Brief History of Bangla Literature

Bengali Language probably emerged as a separate language around 1000 AD. The beginnings of Bengali literature are to be seen in the songs composed in the 11th – 12th centuries. The Natha literature was inspired by philosophy of the Buddhist Sahajiya cult. In the 14th century Vaishnavism spread over Bengal and Chandidas posed his devotional lyrics which deeply influenced the literature. Adaptations of the Ramayana became popular in the 15th century; Kritivasa Ojha’s rendering of the epic is given the same kind of respect in the East as Tulsidas’s Rantacharitmanas gets in the North. In the 16th century another type of Vaishnava literature developed—biographical in nature, centered round the personality of Chaitanya. The best known work in this style is the Chaitanya Charitamrita by Krishnadasa Kaviraja.

Mangal kavya—long narrative poems extolling the struggle and triumph of a god or a goddess in establishing himself or herself against rivals—became a popular literary form after Sanskrit works came to be rendered in Bengali. Three major kinds of mangal kavya are Manasamangal, Chandimangal and Dharmamangal.

After a period of decadence, it was in the nineteenth century that modern Bengali literature came into being. In the development of Bengali prose, the role of the Christian missionaries must be acknowledged. William Carey wrote a Bengali grammar, compiled an English-Bengali dictionary and got the Bible translated into Bengali. The establishment of the Fort William College at Calcutta in 1800 also contributed to the development of Bengali. But it was Raja Rammohan Roy’s pamphlets and essays on the issues of the day that gave to Bengali prose a forceful and vibrant style. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Akshay kumar Datta showed the rich potential of Bengali prose and brought a sense of discipline to the use of the language which became chaste and vigorous in their hands.

Bankim Chandra is considered the father of the modern novel in India.  Sarat Chandra Chatterjee was another novelist of merit in the early twentieth century.

Michael Madhusudan Dutt was the initiator to break out of traditionalism and successfully experiment with naturalizing European forms into Bengali poetry. He is known for his epic in blank verse, Meghanabandh, an unorthodox interpretation of an episode from the Ramayana, besides a number of sonnets. In the twentieth century the patriotic fervour inspired poets like Kazi Nazrul Islam.

Calcutta was the scene of the birth of the modern drama in Bengali. The first original play in Bengali was Kulin Kulasarvasva, a social satire on polygamy among the Kulin Brahmins by Pandit Ramnarayan. Madhusudan Dutt too wrote some plays. Then came Dinabandhu Mitra’s Neel Darpan and Kamale Kamini Girishchandra Ghose was another notable playwright. Bengali dramas played an important role in conveying nationalism and ideas of social change to the common man.

Bengali literature found fruition in the works of Rabindranath Tagore who blended Vaishnava lyricism, the vigor of the folk medium and Western influences to a nicety.

After Tagore, Bengali literature has continued to offer rich fare. Bibhutibushan’s Pather Panchali and Aranyak are sensitive novels. Tarashankar Bandopadhyay’s Gana Devata and Arogyaniketan are widely read. Another great novel is Padmanadir Maghi by Manik Bandopadhyay. Ashapurna Devi’s Pratham Pratht Shruti got her the Jnanpith Award. Subhas Mukhopadhyay is a noted Bengali poet whose works such as Padatik and Ja Re kagajeer Nauka are marked by social commitment and he too has received the Jnanpith Award.

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