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Bengal Cultural Renaissance & People

The ‘Bengal Renaissance’ is the glimmering phase in the mid-19th century. When the cultural flamboyancy and religious revivalism had stirred the province of Bengal. Keeping the model of ‘European Renaissance’ aside, if one just looks at the ‘Bengal Awakening’ as a separate event then its main facets could be brought under review. It was doubtless, that there was a sort of intellectual arousal in the undivided province of Bengal. That is in some way similar to the Renaissance in Europe during the 16th century. It is said to have begun with Raja Rammohon Roy (1775-1833) who is deemed to be the ‘herald’ of Bengal Renaissance and continued until the death of Rabindranath Tagore in 1941. The Renaissance was a revival of the positives of ancient past and appreciation of the western elements. Thus, the Bengal Renaissance blended the teachings of Upanishads to create Hindu public opinion against social evils and the western education and politics. In short, Bengal and her eminent stalwarts imbibed both the notions of east and west and formed a synthesis.

The nineteenth century became the high-point of British-Indian mutual reciprocation, especially within Bengal. This was a time of great cultural, social and political metamorphosis. A class of Bengali elite germinated which could mingle with the British. This was the socially privileged and superior group, economically dependent on land rents, professional and clerical employments. During the second half of the 18th century, this ‘elite’ group started to reside in Calcutta.

In its early days, the Renaissance was undoubtedly an elitist phenomenon: bright sons of upper crust Hindus trained in Western literature/philosophy/science at the best colleges in Calcutta. But with the founding of the Calcutta University in 1857 the footprint widened.

Renaissance minds included Raja Rammohun Roy, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio and his radical disciples Debendranath Tagore, Akshay Kumar Datta, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and Swami Vivekananda. The Bengal Renaissance led to the proliferation of modern Bengali literature, fervent and diverse intellectual enquiry and ultimately fostered an engagement with rationalism and nationalism and alternately questioned the foreign subjugation of the country.

The Brahmo Samaj, founded (1828) by Raja Rammohon Roy the parallel socio-religious movement had germinated during this time and banked upon many of the leaders of Bengal Renaissance amongst its followers. Their version of Hinduism, or rather Universal Religion (likened to that of Ramakrishna), was entirely devoid of practices like sati and polygamy that had crept into the social aspects of Hindu life. Hinduism according to Brahmo Samaj was an unyielding impersonal monotheistic faith, which actually was quite dissimilar from the pluralistic and comprehensive nature of the way Hindu religion was practiced. Through ‘Brahma Samaj, he wanted to expose the religious hypocrisies and check the growing influence of Christianity on the Hindu society. Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s efforts bore fruit when in 1829, the Sati system was abolished.

Later, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, the legendary saint from Bengal, is believed to have recognized the mystical truth of every religion and to have harmonized the conflicting Hindu sects ranging from Shakta tantra, Advaita Vedanta and Vaishnavism. In fact Ramakrishna made famous the Bengali saying: “Jato Mat, Tato Path” (All religions are different paths to the same God). The Vedanta movement flourished principally through his disciple and sage, Swami Vivekananda. He was one of the leading intellectuals who had carried the torch of Bengal Renaissance towards the dazzling future of swaraj. On Vivekananda’s return from the highly acclaimed Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893 and subsequent lecture tour in America, he had become a revered national idol. Ramakrishna Mission, the great organization founded by Swami Vivekananda, was wholly non-political in nature.

Bengal renaissance did show the authors and the poets of Bengal, the way out from the orthodoxy of the Hindu religion and the conventional mind-set of the literary personnel of the earlier periods. As a matter of fact, in literary texts, women attained a new and a great importance due to this new wave in Bangla literature. In Bankim Chandra’s Durgeshnandini (1865), though it is set in a historical locale discussing the conflict of the Pathans and the Rajputs, the three female characters, Ayesha, Tillotama and Bimala are portrayed under the main spotlight. All the three characters represent the free-woman spirit; Ayesha, the brave; Tilottama, the beautiful and Bimala, the courageous. Bankim’s Kapalkundala (1866), Mrinalini (1869) and Debi Choudhurani (1884) also deal with female protagonists in a male chauvinist society. In most of Rabindranath Tagore’s novels the plot revolves around the female characters. The role of Charu in Nastanirh (1901); Bimala in Ghare-Baire (1916) and Damini and Nanibala in Chaturanga (1916) is revolutionary and is the most important in the ongoing storyline of the respective novels.

Sarat Chandra Chattopadyay, though has dealt with the more inner part of the household as the subject of his literary works has shown the importance of women in the society. He has portrayed women as the main protagonist of the existing social order in his novels, for instance, Baradidi (1907), Parineeta (1914), Debdas (1917), Choritrohin (1917), Srikanto (1917-1933), Nishkriti (1917) and others.

Bengal renaissance also incorporated a very vital aspect; the concept of the ‘Swadeshi’ (nationalist freedom movement) and it is in the works of Madhusudan, Bankim Chandra and Rabindranath that we actually find its great importance. Madhusudan’s Meghnadbadh Kavya (1861) though is based upon a part of the Valmiki Ramayana, yet it is through the author’s style and perspective that the point of view of the storyline shift’s from Ayodhya to Lanka. In this version of the story of Rama, Ravana is the tragic hero who loses the battle in the end. This shift in the perspective of the plot can be compared to Milton’s Paradise Lost where the audience sees the story of Heaven and Hell from the ‘other’ point of view, the point of view of Satan.

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