People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 35

September 02, 2007

Bengali Literature Before And After 1857


Gopal Haldar


BENGALI literature, in the years 1856 to 1861, was in the first throes of creative activity, the like of which it had never seen before. It had completed its preparatory period (roughly from 1800 to 1856), which may be said to have included four phases, viz.., the Fort William phase (1815 to 1831), the “Young Bengal” (“Derozians”) and Sambad Prabhakar phase (1831 to 1843), and, lastly, the Vidyasagar and Tatwabodhini Patrika phase (1843 to 1856).


Of course, literary activities formed only one of the facets of that complex and many-sided movement which has been called Banglar Jagaran (the Awakening of Bengal). In a broad sense, it included the Bengali renaissance and what is known as the Bengali reformation (religious and social reform activities), and lastly, political awakening –– the complex of responses generated in our people by their growing contact with the bourgeois world, represented by the British rulers. It is supposed to have commenced with the activities of Ram Mohan Roy (1774-1833) in Calcutta in 1815 and to have reached its heyday in the latter half of the 19th century. Personally I should view Banglar Jagaran as commencing with the foundation of the Hindu College in Calcutta in 1817. For, the Hindu College brought into existence a new and dynamic force, the urban middle-class intelligentsia, or the educated bhadraloks, of Bengal. And the bhadraloks virtually shaped the life and thought of Bengal for about a century, i.e. roughly again, until 1914-1918 when World War I threw up new forces in the national and international arena.




There lay then behind the intelligentsia of 1857 a “colonial renaissance” at least 40 years old. Two generations of the intellectuals had been reared on the liberal bourgeois ideology, and they energetically tried to overthrow the deadweight of Indian feudal ideas and institutions. The Indian reformation (started in 1815 by Ram Mohan Roy) was proceeding with renewed vigour (1843) under Devendra Nath Tagore (1817-1905), while social reform recorded its great victory under the leadership of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891) in the passing of the Widow Remarriage Act in 1856, which was said to have added to the distrust of the sepoys and the orthodox section.


Politically also the middle-class intelligentsia had just discovered their way forward. For example, they learnt to agitate under Ram Gopal Ghosh (1815-1863) for doing away with the invidious privileges of the Europeans in the mofussil courts (the so-called “Black Acts” of 1849); founded political institutions (1843) and united their organised strength in the British Indian Association (in 1851) “to promote the improvement and efficiency of the British Indian government by every legitimate means in their power.


They had formulated their liberal demand in the petition, said to be drafted by Harish Chandra Mukerji (1824-1861), when the charter of the East India Company was about to be renewed in 1853, and demanded in that, among other things, the creation of an Indian legislature with an Indian majority. And lastly, they had just secured new openings for their educational aspirations and advancement through Sir Charles Wood’s educational dispatch of 1845 and the foundation of the three universities of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay in January, 1857.


History has its paradoxes, some may call them “contradictions” and they cannot easily be explained away. To many of us it may seem strange that this intelligentsia of Bengal in the years of the “sepoy mutiny,” 1857-1858, appeared to have been so little interested in the gigantic upheavals which shook the foundations of the British power in, at least, North India. It seems amazing that the most enlightened section of the Indian people was genuinely opposed to the sepoys. For the very same Bengali intelligentsia plunged headlong on the morrow of the 1857 revolt, or even before the night had really passed, in 1858-1859, into the Nil Vidroha (Indigo revolt) of central Bengal. Here was patriotism, here was courage, here was undeniable evidence that the intelligentsia of Bengal, who may be said to be allied to the “upper classes,” were fighting with all their passion and skill for the cause of the oppressed peasantry, and were fulfilling their role in the national life of Bengal as the new leaders of all sections of the community.


Any narrow “class interpretation” then of the conduct of the Bengali intelligentsia during the 1857 revolt would fail to satisfy a good many students of Bengali life and letters of the 19th century. Whatever be the final verdict of history with regard to the character of the 1857 rebellion, the understanding of the Bengali people and the Bengali intelligentsia at the time was very different – and bound to be in the circumstances – from that of the Indian people and the Indian intelligentsia of a later date. Not merely the liberal aristocrats, like Raja Dakshina Ranjan (Mukherji), an ex-derozian, of Lucknow were opposed to it. Even Bengali clerks in UP did not respond to the call for revolt. The graphic account of his experiences by Durga Das Bandyopadhyay (1835-1922) as narrated later in his Vidrohe Bangala (in the pages of the weekly Vangavasi at the encouragement of its nationalist editor) showed that the revolt in UP (i.e. Bareilly) could not shake his loyalty to his employers.


The fundamental fact, of how the 1857 rebellion was understood by the Bengali intelligentsia, has to be recognised and its causes properly analysed even though one should not agree to make light of the “class character” of the intelligentsia, which was so largely dependent for its fortune on the British Raj. An intelligentsia as mature as that we know, could not allow itself to be swerved from its liberal bourgeois policy by what it conceived to be an adventurist, haphazard and spontaneous feudal-reactionary military rising.




Bengali literature was prepared for the “leap” into the new world of ideas and forms that was revealed to the educated Bengali by the English language and literature. Let us examine briefly this new Bengali literature.


Bengali prose as an instrument of knowledge and enlightenment had been created between 1801 and 1856. Writing in the Tatwabodhini Patrika of 1856 Raj Narain Bose (1826-1899), the “grand father of nationalism” referred to this particular development of Bengali prose “in the last 10 or 12 years” and mentioned the three stalwarts, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, aksay Kumar Datta (1820-1886) of the Tatwabodhini writers and Rajendra Lal Mitra (1822-1891), the great Indologist who edited from 1851 Vividartha-Sangraha, the first illustrated monthly devoted to “archaeology, zoology, arts and crafts and literature.”


Raj Narain Bose could have included himself and Devendra Nath Tagore, the father of the poet, as pioneers of reflective prose of real beauty, and at least another, Pyari Chand Mitra, (1814-1883), who as “Tek Chand Thakur” was already writing (1854) the first Bengali novel, Alaler Gharer Dulal, (Pet Son of a Big House) in the pages of the Masik Patrika that Pyari Chand and Radhanath Sikdar (1813-1870) of “Everest discovery” fame brought out in 1854.


Poetry of the transition as practiced by its master, the patriot-poet Iswar Chandra Gupta or “Gupta Kavi” (1812-1859), had secured the services of an English-educated section, including Ranga Lal Bandyopadhyay (1827-1887), who was an avowed admirer of the great English poets. Bengali poetry waited now for the advent of that genius Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873), who returned to Calcutta from Madras in 1856.


Bengali drama and stage had its first modern initiation thanks to the Russian Gerasim Lebedeff as early as 1795 and was on the eve of significant developments. Adaptations of Sanskrit and even Shakespearean plays were being made all along; but the Kulin-Kula-Sarvasva, written and published in 1854 by Ram Narayan Tarkaratna (1822-1885), marked the birth of new Bengali drama as an instrument of social reform and entertainment. It was first staged at Nutan Bazar in Calcutta in March, 1857, when the sepoys were already restive at Barrackpore. But the Bengali stage had also reached in 1856 its “Age of the Patrons” when Kali Prasanna Sinha’s (1840-1870) Jorasanko house stage came into existence. The Paikpara garden stage was to follow it in two years (1858)


The years of the rebellion were the very time in which the Bengali drama and stage was born under the patronage of the urban rich, the absentee landlords, and upper classes. The panic and disturbances did not curb their enthusiasm for new dramas and entertainment after the European model. And, it is this enthusiasm and literary regard for drama, that was immediately responsible for the advent of the two geniuses of the times, Michael Madhusudan Dutt and Dinabandhu Mitra (1830-1873).




No section of the intelligentsia appears about that time to have set any store by the heroic endeavours of the sepoys and their leaders. Yet it must be noted at the same time that none of the writers, small or great, or even of the aristocracy depending on the British Raj, forgot that patriotism was a virtue. Almost all lamented the “fallen state of mother India,” her enslavement by “foreigners,” and exhorted their readers to unity, to courage, and obviously to liberty.


A typical device as we shall see later, was to take up a theme of the pre-British period of Indian history and to inveigh against the Yavanas (etymologically Yavanas were Ionians, i.e. Greeks, but were meant to include in the context obviously the Muslim invaders, and in an implied way, the British rulers, too, were hinted at). Or, they would turn to a theme from the Puranas or ancient lore which supplied them with an invader-invaded or oppressor-oppressed situation.


We have to note that intellectual efforts at this time were to a great extent still carried on in English. Particularly the problems of public life were discussed and debated mostly in English, though Bengali journalism (started about 1820) was already a force because of Sambad Prabhakar (1831, but a daily from 1839) and Soma-Prakas (1858).


Harish Chandra Mukherji of the Hindoo Patriot (1853) was a brilliant personality and forceful writer in English who commanded attention from the rulers (particularly from Lord Canning) and the ruled alike during the years of the rebellion. While repudiating the sepoys as misguided and superstition-ridden, Harish Chandra strongly counseled moderation at the hour of their suppression. But fiery was his denunciation of the indigo-planters and for three years, until his premature death in 1861, this champion of the cultivators of Bengal spared neither time nor money and become almost a national figure, ruined through litigation by the planters:


The press, we should remember, whether English or Bengali, was at that time a nursery of the new born literary aspirants. One of the bilingual newspapers, Samachar-Sudha-Varsan (Hindi and Bengali) was suppressed during the rebellion, and another, Hurkaru, faced prosecution. This fact has to be given due weight in judging the anti-rebellion professions of the rest of the press or of literature, as we do later. But the measures, it appears, did not act as a deadweight on the literary and cultural activities. There was an urgency in them and the rebellion cast no shadow.


Let us recall only the outstanding examples in literature at this time.


Alaler Gharer Dulal by “Tek Chand” was published in 1853. It is a didactic novel upholding the cause of education and new culture and a brilliant sketch of contemporary life and of some typical personalities. It did not however, concern itself with anything else, though patriotism was a frequent theme with Bengali writers of the time (1857-1858).


Iswar Gupta, who was the poet of transition as we said, was also a poet of patriotism and would go so far as to maintain: “Rather have in affectionate regard the dog of your country than the god of the foreigners.”


He is full of topical references to the famine and other such crises including the 1857 revolt. But the frightful courage and cruelty of the rebels are only noted in wordy verses. His satirical song (Chitan) on the Nilkar, the indigo-planters, written before his death in 1859 (the queen’s direct rule, had begun), is quite clear in its tone and temper – “WE Bengalis are a herd of cattle, oh mother, Queen Victoria,” the poet appears to plead satirically, “We don’t even know how to use our horns. The fodder grass and husks of corn are all that we want. Let not your white officers then despoil us of that,” and so on.


The Bengali poets and writers never ceased lashing their people for their alleged timidity in anger and self-pity. It is a recurring them in Bengali poetry up to the Swadeshi times (1905), and accounts to some extent for the reckless courage that the Bengali revolutionaries have evinced even since. Anyway, patriotism was a staple food for Bengali literature even before 1850 and Todd’s Annals of Rajasthan (it was later translated) fired Bengali imagination from about that time.


The new expression of this patriotism in literature was given in 1858 in the epic narrative poem, Padmini Upakhyan (“Tale of Padmini”). The poet Ranga Lal Bandyopadhyay was admittedly an admirer of Byron, Moore and Scott. The epic has little poetry, but the poet broke forth into a sincere cry in the exhortation that his hero Bhim Sinha addressed to the Kshatriyas of Chitore:


Swadhinata-hinatay ke banchite chay re ke banchite chay?
Dasatva srinkhal balo ke paribe pay he ke paribe pay?


(Who is there willing to live without freedom, willing to live like that? Who wants to wear the fetters, ah wear the fetters?)


There is no direct or indirect contemporary reference, however, to the events of 1857 revolt in the plays that were being staged at Jorasanko or Belgachia garden, Kali Prasanna Sinha’s adaptation of Vikram-Urvasi (stage 1857), Savitri-Satyavan (staged 1858, the year when Kulin-Kula Sarvasva was also on the boards) and Ram Narayan’s Ratnavali (staged at Belgachia garden on July 31, 1858) bore no trace of it. And we have to remember that both prose and poetry were aglow with direct references to the Nil Vidroha, which came to a head after 1859.


The 1857 revolt was suppressed; and urged by its own creative aspirations Bengali literature took gigantic strides in the post-rebellion years. It had no time as yet to look back to re-examine that phenomenon.




All the humanism and patriotism of the intelligentsia found a ready outlet in the Nil Vidroha. Moreover it was a revolt and not a revolution, for which they were not prepared. For humanity was not an empty term with the generation of Vidyasagar; and the European planters with the British government ranged behind them, brought ruin to men like Harish Chandra Mukherji and imprisonment to a European missionary like Rev. J. Long (for publishing the English version of the drama Nil-Darpan as we shall see). But even the indigo revolt did not absorb all the energy and literary emotion that had been unleashed. Let us recall the outstanding achievements of Bengali literature in 1859-1862, when the literary renaissance, along with the reform movement led by young Keshab Chandra Sen (1828-1844), came to flower.


The Belgachia patrons of the stage first requisitioned (1858) the service of Michael Madhusudan Dutt for an English translation of the drama Ratnavali that they were staging (July, 1858), and then Madhusudan undertook to write for them original dramas in Bengali. So Madhusudan turned to Bengali literature. The miracle happened and dramas, farces, epics and lyrics poured forth almost simultaneously, and all in full blaze of colour and life. Sarmistha was the first to see the light (January 1858) and to be staged (September 1859) even as the first blank verse (Canto I. Tilottama-Sambha Kavya) was being written and presented (July-August 1859, in the pages of Rajendra Lal Mitra’s Vividartha-Sangraha) to the wondering readers. The tragedy Padmavati (1860) was produced when Meghnadvad Kavya, (1861), Brajangana Kavya (1860-61), and Virangana Kavya (1862) took the world by storm.


The poet was drunk with the grand themes of classical times. In typical renaissance spirit Madhusudan, however, produced also two social farces. Ekei ki Bale Sobhyata? (Is this civilization?) in 1860 satirised his own fellow-spirits, the English-educated Bengalis, for their loose morals and drunkenness. Buro Saliker Ghare Rom (1860) satirized with equal sharpness the older generation of Bengal for their profligacy and hypocrisy.


It is impossible, however, to read any political implications in any of his works. The great epic Meghnadvad Kavya (1861) may be interpreted in a way to uphold a rebel or an invaded ruler (Ravana and his brave son) as the hero. But even in that case it reflected, first Madhusudan’s own revolt against feudalism i.e. the accepted gods and codes of Hinduism, and, secondly, the influence of Milton who unconsciously had made out of Satan (Paradise Lost) a defeated Cromwellian hero.


Madhusudan’s own eagle flight was, however, of very short duration (1859-62). He wrote little after 1862, except for the sonnets, Chaturdas-padi Kavitavali, (1866), in which he spoke in faultless pathos of his personal hopes, faith and despair.


Madhusudan was proud and must have felt awkward when he saw the Rev. J. Long being fined and imprisoned for publishing the English translation of Nil-Darpan (The Indigo Plantation Mirror) that Madhusudan was commissioned to do anonymously (under the signature, “A Native”).


It has to be remembered that, even the original drama, the epoch-making Nil-Darpan had to be published anonymously at first from Dacca in 1860. The dramatist Dinabandhu Mitra had to describe himself there as Kenachit Pathikena. (Wayfarer). Long’s prosecution showed forcibly that the liberal intelligentsia was far from being free to express itself on the question of the indigo trouble, not to speak of the 1857 revolt. It can be surmised then that if any contemporary writer had any sympathy for the sepoys, certainly he could speak his mind only to court disaster. He had to take recourse, therefore, to innuendoes for the purpose.


One or two such guarded hints of latter days, the late sixties of the 19th century, may be traced. Some of these are in the early published comments (1868-1870) of Sisir Kumar Ghose of the Amrita Bazar Patrika (Bengali). The writer, frequently upheld (e.g., on May 28, 1868) the battles of 1857-58 as battles for liberation; objected (on March 3, 1870) in that connection to the word “mutiny”, and held that the battle failed in 1857-58 only because Indians lacked unity. Criticizing the colonial ruin of native industries, he referred to the desperation to which this would drive men like, for example, the “Sepoy Mutiny, which we do not approve.”


Another interesting reference is found in the Huttum Pynchar Naksa (1861-1864), (sketches by Huttum, the Owl). Huttum was no other than the same young radical Kali Prasanna Sinha mentioned before. He referred to the gathering of the Indian at Gopal Mullick’s garden under the leadership of Raja Radha Kanta Dev, after the suppression of the revolt to declare their loyalty to the Queen. In Huttum’s inimitable words they are suggested to have said “Mother, we are your Bengali sheep; we have no desire to be Americans,” i.e., to revolt and become free.


It is doubtful, however, if any Bengali of any position and education did have any unmixed sympathy with the 1857 rebels when the rising took place. As time passed it seemed that the “unmixed denouncement” of the “mutiny” was also becoming, about 1870, a thing of the past in the circle of Bengali educated classes. The Amrita Bazar Patrika was an example of it (1868). Nationalism was becoming the dominant note of our literature when Bankim Chandra Chattopadhay (1838-1894) appeared on the scene in 1865 with Durgesh Nandini (1865). It was the first historical romance in Bengali, if we leave out Bhudev Chandra Mukhopadhyay’s long story Anguri Binimay (1862).




A more self-composed era of creative assurance was now entered, and with the founding of Vanga-Darsan in 1872 (the year of the foundation of the National Theatre and the first public stage) Bankim undertook the task of formulating the philosophy of Bengali nationalism. The word “national” had the highest premium now (about 1870) and Naba Gopal Mitra, who was the chief spirit behind the Jatiya Mela (1867) movement, came to be known as “national” Nabagopal. Brahmo liberalism and the reform movement of Sri Keshab Chandra Sen and his companions was outwardly still dominant, but critical conservatism was organizing itself (under Bankim’s leadership) on the basis of national pride and “national” cultural, to be revitalized with the science and rational thought of the West. (and showed.) British rule was also revealing itself about the time as imperialism in India; and trust in its progressive role diminished day after day. Lord Lytton’s repressive policy (1876-80) further helped the process of Indian disillusionment.


The liberals organised a new political institution (Indian Association, 1875) and Surendra Nath Banerji ran campaigns (1877-78) throughout northern India. Literature between the years 1865 and 1885 (1882 was the year of the publication of Bankim’s Ananda Math, and politically the year of the Ilbert Bill Agitation) was in full flower.


Poets and novelists and essayists had all found their own. They took up the challenge on their plane. There were scores of them; and almost all took up from the pre-British historical or Hindu Puranic sources the invader invaded situation or the oppressor-oppressed relation as their theme, and projected their own ideas and emotions against foreign domination of India. Literature was on the side of nationalism and freedom. The veil was at times was seen through as in the case of Bankim’s Ananda Math and Hemchandra Banyopadhyay’s (1838-1903) Bharat Sangit (1870), a stirring call to freedom. A similar call by Mohanlal in Babin Chandra Sen’s Palasir Yuddha (1875), however, escaped bureaucratic displeasure.


The 1857 rebellion came to be regarded as a patriotic struggle of valiant men led by valiant leaders, like Rani Laxmi Bai, Kunwar singh, Tatya Tope etc. of course, it was judged futile but then it was thought that it had been “betrayed” y the Indian feudal princes and Indian mercenaries in British services. Rajani Kanta Gupta’s first volume of the monumental work Sipahi Yuddher Itihas, (History of the SEpoy War) was published in 1876. It was necessarily limited to the British sources and guarded in its views. But the Itihas is unmistakable in its purpose. Hindu nationalism was a new force, and it did not consider the religious fear and fanaticism of the sepoys of 1857 harmful and distasteful as the contemporary Hindu (and Barhmo) liberals (1857-1861) had found them. Young Rabindra Nath Tagore, a lad of seventeen then, wrote in the pages of Bharati (1878) in open admiration of the heroes of the sepoy war even though their efforts were ‘useless” (ayatha), and upheld in particular Rani Laxmi Bai, Tatya Tope and old Kunwar Singh, as examples of heroic courage and patriotism, national heroes whom the British historians had sedulously blackened with their brush. He however, was not a Hindu revivalist as such. In 1898 Rabindra Nath in his short story Durasa (Disenchantment) tried in his masterly way to puncture this Hindu revivalism had no halo for the son of Devendra Nath Tagore and admirer of Raj Narain Bose.


So we may presume a gradual change in the climate of opinion (1864-85). Let s also realize in this connection the psycho-aesthetic twists and devices by which social reality is transformed, consciously and unconsciously, in the process of artistic creation. It would be permissible then to presume that the 1857 revolt might have had its influence on Ananda Math (1882) of Bankim Chandra, the evident subject matter of which was the Sannyasi rebellion of 1778-79. It breathed though Virbahu Vadh Kavya (1864) and Vitra-Samhar Kavya (1875-77), Bharat Sangit (1870) and other poems of Hemchandra.


It will be an unwarranted generalisation, however, to hold that any of the Bengali writers unequivocally supported or condemned the revolt of 1857-58 even in these later times. Contradiction was almost inherent in the mental make-up of the colonial middle classes and of their writers and thinkers. Those, for example, who were bitterly anti-feudal were mildly anti-imperialist, and those who were definitely anti-imperialist upheld, out of a false sense of nationalism, at times feudal ideology and institutions. A few of the liberals sought to strike a balance. With all our writers, however, Hindu or Brahmo, the democratic content remained weak.


A third fact remains certain that the contemporaries did not develop any love for the 1857 revolt even in later times. Pandit Shivnath Sastri described it in balanced terms in his account of Ram Tanu Lahiri and his times (1904); but he discreetly evaded this in his autobiography (1918). Raj Narain Bose, writing his autobiography about 1888, gave a picture of Bengali panic and suspicion of the sepoys which showed how alien they were to the Bengalis. Devendra Nath Tagore in his autobiography (written 1895), published 1899, studiously avoided politics and narrated his experience of the rising in the Simla hills. Panic and fright, he found, had completely unnerved the European all around. At least, the “mutiny” had proved that all Europeans were not heroes born to rule, and its suppression showed that sanity and justice were not to be expected from the British ruling class. Literature began to draw on that feeling more and more in the closing decades of the 19th century.


(From Rebellion 1857 – A Symposium, Edited by P C Joshi,  National Book Trust 2007 reprint; First published in 1957)