bengali on subjects ranging from the Sepoy mutiny of 1857 to the Germany of World War II. Some of his celebrated plays include Angār (Coal, 1959), Kallol (The Sound of Waves, 1968), Tiner Taloār (The Tin Sword, 1973), Duhswapner Nagarī (Nightmare City, 1974), and Barricade (1975). Two important playwrights came into prominence in the 1970s—Manoj Mitra (1937) and Mohit Caṭṭopādhyāya (1935). Some of Mitra’s major plays are Cāk Bhāṅga Madhu (The Stolen Honey, 1972), Narak Guljār (Heaven out of Hell, 1976), Sājāno Bāgān (The Well-Nursed Garden, 1977), and Rājdarśan (To See the King, 1982). Mohit Caṭṭopādhyāya will be best remembered for his play Rājrakta (Royal Blood, 1971) and Socrātes (1986).
While Utpal Dutt, Mitra, and others were writing largely realistic plays intended for the proscenium stage (Dutt had, earlier, tried his hand at j̄ātrā,the nonproscenium folk theater form), the Bengali alternative avant-garde theater was fed by Bādal Sircar (Beng. Sarkār), who started with the proscenium stage but rejected it in favor of the arena form that he identified as the “third theater.” Ebaṅg Indrajit (And Indrajit, 1962), Bāki Itihās (The Remaining History, 1967), Kabī Kāhinī (The Poet’s Story, 1968), Sārā Rattir (All Night, 1969), Ballabhpurer Rūpkathā (The Fairy Tale of Ballabhpur, 1970), and Pāglā Ghoṛā (The Crazy Horse, 1971) are best known among Bādal Sircar’s plays for the proscenium stage, while Tringśa Śatābdī (Thirtieth Century, 1975), Michil (Procession), and Bhomā (1976) are his best-known arena “third theater” plays. Among the lesser playwrights whose careers have spanned the 1950s through the 1970s are Manmatha Rāy, Bidhāyak Bhaṭṭacārya, Kiran Maitra, Dhanañjay Bairāgī, Saileś Guha Niogī, Jyotu Bandyopādhyāya, and others. In the present generation, the major playwrights are Candan Sen, Debāśiś Majumdār, Samīr Dāśgupta, and Indrāśis Lāhiṛī, who, it is our hope, will bring better health to the poverty-stricken corpus of Bengali drama in West Bengal.
Literature of East Pakistan (1947-72) and Bangladesh (1972-Present)
While the geopolitical division of Bengal may now seem clear and well defined, its division as regards its language and literature is far from so. With the exception of differences in dialects, which may prove quite formidable at places, Bengali (or Bāṇglā) remains the dominant language spoken on both sides of Bengal. Despite the widening political rift between Bangladesh and its neighboring India, the people of Bengal on both sides of the political divide continue to share a common culture. They both consider themselves to be parts of the same literary traditions.
The Legacy of Communal Politics
Thus, if a “Bangladeshi literature” as a distinct trend is to be identified, it would largely mean the literature of the Bengali Muslims, as opposed to the literature in West Bengal, which has consisted predominantly of works by Hindu writers. In the aftermath of India’s division in 1947 into two independent states based primarily on religious differences, the majority of the Bengali Muslims found East Pakistan, later, Bangladesh, to be their home. Though, in general terms, literature of the Bengali Muslims, whether of East or West Bengal, remains an integral part of the overall body of Bengali literature, a complex set of sociocultural and political factors and turn of events have lent it a distinct character.
Before India was colonized by the British, it had been under Muslim rule for several centuries. In Bengal, as in the other parts of the subcontinent, the language and literature received generous support and encouragement from its Muslim rulers, who often came from outside India and did not speak Bengali. In the years between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, Bengali literature quickly prospered, with both Hindus and Muslims equally benefiting from it. The situation was reversed in the eighteenth century, when the British, after inflicting a punishing defeat on the Nawāb of Bengal in 1757, seized control over Bengal. The Muslims, who felt humiliated and betrayed, refused to learn English and virtually withdrew from the nation’s political, economic, and cultural mainstream. The void was quickly filled by the Hindus and other religious groups. Calcutta, now promoted to the status of capital of British India, became the hub of a new, urban Bengali culture and literature, the core of which was formed by an emerging Hindu middle class. Much of East Bengal, still very much rural and economically dependent, remained shrouded in a dark veil of ignorance.
At the turn of the twentieth century, however, the political reality in East Bengal began to change gradually. The Muslims started to emerge from their shell, seeking to reestablish themselves both politically and economically. After years of rejection, they finally began to learn English. But the Hindus were already far ahead in their quest for government jobs and investment opportunities. As they began entering the job market, the Muslims found the Hindus to be their prime rivals. At this time, the British decided to divide Bengal into East and West. Though administrative convenience was the argument advanced by the British in support of the division, its underlying reason was to further exploit the growing rivalry between Hindu and Muslim communities and use it to prolong British rule in India. Not surprisingly, though the majority of the Hindus opposed the partition of Bengal, the mood in East Bengal was decidedly opposite. While they did not call for Bengal’s partition, the emerging Muslim middle class clearly favored it, believing this to be beneficial both economically and politically. The partition, which took place in 1905 in the face of strong Hindu resistance and protest by several all-India Muslim leaders, ignited a surge of nationalist revival in East Bengal. Within a year, the All-India Muslim League was formed in Dhākā as the first national political organization of the Indian Muslims. The stage was thus set for a course of confrontation between India’s two major religious communities, the Hindus and Muslims.
The next 40 years of India’s history were characterized by unprecedented violence and bloodbath. The rivalry between the Hindus and Muslims, with a history of suspicion and hatred sewn over several centuries, eventually resulted in the partition of India in 1947. East Bengal, now East Pakistan, became part of an independent, largely Muslim Pakistan. West Bengal, with its Hindu majority, remained a part of India as a separate state. East Bengal, which had become East Pakistan, now came to lend voice to the Muslim part of Bengal’s population. Even before partition, East Bengal has always been known for its rich and vibrant folk culture. With the growth of urban centers, oral and folk traditions gradually found their influence limited to the rural environ. There is, however, no denying that some of Bengal’s best-known writers, including the Nobel laureate Rabīndranāth Tagore, were deeply touched by the vigor and freshness of folk traditions (especially the music of the rustic poet Lālan Phakir) and their search for a deeper meaning of life.
Kāzi Nazrul Islām—A Secular Voice Misunderstood
But the first writer who discovered the mind of a modern Bengali Muslim was Kāzi Nazrul Islām (1899-1978). Though he was born in West Bengal and married a Hindu woman, Nazrul easily rose to become the mouthpiece of the Bengali Muslims at the turn of the twentieth century. (Later, after Bangladesh became independent, he was to be honored as National Poet.) Nazrul was deeply secular and committed to socialist ideals, yet his emergence as the preeminent “Muslim” poet was caused largely by two factors: first, neither the Hindus nor the Muslims could ignore his poetic genius; and, second, Nazrul fashioned a new, modern language and literature for Bengali Muslims, rescuing them from the medieval religiocentric literature that continued to prevail in the Bengali Muslim circuit. He gave the Bengali Muslims a cause for pride, a new sense of identity. Nazrul was also the voice of a rebellious Bengal. No Bengali writer before him, Hindu or Muslim, had so forcefully articulated the desire for freedom and called for resistance against British colonialism. Bengalis fondly endowed him with the honorific title “Rebel Poet.” Religious, yet politically progressive, secular, yet imbued with Islamic values, Nazrul was also able to gain recognition as the first major Bengali poet and writer not totally influenced by the genius of Tagore. Nazrul wrote copiously and has more than 50 publications to his credit in a literary career that spanned only 23 years, as he was struck with cerebral paralysis in 1943 and spent the last 40 or so years of his life in total inactivity. His most memorable works are the two poetic collections Agnibīṇā (The Fiery Lute, 1922) and Biṣer Bāmśi (The Poison Flute, 1924), besides many other poems and songs that were published in various journals. Nazrul also composed more than 3,000 songs, setting most of them himself to music with brave melodic experiments. In the literary context, however, he will be remembered as the “Rebel Poet” and for his emotionally charged protest poetry.
While the “Rebel Poet” gave the Bengali Muslims a presence in the sphere of poetry, they remained largely unrepresented in fiction. There were no significant Muslim writers, with rare exceptions, like Mīr Maśārraf Hosen (1848- 1911), who became best known for Bisādṣīndhu (a passionate novel about the death of Prophet Muhammad’s grandsons in the Battle of Kārbālā) and the play Jamidār-darpaṇ, which he had written in 1873, and Begam Rokeyā Hosen (see later). Hindu writers, Rabīndranāth included, seemed neither interested nor concerned enough with the life of Bengali Muslims. Acutely aware of this vacuum, the Muslim Yubasamājof Dhākā once urged Saratchandra Chatterjee, best known for his sentimental portrayal of the Hindu middle class, to devote some of his energies to focusing on the Bengali Muslims.
Among Nazrul’s contemporaries who followed the path he had lighted was Begum Sufiā Kāmāl (see later). Also noteworthy were the poets Ābdul Kādir (1906-84), whose major works include Dilruba (Beloved, 1933) and UttarBasanta (Northern Spring, 1967), and Ābul Hossain (1921), the author of Nababasanta (The New Spring, 1942). However, contrary to intentions of Nazrul and all who followed in his footsteps, Nazrul’s religious writings soon found a strong following among a section of Bengali Muslim writers who considered his call for freedom a summons to join hands in the battle for revival of old Islāmic glories. It is not difficult to understand this narrow interpretation of Nazrul’s message when viewed in the backdrop of the mounting tension between the Hindus and Muslims in India in the 1930s and 1940s. As a matter of fact, a growing number of Bengali Muslim writers began to express their commitment to an “Islamic Renaissance” and firmly supported the idea of creating Pakistan as a separate homeland for the Muslims of India. Notable writers such as Golām Mostāfā (1897-1964), Ābul Mansur Āhmed (1898-1979), and Ābul Kalām Śāmsuddin (1897-1978) held the view that creation of Pakistan would greatly facilitate the growth of art and literature for Bengali Muslims.
East Pakistan: Search for New Cultural Identity (1947-71)
After India’s partition in 1947, the political scenario changed, but the questions of religion and political identity continued to stir writers and intellectuals in East Pakistan. Within years of Pakistan’s creation, new voices were heard on the literary scene challenging the very concept of Pakistan, the basis of which was identification of the Muslims and the Hindus as two separate nations. Instead, they stressed the commonness, in terms of both history and culture, of all the Bengalis, whether Hindu or Muslim. The best exponents of this trend were Muhammad Śahīdullāh (1885-1969), Kāzi Ābdul Odud, Ābul Hosen, Motāhār Hosen, and Ābul Fazal (1903-83).
Ābul Mansur Āhmed’s opinion, in his Pāk Bāṅglār Kālcār (The Culture of Pakistani Bengal, 1962), was that the literature created by Bidyāsāgar, Baṅkimcandra (leading literary figures in the nineteenth century), and Rabīndranāth could not belong to the Muslims of East Pakistan, because they did not belong to the Muslims of Bengal. The same argument was later advanced by Syed Ali Āhsān (1922), who claimed that the literature of East Pakistan was different from that of West Bengal. Golām Mostāfā (1897-1964), outdoing them both, advocated that everything “un-Islāmic” should be discarded and proposed to edit out all such references in Nazrul’s writings.
Mohammed Śahīdullāh, perhaps the best-known Bengali Muslim linguist, rejected the view that the cultural identity of the Bengalis could be divided. “It is true that we are either Muslims or Hindus, but it is far more true that we are all Bengalis,” he wrote in 1948. Despite obvious government patronage for the fashioning of a pro-Islāmic cultural identity, a new political movement grew in East Pakistan, at the heart of which lay the demand for the recognition of Bengali as its official language. On February 21, 1952, several students and youths were killed in Dhākā by the police while demanding recognition of Bengali as the state language. Their death and the political turmoil that followed set the stage for a Bengali nationalist movement in East Pakistan. The Bengalis of East Pakistan, no longer confident in their union with West Pakistan purely on religious affinity of the two peoples, began demanding greater political rights for themselves. Language and culture became the two powerful beacons uniting them in their quest for a national identity. Two decades later, this would mature into a liberation war and lead to the emergence of Bangladesh.
The events of February 1952 left a deep imprint on the cultural and political psyche of the Bengali people in East Pakistan. Even those who had so steadfastly claimed their cultural identity to be separate from that of the Hindus of West Bengal began to play a new tune. For example, Ābul Mansur Āhmed, who had, 20 years before, spoken aganist the integration of the literatures of the Bengali Hindus and Muslims,wrote in 1962 that the people of both Bengals were tied together by a common language “Our literary traditions are common. Poets and writers like Rabīndranāth, Śaratcandra, Nazrul Islām and Satyendranāth Datta inspire all Bengalis.”
Later, in the second half of the 1960s, when nationalistic aspirations of the Bengalis of East Pakistan gained new recognition from a burgeoning political movement, leading intellectuals defined their political and cultural identity independent of religion without any problems. The Bengalis, whether Hindu or Muslim, whether they lived in East Bengal or in the West, were all united by a common culture and a set of common traditions, they argued. In a definitive statement of this new inclusive conviction, Munier Caudhurī (1925-71), the playwright-linguist, wrote in 1968: “The Bengali language and its literature are more than a thousand years old. Any literature written in this language is an inalienable part of our cultural identity.” Badruddin Umar (1931), a political scientist who later chronicled the language movement and its political impact, also argued that there could not be any contradiction between being a Bengali and a Muslim at the same time.
The first phase of the Bengali Muslim’s quest for self-identity virtually ended in 1971, when the state of Bangladesh was created after a nine-month-long liberation war fought against Pakistan. The bloody war, waged by the militarily better equipped Pakistan army against Bengali nationalists led by the Awami League of Śekh Mujibur Rāhmān, practically buried the idea of religion-based nationhood. What may seem ironical is the fact that the contradictions that appeared to have ended with the birth of a new nation resurfaced within years after the emergence of Bangladesh. Śekh Mujibur Rāhmān, considered by many the father of the nation, was assassinated in 1975, and political power was grabbed by a military dictatorship closely aligned with conservative forces that, in the past, strongly opposed any separation from Pakistan or the ideology that lay beneath its creation.
The changing of the guards at the political level signaled the beginning of a renewed struggle, this time within the country itself. The attempt to reinfuse religion as a political driving force generated strong opposition from the country’s intellectual mainstream. Writers, using literature as their weapon, turned into activists and converted issues like resistance to communal politics, greater rights for women, and the right to dissent into the new leitmotifs of a resurgent cultural battle. The contradictions and conflicts that lay at the heart of political and ideological transformations in Bangladesh—first following India’s partition and then, 25 years later, following the creation of an independent country—led to the development of a literature new in both its form and content.
It is impossible not to note that, despite the apparent success of the neoconservative forces at the political level, the most popular and best-known writers in East Pakistan, later, in Bangladesh, have always been on the side of progress and liberalism. Faced with new social and political realities, many who once considered religion a necessary element in national identity reversed their positions. Ābul Fazal (1903-83), who had, in 1947, written Quāid-E-Āzam,a play eulogizing Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnāh, wrote in 1957 a novel, Rāṅgā Prabhāt (The Red Dawn). Its story woven around the love of a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl, the novel celebrated the unity of Bengalis irrespective of their religious affiliations. Though weak as a work of art, this novel is often considered a significant turning point in Ābul Fazal’s own position on questions of religion and society.
In 1953, on the first anniversary of the language movement, Hāsān Hāfizur Rāhmān (1932-83) compiled and edited a collection of essays, poems, and short stories. Simply called Ekuśe Februārī (February 21), the collection contained promises of a new literature, independent of cultural conservatism and opposed to communal divisiveness. Śaokat Osmān (1917), one of the foremost prose writers of Bangladesh, was a direct product of this new consciousness, better known as “Ekuśer Cetanā,” the “consciousness of the 21st [February].” Osmān’s deep-felt humanism and social concern continue to inform the prose writers of today. His major works include Jananī (The Mother, 1958), Krītadāser Hāsi (The Slave’s Laughter, 1962), Rājā Upākhyān (The Tale of the King, 1971), and Dui Sainik (Two Soldiers, 1973). The most important work of this period, also a product of changing political and social perceptions, was Syed Waliullah’s (1922-71) remarkable first novel, Lāl Śālu (Red Fabric, 1948). While portraying the darkness that cast a boding shadow over rural Bengal, still steeped in superstition and religious traditionalism, the book served as a rude awakening to the tragic reality of the time. It was also a testament of resistance against the forces that had controlled rural Bengali society for centuries, unopposed, unquestioned. Wāliullāh also wrote Cāṁder Amābasyā (The Moon’s Umbra, 1967) and Kāṁdo Nadī Kāṁdo (Weep, River, Weep, 1969). But Lāl Śāluremains his most enduring work.
Lāl Śāluwas significant in its own time for another reason. Though Bangladesh is largely rural, the novel was one of the very few powerful depictions of sociopolitical reality and power relationships in villages. Later in the 1960s, writers who were ideologically aware of the need for changes would shift their focus to the villages. Notable novels written during this period were Sūrj̄ya Dighal Baṛi (The Enchanted House, 1955) by Ābu Iśāq (1926), Sāreṅg Bau (The Sāreṅg’s Wife, 1962) and Saṅgsaptak (The Saṅgsaptak Battalion, 1965) by Śahidullāh Kāysār (1931-71), and Hajār Bachar Dhare (For a Thousand Years, 1964) by Zahir Raihān (1933-71).
Attempts to rediscover the village were also made in poetry, but success was even more limited there. Jasimuddīn (1903-76), best known for his lyrical ballads on beauty and life in rural Bengal, had set a powerful example of this rediscovery of the basic fabric of rural life in Bengal in his numerous collections of poems, which include Rākhālī (Pastoral, 1929), Raṅgilā Nāyer Mājhi (Sailor of the Colorful Boat, 1933), and Padmā Pār (Banks of the Padmā, 1949), with balladic pieces like Naksī-kāṁthār Māṭh (Field of the Embroidered Quilt, 1929) and Sakinā (1960). He also wrote memorable lyric poems compiled in collections like Bālucar (Sandbanks, 1930) and Māṭir Kānnā (The Earth’s Cry, 1951). He also wrote plays based on tales drawn out of the rich storytelling tradition of Bengal. However, no significant poet emerged to follow in Jasimuddīn’s footsteps. Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, Āl Māhmud (1936) would return to villages, trying to build a subliminal bridge between the village he had left behind and the city he chose to adopt. Among the poets following Jasimuddīn who distinguished themselves but wrote a very different kind of poetry were Āhsān Habib (1917-85), the author of Rātri Śeṣ (Edge of the Night, 1947) and Chāyā Hariṇ (The Shadow Deer, 1962); Sikāndār Ābu Jāfar (1919-75), who wrote Prasanna Prahar (Pleased Time, 1965), Bairī Bŗṣṭite (In Contending Rain, 1965), and Bāṅglā Chāṛo (Quit Bengal, 1971); Sānāul Haq (1924-93), the author of Sambhabā Ananyā (Pregnant Pār Excellence, 1962) and Prabāse Jakhan (When in Exile, 1981); Ābdul Gaṇi Hājārī (1921-76), who wrote Sūryer Sṁiṛi (The Sun’s Ladder, 1965), and Māzhārul Islām (1928), who authored Bicchinna Pratilipi (The Torn Transcript, 1970), among others. Other authors are Śamsuddin Ābul Kālām (1926), Ābu Jāfar Śamsuddin (1911), Ābu Ruśd (1919), and Mirzā Ābdul Hāi.
As Bangladesh moved into the last quarter of the century, large cities became home for millions and the center of all civil activities, and writers scrambled to express their interpretations of the emerging experiences. Among the fiction writers, most notable for their attempts, if not for their successes, were Syed Śamsul Haq (1935), who wrote Ek Mahilār Chabi (The Portrait of a Woman, 1959), Rakta Golāp (The Crimson Rose, 1964) and Bŗṣṭi (Rain, 1989); Raśīd Karim (1934), author of Uttampuruṣ (First Person, 1961), Prasanna Pāṣāṇ (The Happy Stone, 1963), Ekāler Rupakathā (Today’s Fable, 1980), and Āmār J̄ata Glāni (All My Shame); Jyotiprakaś Datta (1939), who wrote Bahenā Subātās (The Pleasant Breeze Doesn’t Blow, 1967) and Sītāṅgśu, Tot Samasta Kathā (All Your Stories, Sītāṅgśu, 1969); Śaokat Ali (1935); Raśīd Hāidār (1941); Hāsān Āzizul Haq (see later); Māhmudul Haq (1940); and Ākhthāruzzāmān Ilyās (see later). Some of them, like Syed Śamsul Haq, Hāsān Āzizul Haq, Ilyās, and Jyotiprakaś Datta, were hailed as brave, new experimenters with language and style. They were also among the first to explore areas beyond the personal and social and connect them with emerging political patterns.
The pains that followed the reversal of political gains also found powerful expression in the stories and novelettes of Hāsān Azizul Haq (1939). Heralded as a master storyteller following the publication of Ātmaja O Ekti Karabī Gāch (The One Born of Me and a Karabī Tree, 1967), Haq rose to become one of the finest short story writers of his time. Like his predecessor Syed Wāliullāh, Hāsān’s immediate concern is the village and its seemingly unchanging flow of life, its sociopolitical power structure that is ever so hostile to the poor and the disfranchised. His short stories in Jīban Ghoṣe Āgun (Fire Rubbed Out of Life, 1973), Nāmhīn Gotrahīṇ (Nameless without Lineage, 1975), and Pātāle Hās-pātāle (In Hell and Hospital, 1981) are documentations of the deepening crisis, moral rejection, and growing resistance of a whole new generation of people. Yes, resistance, but Hāsān Aziz seems to concede that those living at the fringe of society, at the lowest rung of the social totem pole, are increasingly at a loss, incapable of swimming back.
This fall and ruination were captured equally powerfully, albeit in the context of the big cities, by Ākhthāruzzāmān Ilyās (1943). Three of his best-known books, Anyaghare Anyaswar (Other Voices in Other Rooms, 1976), Khoāṛi (1982), and Dudhbhāte Utpāt (Strife in Milk and Rice, 1985), were published in the postliberation years. Most of his stories in these collections capture the day-to-day reality of the decaying life in downtown Dhākā, the capital. Here, in this big metropolis, people had once dared to dream, but, burdened by poverty, these dreams are all but lost. Now, the primary concern of all is not lofty moral values or elevated social consciousness. Food is what they need most. Sheer survival is their primary preoccupation. No one has better captured the meaning of this cruel reality in current Bangladesh. His ambitious novel Cilekoṭhār Sepāi (The Soldier of the Attic, 1988), written in the backdrop of the civil uprising of 1969, is also one of the most successful political novels in recent years. Other notable writers to have emerged in this period are Hasnāt Ābdul Hāi, Selinā Hosen (see later), Rāhāt Khān (1939), Rijiyā Rahmān (1939), Sucarit Caudhurī (1930), Ābubākar Siddiq (1934), and Āhmad Chafā (1943).
In the new poetry that emerged in the newly formed Bangladesh, most notable was the success of the poets who wrote about their city experiences. Once tremendously influenced by such modernist writers of the 1940s and 1950s from the “other” Bengal as Biṣñu De, Buddhadeb Basu, and Jibanānanda Dāś (see earlier), Bangladeshi poets gradually discovered their own voice and claimed respect for their strength and originality. As political realities changed rapidly, and cultural distance between the two Bengals widened, poets in Bangladesh became chroniclers of the new times and new concerns and established their own distinctive styles. Almost all of Bangladesh’s notable poets live in cities, mostly preoccupied with their own concerns in coping with the anxieties and alienation of the fast-rising metropolis.
Śāmsur Rāhmān, with more than 50 volumes of poetry to his credit, is perhaps the most popular and famous poet in Bangladesh. At the outset of his poetic journey, he was a romantic submerged in his own alienation from both his immediate environment and the larger society. But, as Bangladesh changed, so did Śāmsur Rāhmān. In the 1970s and later in the 1980s and 1990s, he became perhaps the most eloquent voice among Bangladesh’s poets and linked the personal with the general and made social and political questions the focus of his constant concern. Rāhmān’s poetry symbolized the hopes and agonies of the struggle for liberation. He also encapsulated the anger and concern of a people left incredulous at the loss of a newborn dream and unsure how the course could be reversed. His major works include Pratham Gān, Dwitīya Mŗtyur Āge (The First Song, Before the Second Death), Āmi Anāhārī (I Am Unfed), Āmār Kono Tāŗā Nei (I Am in No Rush), Roudra Karoṭite (In the Sun-Drenched Skull, 1963), Nija Bāsbhūme (In My Own Homeland, 1970), Bandī Śibir Theke (From the Prison Camp, 1972), Duhsamayer Mukhomukhi (Face to Face with Bad Times, 1973), Ek Dharaner Ahaṅgkār (Pride of Sorts, 1975), Bāṅglādeś Swapna Dekhe (Bāṅglādeś Dreams, 1977), Udbhaṫ Ūṭer Piṭhe Caleche Swadeś (My Country Rides an Absurd Camel, 1982), and Khanḍita Gourab (Broken Pride, 1992).
Though often shadowed by Śāmsur Rāhmān’s poetic presence, several of his contemporaries gained prominence for their eloquence and distinctive style. Nourished in the romantic liberalism emanating from “Ekuśe” February, these poets helped create the moral fabric that, in the later years, gave poetry its unique place in the social psyche of Bangladesh. Among them are Hāsān Hāfizur Rāhmān (1932-83), who has authored collections like Ārta Śabdābalī (Scared Words, 1968) and Āmār Bhetare Bāgh (The Tiger within Me, 1983); Śahīd Kādri (1942), who has written Uttarādhikār (Inheritance, 1969), Tomāke Abhibādan Priyatamā (Salutations to You, Beloved, 1974), and Kothāo Kono Krandan Nei (There’s No Weeping Anywhere, 1978); Ābu Jāfar Obāydullāh (1934), whose works include Kamaler Cokh (The Eye of the Lotus, 1974) and Āmi Kiṅgbadantir Kathā Balchi (I Am Talking about Legend, 1981); Āl Māhmud (1936), a major poet with landmark collections like Sonalī Kābin (1973), Kāler Kalas (Time’s Pitcher, 1976), and Māyābī Pardā Dule Oṭho (Flutter, Magical Veil, 1976); Syed Śamsul Haq (see earlier), who has also published collections of poems like Baiśākhe Racita Paṅgktimālā (Lines Written in April 1969), Pratidhwanitān (Echoed Chorus, 1973), and Parāner Gahīn Bhitar (In the Depth of the Heart, 1981); and Mahādeb Sāhā (1944), who has written Ei Gŗha Ei Sannyās (This Home, This Hermitry, 1972), Mānab Esechi Kāje (Man I Have Come to Work, 1974), Dhulo Māṭir Mānuṣ (Earthen Man, 1983), and Ekā Haye Jāi (I Become Alone, 1993).
The romantic traditions of the 1950s-1960s received a jolt in the late 1960s and following the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, when a whole generation of new poets burst into the poetic scenario. Often indistinguishable in their collective anguish and anger, despite their obvious narcissism and pronounced individualism, these poets often found inspiration from the West, including the poets of the “Beat Generation.” Included in this group are Rafiq Āzād (1943), whose major works include Asambhaber Pāye (At the Feet of the Impossible, 1973) and Hātuṛir Nīce Jīban (Life under a Hammer, 1984); Nirmalendu Gün (1948), one of the best poets writing out of Bangladesh today, who wrote Premaṅgśur Rakta Cāi (Wanted, Premāṅgśu’s Blood, 1970), Na Premik Nā Biplabī (Neither Lover Nor Revolutionary, 1972), and Kabitā, Amimāṅgsīta Ramanī (Poetry, the Undecided Woman, 1973); Ābul Hāsān (1947-75), who is best known for his Rājā Āse Rājā Jāy (Kings Come and Kings Go, 1973); and Ābdul Mānnān Syed (1943), who wrote Jyotsna Roudrer Cikitsā (Moonlight, Treatment for the Sun, 1982). Mention must be made here of poets like Mohāmmad Rafik (1943), Farhād Mājhār (1946), Sikdār Āminul Haq (1942), Humāyun Ājād (1947), Hābībullāh Sirājī (1948), Muhāmmad Nurul Hudā (1949), and Āltāf Hosen (1947).
Younger poets of Bangladesh, though heirs to the poetic traditions set by Śāmsur Rāhmān and others, are often better understood in the context of the continuously changing political scenario of Bangladesh. These poets, among them Sānāul Haq Khān (1947), Khondakār Āśrāf Hosen (1950), Rudra Mohāmmad Śahīdullāh (1956-92), Śihāb Sarkār (1952), Hāsān Hāfiz (1955), Kāmāl Caudhurī (1957), Mohan Rāyhān, and Samudra Gupta have mostly distinguished themselves for their recordings of the political turns and twists and their ability to link them with the accompanying social and political upheavals. As a matter of fact, poets and poetry have always been major players in the political scenarios acted out in contemporary Bangladesh. The language movement had already planted a powerful seed. In subsequent years, many major political events had their beginning in the month of February, a month associated with the images of protest and resistance, images reshaped and repainted by poets over and over again to suit new and emerging political needs. In the 1980s, poets were in the lead of a unified social movement to resist the military rule. So powerful and plainly visible was their influence that the head of the military government unabashedly courted the poets, himself trying his hand at writing poetry. One obvious consequence of all these events was that politics became the heartbeat of Bengali poetry. The most representative poets of the 1980s are Farid Stalin, Sājjād Māsud Khan, and Subrata Augustine Gomez, among others.
Poetry in Bangladesh has not sold itself out totally to the literary supermarket and, in the view of many, is still vibrant, still fresh. There is obviously a historical reason for this, but no less important is the general intellectual framework of the Bengali mind. Instead of rigorous scientific scrutiny of the historical moment, poetry has given them the romantic distance to ruminate about it in metaphysical terms, both as an escape from reality and as a form of passive resistance.
Politics has also been a driving force behind the growth of drama as a powerful literary genre. In the 1970s and mostly in the 1980s, drama was consciously—and perhaps concertedly—used as a tool to regenerate support for the failing spirit of the liberation war. Successfully employing theater as a medium, Syed Śāmsul Haq (see earlier) produced such powerful plays as Pāer Āoāj Pāoā Jāy (Hear the Footfall), Nuraldiner Sarajīban (The Complete Life of Nuraldin), and Gaṇanāyak (The People’s Hero) to transmit the message of popular resistance and show their linkages with people’s aspirations for greater freedom both in a historical context and also in contemporary Bangladesh. Two other dramatists who have also won admiration for their innovations and skills are Selim Āl Dīn (1948) and Ābdullah Āl Māmun (1943).
In recent years, as forces opposed to the ideals of liberation war strengthened their political position, and fundamentalism gained new ground, writers and intellectuals have refocused themselves to unite positive social forces. In their resistance to new challenges from fundamentalists and communal forces, the need to identify the traditional roots of the Bengali was felt with new urgency. In this new phase of resistance, prose writers have come for the first time to the forefront, both to define the nature of the political and historical identity of the Bengalis as well as to rally popular support for resistance against fundamentalism. Ānisuzzamān (1937), Badruddin Umar (1931), Serājul Islām Caudhurī (1936), Sālāhuddin Āhmed (1924), and Āhmed Śarīf (1921), all of them better known as academicians and intellectuals, have emerged as principal voices of the new times. Mention must be made also of Ābul Kaśem (1920), Śamsuzzāmān Khān (1937), Hāyāt Māmud (1939), Saiyad Akrām Hosen (1944), Muntāsīr Māmun (1951), Jatīn Sarkār, and Fajlul Haq.
While contemporary literature in Bangladesh is reflective of the current political realities and social changes, it is yet to produce a significant number of fiction writers capable of dispassionately examining the times they live in. The liberation war, which is often compared to a struggle of epic proportions, still remains incomplete. Other forces, social and economic, seem to be working against the growth of a healthy culture in Bangladesh. Though predominantly an agricultural economy, its villages still tied to medieval feudalism, the country has leaped into twentieth-century consumerism with a vengeance. The disparity between life in the villages and life in the city has greatly widened, and poverty has become endemic in the countryside. The standard of education has faltered, nourishment of the intellect has taken a back seat, and television has taken over as the principal medium of communication. The genre of literature that seems to be thriving in today’s Bangladesh is that of cheap, sentimental, short novels, the typical supermarket pulp fiction. The commercial success some writers have met with, however, is truly astounding and gives proof of increasing literacy among the masses, if not anything else. Among the writers who have to be commended for their commercial achievements are Humāyun Āhmed (1948), the prolific novelist best known for Nandita Narake (In Blissful Hell), Māhmudul Haq (see earlier), and Imdādul Haq Milan (1955). Among the younger writers emerging now are Bipradās Baṛuā (1942), Mañju Sarkār (1954), Mainul Āhsān Sāber (1958), Suśānta Majumdār, Biplab Dās, and Nasrin Jāhān.
Little Magazines—Filling a Void
Bangladesh has a very low literacy rate, a small middle-class base, and no significant institutional literary publication. Growing through contradictory and sometimes hostile ideological environments, mainstream literature in Bangladesh has often had to rely on the friendly embrace of literary periodicals and journals. Samakāland Parikramā,published from Dhākā, and Pūrbamegh,from Rājśāhi, nurtured the liberal ideals of the post-“Ekuśe” years, giving the emerging writers an effective forum for voicing their hopes and channeling their anger. In the 1960s, Swākkhar and Kanthaswar were the two most popular periodicals, both products of the changed sociopolitical realities. New and “angry” writers, making their first contacts with the new trends in the West, quickly found in them a reliable ally. These and other noninstitutional literary journals mostly bore the characteristics of “little magazine,” so called for their habitual departure from tradition, irregularity of publication, and their “collective” nature. Filling a void, they helped capture—and often define—the new moods and literary/cultural trends, but they rarely lived long. In fact, the limited breadth of the middle-class intelligentsia, weak economic base, and the overwhelming influence of the government in the economy generally worked against the healthy growth of creative and independent literary journals. For new writers, little magazines were often the only refuge.
The growth of little magazines was further helped by the observance of “Ekuśe” February, an annual ritual that gave the Bangladeshis an opportunity to renew their cultural unity. Each year, at the time of the “Ekuśe,” dozens of commemorative little magazines are published all around the country, giving the new writers their first opportunity to get printed. “Ekuśe” celebrations have also helped set the tradition of bai melā—book fairs. In Bangladesh, the greatest number of literary books is published in the months of January and February and sold at the “Ekuśe” book fairs. What has also supplemented the flow of a vibrant literary life in Bangladesh are the “literary pages”—weekly literary sections of major vernacular daily newspapers. Most major writers often first publish their new works in these “pages.” Since publishing is not a lucrative business in Bangladesh, and royalties are rather novelties, writers often rely on honoraria they receive from these newspapers to supplement their income.
Women Writers of Bangladesh
The first Muslim woman writer to earn a name for herself on either side of Bengal was Rokeyā Sākhāwāt Hosen (1880-1932). Though she grew up under very adverse conditions—in a strictly segregated society with limited educational opportunities and life under veil—and published at a time when she was practically the lone practitioner of the art, Rokeyā earned respect from female, as well as male, readers for her creativity and fierce “feminism.” Her novels Matichur (Jewel-Dust, 1904) and Sultāner Swapna (The Sultan’s Dream, 1912) and Abarodh-Basinī (Woman Imprisoned), a collection of short essays, were noted for their bold portrayal of the Bengali Muslim woman’s life in early twentieth century.
Though several Muslim women were known to have published books and written for literary journals in the 1930s and 1940s, very few emerged as writers of any importance in the years after India’s partition. Sufiā Kāmāl (1911) is the lone poetess of these years, whose soft lyrics captured “feminine moods” but also provided a vital link between past and emerging present. She excelled in portraying tender emotions—love and nature. Her Sāṁjher Maya (Twilight Magic) appeared as early as 1938. She continued to write after independence and published collections like Māyā Kājal (The Magic Collyrium, 1951) and Man O Jīban (Mind and Life, 1960). As a peaceful, quiet voice that did not seem threatening to the male members of society, Sufiā Kāmāl—in her poems, essays, and political statements and particularly through cultural activism—articulated and, perhaps, even defined a new role for the urban Bengali Muslim in the 1960s and 1970s. None, other than Sufiā Kāmāl, among women writers between 1952 and 1971, seemed to have been touched by the changing political realities of the country. Fiction was the most popular medium chosen by them, but practically none of them were notable for either their craft or an understanding of the challenges facing women. This perhaps was a reflection of the non-presence of women in sociopolitical spheres. It was also reflective of a lack of strong tradition of female participation in the literary scene.
Selinā Hosen (1947) was the first significant woman writer to emerge in the 1970s and continued through the next years as a powerful chronicler of life in rural Bengal. A strong sense of history, close links with life beyond the city, and a clear faith in the essential goodness of life have earned her a remarkable readership in Bangladesh. Among her better-known novels are Hāngar Nadī Greneḍ (Sharks, Rivers, Grenades, 1976), Magnacaitanye Śis (Whistling High, 1979), Caṁd Bene (Caṁd, the Merchant, 1984), and Ṫānāpoṛen (Warp and Woof, 1994).
Unlike Selinā, who refuses to be limited to “feminist” themes alone, Taslimā Nāsrin (1962) has remained, almost from the very onset of her career, an angry, rebellious, “feminist” voice. A poet of considerable talent and later a novelist with a penchant toward stirring up controversies, she rose to prominence following the publication of her polemical writings, Nirbācita Kalām (Selected Columns, 1992). In numerous essays featured in this book, Taslimā flagrantly displays her contempt for conventional notions of marriage, frankly discusses female sexuality, both as right as well as denial, and rejects religion for restricting women’s freedom. If these columns seemed “irritable” and merely bruised male egocentrism, her novel Lajjā (Shame, 1993) pitted her against the conservative theocracy and those aligned with them in the government. In this and in a subsequent book— Pherā (The Return, 1994)—Taslimā explores the growing communal discrimination in Bangladesh, practiced at all levels (often tacitly endorsed by the government) by the country’s Muslim majority toward the Hindu minority. Lajjāwas banned by the government for allegedly trying to incite religious disharmony. Later, her strong antitheocracy articles drew fanatical responses from the country’s religious Right, who proclaimed a “death sentence” against Taslimā. In 1994, after spending some time in hiding, Taslimā chose to go into exile in Europe.
Pūrabī Basu (1949), also a feminist writer with a critical view of religious fundamentalism in Bangladesh, has traversed a less controversial path but achieved a different kind of acclaim for her short stories. Like Taslimā, Pūrabī has sought to portray the marginalization of women from within a conscious, committed, and feminist context. In three collections of short stories— Pūrabī Basur Galpa, (Pūrabī Basu’s Stories, 1989), Ājanma Parabāsī (Exiled Forever, 1992), and Se Nahi, Nahi (That’s Not Me, Not Me, 1995)—Pūrabī has explored male-female relationships, often examining the woman’s subordination to tradition and culture in an urban setting. Written with a measured economy, often veiled in sophisticated symbolism, Pūrabī’s stories, along with her growing number of nonfictional essays, have invited her growing number of readers to go beyond the superficial niceties of familial relationships and reinterpret them from a woman’s perspective.
Bangladesh is still a new country. It is an heir to ancient and rich cultural traditions. Faced with inner contradictions and fiercely competing social forces, these traditions and cultural trends are still in the process of being defined fully, giving the masses the strength to strive for unity and reasons for hope. The literature created as a result of the changing social realities is sure to find its own distinctive seat in the culturally undivided map of Bengali literature, charting newer frontiers.
A Note on Bengali Pronunciation
The Bengali language, as it is spoken, presents a major problem when it comes to spelling the words, since the way Bengali words are pronounced often has very little to do with the system of spelling, which is predominantly Sanskŗt-based. Several sounds in the Sanskŗt language are not pronounced in Bengali but are faithfully rendered, nevertheless, in the written form. This causes a great deal of confusion, especially when one has to transliterate Bengali words into the Roman script. The choice for the transliterator, for better or for worse, is either (1) to represent the Bengali pronunciation exactly without caring for the spelling or (2) to follow the way the words are spelled, with full respect for the Sanskŗt norm. Neither of the two choices is entirely satisfactory. The problem is accentuated further with the non-Sanskŗt words that abound in the Bengali language: how do you account for them Keeping these rather perplexing and controversial issues in mind, we finally decided to strike a mean by maintaining the Sanskŗt mode of transliteration but, for the sake of balance, also supplementing it with the following glossary, which sketchily explains how spoken Bengali differs from what its Sanskŗt-based spelling suggests. With names of persons, especially Hindu names, we have used either a transliterated version based on the Bengali spelling or, in a few cases, the Anglicized versions the persons themselves used in public life that have become very common through usage (e.g., “Tagore” instead of “Ṭhākur”). Most of the Muslim names have been spelled with their Arabic or Persian pronunciations in mind, with some exceptions where the names are better known in their Bengali forms, for example, “Rāhmān” instead of “Rehmān” or “Ākhthār” instead of “Akhthar.”
|A/a||generally pronounced like the word awe but occasionally also pronounced as “o” (there is no fixed rule)|
|Ā/ā||like “a” in father|
|I/i||like “i” in spin|
|Ī/ī||like “ee” in keen|
|U/u||like “oo” in good|
|Ū/ū||like “oo” in food|
|Ŗ/ŗ||a quickly pronounced syllable like “r” in Rich|
|ṅ||like “n” in gong or bonk|
|Ñ/ñ||like “n” in inch or engine|
|ṅ||difference between this and the regular “n” in Bengali is only “seen” in the spelling, not heard|
|Ṭ/ṭ||upper-palatal “T” (hard) like in Tat, unlike the regular dental “T” (soft)|
|ḍ/ḍ||upper-palatal “D” (hard) like in Dad, unlike the regular dental “D” (soft)|
|Ś/ś||like “sh” in should|
|ṣ/ṣ||similar to “Ś/ś” but pronounced with slightly more air pressure, e.g., shhoot, instead of shoot|
|r||a mixture of “Ḍ /ḍ” and the regular “r”|
|ṁ||a nasal accent like the French “en” in rendezvous|
|J̄/j̄||difference between this and the regular “j” in Bengali is only “seen” in the spelling; it is a Sanskŗt form of “y” that is used only in the Bengali script but never pronounced|