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Fantasy Fictions from the Bengal Renaissance

Fantasy Fictions from the Bengal Renaissance
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Item Code: NAQ382
Author: Sanjay Sircar
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2018
ISBN: 9780199486755
Pages: 371
Other Details: 8.50 X 5.50 inch
weight of the book: 0.4 kg

It gives me great pleasure to write a foreword to this translation of a doublet of classic fantasy fictions for children from Bengal. The study of 'texts for children' - children's literature - is now firmly established internationally as a core area of literary and cultural studies, and central to its importance is the idea that childhood crosses cultures. Children's literature is a worldwide phenomenon, celebrated and explored by international organizations, such as the International Board on Books for the Young (IBBY) and the academic International Research Society for Children's Literature (IRSCL). The study of children's literature has to account for very different concepts of childhood over time and space, and its materials can, indeed must, be drawn from the whole world, and not simply the centres of literary power and validation. Children's literature has an affinity with traditional tales and other material, likewise removed from what could be thought of as mainstream 'high' culture - there is a strong link between the culture of childhood and the childhood of culture - and the patterns of transmission of such traditional material differ from country to country. Consequently, there is both an academic and popular appetite in the West for texts that reveal the 'other' - texts for or associated with children, which enhance or challenge the traditional hegemonies of literature.

'Comparative literature' -is one of the flagship contemporary academic disciplines; the texts presented here, relatively unknown even in their larger national cultural context and revelatory in the wider world context, are exactly suited to satisfy that appetite for cross-disciplinary, international, innovative, and non-'mainstream' materials. The difficulty for 'comparative literature' departments has always been to find scholars sufficiently qualified - multilingual, with deep insights into different cultures. Sanjay Sircar is a rare example of a scholar in this field outside India who can genuinely examine and link very disparate cultures - in these cases, moving between the international Anglophone and the Bengali worlds. In the context of an increasing international interest in the relationship between hitherto 'marginalized' literatures, his expertise is invaluable - as is demonstrated in these texts. Like many pioneering and innovative scholars (his peers might include Hugh Crago in Australia, Emer O'Sullivan in Germany, and Jack Zipes in the United States of America), he has often worked outside conventional academic institutions. He has been a pioneer of serious studies of children's literature from the 1970s, is known as such, and his seminal papers are not infrequently cited. His skills are demonstrated clearly in the elegance of the translations that he presents and the remarkable range of scholarship shown in his introductions. Sircar wears his erudition lightly - his introductions, notes, and appendices contain much fascinating material that will be of interest to a very wide non-specialist and specialist audience, whether in India or the West generally, and his own style is accessible and readable.

The translation of both these books is timely: children's texts, along with folklore and fairy tales, are increasingly being published in annotated editions for a dual (although primarily adult) audience. The record of Anglophone countries for translating into English is lamentable, despite the lip service paid to 'multiculturalism' (fewer than 3 per cent of texts for children in English are translations).

Sircar has not only worked with powerful texts, and provided much useful context for them; but his efforts have been directed towards scrupulously accurate translation into English which conveys a non-Western cultural and linguistic flavour, but which is clearly understandable. The addition of chapter titles and other quiet instances of translator's tact strike me as enhancing ease of reading, and smoothing our path through the unfamiliar.

I speak as an academic from the West. However, these translations are for a multiple audience - for non-Bengalis in the rest of South Asia, and for a range of readers anywhere English is understood - scholars, librarians, teachers, and cultural historians. Through them, these remarkable texts can be passed on to children across the world. The critical apparatus can be totally disregarded if a child-audience is uninterested, dipped into if they are interested, or relished by adult readers. The unfamiliar texture of the 'voice' may be precisely what immerses the reader; like food, literature has its own distinctive flavours - and literature, like food, is becoming increasingly universal.

A highly unusual feature of both texts is their use of the work of Lewis Carroll, in the climax of The Make-Believe Prince (Kheerer Putul), and more diffusely through Toddy-Cat the Bold (Bhondar Bahadur), which will be of particular interest to Western and Indian readers, to those who look primarily to the present, and those who set that present in a wider context. Scholarly societies such as the Children's Books History Society (CBHS) are particularly interested in the heritage bequeathed by the past, both the widely and the less well known. For all these readers, both texts presented here bring together what a colonial Indian past took from the British and transformed into something entirely its own, drawing upon its own cultural traditions. This interaction is an area ripe for research, and these texts, contextualized with the quiet meticulousness and detail for which Sircar is known, demonstrate what can be done. These two narratives here are challenging and paradoxical: they are, at the same time, deeply traditional, and cutting edge. They are rooted in the folk tale and traditional material from both high and rural culture, and they have been treated to the most rigorous academic attention.

For adult readers, some of the interest of this stimulating translation of The Make-Believe Prince lies in the tale's connection to the universal myth-kitty: it can be classified as a highly reworked Kunstmaerchen version of a Bengal form of the Indic Aarne- Thompson folktale type AT 459, in turn related to a 'women's folk myth.


The Period

South Asia has as many cultural histories as it has languages, probably more, given the multiplicity of other factors relevant to these histories - political events, religion, community, caste, class, ethnicity, economic position, rural/urban location, gender, and age. One linguistic area (Bengal), one period there (the Bengal Renaissance), and one Little Tradition (recreational texts for children) which emerged late in that period, concern us here.

While trying not to sound like a British-period school textbook tom-tomming the benefits of the Empire, it does seem to be the case that after 1765, when the East India Company took over control of large portions of Eastern India from the Moghul Emperor Shah Alam, commerce flourished in urban Bengal, and systems of trans- port and communication were set up, as were a civil administration, a modern bureaucracy, a police service, a new legal system - and institutions of learning

. The 'Bengal Renaissance' is the term given to the nineteenth century period in Bengal, one said to have made the transition from medieval to modern, one of intense intellectual arousal; technological advancement; social, cultural, and political change; involving the work of reformers, scholars, learned societies, litterateurs, journal- ists, political orators, and scientists. As a result of various, sometimes quite disparate, strands of British-Indian interaction throughout the nineteenth century, metropolitan Calcutta at least seems to have undergone a multifaceted socio-cultural transformation. As a balance to claims for British influence as the only source of positive The relatively free translations of Bengali folk nursery-rhymes here first appeared in a more literal form and with a commentary in my 'An Annotated Chhara-Punthi: Eighteen Nursery Rhymes from Bengal', in Asian Folklore Studies. Japan: University of Nagoya, 56: 1, 1997,79-108. change are those that Bengal. on the periphery of the Moghul Empire, was always relatively more free of its domination that those portions closer to Delhi, that caste bigotry played less of a role in Bengal than elsewhere, that Bengal had a history of heterodox religious movements and of trade, and so on. We may set aside the problems of the Eurocentric term 'Renaissance' and what it takes for granted, and of whether we should settle instead for the Bengali Nabajagaran, 'New Awakening.

This sociocultural transformation was primarily, if not exclusively the domain of a socially privileged segment of Bengali society, colectively known as the bhadralok (loosely, 'gentlepeople'). This group newly settled in Calcutta, was in British government or commercial employment in clerical and subordinate roles, and often dre' income from rents from lands in the countryside. On the whole this section of society was aware of political and cultural trends in Europe, and conscious of its own position in a larger world and of what its own future might and should be. It was (and its successors still are) proud of its own rediscovered ancient Hindu heritage, and of aware of what were often presented as negative accretions to the heritage. It had to hand the rediscoveries by the scholars known as the British Orientalists (with whom are associated the institution of Fort William College, Calcutta, established in 1800, and the Roy Asiatic Society of Bengal). These scholars largely focussed on a Indian pre-medieval and thus pre-Muslim classical era, hailed as a Indian (Hindu) golden age on par with European antiquity. Also' hand, separately, was a conveniently available Protestant missionary image of the European medieval Roman Catholic Dark Ages, read made to parallel a corresponding South Asian one and serve similar purposes. (The early English evangelicals themselves and the successors were also a set of sitting ducks for a not-very-bhadra not-so-polite - virulently anti-Christian hatred, then and now.)

Hence, moves were made towards religious and social reform, ' address Brahmanical authority, caste divisions, Hindu dietary law idol worship, the status of women, widow burning, the prohibitic of widow remarriage (now said to be allowed by scripture), the cri pling dowry system, and other constraining practices. There we: broader movements towards a world view based on new occident models which took account of humanism, rationalism, a secular. view of the possibility of universal progress and human perfectibility, a new awareness of a historical dimension to existence, and of the possibilities of the fruitful results of empirical inquiry in all fields, which brought about advances in science and technology. There emerged, too, an awareness of a South Asian Selfhood constructed in contrast to that of a Western Other, an increasing ability to turn a critical eye on both that oriental self, its past and emerging future, and those of the occidental other, and ultimately the rise of a political nationalism at least in part inspired by Western political thought.

Of course, life was not like that, not quite as rosy-hued. There were always competing views about how far the disruptions of medieval Muslim invasions (and contemporaneous Muslims as an internal Other) were being deployed as a useful, powerful myth to divide and rule; about the extent to which that glorious classical past had benefitted all of its people; about whether it was now irretrievably ossified - and if not, which parts of any revitalization and revival were to come from within and which from without and why; about what was 'the best' of an ancient native past to be reclaimed and revived and what was 'the best' of a European- influenced present to be adopted and adapted; and about the relative value, relevance, and utility of ancient native and modern foreign learning and world views. A creative synthesis of Western rationalism and ancient South Asian cultural treasure is no easy thing to achieve. Political relations of occupied peoples with an occupier are never unstrained, never unvexed are the matters of who decides, for whom, and on what grounds; and it is impossible to ignore doubts about how far the claims of a modern 'progressive' education for uplift masked its function as a covert means of control through the formation of a subordinate clerical class to serve dominant interests. There were inevitable psychological and political tensions and conflicts in this encounter of cultures, one politically dominant, one subordinated.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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