Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee)

Sarat Chandra My literary debt is not limited to my predecessors only. I'm forever indebted to the deprived, ordinary people who give this world everything they have and yet receive nothing in return, to the weak and oppressed people whose tears nobody bothers to notice and to the endlessly hassled, distressed (weighed down by life) and helplesss people who don't even have a moment to think that: despite having everything, they have right to nothing. They made me start to speak. They inspired me to take up their case and plead for them. I have witnessed endless injustice to these people, unfair intolerable indiscriminate justice. It's true that springs do come to this world for some - full of beauty and wealth - with its sweet smelling breeze perfumed with newly bloomed flowers and spiced with cuckoo's song, but such good things remained well outside the sphere where my sight remained imprismed. This poverty abounds in my writings.

[Author's comment in the acceptance speech in a meeting organised in his honour - to celebrate his 57th birthday at the Calcutta Town Hall on 2nd Ashwin, 1339 BY (15th Sep 1933).]

See a comprehensive list of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee's Publications.

Poverty Sarat Chandra Chatterjee knew very definitely. Both in the limited materialistic sense and in its psychosomatic dimensions. His short stories and novels often present both in great depth. Almost with pathological accuracy. In his carefully crafted, if not freighteningly real, characters and events he captured the late nineteenth to early twentieth century Bengali society. But in no sense did he get his materials from the history. It was his encounters with life as a country youth that provided him with the inspiration, ingredients and storylines for his life-like characters in the (often) uncomplicated rural family settings. He plucked characters for his stories and novels from his life experience and created them in his own unimitable style. The distinctive features and the essence of purpose that he added to them made them more attractive and perhaps larger than life. This is why his stories had such universal appeal - a reason which may explain why such a large number of them were translated to other languages.

Working in parallel with - remaining at a safe distance away from the burning sun of the Tagore genius in Calcutta - Chatterjee's work was unique and not overshadowed by Tagore. His best contribution perhaps was the use of simple, unsanitised (i.e., unsanscritised) and very familiar Bengali vocabulary - a welcome break from the literary tradition of the time. This new wave of desanscritisation started with Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. Sarat Chandra who had a lot in common with Bankim as they had similar middle class upbringing and shared the same socio-economic background, was greatly influenced by Bankim's writings. By contrast, Sarat Chandra (which means the Autumn Moon) hardly if ever was dimmed, diffused or influenced by the powerful rays of the Sun (meaning Rabindranath Tagore). According to Dr. Sukumar Sen, Sarat Chandra (arguably) did not much appreciate poetry and hence deprived his work a little of the vast wealth of the Tagore literary ocean which could well have enhanced the texture and depth of his masterpieces. Having said that Sen, however, recognised that in terms of popularity, the Autumn Moon was brighter than the Sun.

Sarat Chandra was very popular as a story-teller - more so than either Bankim or Tagore. His sketeches on the social canvas had a very subtle reformist twist to them. His critique on social norm was only a message and never an agenda. He refrained from value judgement. He felt that his duty as a writer was to raise awareness about social malice and not to reform the society. The latter was a reformer's work. Nevertheless, he faced uphill battle with conservative sections of the Hindu social leaders (refer Pally Samaj). He was not particularly liked either by the Imperial representatives for his Pather Daabi. It was banned for alleged preaching of sedition from 1927 to 1939 and again in 1940 under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code and under the Dramatic Performance Act respectively.

Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (nickname Nyarha) was born in Devanandapore - a village in West Bengal under the district of Hooghly on 15th September 1876 (31 Bhadra 1283 BY). For a time his father was employed in Bihar - the rest of the family lived in Bhagalpore with his maternal grandfather. Changing family financial situations resulted in a sequence of school changes for young Sarat. In his own words:

My childhood and youth were passed in great poverty. I received almost no education for want of means. From my father I inherited nothing except, as I believe, his restless spirit and his keen interest in literature. The first made me a tramp and sent me out tramping the whole of India quite early, and the second made me a dreamer all my life.1

After passing the Entrance Exam in second division in 1894 Sarat was admitted to the Tejnarayan Jubilee College. Freshly in touch with the English literature, he read such novels as Dicken's Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield and My Love by Lord Litton. The literary giant claimed that his real inspiration was his own father's unfinished and unpublished literary work:

Father was a great scholar, and he had tried his hand at stories and novels, dramas and poems, in short every branch of literature, but never could finish anything. I have not his work now - somehow it got lost; but I remember poring over those incompleteness. Over again in my childhood, and many a night I kept awake regretting their incompleteness, and thinking what might have been their conclusion if finished. Probably this led to my writing short stories when I was barely seventeen.

With the creation of Bhagalpore Shitya Sabha (literary group), a handwritten children's magazine called "Shisu" was published. The stories Kakbasha and Kashinath were first published here (1894). In 1895 his mother died. The following year Sarat had to leave college forever due to dire financial stress in which his father had to sell off their Devanandapore home for a mere Rs.225. They moved to Bhagalpore once again. In Khanjanpur (a suburb in Bhagalpore) he came in close contact with a number of people who would play a significant role in his literary career. Notable are Anupama (later changed her name to Nirupama Devi - author of the Annapurnaar Mandir) and her brother Bibhutibhushan Bhatta and Rajendranath Majumdar (Raju). Raju is said to be the famous Indranath character in his masterpiece Srikanto. In the Bhatta household there were literary get-together quite regularly in which Sarat (was the Chairman) would take part along with his young uncles Surendranath, Gireendranath and Upendranath (later editor of the monthly literary magazine Bichitra) Ganguli. Here he came in contact with writer Sourindra Mohan Mukherjee - who at a later date got the Bardidi novel published in the Bharati - one of the most influential literary chronicles of that time. At this time, the inexperienced and untamed creative talent in Sarat was bursting out in short stories or novels like Abhimaan, Bojha, Anupamar Prem, Sukumarer Balyakatha, Bardidi, Chandranath, Debdas and Pashan. Abhimaan was based on East Lynne - the 1861 English novel of the English middle-class life by Ellen Wood (better known as Mrs. Henry Wood, 1814-1887) which sold over half a million copies in those days and was dramatised repeatedly. Pashan was written following the theme of the then spectacularly popular English novel Mighty Atom by Marie Corelli (1855-1924). Corelli's novels were said to be extravagantly romantic. Can one consider Debdas in the same light?

Young Sarat had talents other than writing. He could not only sing and act, but played instruments such as the flute and tabla. He was a good sportsman too. His acting in the female roles in Mrinalini, Bilvamangal and Jona - which were dramatisation of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's novels - during this impressionable years perhaps allowed him to be more fully influenced by Bankim's writings. The Kunri Sahityik - Budding Literateurs - group was formed comprising those frequenting the Bhatta's published their first hand-written magazine Chhaya in April 1901 which included Sarat's Aalo O Chhaya and later Chhaya published a few other stories noted above.

Meanwhile, in 1900 Sarat started work in Godda's Banali Estate in Bihar and later in Santhal district settlement - both he disliked and gave up. Young Sarat was very sensitive and fragile. He left home following a disagreement with his father. Alone, unhappy and indifferent, Sarat lost purpose and lacked motivation. Referring to his natural love for and obssesion with writing stories, he later told us:

But I soon gave up the habit as useless, and almost forgot in the long years that followed that I could even write a sentence in my boyhood.
He felt dejected and for no apparent reason would walk around crematorium grounds at dead of night. Later he joined a party of Naga Monks for a while and came to Mujaffarpur (1902). For a brief period he came back to Bhagalpore on his father's death and on completion of his father's last rites went to Calcutta and was employed as a translator for Hindi paper book for a meagre salary of Rs.30 per month.

In 1903, soon before his departure for Rangoon in search of a better financial future he was convinced by uncle Girindrandranath to send his short story Mandir for the Kuntaleen literary competition. It would appear that Sarat Chandra was least interested in that and on others' insistence finally agreed to send the story in the name of Surendranath Ganguli. From amongst one hundred fifty odd short stories Mandir was selected to be the best of the year (1309 BY) - judged by the veteran editor of the Vasumati, Sri Jaldhar Sen. Mandir was published in the name of Surendranath - and was incidentally the first ever printed story by Sarat Chandra. This, however, was not the last time someone else's name was used in publishing his own writings. He published regularly in the Jamuna magazine in three different names - in his own name and in the name of Anila Devi (his elder sister) and Anupama.

According to the author's own account Jamuna was the clatalyst in reviving his literary career whilst he was in Burma. He said:

A mere accident made me start again, after the lapse of about eighteen years. Some of my old acquintances started a little magazine, but no one of note would condescend to contribute to it, as it was so small and insignificant. When almost hopeless, some of them remembered me, and after much persuasion they succeeded in extracting from me a promise to write for it. This was in the year 1913. I promised most unwillingly - perhaps only to put them off till I returned to Rangoon and could forget all about it. But sheer volume and force of their letters and telegrams compelled me at last to think seriously about writing again. I sent them a short story for their magazine Jamuna. This became at once popular, and made me famous in one day. Since then I have been writing regularly. In Bengal, perhaps, I am the only fortunate writer who has not had to struggle.
Whilst in Rangoon after a number of temporary positions, he was employed permanently in Accounts department of the Public Works Department - where he served until his return to Calcutta in 1916.

In his own time Sarat Chandra practised Homeopathy, opened a primary school and formed a party of Keertan music. His first wife Shanti Devi to whom he was married in 1906, died of plague in 1908 along with his one year old son. To fill the void in his life, he studied sociology, politics, philosophy, health sciences, psychology and history borrowing books from the Barnerd Free Library. In 1909 due to health problems due to heart related complications he had to cut down his study hours and started to paint. His first painting was named Ravan-Mandodori. Chatterjee was married in 1910 the second time an adolescent widow named Mokshada - who he renamed Hiranmoyee.

Since his return to Calcutta the Author's writings appeared in all magazines of note and his popularity grew from strength to strength. Adaptation of his Viraj Bou was first staged at the Star Theatre in 1918 under the direction of Amritlal Bose. Viraj Bou was also his first novel to be translated to Hindi by Chandrashekhar Pathak in 1919. A year after that Datta was translated into Marathi and into Gujrati in 1921. In 1922 Oxford University Press published the English translation of Srikanto - Part I by Kshitish Chandra Sen and Teodosia Thompson. Srikanto was translated into Italian in 1925. Here on, many other stories and novels started to appear regularly in many Indian and other languages.

The first (silent) film Aandhare Aalo based on the author was screened at the Rasa (Purna) Theatre - was directed by none other than the Stage King Sisir Bhaduri (with co-director Naresh Mitra) who was also responsible for making film of the author's Pally Samaj in 1932. The first film (with sound) based on his Dena Paona was directed by Premankur Atarthi - released in 1931.

Calcutta University honoured him with the Jagattarini Gold Medal in 1923 and Romain Rolland recognised him as one of the best novelists of the world in 1925. Dacca (now Dhaka) University bestowed on him the honourary D. Lit. degree in 1936. >/p>

Sarat Chandra was actively involved in Indian freedom movement and became the President of Howrah District Congress at the request of C. R. Das and wrote regularly in Narayan edited by the latter.

Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, who is belovedly known in Bengal as the Immortal Wordsmith, died of cancer of the liver on 16th January 1938 at 10:10 am at Park Nursing Home in Calcutta. Bengal lost one of its greatest sons - one that loved her from the core of his heart.

Much of the materials for this article was sourced from the Sarat Sahitya Samagra (Complete Works of Sarat Chandra), Ananda Publishers Private Limited, Calcutta 1993

1. Quoted from author by Theodosia Thompson in the Introduction to Srikanto Part I published by Oxford University Press, London 1922 as quoted in the Sarat Sahitya Samagra.