In the nineteenth century, Bengal witnessed an extraordinary intellectual flowering. Bengali prose emerged, and with it the novel and modern blank verse; old arguments about religion, society, and the lives of women were overturned; great schools and colleges were created; new ideas surfaced in science. And all these changes were led by a handful of remarkable men and women. For the first time comes a gripping narrative about the Bengal Renaissance recounted through the lives of all its players from Ramous Roy to Rabindranath Tagore. Immaculately researched, told with colour, drama, and passion, Awakening is a stunning achievement.
In THE SUMMER of 1912 the Irish poet W.B. Yeats was handed a manuscript of poems by his friend William Rothenstein, an English artist. The poems were English translations of Bengali originals written by another of Rothenstein's friends, the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore.
At a party held that same summer in Rothenstein's London home, Yeats gave a reading from the manuscript to a gathering of friends. They decided to publish a selection of the poems. In autumn, a slender volume titled Gitanjali (Song-Offerings) was printed privately, in limited edition, by the India Society, an organization formed two years before in London to promote the study of Indian art, literature, music, and culture. The volume, edited by Yeats, included an introduction by him.
The next year, 1913, the British publishing house of Macmillan issued a 'trade' edition of Gitanjali, and in November, Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for this collection. Thus came to pass a very public and symbolic climax to the phenomenon known as the Bengal Renaissance: a fitting way to celebrate and recognize this phenomenon by bestowing a glittering prize on the person who was its very epitome.
FOR MOST PEOPLE, the mention of the word renaissance conjures up visions of the Italy of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It takes them to that land's fabled towns and city republics, and makes them think of popes and princes, kings and cardinals, merchants and bankers. They might even sense, uneasily, shadowy images of blood and gore, war and assassinations, intrigue and murder-for that Italy was a violent land. Above all else, though, the word renaissance is linked irrevocably with the creative spirit in its most profuse richness and diversity.
Was the Bengal Renaissance anything like the Italian one? Many eminent Indian (and some Western) thinkers have pondered and debated this question. But really, the answer does not matter. What matters is that there came into being in Bengal, beginning sometime in the waning years of the eighteenth century and flowering to fullness through the nineteenth century, an awakening of the Indian mind of such a nature that we can call it a revolution. The 'Bengal Renaissance' was the name given to this revolutionary awakening of the Indian mind.
This book tells a story of this awakening.
The drama tis personae were not all Bengalis or even all Indians but they were all cfBengal. Some were concerned with the discovery of the Indian past. Some invented prose as a literary style in the Bengali language, and some new forms of poetry and story telling. Some were religious reformers, and some social reformers. Some created new modes of education. Some fought on behalf of women's rights and against injustice to women. Some argued for a more humanistic, secular, and rational society. Some created a scientific ethos for the country. And some stirred within their fellow countrymen a new nationalist consciousness.
But what connected them all was that they shared in the creation and formation, in one way or another, of a mentality which straddled two cultures, Western and Indian. This cross- cultural mentality, let us call it the Indo- Western mind, was the ultimate and supreme product of the Bengal Renaissance. Yet this mentality was as much the means to that awakening as its product. This is why the story told here turns its gaze again and again to the West. Without the West this awakening would not have happened. Without the West there would not have been a Bengal Renaissance.
OUR STORY BEGINS in the last quarter of the eighteenth century with Warren Hastings, India's first governor-general, a hard- headed empire builder, yet a man of cultivation and sensibility who wished to know the languages and culture of the people he ruled. Following him came a band of earnest men from the British Isles led by William Jones and Henry Colebrooke, scholars extraordinaire, who dug into the Indian past with missionary passion, a passion shared by some who really were missionaries, of whom the most notable was the indefatigable William Carey, an Englishman who pioneered the writing of Bengali prose.
There was the enigmatic and contradictory Rammohun Roy, a veritable Renaissance Man who (amongst other things) invented a reformed, almost Protestant Hindu church and, asa result, was detested by his conservative compatriots; and his friend David Hare, a liberal, enlightened Scot who conjured up the idea of a college where the youth of Bengal could be taught Western thought. There was the astonishingly precocious Henry Louis Vivian Derozio of Portuguese descent, English in taste but Indian bred, who appeared briefly and brilliantly, like a meteor in the sky, just long enough to initiate a new Indian literary tradition and goad pupils scarcely younger than him to question the very foundations of their Hindu manners and mores.
We come upon a woman named Rassundari Devi who taught herself to read and write in the teeth of hostility against female literacy so that she could read the scriptures for herself, and then went on to write an autobiography and create a literary genre virtually unknown in her country. We encounter another woman, Toru Dutt, who like Derozio died brutally young yet lived long enough to write poems and novels in English and French when few Indian women could read at all; and a spirited woman named Haimabati, a child widow at ten who battled for her independence and identity and became a 'lady doctor'.
Then there was an Englishman named Thomas Babington Macaulay who set Indians' teeth on edge with his sneers at all things Indian but who, all the same, wrote a document that played a seminal role in the Indian awakening. And the tempestuous Madhusudan Datta who defied convention, became Christian, turned his back on his Bengalihood, then returned to it and created new forms of Bengali verse on European lines. And his benefactor, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, scholar, humanist, social and educational reformist, feminist, head of a college created for traditional Sanskrit learning who, inspired by European Enlightenment thought, ushered in humanism and secularism through the portals of his college and caused consternation amongst the orthodoxy.
We come across a physician named Mahendralal Sircar, a visionary who dreamt of a scientific India and converted his dream into reality; and his friend Eugene Lafont, a Belgian priest who in a Jesuit school in Calcutta made science a living subject for his wards. We will find in our story the redoubtable Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Bengal's first man of letters, a civil servant in the service of the Raj, creator of the novel in Indian literature, and composer of a song that became a national hymn. There was Father Lafont's one- time pupil Jagadish Chandra Bose and his contemporary and friend Prafulla Chandra Ray, two lonely workers in laughably primitive laboratories who rose to be the frontiersmen of modem science in India and who silenced the voice of Western disbelief that Indians had the capacity to think scientific thought.
A barely literate mystic, Ramakrishna's homespun Hindu philosophy inspired an intellectual named Narendranath Dutta to metamorphose into a monk called Vivekananda who preached at home and abroad a new form ofVedantism, who in turn inspired an Irish woman, Margaret Noble to adopt his faith and become a Hindu nun named Nivedita.
And finally, we come upon the impossibly gifted Ra\)mdranath, poet, songster, dramatist, story teller, philosopher, and educationist, the most brilliant of a bountifully endowed family of siblings, spouses, and friends, the Tagores of Jorasanko, who wove together a milieu of art and music and literature.
These were the foremost dramatis personae of this story though there were others, as we shall see, who flitted in and out.
Finally, the Bengal of this Renaissance did not only mean Calcutta, just as the Italy of that Renaissance did not only mean Florence. Yet we must look to Calcutta (now Kolkata), that much-maligned, chaotic, exhausted, yet irrepressible and effervescent city, for it was the locus classicus of this awakening just as Florence was the cradle of that other renaissance. Calcutta spawned institutions-the Asiatic Society, the College of Fort William, Sanskrit College, Hindu College, Calcutta Medical College, the University of Calcutta, Bethune School, amongst others-which were inextricably entwined in the unfolding of the Bengal Renaissance. With that let the story begin.
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