Perhaps no place on earth has spawned more poets than the lower delta of Bengal, and nowhere has poetry been so intimately connected with the ideas of nation and nationality, culture and society. But the figure of Tagore has loomed so large over this landscape that other poets have often been consigned to the margins of this literary history. Rosinka Chaudhuri’s ambitious new study is an attempt to remedy this lack and throws light on early attempts to construct a Bengali literary canon.
The figures who constitute this canon are a group of poets of the mid-19th century: the prolific Ishwarchandra Gupta, the scholar-administrator Rangalal Bandyopadhyay, the nationalists Hemchandra Bandyopadhyay and Nabinchandra Sen, and of course, the trailblazing Michael Madhusudan Datta. In the concluding chapter, the young Tagore’s waking to the ‘extraordinary dawn’ of Nirjharer Swapnabhanga (Awakening of the Fountain) serves as coda to this narrative. But as Chaudhuri points out, this is not an excursion into straightforward literary history. Rather, it tries to negotiate two parallel lineages: one of literary history and the other of the ‘history of literary history’—in other words, the first attempts to write consciously about Bengali literature as an unbroken tradition which connected medieval poets such as Vidyapati and Mukundaram to those of the mid-19th century.
Chaudhuri’s choice of poets enables her to create a fruitful dialectic between these two narrative strands, and to argue for an understanding of Bengali literary modernity that goes beyond the standard formulation of western influence and response. One of the familiar tropes of post-colonial critical writing has been to read 19th century Indian literature as the empire ‘writing back’, a model in which western literary models are first absorbed and then retooled for local consumption.
In this study, Chaudhuri shows how much of early Bengali literary historiography was marked by an anxiety to disavow western influence and to identify a realm of ‘khanti bangali’ or ‘genuinely Bengali’ poetics. Several candidates are offered as exemplars of a pure Bengali style, notably the manuscript-era court poet Bharatchandra and Ishwar Gupta himself. Chaudhuri situates the Gupta-kobi in a realm of demotic letters peopled by such figures at the composer Ramnidhi Gupta aka Nidhu-babu, and Mohanchand Basu, inventor of the half-akhrai. Rangalal emerges as the resolute champion of a new literary manifesto at the mid-century mark, in the introduction to his Padmini Upakhyan, written in response to an assertion that no good poetry could emerge out of Bengal. In this context, Chaudhuri could perhaps have looked at the role of the Vernacular Literature Society in the publication of the work. During the 1850s, for instance, the vls was instrumental in awarding cash prizes for original works of Bengali literature, and Padmini Upakhyan was among the first to win such a prize.
The case of Michael Madhusudan Datta is a tough knot to untangle. Michael’s literary career is sui generis and forces Chaudhuri to read it in terms of a politics of remembering or ‘memorialising’, in which episodes in the poet’s life are mythologised as an “original event...a recurring, ceremonial date in the life of a nation”. It is not surprising that Chaudhuri devotes a half-chapter to the critical Marxist re-reading of Michael in the 20th century, part of a larger project to devalorise the so-called Bengal renaissance. Throughout the book, Chaudhuri moves productively between 19th and 20th century literary historiography, showing how concerns about authenticity, indigeneity and influence continue to be revisited in both. The last third of the book is chiefly devoted to Hemchandra and Nabinchandra, and their best-known works, Bharat-Sangeet and Palashir Juddha respectively. Both works are part of the incipient nationalist curriculum of the period, in which both poetry and prose become vehicles of a strategically reconstructed national history.
In her attempt to bring out the ‘local, political contingencies’ of the past, Chaudhuri manages to cover an enormous amount of ground, though she is silent about the impact of print on the construction of the modern Bengali literary sphere. In particular, it would have been interesting to examine how the socialisation of the printed book could have contributed to the consolidation of an incipient Bengali canon. But this is to take nothing away from The Literary Thing, a significant work of scholarship, and one that should spark fresh debates about the evolution of modern Bengali literature.