Bengal Renaissance And Other Essays On Friendship

The Bengali renaissance or simply Bengal renaissance was a cultural, social, intellectual and artistic movement in Bengal region of the Indian subcontinent during the period of British rule, from the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. The Bengal renaissance can be said to have started with Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) and ended with Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), although there have been many stalwarts, such as Satyajit Ray (1921-1992), thereafter embodying particular aspects of the unique intellectual and creative output.[1] Nineteenth-century Bengal was a unique blend of religious and social reformers, scholars, literary giants, journalists, patriotic orators and scientists, all merging to form the image of a renaissance, and marked the transition from the 'medieval' to the 'modern'.[2]


During this period, Bengal witnessed an intellectual awakening that is in some way similar to the Renaissance in Europe during the 16th century, although Europeans of that age were not confronted with the challenge and influence of alien colonialism. This movement questioned existing orthodoxies, particularly with respect to women, marriage, the dowry system, the caste system, and religion. One of the earliest social movements that emerged during this time was the Young Bengal movement, that espoused rationalism and atheism as the common denominators of civil conduct among upper caste educated Hindus.

The parallel socio-religious movement, the Brahmo Samaj, developed during this time period and counted many of the leaders of the Bengal Renaissance among its followers.[3] In the earlier years the Brahmo Samaj, like the rest of society, could not however, conceptualize, in that feudal-colonial era, a free India as it was influenced by the European Enlightenment (and its bearers in India, the British Raj) although it traced its intellectual roots to the Upanishads. Their version of Hinduism, or rather Universal Religion (similar to that of Ramakrishna), although devoid of practices like sati and polygamy[citation needed] that had crept into the social aspects of Hindu life, was ultimately a rigid impersonal monotheistic faith, which actually was quite distinct from the pluralistic and multifaceted nature of the way the Hindu religion was practiced. Future leaders like Keshub Chunder Sen were as much devotees of Christ, as they were of Brahma, Krishna or the Buddha. It has been argued by some scholars that the Brahmo Samaj movement never gained the support of the masses and remained restricted to the elite, although Hindu society has accepted most of the social reform programmes of the Brahmo Samaj. It must also be acknowledged that many of the later Brahmos were also leaders of the freedom movement.

The renaissance period after the Indian Rebellion of 1857 saw a magnificent outburst of Bengali literature. While Ram Mohan Roy and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar were the pioneers, others like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee widened it and built upon it.[4] The first significant nationalist detour to the Bengal Renaissance was given by the writings of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Later writers of the period who introduced broad discussion of social problems and more colloquial forms of Bengali into mainstream literature included Saratchandra Chatterjee.

The Tagore family, including Rabindranath Tagore, were leaders of this period and had a particular interest in educational reform.[5] Their contribution to the Bengal Renaissance was multi-faceted. Tagore's 1901 Bengalinovella, Nastanirh was written as a critique of men who professed to follow the ideals of the Renaissance, but failed to do so within their own families. In many ways Rabindranath Tagore's writings (especially poems and songs) can be seen as imbued with the spirit of the Upanishads. His works repeatedly allude to Upanishadic ideas regarding soul, liberation, transmigration and—perhaps most essentially—about a spirit that imbues all creation not unlike the Upanishadic Brahman. Tagore's English translation of a set of poems titled the Gitanjali won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. He was the first Asian to win this award (and the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in any category). That was the only example at the time but the contribution of the Tagore family is enormous.[6]

Comparison with European renaissance[edit]

The word "renaissance" in European history meant "rebirth" and was used in the context of the revival of the Graeco-Roman learning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries after the long winter of the dark medieval period. A serious comparison was started by the dramatis personae of the Bengal renaissance like Keshub Chunder Sen, Bipin Chandra Pal and M. N. Roy. For about a century, Bengal's conscious awareness and the changing modern world was more developed and ahead of the rest of India.[citation needed] The role played by Bengal in the modern awakening of India is thus comparable to the position occupied by Italy in the European renaissance. Very much like the Italian Renaissance, it was not a mass movement; but instead restricted to the upper classes.

Though the Bengal Renaissance was the "culmination of the process of emergence of the cultural characteristics of the Bengali people that had started in the age of Hussein Shah, it remained predominantly Hindu and only partially Muslim." There were, nevertheless, examples of Muslim intellectuals such as Syed Ameer Ali, Mosharraf Hussain,[7]Sake Dean Mahomed, Kazi Nazrul Islam, and Roquia Sakhawat Hussain. The Freedom of Intellect Movement sought to challenge religious and social dogma in Bengali Muslim society.

Science and technology[edit]

During the Bengal Renaissance science was also advanced by several Bengali scientists such as Satyendra Nath Bose, Anil Kumar Gain, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, Bhupati Mohan Sen, Jagadish Chandra Bose and Meghnad Saha. Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose was a polymath: a physicist, biologist, botanist, archaeologist, and writer of science fiction.[8] He pioneered the investigation of radio and microwaveoptics, made very significant contributions to plant science, and laid the foundations of experimentalscience in the Indian subcontinent.[9] He is considered one of the fathers of radio science,[10] and is also considered the father of Bengali science fiction. He was the first from the Indian subcontinent to get a US patent, in 1904. Anil Kumar Gain and Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis were leading mathematicians and statisticians of their time. Gain went on to found Vidyasagar University, while Mahalanobis laid the foundation of the Indian Statistical Institute. Satyendra Nath Bose was a physicist, specializing in mathematical physics. He is best known for his work on quantum mechanics in the early 1920s, providing the foundation for Bose-Einstein statistics and the theory of the Bose-Einstein condensate. He is honoured as the namesake of the boson. Although more than one Nobel Prize was awarded for research related to the concepts of the boson, Bose-Einstein statistics and Bose-Einstein condensate—the latest being the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics, which was given for advancing the theory of Bose-Einstein condensates—Bose himself was never awarded the Nobel Prize.

Arts and literature[edit]

Main article: Bengali literature

See also: Bengali poetry and Bangla science fiction

According to historian Romesh Chunder Dutt:[11]

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, princes and princesses, we have learnt to descend to the humble walks of life, to sympathise with the common citizen or even common peasant … Every revolution is attended with vigour, and the present one is no exception to the rule. Nowhere in the annals of Bengali literature are so many and so bright names found crowded together in the limited space of one century as those of Ram Mohan Roy, Akshay Kumar Dutt, Isvar Chandra Vidyasagar, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Hem Chandra Banerjee, 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...

Religion and spirituality[edit]

Most notable Bengali religious and spiritual personalities are Atiśa, Tilopa, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Ramakrishna, Sree Sree Thakur Anukulchandra, Nityananda, Haridasa Thakur, Jiva Goswami, Ramprasad Sen, Lokenath Brahmachari, Swami Vivekananda, Keshub Chandra Sen, Balananda Brahmachari, Vishuddhananda Paramahansa, Sri Aurobindo, Lahiri Mahasaya, Bamakhepa, Yukteswar Giri, Debendranath Tagore, Swami Abhedananda, Bhaktivinoda Thakur, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Mohanananda Brahmachari, Sitaramdas Omkarnath, Ram Thakur, Lalon, Tibbetibaba, Soham Swami, Nigamananda Paramahansa, Niralamba Swami, Pranavananda, Bijoy Krishna Goswami, Paramahansa Yogananda, Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, Anukulchandra Chakravarty, Anandamayi Ma, Hariharananda Giri, Anirvan and Sri Chinmoy.

Contributing institutions[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^History of the Bengali-speaking People by Nitish Sengupta, p 211, UBS Publishers' Distributors Pvt. Ltd. ISBN 81-7476-355-4.
  2. ^Sumit Sarkar, "Calcutta and the Bengal Renaissance", in Calcutta, the Living City ed. Sukanta Chaudhuri, Vol I, p. 95.
  3. ^"Reform and Education: Young Bengal & Derozio",
  4. ^History of Bengali-speaking People by Nitish Sengupta, p 253.
  5. ^Kathleen M. O'Connell, "Rabindranath Tagore on Education",
  6. ^Deb, Chitra, pp 64-65.
  7. ^History of Bengali-speaking People by Nitish Sengupta, p 210, 212-213.
  8. ^A versatile geniusArchived 3 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine., Frontline21 (24), 2004.
  9. ^Chatterjee, Santimay and Chatterjee, Enakshi, Satyendranath Bose, 2002 reprint, p. 5, National Book Trust, ISBN 8123704925
  10. ^Sen, A. K. (1997). "Sir J.C. Bose and radio science". Microwave Symposium Digest. IEEE MTT-S International Microwave Symposium. Denver, CO: IEEE. pp. 557–560. doi:10.1109/MWSYM.1997.602854. ISBN 0-7803-3814-6. 
  11. ^Cultural Heritage of Bengal by R. C. Dutt, quoted by Nitish Sengupta, pp 211-212.

Further reading[edit]

  • Chatterjee, Pranab (2010). A Story of Ambivalent Modernization in Bangladesh and West Bengal: The Rise and Fall of Bengali Elitism in South Asia. Peter Lang. ISBN 9781433108204. 
  • Dasgupta, Subrata (2005). Twilight of the Bengal renaissance: R.K. Dasgupta & his quest for a world mind. the University of California: Dey's Publishing. 
  • Dasgupta, Subrata (2009). The Bengal Renaissance. Permanent Black. ISBN 978-8178242798. 
  • Dasgupta, Subrata (2011). Awakening: The Story of the Bengal Renaissance. Random House India. ISBN 978-8184001839. 
  • Dhar, Niranjan (1977). Vedanta and the Bengal Renaissance. the University of Michigan: Minerva Associates. ISBN 9780883868379. 
  • Fraser, Bashabi edited Special Issue on Rabindranath Tagore, Literary Compass, Wiley Publications. Volume 12, Issue 5, May 2015. See Fraser's Introduction pp. 161-72. ISSN 1741-4113.
  • Kabir, Abulfazal M. Fazle (2011). The Libraries of Bengal, 1700-1947: The Story of Bengali Renaissance. Promilla & Co. Publishers. ISBN 978-8185002071. 
  • Kopf, David (1969). British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520006652. 
  • Kumar, Raj (2003). Essays on Indian Renaissance. Discovery Publishing House. ISBN 978-81-7141-689-9. 
  • Marshall, P. J. (2006). Bengal: The British Bridgehead: Eastern India 1740-1828 (The New Cambridge History of India). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521028226. 
  • Mittra, Sitansu Sekhar (2001). Bengal's Renaissance. Academic Publishers. ISBN 9788187504184. 
  • Pal, Bipin Chandra; Cakrabartī, Jagannātha (1977). Studies in the Bengal renaissance. the University of California: National Council of Education, Bengal. 
  • Sastri, Sivanath. A History of the Renaissance in Bengal: Ramtanu Lahiri, Brahman and Reformer, London: Swan, Sonnenschein (1903); Kolkata: Renaissance (2002).
  • Sastri, Sibnath (2008). Ramtanu Lahiri, Brahman and Reformer: A History of the Renaissance in Bengal. BiblioLife. ISBN 978-0559841064. 
  • Sen, Amit (2011). Notes on the Bengal Renaissance. Nabu Press. ISBN 978-1179501390. 
  • Travers, Robert (2007). Ideology and Empire in Eighteenth-Century India: The British in Bengal. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521059688. 

External links[edit]

"You may take my word for it, friend Raj, I shall come out like a tremendous comet and no mistake": It was in July 1861 that one of the greatest Bengali poets and the first Bengali dramatist Michael Madhusudan Dutt wrote this in a letter to his friend, Rajnarayan Basu.

"You may take my word for it, friend Raj, I shall come out like a tremendous comet and no mistake": It was in July 1861 that one of the greatest Bengali poets and the first Bengali dramatist Michael Madhusudan Dutt wrote this in a letter to his friend, Rajnarayan Basu.

However, by this time, Dutt was already at the peak of his literary career, and while it may not have seemed so to him at the time, he was already a veritable comet in the scene of Bengali literature. He was a prominent precursor to Rabindranath Tagore and set the bar very high for future litterateurs in Bengali.

This striking product of Bengal Renaissance brought in completely new forms of writing to Bengali literature, transforming the literary styles forever. He challenged the traditional literary systems and with his multilingual knowledge in several Indian and European languages including Bengali, Tamil, Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, he was in a good position to bring influences from foreign cultures and styles to Bengali literature.

To Bengali poetry, Michael Madhusudan Dutt brought the forms of sonnet and blank verse, and wrote the first original Bengali epic play, Meghnadbad Kabya, making him the first original Bengali playwright. He had started to write in English but over the years, he realised it was rather futile and shifted back to mastering Bengali, going on to become a stalwart in the language. This return to his roots is another cause of appeal to his readers.

Michael Madhusudan Dutt was as experimental in his personal life as in his creative work. He had a certain magnetism and glamour attached to his name because of his 'eccentricities'. He was a passionate man who was generous in romance and friendship. He was also a bad manager of finances and a known spendthrift--- this, coupled with his love for living the 'good life' ensured that he suffered from financial issues frequently in life, gradually leading to a tragic end.

Early life and the origins of his passion for writing

Dutt was born on January 25, 1824 in a village named Sagardari in East Bengal's Jessore district, to a law practioner father, Rajnarayan Dutt, and mother, Jahnabi Devi. He initially studied at home and the village primary school before being admitted to a school in Kolkata.

He grew up to enrol in Kolkata's Hindu College, where he studied Bengali, Persian and Sanskrit among other subjects. It was here that he truly began writing and became a part of the vortex of new ideas churning in the prominent college of Renaissance Bengal. He won scholarships and even a gold medal for an essay on women's education.

While at college, Madhusudan Dutt got his work published in Literary Gleamer, Jvananvesan, Literary Blossom, Literary Gleamer, Bengal Spectator, Calcutta Library Gazette and Comet.

Converting to Christianity and the ensuing estrangement

Dutt converted to Christianity on February 9, 1843 while he was still at college partly in order to escape an arranged marriage set up by his father. After his conversion, he took up the first name of Michael. He had to leave Hindu College after that and took admission to Bishop's College in 1844, where he remained till 1847. Here, he also learned Greek and Latin with Sanskrit.

Dutt's conversion created a big divide between him and his family and he stopped receiving any money from them. He went to Madras in 1848 and taught for a living, first at the Madras Male Orphan Asylum School (1848-1852) and then at Madras University High School (1852-1856).

The Madras newspapers and his first books on poetry

In Madras, he continued his writing work and was associated with a few newspapers in journals. He edited the Hindu Chronicle, the Madras Circulator, the Eurasian (later the Eastern Guardian), and General Chronicle, and also worked as the assistant editor of the Madras Spectator from 1848 to 1856. Moreover, he published two English poetry books -- The Captive Ladie (based on a friend's mother) and Visions of the Past -- under the pseudonym of 'Timothy Penpoem' while living in the city.

His two 'unacceptable' marriages and moving back to Kolkata

While living in Madras, he did something even more unusual-he got married to a woman who was around three-quarters white in December 1855. While British men often married Indian females, the reverse was not so common. Rebecca Mactavys gave him four children.

While Dutt was in Madras, his mother and father died one after the other. He moved to Kolkata in February 1856 with a woman named Henrietta White, who was considered French. But Ghulam Murshid's Lured by Hope: A Biography of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, points out after extensive research that had the woman been French, her name would have been Henriette rather than Henrietta. Though her father was clearly British, Henrietta's mother could have been either British or Eurasian. So, the fluency of her and her two children in French can be attributed to their trips to France.

While Henrietta is called Dutt's second wife, there are no records which prove the same. Murshid could find no record of Dutt's second marriage or a divorce from his first. So, it can be said that he could never officially marry Henrietta even though he had two children by her-- a son, Napoleon, and a daughter, Sharmistha.

Stepping in as the first Bengali playwright and experimenting with blank verse

After moving to Kolkata, Dutt first worked at the police court as a clerk and later, as an interpreter, before starting to contribute his work to several journals.While translating a play by Ramnarayan Tarkaratna called Ratnavali (1858) into English, Dutt realised there was a huge dearth of good plays in Bengali. Soon after, he got associated with Kolkata's Belgachhiya Theatre and wrote the western style play Sharmishtha (1858) the first original play in Bengali, based on Mahabharata characters Devayani and Yayati. It was his first attempt in blank verse.

In the next two plays Ekei Ki Bale Shabhyata and Buda Saliker Ghade Ron, Dutt, in a satirical form, spoke about Young Bengal's immoral turns from Western education and the immorility present in the leaders of the conservative Hindu society.

He wrote Padmavati (1860) in blank verse, inspired by a Greek myth. This finally freed Bengali literature from the tight bindings of rhymed verse. He followed this success with Tilottamasambhav, again in blank verse form.

In 1861 came Dutt's masterpiece-Meghnadbadh Kabya, the first Bengali epic poem, which was based on the Ramayana but whose style was inspired by Milton's Paradise Lost. Incidentally, Rabindranath Tagore was born the same year. In this heroic-tragic epic in nine cantos inspired by Ovid, Ravana was portrayed as a hero. This earned him a permanent place of respect in Bengali literature.

He also wrote poems giving voice to women in love or hurt, speaking about their desires openly, something which wasn't seen in Bengali literature before. A tragic play based on a Rajput story, Krsnakumari (1861); a lyrical poem about Radha and Krishna, Vrajangana (1861); and Virabgana (1862) were written on these lines. He translated the famous play Nildarpan by Dinabandhu Mitra into English at around the same time.

The building where Michael Madhusudan Dutt used to live (Photo by Md.altaf.rahman)

Accepting his Bengali roots and the first Bengali sonnets

Michael Madhusudan Dutt went to study law in England at Gray's Inn on June 9, 1862, but couldn't bear the weather and the racism.

It was after he went to Versailles in France in 1863 along with Henrietta and their family that he finally got over the longing for England that had given rise to the style of his previous works and started to consider how important his mother language of Bengali was to him. Sitting in France, he penned the very first sonnets in Bengali such as 'Babgabhasa' and 'Kapotaksa Nad' which show his emotions in this matter.

While staying here, he encountered the sixth centenary celebration of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri. On this occasion, Dutt composed a poem in his honour, and sent it to the king of Italy Victor Emmanuel II after translating it into French and Italian. The king wrote to Dutt, saying, "It will be a ring which will connect the Orient with the Occident."

The generosity of Ishwarchandra Vidysagar

Living in France, he was thrown into abject poverty and when the money from his late father's estate did not come regularly, he appealed to the great scholar, reformer and activist Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar who looked into ensuring that Dutt got his money. For his generosity, Dutt termed him 'dayar sagar' or 'the ocean of generosity'.

The street where Michael Maddhusudan Dutt dwelled in 1860s (Photo by Md.altaf.rahman)

The breakdown in Kolkata and his last works

In 1856, Dutt returned to England from Verssailes and in 1866, became a barrister. Though he returned to Calcutta in 1867 with his second family, his extravagant lifestyle and drinking problems did not let him achieve success. He gave up law in three years because of a failing practice and joined as a High Court translator with a Rs 1000 monthly salary. Within two years, he left his job again and went back to practice law but was not successful.

He kept on writing despite all the odds he faced and wrote Hectarbadh (1871) based on Homer's Illiad, and his last composition Mayakanan (1873).Dutt's second wife, Henrietta, who had also become dependent on alcohol since the days of poverty in Verssailes, died prematurely, followed within three days by Michael Madhusudan Dutt with lack of money and lack of treatment at the Calcutta General Hospital.

Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the great great grandfather of tennis player Leander Paes, was the composer of a new genre of heroic poetry with the Homeric and Dantesque style but Indian themes. There are many similarities between the lives of Madhusudan Dutt and Lord Byron, whom the Bengali poet admired greatly. In almost whatever style he wrote in, the face of the 19th century Bengal Rennaisance was the first, and Bengali writers even now continue to be measured against him.

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