Bankim Chandra: The First Prominent Bengali Novelist

June 30, 2011

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay is considered one of the greatest novelists of the sub-continent. Bengali novel practically began with him. He is widely regarded as a key figure in literary renaissance of Bengal as well as undivided India. Some of his writings, including novels, essays and commentaries, were a breakaway from the traditional verse-oriented writings, and provided an inspiration for authors.
June 27 marked the 173rd birth anniversary of the litterateur.
Bankim Chandra was born in the village Kanthalpara in Naihati, in an orthodox Bengali Brahmin family, to Jadab Chandra Chattopadhyay and Durga Debi. He was educated at the Mohsin College in Hooghly and later at the Presidency College, graduating with a degree in Arts in 1857. He was one of the first two graduates of the University of Calcutta. He later obtained a degree in Law as well, in 1869.
He was appointed as Deputy Collector of Jessore. Bankim Chandra went on to become a Deputy Magistrate, retiring from government service in 1891. His years at work were peppered with incidents that brought him into conflict with the ruling British. However, he was made a Companion, Order of the Indian Empire in 1894.
Following the model of Ishwarchandra Gupta, Bankim Chandra began his literary career as a writer of verse. His first fiction to appear in print was “Rajmohan’s Wife”.
Noted poet and essayist Rabiul Hussain said about the literary icon, “Often referred to as the first modern novelist in the sub-continent, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay fused the formal, Sanskritised Bengali with the colloquial/spoken language to forge a prose that everyone could grasp.”
Renowned poet and essayist Zahid Haider said, “Bankim’s novels are informative, entertaining and well composed. They can be categorised into three genres: historical romances, novels highlighting nationalist fervour, and those reflecting the socio-political and economical conditions in 19th century Bengal.”
Novelist and short story writer Professor Harunuzzaman said, “The first successful Bengali novelist, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s works are very significant for the socio-political history of Bengal. For, his works called for the rise of Hindu nationalism, and as history has revealed, had cast an impenetrable gap between Hindu and Muslim Bengalis”.
Veteran essayist Ahmed Sofa wrote in a literary journal, “Bankim and some other conservative 19th century thinkers had often sent their contemporary readers on the lunatic fringe and sparked many acts of communal violence”.
“Kapalkundala” (1866) was Bankim’s first major publication. The heroine of this novel was modelled partly after Kalidasa’s Shakuntala and partly Shakespeare’s Miranda. However, the partial similarities are only inferential analysis by critics, and Bankim’s heroine may be completely original.
In “Krishnakanter Will” (1878) Bankim produced a complex plot. In that complexity, critics saw resemblance of Western novels.
His final novel, “Sitaram” (1886), tells the story of a local Hindu lord, torn between his wife and the woman he desires, but unable to attain, making a series of blunders and taking arrogant, self-destructive decisions.
One of the aims of Bankim was to interest people in science and in the progress of the society and country. It was a time when educated Bengalis preferred speaking English instead of their own language. Bankim wanted to foster the love of the mother tongue in the educated Bengalis, and to make them share their knowledge with others through their language.
Bankim Chandra passed away on April 8, 1894.

-With The Daily Star input

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