চিত্ত যেথা ভয়শূন্য, উচ্চ যেথা শির
জ্ঞান যেথা মুক্ত, যেথা গৃহের প্রাচীর,
আপন প্রাঙ্গণতলে দিবসশর্বরী
বসুধারে রাখে নাই খণ্ড ক্ষুদ্র করি,
যেথা বাক্য হৃদয়ের উৎসমুখ হতে
উচ্ছ্বসিয়া উঠে, যেথা নির্বারিত স্রোতে
দেশে দেশে দিশে দিশে কর্মধারা ধায়
অজস্র সহস্রবিধ চরিতার্থতায়,
যেথা তুচ্ছ আচারের মরুবালুরাশি
বিচারের স্রোতঃপথ ফেলে নাই গ্রাসি,
পৌরুষেরে করে নি শতধা, নিত্য যেথা
তুমি সর্ব কর্ম চিন্তা আনন্দের নেতা,
নিজ হস্তে নির্দয় আঘাত করি, পিতঃ;
ভারতেরে সেই স্বর্গে করো জাগরিত৷
Starting a piece on Bengali Literature would have been a sin without the mention of Rabindranath Tagore. A nugget of information: this 7th of August was actually 22 Srabon, Tagore’s 79th death anniversary. So this is already quite special for us.
This poem was most likely composed in 1900. It appeared in the volume Naivedya in the poem titled “Prarthona”. The English translation was composed around 1911 when Tagore was translating some of his work into English. It appeared as poem 35 in the English Gitanjali. In 1917, Tagore read out the English version (then titled ‘Indian Prayer’) at the Indian National Congress session in Calcutta.
So when the poem was written, India was under the British Rule and people were eagerly waiting to get their freedom from the British Rule. The poem is written in the form of a prayer to the God, the Almighty for a true freedom for his country. And thus Tagore reveals his own concept of freedom throughout the poem, Where the Mind is Without Fear.
His message is very clear- If all the people of a nation are not wise enough to lead a happy and peaceful life free from all evils, they cannot enjoy their freedom well. So to the poet, only political freedom is not so important unless you are fearless, self dignified, knowledgeable, truthful, hard-working and broad-minded enough to enjoy it fully.
As the rest of the poem is quite simple and straightforward, I’d like to talk about the very last line:
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake
In the final line of the poem, the poet addresses the God as ‘Father’. He asks him to awaken his country into such a ‘heaven of freedom’ where the above conditions meet.
He prays to the Almighty (my Father) to raise or lift (awake) his country to such heights where freedom would be realised at its best. In turn, he is actually praying that God awakens his countrymen so that they come out from the darkness of ignorance, prejudices, disunity and all other evils.
It might also suggest that Rabindranath wants to awaken the God within us to free our mind from shackles and bondage. It is not invoking God but using it as metaphor for the higher self within us. This interpretation is beautiful and I can’t resist the urge to add it here.
Tagore was truly a visionary and was way ahead of his time. His works range from dramas like Valmiki Pratibha, Dak Ghar also known as The Post Office, Visarjan, Chandalika, Chitrangada to name a few. Tagore’s Galpaguchchha remains among the most popular fictional works in Bengali literature. Its continuing influence on Bengali art and culture cannot be overstated. His novels include Noukadubi, Gora, Ghare Baire, Shesher Kobita.
Tagore was a prolific composer, with 2,230 songs to his credit. His songs are known as rabindrasangit (“Tagore Song”), which merges fluidly into his literature, most of which—poems or parts of novels, stories, or plays alike—were lyricised.
Rabindranath Tagore not only participated in the Indian National Movement but also inspired his countrymen to fight against the colonial rule by enumerating nationalist ideas into his writings. Tagore had early success as a writer in Bengal. After some of his poems were translated into English, he became a known face in the west. This gave a huge impetus to Bengali literature.
Origin of Literature in Bengali
Along with other Eastern Indo-Aryan languages, Bengali evolved circa 1000–1200 CE from Sanskrit and Magadhi Prakrit, eventually evolved into regional dialects, which in turn formed three groups of the Bengali–Assamese languages, the Bihari languages, and the Odia language.
During the medieval period, Middle Bengali was characterised by the elision of word-final অ (ô), the spread of compound verbs and Arabic and Persian influences. Bengali was an official court language of the Sultanate of Bengal. Muslim rulers promoted the literary development of Bengali. Puthi Literature which became popular during this time was a special genre of literature written in a mixed vocabulary drawn from Bangla, Arabic, Urdu, Persian and Hindi. Many Muslim poets of the period wrote in both sadhu or chaste Bangla as well as in mixed Bangla. Thus Garibullah’s first book in verse, Yusuf-Zulekha, was written in chaste Bangla. He wrote Sonabhan, Satyapirer Puthi, janganama and Amir Hamza in the mixed language.
The modern literary form of Bengali was developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries based on the dialect spoken in the Nadia region, a west-central Bengali dialect. Bengali presents a strong case of diglossia, with the literary and standard form differing greatly from the colloquial speech of the regions that identify with the language. The modern Bengali vocabulary contains the vocabulary base from Magadhi Prakrit and Pali, also tatsamas and reborrowings from Sanskrit and other major borrowings from Persian, Arabic, Austroasiatic languages and other languages in contact with.
Dialects and Literary Forms
Bengali Dialects can be categorized into 6 classes by their phonology and pronunciation. They are:
1. Rarhi dialect: Rarhi is the basis of official Standard Bengali language. This dialect is spoken across much of Southern West Bengal, India. The regions where it is spoken include the whole of Presidency division (including the city of Kolkata and the Nadia district), the Southern half of Burdwan division and the district of Murshidabad.
2. Bangali dialect: Bangali is the most widely spoken dialect of Bengali language. It is spoken across the Khulna, Barisal, Dhaka, Mymensingh and Comilla Divisions of Bangladesh and the State of Tripura in India.
3. Varendri dialect: This variety is spoken in Malda division of West Bengal, India and Rajshahi division of Bangladesh (previously part of Varendra or Barind division). It is also spoken in some adjoining villages in Bihar bordering Malda, West Bengal.
4. Manbhumi dialect: Manbhumi is spoken in westernmost Bengali speaking regions which includes the whole of Medinipur division and the northern half of Burdwan division in West Bengal and the Bengali speaking regions of Santhal Pargana division and Kolhan division in Jharkhand state.
5. Rangpuri dialect: This dialect is spoken in Rangpur Division of Bangladesh and Jalpaiguri division of West Bengal, India and its nearby Bengali speaking areas in the bordering areas of Assam and Bihar.
6. Sundarbani dialect: Dialect of the Sundarbans region in the Satkhira District of Bangladesh and the North & South 24 Parganas districts of West Bengal don’t share some common features with the neighboring Bangali & Rarhi dialects. So this dialect is classified as a unique dialect.
Bengali exhibits diglossia mostly. Two styles of writing have emerged, involving somewhat different vocabularies and syntax:
Shadhu-bhasha (সাধুভাষা “uptight language”) was the written language, with longer verb inflections and more of a Pali and Sanskrit-derived Tatsama vocabulary. Songs such as India’s national anthem Jana Gana Mana (by Rabindranath Tagore) were composed in Shadhubhasha. However, use of Shadhubhasha in modern writing is uncommon, restricted to some official signs and documents as well as for achieving particular literary effects.
Cholito-bhasha (চলিতভাষা “running language”), known by linguists as Standard Colloquial Bengali, is a written Bengali style exhibiting a preponderance of colloquial idiom and shortened verb forms, and is the standard for written Bengali now. This form came into vogue towards the turn of the 19th century, promoted by the writings of Peary Chand Mitra (Alaler Gharer Dulal, 1857) and in the later writings of Rabindranath Tagore.
Effect of Bengal Renaissance on Literature
The conquest of Bengal by the English was not only a political revolution, but ushered in a greater revolution in thoughts and ideas, in religion and society. From the stories of gods and goddesses, kings and queens,we have learnt to descend to the humble walks of life, to sympathise with the common citizen or even common peasant. Nowhere in the annals of Bengali literature are so many or so bright names found crowded together in the limited space of one century as those of Ram Mohan Roy, Isvar Chandra Vidyasagar, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Dina Bandhu Mitra. Within the three quarters of the present century, prose, blank verse, historical fiction and drama have been introduced for the first time in the Bengali literature.
Meghnad was a tragic hero in Ramayana. He was slayed by Lakshmana brutally, while he was worshiping Shiva. Meghnad asked Lakshmana not to fight with an unarmed person, rebuking him as a coward; but Lakshmana did not hear him. This unfortunate hero twice endangered Rama as well as Lakshmana but could not survive himself in this unfair battle. This is the central theme of this epic. Meghnad was a patriot, a loving husband, a caring son and a friend to his countrymen. Dutta also found in Ravana, a tragic hero and realized why Ravana did what he did. Daringly new and inventive in its time, the poem is an expression of Madhusudhan’s mind of the Bengal Renaissance and the wider modernity that has emerged from that era.
Anandamath: is a Bengali fiction, written by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and published in 1882. It is inspired by and set in the background of the Sannyasi Rebellion in the late 18th century, it is considered one of the most important novels in the history of Bengali and Indian literature. Its importance is heightened by the fact that it became synonymous with the struggle for Indian independence from the British Empire. The original Vande Mataram consists of six stanzas and the translation in prose for the complete poem by Shri Aurobindo appeared in Karmayogin, 20 November 1909.
Mother, I praise thee!
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
bright with orchard gleams,
Cool with thy winds of delight,
Dark fields waving Mother of might,
Glory of moonlight dreams,
Over thy branches and lordly streams,
Clad in thy blossoming trees,
Mother, giver of ease
Laughing low and sweet!
Mother I kiss thy feet,
Speaker sweet and low!
Mother, to thee I praise thee.
While talking about poetry and the freedom struggle, we cannot forget Kazi Nazrul Islam. Islam was a Bengali poet, writer, musician and the national poet of Bangladesh. Popularly known as Nazrul, he produced a large body of poetry and music with themes that included religious devotion and rebellion against oppression. Nazrul’s activism for political and social justice earned him the title of “Bidrohi Kobi” (Rebel Poet). He was very much a part of the National Movement and he criticised the British Raj and called for revolution through his poetic works, such as “Bidrohi” (“বিদ্রোহী”, ‘The Rebel’) and “Bhangar Gaan” (“ভাঙার গান”, ‘The Song of Destruction’), as well as in his publication Dhumketu (‘The Comet’ ). He profusely enriched ghazals in the Bengali language.
I am the burning volcano in the bosom of the earth,
I am the wildfire of the woods,
I am Hell’s mad terrific sea of wrath!
I ride on the wings of lightning with joy and profundity,
I scatter misery and fear all around, I bring earthquakes on this world!
I am the rebel eternal,
I raise my head beyond this world,
High, ever upright and alone!
Talking about modern literature we have to talk about the Ray dynasty. Upendrokishor Raichoudhury, Sukumar Ray and Satyajit Ray. Sukumar Ray delved into a unique genre of pure nonsense and gibberish, a pioneering work in Bengali literature with a few exceptions, which was none less interesting than its predecessors of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland. Amazing sense of humor, sharp power of observation and unfathomed wit merged with a profound command on selection of words produced a class of humor which was equally approachable by children as well as the grown ups. The 45 limericks in Abol Tabol and many other creations published in Sandesh still amuse the readers of all ages.
Satyajit Ray, even though he was a wordclass filmmaker, was also an equally gifted author. Ray created two popular fictional characters in Bengali children’s literature—Feluda, a detective, and Professor Shonku, a scientist. The Feluda stories are narrated by Topesh Ranjan Mitra aka Topse, his teenage cousin, something of a Watson to Feluda’s Holmes. The science fictions of Shonku are presented as a diary discovered after the scientist had mysteriously disappeared. Ray also wrote a collection of nonsense verse named Today Bandha Ghorar Dim, which includes a translation of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”. He wrote a collection of humorous stories of Mullah Nasiruddin in Bengali.
Future of the Language
The major issue with Bengali literature is the language barrier. You have to know Bengali to truly appreciate the pieces. Of course, we do have translations. Sure, we all know the old adage that to translate is to betray. Another nod to the legendary Tagore, as he betrayed himself in order to communicate with others. And just what are we missing? You might say, not all that much. Perhaps, but there is so much depth to language, so much allusive power, we can be sure we’re missing something. Take that word for bird, bihango. On the surface, it’s really just a generic word for ‘bird,’ not essentially different from pakhi. But when attempting to translate something by another modern Bengali, this word is rich with meaning. You’ll find that it actually occurs in all sorts of forms – from bihaga, bihango, bihangama right on through to the seemingly unrelated word, humo (all derived from the Sanskrit word, vihangama, ‘the one who moves through the sky’). But more importantly, you’ll find that this bihango plays a large role in Bengali folktales, where it is said to be a bird that possesses magical powers – indeed the power to grant wishes. All this and lots more are lost in translation.
Bengali literature indeed is getting more and more colloquialized. This, mixed in with the translations make its preservation extremely tough indeed. With the current generation opting to prefer French or German over Bengali as their second language choice in school, the future is indeed quite bleak for this language, one that is so rich and so sweet. Of course, we do have the boi melas or the book fairs and we do have College Street, a street notorious for second hand books of all kinds but is this enough?
On the occasion of the International Mother Language Day on February 21st, my Bangladeshi and Bengali friends all over the world have to come to terms with the fact that ours is a dying language, in the sense that not only is it not globally known, but with the advent of other languages such as Hindi and the already existing English in our curriculum, Bengalis will have to work harder to ensure next generations know it just as well.