Bankimchandra and Bangadarshan – Looking Into the Future of Bengali Language

Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay was already an established novelist and a well-entrenched bureaucrat under the British rule when he decided around the 1870’s to edit a Bengali literary magazine called Bangadarshan. The idea behind this was to expand the reach of the Bengali literature among a wider segment of the population, who were ever so beyond its pale. Modern Bengali prose had to struggle against Sanskrit on the one hand and the Persian on the other and raise its bar to the level of English literature to command a perspective of the world that could be said to be visionary. Yet, Bengali literature could not be only a rehash to English works translated into vernacular; while it had to absorb the stature of the English thoughts and feelings, it had to find its own identity in a life that was entirely its own. The Bengali novel’s and that of the Bengali culture in general was to be able to provide to the Bengali, a sense of a future.

Bankimchandra was quick to realise that the shortcomings of this culture were in the class that produced it; yes, Bengali literature was produced and even consumed by an elite class, sociologically, economically, and intellectually so distinct from the populace that its ethos were nearly alien. Bengal, being largely rural and tribal, its culture was limited territorially, confined geographically and often constrained by the lack of any shred of higher thought. Not unlikely thus, it was limited in its syntax and vocabulary, in its concepts and ideas and often veered towards the poverty of taste. This world of the low brow needed to be penetrated by the high culture. Bangadarshan was founded upon this mission.

There were two motives for such an effort; one was commercial, and which was to increase circulation of Bengali literary works and make the businesses of printing and publishing more economically viable and the other was ideological, to raise tastes and levels of culture so that the small section of the Bengali elite could expand and acquire significant numbers and density. The tendency of authors in those days and as always was to lower their standards of writing to appeal to the popular tastes. Bankim was against this and said that while the language could be more lucid, there could be no compromise with the complexity of thought. The people had to be teased out of their moorings and tempted towards the high culture. Language had two components, the grammar, and the dictionary on the one hand and the thoughts it carried on the other. Since Bengali was a little too hard for the people beyond the elite circles to follow, he suggested that let the populace be taught to read Hindi and Hindi could carry the ethos of the Bengali high culture. Hindi was closer to the language that most of the rural folk understood and the kind of literature that Hindi carried was often closer to the jatras, songs and other folklore of Bengal. In other words, the Bengali written by the bhadralok was farther removed from the spoken vernacular of Bengal than Hindi was. The idea of propagating Hindi was to develop the language as a lesser vehicle than Bengali to carry thoughts and ideas generated by the highbrow Bengali writers to the people.

Bankimchandra despised Vidyasagar, fearing him as a Sanskrit scholar, who he felt would pull Bengali towards Sanskrit and hence render the language obsolete and deprived of freshness that it had only begun to acquire. It seems that Bengali was taught along with Arabic and Persian in the royal schools which the elite could attend in pre British Bengal while the ordinary Bengali was left with reading some obscurities in Sanskrit only. To free Bengali of Sanskrit meant to free Bengali from hoary thoughts. For a long time he thought that Vidyasagar was trying to revive Sanskrit and hated him. Anyway, a few decades down the line, the ideas of Bangadarshan were taken seriously by the Hindi elites and there began a hectic translation of the novels of Bankim Chandra, Sarat Chandra and Rabindranath Tagore. The trend continues till date with authors like Premendra Mitra, Narendranath Mitra, Bonophool, Kamal Kumar Majumdar, Sunil Gangopadhyay and even Shirsendu Mukherjee to mention only the major ones translated exhaustively into Hindi. Presently Bengali OTT films and television serials and stories of Bani Basu, Smaranjit Chaudhuri and Suchitra Bhattacharya are more easily available to the Hindi readers than they are to the Bengalis because the translations are found online. The height was when I searched the Internet for Ramcharitam by Sandhakar Nandi, I found his works in Hindi but not in Bengali. It is seen to be believed how much of Hindi readership and viewership constitutes translations of Bengali literature.

It is not only the cultural legatees of Bankimchandra and Bangadarshan that the Hindi litterateurs frantically translated Bengali works but eminent novelists like Saradindu Bandopadhyay, Premendranath Mitra, Narendranath Mitra and others enthusiastically contributed towards film scripts those which were made from Bengali novels, especially those of Tarashankar, Saratchandra and Bimal Roy. Besides the novels, ethos of Bengali literature heavily dominated the Hindi film world through the presence of Bengali film directors, music composers and even producers like New Theatres. What I want to insist is that Bengalization of Hindi is not fortuitous, it is deliberate. The rise of Chhayavad is largely an urbanization of the discourses to make space for the emotions and angst of a rising professional middle class among the Hindi speaking persons.

Chhayavad was a movement of the 1930’s, a time when Bengali literature was in its Kallol period. It was also at a time when the Bengali middle class seems to have wholly come into existence. Unfortunately for us, the orientation of Bengali literature changed from its search of larger principles of history and civilization towards the narrow focus of poverty, defeat and emotional non fulfilment. The Bengali literature started looking trapped, cornered and as that culture that failed to make it big, somehow hanging on to the fringes. Bengalis indulged in politics of complaints and agonies, dissatisfied with life and yet bereft of energy to initiate change, the Bengalis along with their language became parochial and inward looking and eventually opted out of its own future. Having fewer inspirations to draw from, Hindi literature struggled for a while, sank into writing for the cinema and eventually also dropped off largely from literature into the new millennium, making Hindi into a vehicle for nonfiction, as in textbooks, news stories, commentaries and so on. The development of Hindi thus moved towards politics and the market where a large Hindi reading, if not speaking people abound. It lost in terms of literature but flowered into a vehicle for expressing political concerns. For the Bengalis, its literature still exists but as that inward looking, narcissistic self-pity, losing its universal appeal, no longer being able to inspire people who speak other languages. Like the Bengali, the language too has degenerated for the want of a wider perspective and this is because of the changing nature of the Bengalis.

In other words, we may say that the Bengali culture has lost its universalism and instead sinks into parochialism because the Bengali has degenerated from being a universal entity into a regional entity only. This is because the “Bengali” of today is represented by a lower middle class who lives off employment but is not an employer herself. Driven by democratic politics as everywhere else in the world, the Bengali is perhaps the first one to fall into the trap of the politics in which political equality promised by democracy is used to crush inequalities either through inherited legacy or through unusual talents. Such politics finally saps the creative juices of the society, making everyone as ineffective as the envious failures useless for deployment for social growth or productivity. This politics in defence of social failures have cursed the Bengali language as one that is used for the representation of angst, despair and in general, of failure of human agency and endeavours. That is why, to return to life, Bengalis those who wish to rise above this trap of sourness and cynicism are looking towards other languages with enthusiasm. After all, a language is what it communicates; if it communicates an expansive vision of the world, it will be sought after. But if it only braces the failures, it can just as well disappear. The world never remembers those who choose to drop off.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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