Premendranath Mitra is a popular novelist, poet, film script writer and director and is considered as a doyen, among others, of the Kallol movement. He can be credited with nearly a hundred composition in terms of novels, short stories, and poetry and film scripts. He wrote realistically for the adult, despairingly for the romantic and hilariously for children. He is the author of the famous series on Ghanada, Mamababu and Mejokarta. While Ghanada stories are about Ghanada, a character who has either a vast experience of life or a hyperactive imagination, Mamababu studied to be a mining engineer after retirement and Mejokarta is a ghost buster. Premendra Mitra exhausts the genres of adventure, action, detection, mystery, fantasy and the unusual. It may easily be seen that many of the later creations like Tenida, Shankar and even Prof Shonku and Feluda bear shades of the characters created by Premendra Mitra. In fact, there is a novel around Pataldanga which becomes the famous locality in the Tenida stories in Narayan Gangopadhyay and indeed among Ghanada’s cohorts, there is also a character called Tenda. Shibram Chakaroborty was one of the members of the “inner circle” around who Ghanada stories were written. Bonophool uses the compactness of Premendra Mitra’s short stories to create his stories really short. Many of Satyajit Ray’s stories of the unusual show signs of heavy borrowing from Premendra Mitra. Ray’s film, Mahanagar is based out of a novel by the famous author and so is Mrinal Sen’s film Khandar based on a Premendra Mitra novel.
Through his short stories, Premendra Mitra explores the various possibilities that human subconscious brings forth, while through his novels, he explores the dynamics that are all set to change the essence of the family and human relations but it is through his children’s writings that he explores the wonder world of ants, of mad scientists and the vast world of the Andes and the Bororo tribes, the Sakhalin island off Siberia which can be crossed with a dog sledge in winters when the waters of the ocean freeze, making his readers travel vicariously all over the world. Premendra Mitra perhaps led the trend of Bengali writers taking their characters around the world through immaculate details of valleys and forests, sea and the mountains, ice and the desert and to strange humans and stranger animals. In order to be able to contextualize Premendra Mitra, we must look at the Kallol movement in greater detail.
The Kallol movement started in 1921 as a club formed by four young persons namely Gokulchandra Nag, Dineshranjan Das, Sunita Debi and Manindralal Basu. This was an adda club which also had its own magazine, by the name of Kallol, after which the movement is named. The aim of the movement was to cultivate the four arts, namely the novel, poetry, drama and crafts, the four pillars that still constitute the so called “aantel bangali” consciousness. The Kallol movement was supposedly to be a movement of the youth and in an enthusiasm to establish themselves they critiqued the Bengal Renaissance doyens like Rabindranath Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Iswar gupta and even Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, who wrote about the marginalized people of the periphery was also not a part of the Kallol movement. The movement critiqued the universal humanism of the classical writers; they were more interested in humans as ones who engaged in their everyday lives, struggling to keep up with the trials and tribulations of having to eke out an existence, not in the harsh geography of Tara Shankar or Bibhutibhushan, but in the city, negotiating through modern trade and industry, bargaining their way out with other human beings.
The characters and concerns of the Kallol writers were placed within the social labyrinth and not merely into their social statuses. The Kallol movement was born when a traditional society was modernizing and when new institutions, new organizations and new levels of endeavours were required of human agencies. The Kallol characters were socially constrained, economically strained and were condemned to mundanity because the world had little respect for their spirits. Kallol was the self-discovery of the Bengali middle class as a class in itself. The guiding philosophers for the Kallol were Freud and Marx, both of who spoke about relations as guiding the private and the public life of individuals rather than as humans in the cosmos. The flavor of their writings and works was realism and even postmodern because they placed the individual not merely as a spirit of the cosmos but as one who is constituted and constrained by her material conditions of existence. Borrowing heavily from modern Europe, Kallol writers in fact seem to have moved beyond them in privileging self-doubt and character inconsistency in their writings.
The movement had diverse personalities like Kazi Nazrul Islam, Achintya Kumar Sengupta, Jibananda Das and Buddhadeb Bose, and later Amiya Chakravarty. These writers were significantly different from one another and yet shared a common bond; that bond was to castigate Rabindranath Tagore. In Shesher Kobita, Tagore writes his own criticism through the character of the poet, Nibaran Chakravarty to show that Kallol’s principle reason for existence was to attack Tagore. This could have been a generation war but also a class war, the latter being more likely to be the case.
Given this backdrop, how do we place Premendra Mitra in this? We observe that he was born in 1904, Varanasi, a city in which his father was posted as an employee of the the Indian Railways. Premendra Mitra graduated from Calcutta University, worked as a research assistant to Prof Dinesh Chandra Sen for his enormous research on Bengali folk and Sanskrit texts and finally went on to study agriculture in Santiniketan. Each of the subjects he chooses is reflected in his diverse intellectual quest. He then writes novels and poetry and eventually spreads his scientific quest while writing for children. Premendra Mitra also directs films and writes scripts, as part of the crafts. In the last, namely in writing for the cinema, he seems to spearhead a trend which later writers like Saradindu Bandopadhyay and Ashutosh Mukhopadhyay followed and in fact, Aurobindo Mukherjee was the brother of the post Kallol writer, Bonophool.
Cinema is not an innocent medium, for across the world, the medium has been used by the rising middle class to proffer its specific class concerns as cultural universals. Premendra Mitra’s move towards the cinema represented the urge of the middle class to reach to the next level of media technology in order to universalize class principles. The cinema, in many ways can be said to be the culmination of the Kallol project because what was merely a matter of the urban middle class became raised into an overarching definition of what constituted the Bengali culture. Bengaliness, or Bangaliyana is still very much defined in the way Kallol defined it, leaving out the vast rural Bengal and even the pre modern Bengal out of its purview. Kallol does not merely end at defining Bengali culture but in fact makes culture as something to strive for. There are few communities in India apart from the Bengalis for who to be cultured is also a class statement and Kallol indeed made culture to be pursued in order to be counted among the elites.
Kallol was considered to be politically progressive and magazines like Uttara and Purbasha and Kalikolom, the last edited by Premendra Mitra followed suit. But Shanibarer Chithi, a journal started by Ashok Chattopadhyay opposed progressive thought by bringing in shades of conservatism into the urbane middle class Bengali readers.