SUBODHCHANDRA SENGUPTA (1903-98), scholar and critic, was Professor of English at Presidency College, Kolkata, Jabalpur University and Jadavpur University, besides doing short stints of teaching at St Stephen's College, Delhi, and Rajshahi College, now in Bangladesh. He is best known for his outstanding contributions to Shakespearean Criticism, studies in Indian aesthetics, monographs on major Bengali writers. and his doctoral work, The Art of Bernard Shaw. In his recollections of some of his teachers and contemporaries, including legendary figures like Manmohan Ghose, P C Ghosh, K C Mukherji, Srikumar Banerjee, Sunitikumar Chatterji, Gopinath Bhattacharya, Atulchandra Gupta, T N Sen and Pratulchandra Rakshit, he re-creates a piece of academic history against the setting of the colonial education system in its transition to its post-Independence continuity, with its ideals and contradictions. values and politics-with a whole host of personalities coming to life with all the richness of their qualities and foibles and idiosyncracies.
'The ghost of Subhas Chandra Bose, like Hamlet's father, walked the battlements of Red Fort, and his suddenly amplified figure overawed the conferences that were to lead to independence.' This is the last but one sentence in a book called India Wrests Freedom (1982) which was written, as its author says in its preface, as 'a counterblast to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad's ... India Wins Freedom.' It is also a powerful counterblast to many other works on our national movement which ignore the role of the armed revolutionaries and of Subhas Chandra Bose in the movement.
The author of this 332-page classic of the literature on our national struggle, Dr Subodhchandra Sengupta, an eminent professor of English, a Shakespearean scholar of international repute, a very distinguished writer on George Bernard Shaw, Rabindranath Tagore, Bankimchandra, Saratchandra, Michael Madhusudan, Dwijendralal and Parashuram, was awarded the Rs 10,000 Sarat Puraskar on 17 September 1984 for his outstanding contribution to Bengali literary criticism. At the age of eightytwo Dr Sengupta is now seeing the proofs of his large work on Swami Vivekananda. He has been able to do so much of work because he has never cared for anything more than a professorship which he held at Presidency College from 1929 to 1960 with but brief spells of transfer, in Jabalpur University from 1960 to 1962 and finally in Jadavpur University which conferred on him an honorary DLitt.
But when you meet this prince of scholars at his house in south Calcutta and find him intently gathering all that books can give him, he will receive you with a warmhearted smile and begin a pleasant conversation in which he will touch upon anything but his own work. He regales you with anecdotes you would love to remember and offer comments, often harsh but always good-humoured, on men and affairs, with something of the acuteness of mind with which he handles the characters of Shakespeare. As you listen to him you feel that here is a scholar who does not draw too sharp a line between the world of books and the human world in which he moves and breathes and this makes his writings as lively as his conversation.
Born on 27 June 1903 in a village in what was then known as East Bengal, Subodhchandra received excellent education in the local high school, his particular proficiency in English being largely due to his father Hemchandra's enthusiasm for the language. Entering Presidency College, Calcutta, in 1920, he had as his teachers great professors of English like Manmohan Ghose, PC Ghosh, J W Holme and Srikumar Banerjee. He fulfilled their high expectations about him by holding a top place at the intermediate arts examination and two years later standing first in the first class in his BA honours. He held the same position at Calcutta University's MA examination in English in 1927. In 1928 he obtained what was his university's blue ribbon for research, the Premchand Roychand Scholarship on the merit of a thesis on Shakespearean comedy which was examined by Professors P C Ghosh and J W Holme.
When Subodhchandra obtained his PhD in 1934, and it was then Calcutta University's highest degree, he had taught with distinction at Presidency College for about five years and his first Bengali work on Saratchandra was then four years old. The University appointed Allardyce Nicoll, then author of four large works on Restoration, eighteenth century and nineteenth century English drama, J W Cunliffe, well known for his Modern English Playwrights (1927) and G K Chesterton, whose work on Bernard Shaw had appeared in 1909, as examiners of Subodhchandra's thesis on the art of Bernard Shaw. The first two examiners recommended the thesis for the degree, Cunliffe remarking in his report that the candidate's command of English was incredible in one not born to the language. But G K C modestly declined the examinership pleading that he was no academic, perhaps due to G G Coulton's uncharitable remarks on his Short History of England. Not even Hilaire Belloc's defence of his learning-'Remote and ineffectual don /Who dares attack my Chesterton' –did encourage him to judge a doctoral thesis on a subject he had already handled in one of his popular books.
Chesterton, however, suggested to the university that L R F Oldershaw, the well known author of An Analysis of Mill's Principles of Political Economy (1915) be appointed in his place. Oldershaw was a conservative, as his edition of the Patriot Club papers as England: A Nation (1904) would show, and that he too expressed profound appreciation of a thesis on the art of a Fabian socialist speaks a great deal of the quality of the work. When the Oxford University Press published The Art of Bernard Shaw in 1936, it struck its many readers in India and abroad as a very perceptive work on a playwright who had mostly been exalted till then as a prophet in the habit of a clown.
But it is Shakespeare scholarship and Shakespeare criticism which soon became Dr Sengupta's forte. His 287-page Shakespearean Comedy published by the Oxford University Press in 1950 was esteemed as a 'pleasingly independent work' in Allardyce Nicoll's Shakespeare Survey 5. This work, more than any other on the subject, gives a straight answer to the question-what is distinctively Shakespearean in Shakespearean comedy. Dr Sengupta's next work on Shakespeare, The Whirligig of Time: The Problem of Duration in Shakespeare's Plays (1961) is a lucid treatment of a highly technical subject and answers many questions which are asked here for the first time. About his Shakespeare's Historical Plays, The Times Literary Supplement said that 'throughout this salutary book Professor Sengupta brings a sane understanding to problems which are, as he has seen, essentially dramatic rather than ideological.' The same sanity of understanding marks Dr Sengupta's Aspects of Shakespearean Tragedy (1972) and A Shakespeare Manual (1977), two precious works on the subject which offer original insights and yet are free from the inconsequential profundities which warp much of contemporary Shakespeare criticism. Dr Sengupta does not believe in critical light that only makes darkness visible.
The only Asian presence in Shakespeare's Critics: From Jonson to Auden, a large anthology of Shakespeare criticism of 122 writers from more than three-and-a-half centuries, is Dr Sengupta. The editors of the volume, Professors A M Eastman and G B Harrison, have, however, included extracts only from his Shakespeare's Historical Plays; no less outstanding is Dr Sengupta's Shakespearean Comedy about which John Russell Brown aptly remarked in his 'Interpretation of Shakespeare's Comedies: 1900-1953' that it is 'probably the most straightforward attempt to create a theory of comedy of character.' Dr Sengupta has this rare capacity to weave literary theory into the fine fabric of his criticism without making any show of dialectical prowess. Of his search for a theoretical foundation for literary criticism we know a great deal from his Bengali edition of Anandavardhana's Dhanyaloka, his Introduction to Aristotle s Poetics and Towards a Theory of Imagination.
We have a chance to see this scholar extraordinary plain in his superbly written Bengali autobiography Te hi no divasah which is so humane in its tender feeling for the men and women amongst whom he grew in his early and middle life and so forthright in depedestalling many gods of uncertain divinity who appear in its pages as less than human. Of this fine autobiographical style his Portraits and Memories (1975) is an example and some of its sentences just stick in your mind. About his teacher K C Mukherji, the Bengali Hellenist, he says that he gave him the 'impression of an embodied Platonic Form wandering in a world of imperfect realities.' About Manmohan Ghose: 'If he was forced to remain a poet of unfulfilled renown, he became a professor of unparalleled reputation.' About P C Ghosh: 'Was it a professor reading out a thousand times read scene from Shakespeare or a magician using his voice instead of the legendary wand?' Dr Sengupta has also an agreeable pungent style, in writing as in conversation, because what he says about his dearest teacher is also true of himself: 'He wore his dislikes on his sleeve.'
I was born on the eve of Lord Curzon's Partition of Bengal and the Swadeshi agitation it provoked, and my earliest memories are of lathi-play, which, I recall, was half-secretive, and of some leaders of the Anusilan Samiti of my village, whom we looked upon with reverence as heroes but also dreaded as fire-eaters. As I grew up, I saw Swadeshi and Boycott broadening into Gandhiji's Non-cooperation movement, Non-cooperation hardening into Civil Disobedience which developed into Quit India, and all this, aided by the armed revolutionary struggle which, though occasionally quiescent, was never inactive, led ultimately to Independence in 1947. And I have also lived long enough to see the emergence of Bangladesh to which I originally belonged.
Side by side with political movement, there has been a social revolution which, if not as overwhelming as the political resurgence, has not been less significant in the New India that has grown before my eyes. Although casteism is not dead, its rigours have been very much mollified, and the women of India have, I think, advanced more spectacularly than her men. When I was at school, the arrival of a girl of the high school stage in even an advanced village would be a sensation, and now the installation of a woman as the Prime Minister of India does not raise an eye-brow. I have also watched two world wars and the upsurge of Marxism which has not been without its impact on Indian social life. I am, however, rattling off these historical changes only to warn my readers that personally I have not been involved in any of these movements and their impact on me has been relatively small. Even Marxism has engaged my attention more through its influence on literature than on account of its transformation of social life.
It is no wonder, therefore, that when I try to paint the portraits of men who have left their imprint on my life, I draw them mostly from the academic world, and not one of them may be said to have made any contribution to the making of history. But it does not necessarily follow that there is lack of colour and complexity in the characters of my choice, and I claim that almost all of them had qualities worth commemorating. It is in this hope that I am presenting these personal impressions of some of my teachers and friends to the wider public beyond the immediate circle of their intimates who are vanishing into oblivion.
I have called the ensuing portraits personal impressions, but the opening essay which is also a biographical sketch is an exception. When I joined Presidency College as an Intermediate student in 1920, Manmohan Ghose was one of its leading lights. He was an eminent professor, and also famous as a poet, and he looked the poet. I still remember his frail figure with a far-off look, slowly climbing the grand staircase to take the few Honours classes allotted to him. When two years later I myself came to the Honours Class, he had gone on leave from which he never returned. I who never heard a single word drop from his silvery voice had, however, not a little to do with him afterwards. I was the Editor of the College Magazine when he died, and I devoted two issues of this journal mainly to him. The first contained a number of memorial essays written by his pupils, and in the second I published with an Introduction of mine own as many of his fugitive poems as I could collect then. When his Centenary was celebrated five years ago, I played a small part in securing Government subsidy for the publication of his poems and helped to edit the Manmohan Ghose number of the (Presidency College) Alumni Association Annual to which, on the basis of data supplied by his daughter and entertaining anecdotes related by Professor P C Ghosh, I contributed the biographical sketch I am reprinting here.
Five of these papers-the second essay on Professor P C Ghosh, and those on Nishikanta Sen, Krishnadhan Banerjee, Karuna Kumar Hajara and N C M-are being printed for the first time. The others are taken with grateful acknowledgements from The Alumni Association Annual, The Mother and the Souvenir published at the time of the English Teachers' Conference held at Jadavpur University in 1964. I am indebted to my former pupils, Professor Bhabatosh Chatterjee and Professor Asoke Kumar Mukherjee, for reading over the manuscript and giving me valuable suggestions. My Publisher's Reader has helped me by seeing the book through the press.
Your email address will not be published *
Send as free online greeting card
Email a Friend