Kolkata: The Bengal Renaissance

The changes that characterise the Bangla literary tradition of the 19th century is deeply and thoroughly influenced by the social reform movement known as the ‘Bengal Renaissance’.

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

The educational system of Bengal, as a whole, underwent a drastic change in the early 19th century.  The educational reforms in the late 18th century and the early 19th century saw the establishment of institutions like the Asiatic Society (1784), Fort William College (1800), Serampore College (1817), Hindu College (1817), Sanskrit College (1824) and others which were exclusively meant for the elite Bengalis in order to educate them according to the European idea of education, learning and value judgement. This socio-political change in the educational scenario of Bengal quite naturally gave birth to a new intellectual class of Bengalis who perceived the idea of European education as the ideal form of learning and who would later give birth to the Bengal Renaissance and in turn change the scenario of the literary tradition of the 19th century Bangla literature.

According to historian Romesh Chunder Dutt, “The conquest of Bengal by the English was not only a political revolution, but ushered in a greater revolution in thoughts and ideas, in religion and society… From the stories of gods and goddesses, kings and queens, princes and princesses, we have learnt to descend to the humble walks of life, to sympathise with the common citizen. Every revolution is attended with vigour, and the present one is no exception to the rule. Nowhere in the annals of Bengali literature are so many and so bright names found crowded together in the limited space of one century as those of Ram Mohan Roy, Akshay Kumar Datta, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Hem Chandra Banerjee, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Dina Bandhu Mitra. Within the three quarters of the present century, prose, blank verse, historical fiction and drama have been introduced for the first time in the Bengali literature…”.   And to think, that this hub of historical and cultural value stemmed from Kolkata, a city most agree to be diminishing in value.  The question then is how and why?

 

Prof. Soumyajit Samanta, “The Bengal Renaissance : A Critique”
Dutt, Romesh Chunder, 1877

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