[The following may be treated as companion to my earlier post: Of poverty- literature – Sarat Chandra Chatterjee]
1. The renaissance period in the nineteenth century Bengal that followed the Indian Rebellion of 1857 witnessed a uniquely refined blend of dazzling intellectual brilliance fueled by western rationalism on one hand, and, on the other, of the outburst of art creations brought to life by the simple beauty and graceful expressions inspired by the traditional styles of ancient Indian murals.
The Bengali literary horizon, it was playfully said, was guarded by three celestial sentinels: Bankim Chandra (bent moon); Rabindra (regal sun); and, Sarat Chandra (autumn moon). It was Bankim Chandra the creator of classics in chaste Bankimi-Shadhu-bhasha that ignited the fervor of nationalism in the hearts of his countrymen. The later writers of the period, taking his lead, brought into mainstream Bengali literature the fiery national issues and uncomfortable social practices, in Cholito bhasha the everyday – conversational language.
A. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay
2. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee) – (1838-1894), the eldest of the trio, is regarded the pioneer of literary renaissance of Bengal. He gave a new impetus to Bangla fiction by refining its prose, coining sparkling- fresh phrases and aesthetic expressions of great beauty. His was the sweetest voice that ever spoke prose. He revealed to the world a literary beauty, never known before. He was the forerunner of Bangla literature that flowered in the next century.
Bankim Chandra was also the first to popularize historical romances, as Walter Scott had earlier done in Scotland. Both tried to bring to life the remarkable heroism and patriotism of the inhabitants; and, their struggles against the oppressor. Scott created his historical novels at a time when the traumatic events of the French Revolution had scattered his generation; and, brought forth a forced merger of Scots with the English. Walter Scott made his mission to refresh Scots’ awareness of their nation’s past.
Bankim Chandra was a young man of nineteen, in the flush of youth, at the conclusion of the first war of Indian Independence in 1858. As the rest of the nation, he too was shocked at the failure of the revolution; and, found it hard to live with the ignominy of defeat and humiliation.
He set himself the task of understanding the problems of India’s political life; and, to come face-to-face with the causes for its predicament. He, thus, began writing at a time when India was colonized by the British; when the wounds and horrors of the failed War of Independence of 1857 were still raw; and, when the ruthless British reprisal was terrorizing Indian people into abject submission.
Those were the days of strangling imperialism, tightened by the Queen’s Declaration; adding salt to the sore. There was also utter lawlessness, robbery, looting and plunder. The shame of helplessness had burnt deep into Indian soul. That naturally gave rise to a searing desire for nationalism and consolidation.
[Incidentally, it is said, when once Bankim Chandra called on Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the latter punning on Bankim’s name teased him on the meaning of Bankim (Bent a Little). The sage playfully asked what was it that bent him. Chatterjee laughed aloud and replied that it was the kick from the Englishman’s shoe.]
3. Bankim Chandra was a superb story-teller, and a master of romance. No other writer in India, in all its regions, has enjoyed such spontaneous and universal acceptance as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Romantic idealism; its stunning beauty and intense passion; its heroic and enthralling vigor are the lifeblood of Bankim Chandra’s historical novels. Bankim Chandra delighted in reconstructing the earlier days of his country, as his imagination pictured them. Through his works, he yearned to arouse Indian people to rebel against their oppressor; to drag the sedate common people out of hopelessness and uncertainty; and, to instill in their hearts a new zeal.
3.1. He raised Nationalism to the level of religion by identifying the Motherland with the Mother-Goddess. The tremendous impact and thrilling upsurge that Anandamath and Vandemataram had on the Indian National Movement is indeed legendary. Bankim Chandra’s immortal song Bande Mataram (Hail to the Mother), set to music by the young Rabindra Nath, became India’s national song ; and , the voice of the Indian people fighting against colonial rule.
Bande Mataram expresses Bankim Chandra’s vision of the Mother India as goddess and of a woman as holy and venerable. His vision ignited the imagination of the whole of Bengal and rest of India.
[Please do not miss a most beautiful rendering of the Bande-mataram , in its full version to the accompaniment of a vast philharmonic orchestra. Please do watch.]
Bankim Chandra’s Sanyasins , in Anandamath , are fabulous characters rather like the heroes of Mahabharata. They did practice selfless militancy as a Dharma, echoing the ideal of Bhagavad-Gita. Dharma, here, meant Maitri brotherly bond with fellow-beings, togetherness; Dharma or Jeevana Dharma; and, not separateness. That, he said, is the essential quality of life. It is the way to honing perfection in human relations; by gently stepping aside ones egoistic tendencies; by bonding with ones fellow beings ;and, by discovering the fundamental unity of us all. It is the principle that holds us together and leads to the best welfare of all. Dharma is ‘the synthesis, the harmonized disposition’ of all faculties, vrittis. In that sense, Dharma is the best form of civilization.
Anandamath created, in its wake, a class of patriots who willingly vowed to sacrifice their life for the cause of Motherland. The women accepted the idea of their men renouncing their life and turning Sadhus, in service of Motherland. In the Bangla literature that followed , the patriotic mother at home came to be projected as Mother Goddess , arousing her sons, cultivating in them principles of morality and disciple; and , preparing her sons (santan – band of warriors) for the battle for liberation of Mother land. A widowed mother came to be looked upon as a symbol of purity, patience and selfless sacrifice. A household mother need not have to be militant; but , she had to be the mother of heroes.
Aurobindo Ghosh and other revolutionaries acknowledged Bankim Chandra as their political Guru. They, following his ideal , regarded him as: the inspirer, a new spirit leading the nation towards resurgence and independence.
Anandamath continues to stimulate the ideal of nationalism, as India struggles to ‘westernize’ without losing its soul; to go hi-tech yet retain its unique gifts which she can bring to the troubled world. Bankim Chandra’s voice is still resonant and alive.
3.2. Bankim staunchly opposed British rule and imposition of Western culture over Indian culture. Yet; he regarded the cultures of the West and East as mutually complimentary. He did encourage imbibing the healthy aspects of western heritage; and asserted that the ideals of East and West can be harmonized for the welfare of all humankind. He is believed to have said: ‘the day when the European science and mechanical skills healthily unite their forces with the philosophical idealism of India, then truly the man will become god’; ‘Preserving peoples identities, choices and integrity is a continual process; a challenge in which many voices struggle to speak for the spirit of the society’.
4. in the later part of his life, Bankim Chandra preached national regeneration , through religious revival. He came to believe that there was “No serious hope of progress in India except in Hinduism-reformed, regenerated and purified”. With that in view, Bankim Chandra tried to reinterpret ancient Indian ideals by cleansing them of the accumulated floss of myths and legends.
In the process , he produced: ‘Krishna Charitra’, ’Dharmatattva’ (Philosophy of Dharma), ‘Devatattva’ (Principle of Divinity) and a commentary on Bhagavad-Gita. Not many in world literature have excelled in both philosophy and art, as Bankim Chandra has done.
4.1. Of his books of that genre, I have special regard for ‘Krishna Charitra’ a classic par excellence. It is a pioneering work where Krishna is subjected to pragmatic inquiry. Bankim Chandra strives to understand Krishna as a historic person; and, as a rational human being; but, not as a fabrication of myths and legends.
5.1. Young Robindra was an avid follower of Bankim’s novels, which were then serialized in Bangadarshan : “It was bad enough to have to wait till the next monthly number was out, but to be kept waiting further till my elders had done with it was simply intolerable.”
Tagore grew up as Bankim Chandra’s literary disciple, owing much to the Master. When Tagore, in his initial years, came under severe attack by the critics for voluptuousness in his lyrics, it was Bankim that supported the young poet.
Towards his last days , Bankim Chandra named Rabindranath, just out of his teens, as his successor. The young protege accepted that with grateful appreciation.
The poet- scholar Romesh Chandra Dutt recalled a very touching incident, which , perhaps, took place soon after the publication of Tagore’s collection of poems Sandhya Sangit (the evening songs) in 1882. In this collection , Tagore had broken away from the classical mold; and, had adopted the innovative romantic style . Romesh Chandra Dutt , recalling the incident, mentions that Bankim was the honored guest at a party hosted in connection with his (Romesh Chandra’s) eldest daughter’s wedding.
Young Tagore, who also attended the party, introduced himself to Bankim ;and , sat at his feet. Romesh, Chandra Dutt honoring Bankim Chandra offered him a flower garland. To the surprise of everyone present there, Bankim Chandra took off the garland and placed it around the neck of young Tagore, saying: ‘this garland truly belongs to him (Navya yuger bhavya kavi – elegant poet of the new age) . I am the setting sun; and, he is the sun now rising. ‘ Romesh, have you read his Sandhya Sangit?’ Tagore, it is said, was overwhelmed by this act of kindness and the affection showered on him by the Master.
[It appears; there is a background to this incident. It had to do with Bankim Babu’s attempt to lend a new sense of direction and identity to the Hindu religion. He did not seem to regard the Brahmo Samaj as the exact remedy. And, Rabindranath who was at that time the youthful Secretary of the Adi Brahmo Samaj did not quite appreciate Bankim Babu’s stand. Further, there was the moral question of relative merits and the interpretations of what is Truth (Sathya); and, what is untruth (Mithya), over which the two held conflicting views. In that context, the two entered into protracted arguments through the medium of the magazines. And, that, sadly, led to strained relations between the two great sons of Bengal.
Rabindranath, in his My Reminiscences (Chapter 40), writes about that phase of his relation with Bankim Babu.
I was then coming out of the seclusion of my corner as my contributions to these controversies will show. Some of these were satirical verses, some farcical plays, others letters to newspapers. I thus came down into the arena from the regions of sentiment and began to spar in right earnest.
In the heat of the fight I happened to fall foul of Bankim Babu. The history of this remains recorded in the Prachar and Bharati of those days and need not be repeated here. At the close of this period of antagonism, Bankim Babu wrote me a letter which I have unfortunately lost. Had it been here the reader could have seen with what consummate generosity Bankim Babu had taken the sting out of that unfortunate episode.
Bankim Babu praising Rabindranath and graciously garlanding him at the wedding of Romesh Chandra’s daughter was seen as a symbolic gesture of putting an end to the differences between the two.]
5.2. Bankim Chandra through his magazine Bangadarshan, encouraged and provided opportunity for several young unknown writers to publish their writings. Tagore, who later came to edit Bangadarshan, wrote of Bankim Chandra:
Bankim Chandra had equal strength in both his hands (sabysachi). In one , he created literary works of excellence; and in the other he guided the young and aspiring authors .With one hand the ignited the light of literary enlightenment ; and with the other he blew away the smoke and ash of ignorance and ill conceived notions. Bankim Chandra alone took charge of creative writing and wholesome constructive literary criticism.
B. Rabindranath Tagore
6.1. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) in contrast to his predecessor belonged to the Brahmo Samaj ; and, to the most cultured and eclectic family in that circle. He , perhaps, was not quite familiar with ordinary Hindu life. Bankim Chandra and Tagore held slightly different attitudes towards Hindu Society and religion.
6.2. Rabindranath Tagore was a multifaceted splendor. He combined in himself a poet, prose writer, composer, painter, essayist, philosopher, educationist, and a social reformer. But, it was as the poet that he gained universal recognition. He brought lyricism into Bengali poetry. His poems breathed freshness, an elegance and beauty which were hitherto unknown in Bengali literature. Tagore was admittedly a greater poet than a novelist; though as a writer of short stories he had hardly an equal.
7.1. Rabindranath was awarded Nobel Prize for Literature in the year 1913 ; gaining the distinction of becoming the first non-European to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. That was also the year in which Sarat Chandra, at the insistence of friends, started contributing regularly stories to Bengali magazines in Calcutta.
And, in 1915 Rabindranath was awarded a knighthood by King George V as a part of the commemoration of his Birthday Honours. And, it was only a year later i.e., in 1916, Sarat Chandra returned from Burma, with the hope of entering into literary circles.
That is to say, while Tagore was at the zenith of his literary career, Sarat Chandra was gingerly stepping into the small world of magazines ; and that too by proxy. By then Sarat Chandra was already about 37 years old, a rather late age for a debutante.
My connection with literature was severed soon after (I moved to Burma). I clean forgot having ever composed a single line in my life. I had a long stay abroad. I was quite in the dark about how modern Bengali literature had made great strides meanwhile with the poet (Rabindranath Tagore) as the key figure. I was never fortunate enough to come in close touch with the poet; nor was I privileged to come under his literary tutelage. I remained totally isolated.
When, unexpectedly, I was one day called upon to serve the cause of literature, I had already met the demands of youth and reached middle age. Fatigue had set in and enthusiasm had dwindled—I was well past the learning stage. I lived abroad, unknown and cut off from all. Nevertheless, I responded to the call; fear did not creep in at all in my mind.
C. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay
8.1. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938) had more in common with Bankim Chandra. They both came from orthodox middle-class background; and, had similar attitudes towards Hindu religion and society. They both were fired by the zeal to cleanse and reform Hindu society. And, both were fiery patriots.
8.2. Sarat Chandra’s earliest writings show influence of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. They display his displeasure with the core of Hindu orthodoxy and the prevailing social system. Sarat Chandra’s impatience and anger against social discrimination, superstitions, and bigotry in the name of religion simmer through in his writings. Yet, his criticism of the establishment is never vitriolic; he never flouts the accepted moral basis of the Hindu society.
And, both shared a deep rooted respect for women. Bankim Chandra depicted women with great feeling and power; giving men much on which to reflect. In his novel Krishnakanta’s will, Bankim wrote: “Woman is full of forgiveness, of compassion, of love; Woman is the crowning excellence of God’s creation …Woman is the light; and Man is shadow”
The poet –scholar Sri Chinmoy remarked :
‘We shall not be far from the truth if we hold that Bankim Chandra is the creator of an epoch and Sarat Chandra is the announcer of an epoch in Bengali literature. With his inquisitive mind, Sarat Chandra went deep into the heart of Bengal to discover both her tremendous sorrow and her stupendous joy’.
The themes in his early novels and their treatment are not much different from Bankim’s; but, their presentation, their locales are updated; the language, particularly of the conversations is easier and matter-of-fact. The most marked departure from the Bankim Chandra tradition was his concern for the inner-life of his characters. Most of his novels are explorations of personal relationships; uncomfortable compromises between judgment and compassion; torturing conflict between instinct and ideals; and, problems of finding space between social consciousness and half-awakened personal instincts.
8.3. Later in his life, he fondly recalled how as a village lad , with almost no schooling , he was enthralled and captivated by Bankim Chandra’s classics. He wrote:
Now came the time for me to know about the works of Bankimchandra. I could not even imagine then that there could be anything greater beyond this in fiction. . I never even suspected that there could be any literature outside Bankimchandra. I read all his novels over and over again until I almost memorized them. Perhaps this was a drawback with me. Not that I have never followed the path of blind imitation. All such attempts have proved fruitless as literary compositions ; but as literary exercises they provided a profitable occupation for me as I can feel even today.
D. Tagore and Sarat Chandra
9.1. Sarat Chandra and Rabindra present a splendid study in contrast, in many respects — in birth and pedigree; in taste and outlook; in conviction and philosophy. Rabindra was born into an illustrious family of considerable wealth, fame and cultural refinement; grew up in the heart of Calcutta when the Brahmo Samaj was enveloping its Bhadrolok elites; and when the literary renaissance ignited by Bankim Babu was just beginning to glow. Rabindranath was an ethereal being in an unending pursuit of unalloyed love and blemish -less beauty.
9.2. While Rabindra watched life and its common folks from a distance, Sarat Chandra was born into the very fire of poverty. He said:
“…My childhood and youth were passed in great poverty. I received almost no education for want of means. From my father I inherited nothing except, as I believe, his restless spirit… I was brought up in a family where poetry or fiction was considered a euphemism for immorality and music was dubbed untouchable. My first introduction to Literature was through a veil of tears.”
Sarat Chandra , all his life, remained a restless wanderer; a tormented soul.
9.3. Saratchandra later said:
“It is true that my irregular life has caused me much pain and loss. But this was more than compensated for by the people I met. They taught me that man was not simply a bundle of faults, sin and wickedness. They gave me a glimpse of the real man behind all this wickedness and sin. Let not my writings insult this real man!”
9.4. While Rabindra was a superb poet, a creator of sublime poetry and a sage like mystic, Sarat Chandra could never be a poet. He was a die-hard skeptic and social rebel. Their views on fight for freedom differed significantly. But, both shared boundless love for the Motherland and a great humanism. And above all, they shared admirable mutual respect and regard.
10.1. Sarat Chandra was also much influenced by Rabindra who was senior to him by about 16 years. Rabindra had been writing poetry since he was eight years of age; and, had published his collection of verses, while he was barely sixteen. In contrast, Sarat’s formal entry into the field of Literature was rather late after he had’ already met the demands of youth and reached middle age’.
“My contact with the journal ‘Banga-Darshan’ inaugurated a new era for me. Rabindranath’s Chokher Bali began to be serialized in this journal (in 1902 when Sarat was about 26). The language and style were of a new order, and I felt very happy. I never even dreamt that an author could delineate reality so picturesquely. After such a long time, I had the taste of realistic literature. The saying ‘the more you read, the wiser you become’ is not true. I have not the language to express my gratitude to that great master who gave me an invaluable treasure in those few pages.”
10.2. As regards his life away in Burma, he wrote:
“In that foreign land I had with me some of the poet’s books —in prose and verse. And in my heart I had profound regard and faith. In those days I read and re-read those very books. I never pondered over such high subjects as what were their rhythm and diction, and what Art was, how it was to be defined, and whether there had been any flaws anywhere according to the standard. All this I considered redundant. What I cherished was just the deep-rooted conviction that a more comprehensive creation was unthinkable.
During that period I was not even aware of the Bengali literature’s progress wrought by the achievements of the ‘Biswakabi’. I had not had the good fortune of acquaintance with him, nor had I the fortune of having lessons in literature from him. This is the truth. But I have been an ‘Ekalabya’ (A disciple in absentia). I even carried his stories, poems and other publications abroad. I read those books several times, but I could not pick up his mastery in the majesty of his language and expressions. I had the deep conviction in mind that there could not be any creation more complete than this. I strongly feel that his works became my literary stock-in-trade”.
11.1 Even later in his life , after he was established as a writer of great merit in Bengali Literature, Sarat Chandra did try to adopt Rabindra’s Gora (which, he said , read more than twenty times) into his biggest novel Grihadaha (Home Burnt-1919).
Similarly, Sarat Chandra’s novels Chandrakantha and Charitraheen are said to run parallel to Rabindranath Tagore’s story Tyag and his Novel Chokher Bali.
11.2. Sarat Chandra had earlier tried the Gora-theme – or rather the mirror image of it – in his ‘Bamuner Meye’ (Brahmin’s daughter) – (1916) , in which the female protagonist Sandhya believed she was born to a Brahmin; and, could therefore dominate the relationship with the foreign-returned Arun (now technically a mlechcha) . Eventually, she discovers to her horror, that she was in fact a Barber’s daughter.
11.3. Again, it was Tagore in his Chokher Bali who first portrayed the plight of the child widow (Binodini) and sympathized with her yearning for a married life. Sarat Chandra picked up the theme of ‘forbidden love’ and developed it with subtle and skilful artistry, capturing the heart of Bengal and the world. Tagore spoke of Sarat Chandra’s efforts with much admiration:
“Saratchandra focused his attention into the depths of human heart—of happiness and sorrow, at meetings and partings; he presented us an unexpected picture of artistry and nuance. The proof of this is the never ending pleasure of the Bengalis in his writings. With no other writer have they felt such deep inner satisfaction as with Saratchandra. Others have won more fame by their meritorious works, but few have attained such mastery over the hearts of his readers.”.. “He has imparted a new power to our language…and achieved the best reward of a novelist: he has completely won the hearts of Bengali readers.” (March 1935)
11.4. I think, Sarat Chandra was at his best when he drew upon his own life-experiences, as in Srikanta (1917-18), Palli Samaj (1916), Biraj Bahu (1914)and Charitrahhin (1917). All those works were written just as he burst upon on the Bengali Literary field ; and, was gaining reputation as the a powerful writer with a heart .Yet, in the later years, he kept returning , again and again, to the disturbing theme of caste and to the stringent criticism of its evils. He was driven by the anxiety and desperation to cleanse the Indian social system of that evil.
12.1. Sarat Chandra often remarked that he walked into the mainstream Bengali Literature by ‘accident’. He had no serious intentions of becoming a professional writer of fictions. Several years before he began writing, Sarat Chandra had left Bengal and was employed in the Rangoon Secretariat. He had outwardly no touch with Bengali literature; and , none in Bengal or elsewhere was aware of his existence.
He wrote in his article ‘My Life’:
I wrote short stories when I was barely seventeen. But I soon gave up the habit as useless, and almost forgot in the long years that followed that I could even write a sentence in my boyhood. A mere accident made me start again, after the lapse of about eighteen years. Some of my old acquaintances started a little magazine, but no one of note would condescend to contribute to it, as it was so small and insignificant.
When almost hopeless, some of them suddenly remembered me, and after much persuasion they succeeded in extracting from me a promise to write, for it. This was in the year 1913. I promised most unwillingly—perhaps only to put them off till I had returned to Rangoon and could forget all about it. But sheer volume and force of their letters and telegrams compelled me at last to think seriously about writing again. I sent them a short story for their magazine Yamuna. This became at once extremely popular, and made me famous in one day. Since then I have been writing regularly. In Bengal, perhaps I am the only fortunate writer who has not had to struggle.
12.2. It all started when his story ‘The Child of Bindu’ appeared in the monthly magazine Jamuna. He contributed the story under the name Anila Devi (his elder sister). The story captured the imagination of the Bengali readers. And, as the installments continued, the public interest also grew with it. ‘The Child of Bindu’ was followed by ‘Charitraheen’ , half of which was published in Jamuna ; but , not completed*. That was replaced by Baradidi (The Eldest Sister) , which was very well received. The readers were captivated by the powerful characters, lucid depiction, clarity in thought and humanism at its heart. His readers were attracted by the manner he created the climax of each installment. In another serial ‘Pandit Moshae’ , the climax was so well concealed that the readers fell into a debate among themselves whether or not Kusum was a widow; while some others argued that she was not even married.
12.3. Many of his early novels were serialized in monthly magazines. He was one of the few authors of those times that earned his living by his pen. He never was rich; and, yet he did not go after money. Sri Chinmoy recounts of an event when Deshabandhu Chitta Ranjan Das asked him to contribute a story to his journal Narayan. Sarat Chandra complied; and, sent for publication his story ‘Swami’. Chitta Ranjan Das was immensely pleased by the story. He sent Sarat Chandra a blank cheque, with a covering letter saying that he was not in a position to put a price on such a wonderful story; and , Sarat Chandra could fill in his own figure. Sarat Chandra did eventually drew only a hundred rupees.
[*The magazine editor was forced to take off Charitraheen as some subscribers threatened to withdraw if the immoral tale was not stopped forthwith. They were shocked by its love-theme which seemed to disregard and insult the conventions and morals of a civil society. The author had chosen to depict a love-episode between an educated young man from a middle-class family and a maid servant in a boarding house where the young man was lodged. No respectable Bengali writer, they said, would dare portray the character of a ‘low-class’ woman in such favorable light.
Though many readers viewed Savitri, a maid servant of a mess, as a fallen woman, Sarat Chandra regarded her as a symbol of self-less love, unaffected by its consequences. In his letter dated 13 May 1913 to Upendranath Gangopadhyay, he compared the character of Savitri to diamond: “You have seen Savitri as the maid servant of the mess. But, you have mistaken the diamond for a glass-piece. If only you had that eye… if they (readers of the magazine) had understood which priceless diamond comes up from which coal mine, they would not let slip that diamond.”
And again, years later, in a letter to Radharani Devi, Sarat Chandra compared true love to diamond. “True love does not come in the life of all men. If this rare thing comes in one’s life and if one can recognize it, then his life achieves success. You know many ignorant people throw a rare diamond, mistaking it for a glass piece. True love is tested in sacrifice.”]
12.4. The stories took everyone by storm. Almost everyone assumed the author of the stories must be none other than Rabindranath, writing under a pen name. Who else could wield his pen with such great felicity, they all wondered. Rabindranath, however, kept denying he had anything to do with it. He was getting rather tired of persistent queries, and was frankly bewildered , wondering who in Bengal could be such a powerful writer.
Once the real author emerged out of the shadows , he became an instant celebrity and a household name in Bengal and in all of India.
Years later, perhaps after passing away of Sarat Chandra, Rabindranath wrote in the special supplement of the ‘Bharatbarsha’:
“The emergence of Saratchandra in the arena of Bengali literature was a sudden occurrence. He was not long in passing from obscurity to fame. At that time, because of pressure of work and difference in age, I remained aloof. Left Calcutta…and in the meanwhile Sarat had reached the acme of his career. I never got the opportunity to meet Sarat at close quarters which I count as a personal loss. Not that we did not meet or talk. But real fervour could not develop. If, instead of being confined to formal meetings and exchanges, our fellowship had ripened into genuine understanding, it would have been much better.”
13.1. At a time when Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore held sway over all aspects of Bengali literature with his many – splendored genius, the sudden emergence of a new dazzling talent was something for the literary world to behold. Sarat Chandra had touched the nerve center of the Bengali middle class families. He put in front of them the examples from their own social and family milieu; but, in his own way of thinking; and, in his unique style of analysis couched in sparkling-fresh spoken Bengali prose. Even the rural Bengal clasped him to its chest , since he brought to life, as no one else did, the vivid pictures of life in the villages, with its petty jealousies and ignorance, superstitions and absurdities (as in Pallisamaj ). Sarat Chandra belonged to both the facets of the society; but, dealt with their maladjustments with sympathy and humanism , in a manner that was never done before.
13.2. Sarat Chandra succeeded in projecting the ethos, the aches and pains of the world around him from a progressive point of view. He did that while being a part of the mainstream , without cutting himself off from its social and cultural heritage. Saratchandra did not, of course , provide solutions to the problems raised by him; did not solve the riddle of Sesh Prasna the unanswered questions . Saratchandra said with candor: “In my works I have given no solutions, but posed only the problems ….. I hope new writers will treat these problems with greater poignancy and clarity and, give them real direction and solutions,”
13.3. Shri Dilip Kumar Roy the noted poet, singer and philosopher recounts Sarat Chandra saying:
‘There are, in each of us, two ever-warring elements – judgment and compassion. They represent two opposing viewpoints; hence, they cannot but clash…. Man drifts away in diverse directions in the cross-currents of life — how and why, nobody knows for certain…I have witnessed , even among fallen women, strange nobility or unthinkable generosity. On the other hand, I have come across instances of abominable meanness and incredible small mindedness among members of polished circles. I have often shuddered; but, believe me, I have not succeeded till now in describing the real nature of Man.’
14.1. Some say that apart from Sarat Chandra’s genius and his flame like imagination, the other key to his spontaneous acceptance and popularity could perhaps be the timing of his advent on the literary and social scene of then Bengal.
The early years of the twentieth century were a period of transition through which the whole of Indian society was passing through. This was particularly true in the case of the Bengal region , which was then passing through a transitional stage of decaying feudalism and incipient industrialization. It was also engaged in a struggle between the old and the new; decadent traditional and modern; rural and urban; caste rigidity and liberal social customs; religious fanaticism and rationalism.
The feudal exploitation; Zamindars’ tyranny; visible caste-division; child marriage; prohibition of widow’s right to remarry; decaying extended family ; and, losing the traditional person-to-person relationship, were some of the striking features of the cultural milieu the then Bengal region.
Further, the new middle class was just emerging out of the sprawling shadows of joint families that were about to disintegrate. The newly (western) educated middle class was leaving age-old hereditary professions; and, was adopting new ones in different spheres of life. They were heading towards ‘freedom’, which meant escape from joint family-responsibilities.
The accepted social and religious values were brought into close scrutiny. The well settled-educated-middle class found in the Brahmo Samaj fresh interpretations that accorded respect to an individual’s thinking. That, at times, brought into debate the traditional Hindu beliefs and the rationale of the emerging Brahmo Samaj.
14. 2. Sarat Chandra captured with great imagination and understanding , the unrest and anxieties that a transition always brings in its wake. He refrained from value judgment. His appraisal on social norm was only a suggestive message; and , never an agenda. His sketches on the social canvas had just that subtle reformist touches. He wrote with great restraint and understanding about the inadequacies and contradictions of the old and new ways of living; and, the imbalance in the lopsided fight of the disadvantaged against the powerful .
[Take for instance, the short story Mahesh, in which Sarat Chandra presents a perceptive reality – the socio-economic deprivation as well as the exploitation of the poor. In a way, Mahesh epitomizes the state of the rural Bengal societies in the early part of the twentieth century under colonial rule. The story shows the abyss in which the hapless poor find themselves trapped. In fact, they do not even know how and why they are unwittingly caught into troubles. It effectively depicts how the marginalized are oppressed by powerful; and also their courage to defy it rather valiantly.
The story Mahesh presents how Gophur Mian and his daughter Amina; and his bull Mahesh , which eventually is killed , all suffered; but, did not gave up till the end. The relations of the characters here, transcend the bonds of caste, creed and religion; and, extends beyond to include the livestock as well. Mahesh fights till his death; and, humanity somehow survives even in most inhumane circumstances. The point is, they might not have succeeded in defeating the oppressive system; but, they did have the courage to question it; subvert it; and, to refuse to give in. Thus, at the end there is no rescue; no escape. And yet, there remains a flickering hope for a future.
A poor peasant Gophur had a pet bull Mahesh. Both are old; and, Mahesh after eight seasons of ploughing can no longer work in the field. It was difficult for Gophur to feed himself and his daughter Amina. One day , while Gophur was returning home, empty handed, found the hungry Mahesh eating away the last stock of grain and a part of the dry paddy grass covering the house roof. Overpowered by anger he beat his pet Bull who died on the spot. Next morning, Gophur left his house along with his daughter to a small town seeking a job at the jute mill there, which he had earlier refused to accept, despite his poverty that drove him to near starvation.
The death of Mahesh is also symbolic. Till the time Mahesh was alive Gophur persistently rejected the idea of working in Jute Mills. He believed that it cannot save woman’s honor and one’s religion. But after Mahesh’s death he accepts the work which, in a way, symbolizes the death of his ideals.
Now, a bigger fight awaits Gophur in Phulber, the jute-mill, a place of no religion and no honor for women. Perhaps, that would be Amina’s turn to fight on beside Gophur.
14.3. His women characters, in particular, placed in the very cauldron of life were the obvious victims of such agonizing conflicts; and, they endured the pain, suffering and humiliation it brought upon , with a sense of rare dignity and honesty.
[ All the three authors showed remarkable sensitivity in the creation of their leading women characters. And, yet, there is a marked difference in the social, cultural and economic status of the women characters depicted by each of them.
For instance; even in the social novels of Bamkim Chandra, the leading ladies, generally, come from wealthy or upper-middle class; are well educated; intelligent ; and, are very beautiful. In fact, Bamkim Chandra, in his Rajmohan’s Wife, devotes a whole lyrical passage to describe the beauty of Matangini. Many of his heroines are modeled after the leading characters in classical Sanskrit drama (say, Malathi-madhava and Shakuntalam) or Shakespearian plays.
The women in Sarat Chandra’s novel generally come from middle-class or economically weaker class, living in precarious conditions trying to make a living; and, some are deeply hurt too. Many of his leading ladies are ‘fallen women’; but, blessed with tranquil poise, having an aura of saintliness and a bleeding- heart ever willing to endure pain for the sake of that elusive love. Almost all of his novels are set in the times when the whole of Bengal society was passing through transition: from feudalism to urbanization; rural to industrialization; and form colonialism to nationalism .That was also the time when the rationale of religion and its practices were questioned; when Brahmo Samaj was attempting to synthesize a rational approach to religion; and, the questions about equal rights for women and widow re-marriage were passionately debated. Generally, it was the vibrant and restless period of confrontation between the old and the new; between the decadent and the liberal; the dogmatic and the rational.
And, as regards Tagore’s characterization of women, it falls somewhere in between the two. His women characters generally come from upper middle-class; and, are intelligent and educated. Their problems are not so much related to survival in a harsh society , as to loneliness and sense of neglect and dejection in love. They also endure pain from complications arising out of the extended family-situations. At the social and cultural level, his women are active, rebelling against unjust attitude towards women in the male dominated conservative society. The questions of nationalism and participation of women in the freedom struggles also figure prominently.
All the three authors show enormous regard for women; are sympathetic to their struggles, and especially towards the plight of the young widows. The approach of the three towards widow remarriage is also graded.
In Bamkim Chandra’s novels, some women take a defiant stand against social injustice and inequality ; and, even try to defy the society. But, somehow, they all end their lives in unhappiness (Kundanandini in Bishabriksha; Shaibalini in Chandrasekhar and Rohini in Krishnakanter Uil). Even in his Debi Chaudhrani which glorifies the heroism and the independent spirit of a courageous woman, Prafulla the rebellious, at the end, returns to her husband’s family and his other wives.
On the question of widow-re-marriage, Bamkim says: the right to remarry was given to the widows only to be “taken away in the name of chastity and morality”. The widows in his novels do not , of course, marry again.
In Tagore’s novels, the leading women die rather young and childless. The motherly aspect of women is not much depicted. And, many of his widowed heroines (including Binodini of Chokher Bali) do not actually get married, though they could have. Damini the young widow in Chaturanga appears to be a rare exception. But she too dies young and child-less.
In the novels of Sarat Chandra, the young widows and their problems are much discussed. He did show compassion for the fallen women and toward those who forsook their families, not because they wanted to, but because it was foisted on them by the male-dominated society. And, at the same time, he juxtaposed their steadfastness in love with hypocrisy and ugliness of the society. For instance ; look at his characterization in delineating the characters of Tagar Bostabi (Shrikanta, Part 2); Kamini Bariuli (Charitrahin), Mokshoda (Charitrahin) ; and, so on.
The question of widows marrying again is also debated in several ways. But, I am not sure if any of those young widows married again. Sarat Chandra did not also offer a solution. The question of widow-re-marriage was left hanging.
Though Sarat Chandra tried to delineate his women characters, project and fuel their inherent desire to get out of the deep rut into which they were stuck, he could not go beyond the social strictures hoisted on women.
Even the ‘awaken’ women (jagrat-mahila) who dared to question and protest against the injustices heaped on women, eventually, somehow, fade out; and, sadly, do not succeed in becoming ‘free-women’. Take for instance; Achala of Grihadaha or Rama of Pallisamaj or even the intellectual Kamal of Shesh Prashna, though they all were eloquent on the question of equal-status of women in a free and a fair society , they could not become free women.
This was particularly true of his Sesha Prashna . The theme and narration of Shesh Prashna are riddled with uncertainties. One of the major difficulties that its reader encounters is the rather vague, hesitant and half-hearted nature of the novel, both in terms of its theme and the future of its characters; all are left hanging and unresolved.
In response to a letter from a female correspondent , pointing out the rather unsatisfactory treatment of the problems of ‘un-free‘ women and the unresolved conclusion of the Shesh Prashna (The Final Question, 1931), Saratchandra remarked that his purpose in scripting the novel was not to reform the society; but, as a writer, to depict and highlight of human problems. And, he can offer no quick remedies to the problems confronting the lives of individuals and the human society, as a whole.
[For more on Shesh Prashna, please read Dr.Supriya Chaudhury‘s (Jadavpur University, Kolkata) Introduction/ Afterword: Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, The Final Question, 2001]
Sarat Chandra’s stand, in general, was that he did not intend to be a social reformer; and, as a novelist he depicted human problems as they existed in the context of the then social situations . That echoed the oft-quoted words of the French novelist who wrote under the pen-name Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle-1783 –1842), belonging to the Realist School: the novel is a mirror walking down the street; and, if it reflects the mud and the puddles, it is not the fault of the mirror’. From Stendhal onward, the French writers became increasingly concerned with making the novel , as realistic slice of life as possible, both in form and content.
A similar phenomenon occurred in Indian literature, during the post Sarat Chandra period. ]
14.4. Sarat Chandra said ‘the subject-matter and theme of my literary creation are not wide and extensive; but, narrow and limited. Nevertheless, it remains my claim that I have not divested them of truth, by giving them colorful touches of unreality’.
14.5. His experiences reinforced his liberal outlook on life. He believed that ‘the physical chastity of woman is not a social convention; it is her own training and discipline. If this discipline were to exist even in the unmarried, the security of society will not be affected… Love is greater than the body and the individual nobler than society… I do not grieve for the death of man; I grieve only for the death of humanism in man.’
In a short story titled ‘Sati’, while writing on Narir Mulya (value of woman), it is said, he tried to lend a special meaning to the term ‘Sati’. According to Sarat Chandra, ‘Sati’ does not merely imply chastity; it is , indeed, something else, as well. He says, ‘to remain sexually chaste is regarded here as a criterion for judging human character. But everyone knows, it is next to impossible to adhere to chastity throughout one’s life. This concept passed down through generation after generation has bound men and women to the cruel social strictures and tugs at them’.
[During the time of the Buddha, the earliest Buddhist Order of Nuns did not place a premium on the state of virginity of the women entering the Sangha. A vast number of its inmates had been mothers and wives; and, a few had been courtesans. The Master himself was once a husband and father.This again was an assertion of the Buddha that the road to enlightenment is not blocked by the state of the body and its condition.]
Sri Chinmoy says: ‘Sarat Chandra’s works tell us that he had the profoundest respect not for the men of vast learning or wealth, but for the men of virtue. He was terribly hurt by the fact that the present society is under the subjugation of the so-called men of learning, and tortured by the men wallowing in the pleasures of riches. His heart was ready to tolerate everything save and except hypocrisy. His life was an illustration of his teaching’
15.1. Sarat Chandra the newcomer, it was said, stayed at a safe-distance from the burning sun of the Tagore-genius. The autumn moon, they said , was not dimmed by the regal sun. All of that was merely to say that Sarat Chandra was not overshadowed by Tagore. He was a more popular story-teller than either Bankim Chandra or Tagore.
15.2. It must be said to the credit of the Great Sage Tagore that he acknowledged Sarat Chandra’s merit, appreciated and accepted him with open heart. Sri Chinmoy recalls how the great poet in humor and cheer remarked , in his letter of Baishak 3, 1333 (1926), addressed to Dilipkumar Ray, wrote: “Many deem Sarat a better novelist than me. In story-writing many people place Sarat above me; but, that does not affect me. For even the greatest censor cannot deny my superiority over him in poetry.”
Sarat Chandra too in all earnestness revered Tagore as Kabisamrat – the sovereign poet. In another context, Sarat Chandra regretted that he longed to be poet; but, his restlessness does not let him be a poet.
15. 3. Rabindranath had much affection for Saratchandra. In 1932, writing Punascha at Santiniketan, he wrote a poem Sadharan Meye. It is now a famous poem. Some lines of it are:
I am a girl of a common household,
You wouldn’t recognize me,
Sarat Babu, I’ve read your latest —
‘Garland of wilted flowers’.
Your heroine, Elokesi,
At the age of thirty five
Competed with one of twenty five.
Indeed you are great;
you made the former win.
I beseech you, Sarat Babu, write a story
Of an ordinary homely girl,
A hapless one who has to contend from afar
With six or seven most extraordinary ones —
Like seven charioteers.
I know it well, misfortune is my lot ;
I have lost the fight.
But, of whom you write,
Let her win, for my sake,
Reading which one’s heart will swell.
May your pen be twice blessed.
16.1. Sarat Chandra was fifteen years younger than Rabindranath; but, died three years earlier to the poet’s demise. Despite their differences on certain issues concerning literary, non-literary and political matters, they shared a common bond ; mutual regard; and affection . Each held the other in great esteem.
Sarat Chandra regarded Mahakavi Veda-Vyasa, the author of Mahabharata, as the greatest writer of India. And, he reckoned Rabindranath Tagore as the next best, the second greatest. He called him as his Guru and the Literary-guide. In his listing, Valmiki and Kalidasa followed thereafter.
On the occasion of the celebrations of the seventieth birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, in December 1931, Sarat Chandra submitting his salutation to Guru Dev, the Great Master, wrote:
We never cease to wonder, when we look at you… We all have received a lot from this world; but, we have also given it back a lot through you. O Sovereign Poet! Kabisamrat! We salute you on this auspicious day. We bow again and again to the Supreme expression of your beatitude. You are the wonder of wonders: Kabiguru, tomar prati cahiya amader vismayer sima nai
[ Please also read an extremely well composed Forward written by Sri Ramananda Chatterjee to the Golden Book of Tagore – A homage to Rabindranath Tagore – from India and the world – in celebration of his seventieth birthday]
A few months before the death overtook him, while replying to the facilitation on his 62nd birthday broadcast over the Calcutta station of the All India Radio in September 1937 , Sarat Chandra paid his tribute to the Great Poet Maha-kabi Rabindranath , saying :
As I step into my sixty-second year , before seeking the blessings of other elders, I wish to submit my Pranams to my Gurudeva, Rabindranath Tagore, who is now lying ill . His blessings have been the guiding light and protection of my entire literary efforts. These are the priceless treasures that every writer would cherish to gain. On this day, I again seek the blessings of the Kabi-Guru, the greatest poet of our age.
Yes; there was genuine love and regard between the two greats; but, that did not mean they had no differences at all. They did have their differences. But that was on basic attitudes towards certain issues; and never on personal matters or prejudices. For instance; Sarat Chandra , in the later part of his career, drifted away from his natural moorings and strayed into barren intellectual debates (Sesha Prashna) and violence, preaching sedation (Pather Daabhi). Tagore did not approve of Sarat Chandra advocating violence. In fact, the British Government proscribed Pather Daabhi under 99 (A) of IPC ; and, was about to charge Sarat Chandra for sedition under Section 124 (a) of IPC. In that context, Tagore advised Sarat Chandra that the anger against the foreigner was a distraction, drawing his attention away from the more useful programs benefiting the people we love. He added , that by focusing all their attention on the enemy the nationalists were inadvertently or covertly assisting the British. That would amount to offering the British our admiration. (Feb 10, 1927- Tagore, Selected Letters – 347).
16.2. On the eve of Saratchandra’s fifty-third birth anniversary, Rabindranath blessed him saying:
Let your powerful pen clear the path of progress; and, I bless you wishing your long life…. You have conquered the heart of your country by your genius; and, thus earned the right to fathom its very depths. Your pen has touched the chord of the Bengali psyche in newer and deeper sensibilities of laughter and tears
Saratchandra acknowledging Rabindranath’s blessing, revered it as the ‘greatest reward’ he ever received. He in his letter (of Asvin 29) responded saying :
I accept with a deep sense of gratitude and honor this gift from someone whose minutest charity is a prized treasure for any writer.
Again, on the eve of the 57th birthday celebration of Sarat Chandra on 15th Sept 1933 (2nd Ashwin, 1339 BY) organized at the Calcutta Town Hall, Tagore greeted him with a beautifully well written letter full of love and admiration for his achievements.
He advised his junior that a writer must continually keep reinventing himself; else , like a faded photograph he would in time blur and become indistinct…When men render homage to a writer who has passed the middle years of his life, they not only gratefully acknowledge what they have received in the past; but , also express hopes for what is yet to come. Joyfully, they say , this man has more to yield…This is the significance of our felicitations of Sarat Chandra today.
16.3. The last three paragraphs of the letter are truly remarkable for the benediction, love and regard that Tagore showered on Sarat Chandra. Surely, Sarat Chandra could not have asked for more. It was his greatest Blessing; and, the fulfillment of his life.
“I would have specially prided myself in today’s felicitations had I been able to say that he was entirely my discovery; but, he needed no formal letter of introduction. Today , every Bengali home, spontaneously greets him with praise. Not alone in the field of letters—on the stage, on the screen—the Bengali’s eagerness to come close in contact with his genius ever increases. He has evoked, through his words, the agony of the Bengali heart.
In the world of literary activity, the creator ranks much higher than the critic; for, it is the all-encompassing vision of the imagination, not the analytical sharpness of the intellect that reveals always the true greatness of literature. As a poet, I now come forward to garland this creator, this man of vision, this Saratchandra.
May he live a hundred years to enrich Bengali literature; may he impart to his readers the wisdom that brings with it real knowledge of man; may he reveal human nature clearly with its faults and its virtues, with its good and its bad; and, may he enshrine through the clear limpid melody of his words—not isolated incidents that surprise or instruct—but the eternal experience of the human mind “.
16.4. Sri Aurobindo said: “As for Bengal, we have had Bankim; and, still have Tagore and Saratchandra. That is an achievement enough for a single century.”
16.5. In his last days when he was asked to write his autobiography, he said with characteristic straightforwardness, “I cannot write my autobiography. I am neither that truthful nor that courageous.” And on one occasion when Rabindranath Tagore also made a similar suggestion, Sarat laughed aloud and replied: “Gurudev ! Had I known I would become such a famous man, I would have lived a different sort of life.
17.1. Sarat Chandra died of cancer on 16th January 1938, at Park Nursing Home, in Calcutta, just as the whole of Bengal was preparing to celebrate the birth centenary of the great Bankim Chandra Chatterjee the pioneer of the re-awakened Bengal and one who helped us realize and sing with enormous pride the glory of Mother India in Love and reverence . What a wonderful hundred-years it had been for Bengal and India..!!!
Sarat Chandra’s untimely death was a great loss for thousands of his countrymen. They felt it as a personal loss. And Tagore, too, was one of those. But the way he consoled his bereaved countrymen was sincere and very touching.
On learning of Sarat Chandra’s death on 16 January 1938, Rabindranath Tagore said:
I am profoundly grieved , along with the rest of my countrymen, over the sad demise of the most beloved and popular writer of the modern age , who portrayed with great sensitivity and understanding of the agonies and ecstasies in the life of the common people of Bengal. His ability to delve deep into the heart of every type of character was his unique genius.
And , ten days later, Rabindranath Tagore wrote in a poem:
17.2. In the seer-words of Sri Aurobindo: Sarat Chandra was blessed with large intelligence, an acute sense of observation of men and things, and a heart full of sympathy for the sorrowful and the suffering . Sarat Chandra with the fineness of his mind was too sensitive to be quite at ease with the world. He was perhaps also too clear-sighted.
“What is stamped on Sarat Chandra’s photograph, everywhere, is a large intelligence, an acute and accurate observation of men and things, and a heart full of sympathy for sorrow and suffering. Too sensitive to be quite at ease with the world, and also perhaps too clear-sighted. Much fineness of mind and refinement of the vital nature.”
17.3 Sarat Chandra was fond of Tagore’s poem Sahjahan; and quoted it quite often. He perhaps found in it a reflection of all those who create works of Art .
18.1. And, this was how Sarat Chandra wished to be remembered:
…I do not aspire after immortality, for like many other things in life the human mind is subject to change. So what looks important today may appear insignificant some other day, and small wonder. Even if, in the long run, the major portion of my literary attainment is submerged under the neglect of unborn generations, I shall have no regrets. It remains my only hope that if there is an element of truth anywhere in it that much will survive as my contribution defying the ravages of time. It matters little if it is not abundantly rich; it is in order to pay my homage to the Muse with that humble offering that I have sacrificed my life-long labour. This heartening reflection will illumine my hour of departure at the end of the day and fill me with the assurance that I am a blessed being who has not lived in vain.
References and sources:
1. Sarat Chandra by Sri Chinmoy
2. Preface to Srikanta by E.J. Thompson
3. Letter to Saratchandra from Rabindranath Tagore http://forum.banglalibrary.org/viewtopic.php?id=603
4.My Life by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay
5.Sarat Chandra : an evaluation by GV Subbaya
6.Sarat Chandra Chatterjee by Abani Nath Roy
Images are taken from internet