Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee)

Bankim Chandra Prose must be written in language that is well understood by its readers. The world would hardly miss those literary works that are mastered by only half-a-dozen pundits.

[Bankim Chandra's lament on the sad state of the Bengali prose before the publication of Pyarichand Mitra's Alaler Gharer Dulal. Praising the literary and linguistic style ushered in that novel, he indicated a special position for it in his essay Pyarichand Mitra's Place in Bengali Literature .]

Also see complete list of Bankim Chandra's Publication.

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (anglicised pronunciation of the surname is Chatterjee), one of the most celebrated Bengali novelists and pioneering essayists, was born in Kantalpara near Naihati in an orthodox Brahmin family on 26th June 1838. Chatterjee was the youngest of three brothers in the family - the second, Sanjeeb Chandra, too, was a notable Bengali writer. Educated in Midnapore Collegiate School, Hoogley College and Presidency College, Chatterjee was one of the first two graduates of the Calcutta University in 1858. In 1869 he completed his law degree whilst in the employ of the colonial government as a Deputy Magistrate and Deputy Collector - a job which he grudgingly held for three decades. Despite his brilliant academic record and career accomplishments he was not allowed to progress further in the English bureaucracy due probably to 'native' background. He was married off when he was only a boy of eleven. His first wife died in 1859. He remarried Rajlaxmi Devi of Hali's famous Choudhury family in 1960.

Bankim Chandra's literary career started in the late 1850's with publication of a number of youthful compositions in the Sambad Prabhakar and with his first book of poetry Lalita O Manas. Serialisation in 1964 of his English novel RajMohan's Wife in the Indian Field provided a mere hint of a talented author in the making. His first Bengali novel Durgeshnandini written between 1862-1864 and published in 1865 ushered in a new era in Indian literature. Severely criticised though, by the conservatives, it was enormously popular as is evidenced by its thirteen editions (in those days) in three decades after its publication. The fountain of his creative genius started flowing freely after birth of the Bangodarshan magazine under his editorial supervision. He wrote in all fourteen novels and a large number of essays, special treatise and monographs - subject matter of which varied form mundane matters of economics to serious analysis and evaluation of literature, art, science, society, philosophy and religion. Refer to the complete list of Chatterjee's publication.

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's death on April 4, 1894 as he started a major project on the ancient Indian Vedic and Puranic literature suddenly brought a sudden end to this brilliant literary star of Bengal.

To begin an evaluation of this literary giant's contribution one has to understand the nature and immature state of the Bengali language and literary discipline at the time. Bengali literature, in its infancy, was almost facing extinction - a sad state of affairs. Tagore later referred to this as its 'pratosandhya' or sunset at dawn. And to understand the gravity of this we have to look no further than this great Bengali author himself. We translate his own work:

In the past - before the advent of the printing press, books of literary work were normally styled, after Sanskrit, in verses. Not that there was no prose written at all. We have heard about hand-written manuscripts. Those manuscripts are not in circulation - so it is difficult to ascertain their form and linguistic structure. Widespread publication of Bengali prose started as the print industry took hold. Legend has it Raja Ram Mohun Roy was the first writer of Bengali prose. The language of prose that evolved after him was entirely distinct from the vernaculus in ordinary use. Indeed, there were two separate streams of Bengali language - one which was used by the elite was named 'Sadhubhasa' and the other for the rest. ... the elitists used archaic Sanskrit words in their ordinary conversations, one can imagine how difficult their writings would be for a layperson. Any book published in this kind of language was destined to immediate extinction as there was hardly any readership. Hence, there was no growth or enrichment in Bengali literature.

This Sanskritised stream of prose was reformed by the Great Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and Akshay Kumar Dutta to an extent. ... But as the vocabulary used by this literature was limited and therefore was unable to express the meaning coveyed by ordinary conversations, their reform too was not far-reaching. So the narrow stream of Bengali prose kept flowing as in the past - at a distance - not understood by the ordinary folks.

Even a greater misfortune befell Bengali literature. As the literary language was travelling a narrow lane, its subject matter too was drawn from a very limited field. It was merely a shadow of its parent Sanskrit not only in liguistic sense but in content too - and at times that of English. Bengali prose hardly ever gave birth to anything other than traslating in substance either Sankrit or English works. There can be no doubt that Vidyasagar was a very talented writer, even his subjects were drawn or adapted from works in other languages - Sakuntala and Sitar Banavas from Sanskrit, Bhrantivilas from English and Betal-Panchavingshati from Hindi. Akshay Kumar Dutta depended solely on English. They rest followed suit. Bengali writers hardly tried their hand in anything off the beaten track.

It is Pyarichand Mitra who saved Bengali literature from these two great dangers. And it is he who first used in his literary work the language spoken in the ordinary course of life. Instead of looking to the Sanskrit and English scraps or leftovers, it is he who looked at his own backyard to find the unlimited supply of literary ingredients to compile his literary work. Alaler Gharer Dulal alone mitigated the two failings of Bengali literature...1

Bankim's assessment of Pyarichand Mitra's contribution is undoubtedly correct. But, it would appear with a century's hindsight that it is indeed a self-assessment of his own work. Unphased life-long devotion to his mother tongue, rational and inquisitive intellect and the incredible depth of his analytical literary instincts and wisdom allowed him to easily read the heartbeat of Bengali language and literature with such pinpoint yet prophetic accuracy. He frequented between various branches of literature, history, science and philosophy with profound ease and proved beyond doubt, with treatise after after treatise, that Bengali as a language platform is not to be sneezed at. That it was capable of handling any literary and scietific work. That we hardly needed look to other language or literature for ingredients or for depth and variety of expression. Indeed, he was not only a great novelist or author - he was an avid reader, researcher, editor, critic and publisher. Though as a poet he was not very successful, his natural prowess in each of these fields allowed him to be in the unique position from which he was able to preside over the early developments in Bengali literature - much to the dislike of many ordinary writers and poets of his time.

Tagore, who probably was one of first few who genuinely appreciated the prolific nature and depth of Bankim Chandra's contribution to Bengali language and literature, wrote after the author's untimely death:

When Bankim appeared in Bengali literary scene with his treasure of fresh talents, the old-fashioned folks of that era did not welcome his writings.

Bankim had to suffer from a barrage of criticisms, ridicules and slanderous accusations ... It was that time as we reached adolescence, the Bengali literary sun was setting at dawn.

Standing at the intersection of two distinct periods, we quickly realised what it was like before and what this new period had brought to us. Where did the darkness go, that mixed confused feeling, that slumber, ... suddenly came a flood of light, all this expectation, all this music, all this wonderful variety. Bangodarshan2 brought the majestic sound of the arrival of that maiden shower of the monsoon. That deluge nourished all the fountains and rivers of Bengali literary endevours and they then, having been blessed with sudden fullness of youth, started flowing east and west in vigorous delight. Outpoured countless books of poetry, novels, essays, literary critiques, periodicals and newspapers - awakening this land of Bengal as if with the pleasant twittering of morning birds.3

The blazing rays of the Bankim genius fell on the Bengali literature at a time when pundits of the Sanskrit generation and upcoming English-educated youths of Bengal both treated Bengali language with derogation and disdain as unsuitable and unsophisticated for expression of higher thoughts or literary pursuits. Bankim, not only an outstanding scholar but also an tireless researcher who never stopped short of finding the Truth for himself, fully equipped in both Sanskrit and English, dedicated his entire life and love to his mother tongue and set out to prove to the world that Bengali is as good a language as any other for all forms of literary work. According to Tagore:

Raja Rammohun Roy saved it from submersion by laying the foundation of Bengali literature on a granite base. Bankim Chandra raised it by silting layers upon layers of his vigrous talents making it not only livable but a land abounding in harvestable greens ... Nothing can be a more unfortunate than not being able to appreciate the great and permanent favour Bankim Chandra made to the Bengalees by extinguishing the sterility of our mother tongue.

... whatever is timeless in us, whatever will make us immortal, that great power, the only medium which will enable us to hold, maintain, express and to publicise everywhere, it is he who strengthened and glorified that mother tongue.

Bankim himself treated Bengali language with utmost respect and he expected others to do likewise. His extraordinary language skills, crystal-clear analytical logic and judgement, great sense of humour, fearless conviction, free-thinking mind and allegiance only to truth made him an ideal writer who was willing, able, and strong enough to easily lead the way by setting examples in each branch of the infant literature. He was a pioneer - the master of his craft. A reformer. A true builder.

He did not, however, stop there. He took upon himself the duty of a critic, as well, to ensure that certain minimum standards were maintained. He did not suffer literary fools easily. His unforgiving attitude towards literary weeds or outgrowth often landed him with unnecessary heartaches at times. But he remained firm in his objective - he continued with his own ideals and plans regardless.

He dispelled superstitions with reason, mythology with history and dogmas with scientific principles. Krishnacharitra, in which the author traces available classical literature to establish the historical existence, or otherwise, of the Shri Krishna persona, shall remain as the best testimony and timeless monument to his immense intellectual and methodological ability to disect fact from fiction, history from legend, truth from imagination, fire from smoke and man from God. A task any lesser writer would find extremely difficult as he or she would have to negotiate a fine divide between popular beliefs and dearth of concrete evidence either for or against such mythology on the one hand and the logical impossibility of a man being God. Tagore said that in Krishnachaitra, Shrikrishna is not the lead character - the free-thinker, that resides in the human mind, is. It is that free-thinking mind the author has glorified for ever.

Bankim's sense of humour in its satirical best is captured in his timeless Kamalakanter Daptar. Undoubtedly one of the best of its kind, it is witty, intellectually agile and satirically most gruesome in detail comments on the social, economic and cultural issues of the time.

Bankim's novels were not above criticisms, neither then, nor now:

Bankim Chandra's novels are considered exciting to read but structurally faulty. Serial publication was partly responsible for imperfect integration of the various episodes. Evolution of plot depends too frequently on chance or supernatural intervention, and characterization is often subordinated to an overriding deductive purpose.4

But considered against canvass of the period concerned, when literary plots were rarely ever more than a series of characters and events casually put in a string of a moral lesson or two, one must agree that structures of Bankim's novels and foundations on which they stood, were strong and firm enough to withstand the test of time - the greatest storm any or all human endeavour must face.

Bankim's novels can be classified into three groups: the first is full of English style romanticism; the second is modelled on Pyarichand Mitra (such as Vishbriksha, Krishnakanter Will) and finally those novels that were based on historical events (such as Mrinalini, Rajshingha and Sitaram). The third category of novels which stemmed from the author's deep sense of respect for heritage and fierce patiotism, provides a real insight into his dedication, creativity and possibly into deep credices of his pride and prejudices. He was, after all, a human.

Bankim's Bande Mataram, the greatest patriotic hymn that aroused the entire nation to fight for their freedom - one which unfortunately fuelled the moslem's anger - which in turn caused congress to drop it from its most favoured position as the national anthemn of free India, is the single most important evidence of the author's ability to read and understand the great Indian people and its way of life. It is that understanding which reinforced his literary work with the essence of Indian existence. That explains his popularity. No critic of this great champion of the Bengali cause will be able to deny that or take that away from him, ever!

Much of the materials for this article was sourced from the Bankim Rachanabali (Complete Works of Bankim Chandra), Tuli-Kalam, Calcutta 1986

1. Quoted from author's Pyarichand Mitra's Place in Bengali Literature.
2. Bangodarshan
was a literary periodical edited by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee - first published in 1872. The periodical closed its door after four years. In its second incarnation of five years, it was edited by his brother Snjeeb Chandra Chatterjee.
3. Rabindranath Tagore, Bankimchandra, Adhunik Sahitya (Modern Literature), Vol. 9 of Rabindra Rachanabali.
4. Biographical Note - Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.