Renaissance of Bengali Literature

By- Sushmita Sen


Bengali as a language is one of the most spoken languages in the world. Also, according to a UNESCO survey Bengali has been voted as the sweetest language in the world.[1] Bengal has always gained the fame of being the major center of its rich art, culture and literature in India. Among everything, the literature of Bengal has won the hearts of not only Indians but also outsiders.  Bengali literature had its significance since time immemorial. If we look back to the time period when it has first evolved, we may not find much information about it. Some sources date it back around 650 AD. The Bengali literature can be categorised into certain periods like the ancient period, the medieval period and the modern period.

The ancient period is dated between the 8th and the 10th century CE. The known literature of this period was the Charayapada.[2] It is an excellent collection of  around 50- 51 Buddhist mystic songs composed by Buddhist sage poets. They are also known as songs of self- realisation. In the late 20th century, the palm-leaf manuscript of Charyapada was rediscovered by Hariprasad Shastri, a bengali linguist, from Nepal. These writings make up the oldest bengali texts which are available at the present time.


As time passed and new rulers invaded India there was change in the pattern of the literary work. Between 1200 AD- 1350AD, the Afgani Ruler, Muhammad bin Baktiyar Khilji ruled Bengal. We cannot trace any form of writing from that period. Some linguists do not consider this period and call it the Blank  period of Bengali Literature. The famous linguist Sukumar Sen calls this period the dark period. According to some scholars it is also said that it was the period when Ramai Pandit’s narrative poem Sunyapurana like dak o kanhar vachan was written.

Soon after this came the Medieval period, where Chaitanya Vaishnava literature was written and composed.[3] It mainly had collections of Vaishnava songs, lyrics and translations of Lord Krishna Katha. These literatures also include the biographies of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and his teachings. The books of Vaishnavism hold a special position in the hearts of the followers because of its authenticity and its way of writing.


With the arrival of the late 18th century and early 19th century, the Britishers came to India with the intention to set a kind of a commercial empire. It was a period of renaissance in India. Bengal renaissance was the name given to the movement of cultural politics which may be also called the cultural, intellectual, social, literary and artistic movement of Bengal. It was not only about West Bengal but also East Bengal, present Bangladesh. The Bengalis became Europeanised and learnt English and started a culture of their own. Probably it was neither a complete copy of the Europeans nor rejection of their culture and ways. It is the critique of the west acquired by the east which is called the Bengal Renaissance.[4]

Now, when we look into the renaissance of the Bengali Literature it also contains a little tinch of the westerns. The Bengal Pandits used to work hard to translate Bengali and other textbooks into English to teach the Britishers different languages. In the same way the Britishers made efforts to make the common people understand their language and customs as to have better trade communications. The exchange of languages and cultures had a great role in building and shaping the literature of the present Bengal.

The great educational and social reformer, Raja Ram Mohan Roy started working with his literary activities under the British society. He translated Sanskrit to Bengali, published magazines and wrote essays and articles on multiple topics related to religion and cultures of India. Roy was a strong supporter of free speech and expression. With the thought of this he developed newspapers in Persian, Miratul- Akhbar and in English, ‘Sambad Kaumudi’ He revolutionized the educational system by establishing the Hindu College in 1817, which turned out to be the best educational institution. Later he developed two more institutions.[5]

Another personality was Ishwara Chandra Vidyasagar, who was a philosopher, educationist, writer, printer, publisher,translator and reformer. He made the roots of the Bengali literature stronger by reconstructing the Bengali alphabet and simplified the typography. Finally Bengali language got 12 vowels, 40 consonants and few new punctuations. His famous work  Borno Porichoy or Character Identification has significantly contributed not only to Bengali but also Sanskrit. Vidyasagar wrote many books like Banglar Itihaas (1848)and Kotha Mala (1856) and also published a newspaper named Shome Prakash (1858)[6].

Not to forget about Bamkin Chandra Chatterjee, who was a significant figure in contributing to the Bengali literature and independence of India.Vande Mataram, India’s national song, was written by him in 1882.  He was a writer, poet and journalist and also known as the father of Bengali novels. He always tried to make a bridge between the literate and illiterate society through his literary works. His first written novel which was submitted for a declared prize, was in Bengali. Then he wrote a fiction “Rajmohan’s wife”, which became the first Indian novel written in English. He wrote many remarkable novels like Durgeshnondini, Kapalkundala, Pramathnath Bishti and Mrinalini. Chatterjee also started a monthly literary magazine Bangladarshan, which had miscellaneous content. His literary works also contain commentary on Gita which was published years after his death. No matter what, he was such an intellectual who, being in a British Colonised Society, never directly accepted or rejected their stand.

Sri Aurobindo had rightly said, “Bankim created a language, a literature and a nation.”[7]

The one who brought a tremendous change in Bengal was none other than Rabindranath Tagore. He is credited for revitalising Bengali language and literature.Tagore, from a very early age, started to write poems and phrases. He was always involved in life, and so he learned to draw, sketch and paint his imaginations and thoughts.Tagore excellently tried to create and maintain a link between the people and the diverse nationalism. Indeed, he was the link between the modern and the classic, the old and the new and the fight against imperialism and fake patriotism.[8] He was the influential centre of the modern education system, Viswa Bharati University, Shantiniketan, his self organised Vedic School, being one of them during the British Raj. Even today, Shantiniketan has maintained an environment of learning and discovery of art and literature which is open to the world.

His first work Sandhya Sangeet (1881) was highly praised by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee when published. Tagore was a versatile personality, when he was sent to the village to look after his father’s estates, he visualised the poverty and distress among people, which made him write short stories like Galpaguccha. He wrote around 2000 Rabindra Sangeets which are still played in the homes of West Bengal and Bangladesh with much enthusiasm. Moreover, he is the author of the national anthems of India and Bangladesh. He was the first non- European to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for his book of poems, Gitanjali in 1913. By the end of 1915. He had already come to be idolised as ‘the poet of peace in the noblest sense of word’ as he criticized the ongoing war in Europe as a bloodlust war of blind hatred people.[9]

Nothing could ever stop Tagore’s dedication for his mission for humanisation.He received many titles, like ‘Gurudev’,’Kabiguru’, ‘Father of Bangla Theatre’,  and praises for his literary and social works but the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre made him so sad that he returned the Knighthood that the Britishers had gifted him. As we grew old he started doodling, drawing and sketching to give shape to his writings and with such innovative ideas he restored the art and essence of not only Bengal but India as a whole. This is how he was also called the “Renaissance Man”


It is generally agreed that with the death of Rabindranath Tagore, in 1941, the period of Bengali literature renaissance also ended. The supporters of the moment did not stop here, they continued to work and progress but that essence of literature which Tagore and his companions provided Bengal is incredible.[10] It’s not that during the British Empire, only Indian literature and art got renown, but the Britisher’s also acquired and learned the richness of literature and culture. When we read the texts and writings of the ancient and the modern literature, we can easily comprehend the change that the renaissance movement has brought. Certainly, renaissance was a stimulating time in Bengal’s history, with lots of contribution by innovative and motivated people which will continue endowing the subsequent generations.











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