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The Bengali Renaissance or simply Bengal Renaissance, (Bengali: বাংলার নবজাগরণ; Banglār Nobojāgoroṇ) was a cultural, social, intellectual and artistic movement in Bengal region in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent during the period of the British Indian Empire, from the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century dominated by Bengalis.
Historian Nitish Sengupta describes the Bengal Renaissance as taking place from Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1775–1833) through Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941). According to historian Sumit Sarkar, nineteenth-century Bengali religious and social reformers, scholars, literary giants, journalists, patriotic orators and scientists were revered and regarded with nostalgia in the early and mid-twentieth century. In the early 1970s, however, a more critical view emerged. "Few serious scholars could deny that nineteenth-century Bengal had fallen considerably short of the alleged Italian prototype", wrote Sarkar. Although in 1990 the "average educated Bengali" still admired the Bengali Renaissance, "most intellectuals who would like to consider themselves radical and sophisticated", no longer glorified the period.
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. However, in that feudal-colonial era Brahmo Samaj, like the rest of society in years past, could not conceptualize a free India as it was influenced by the European Enlightenment (and its bearers in India, the British Raj) although it had 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 that had crept into the social aspects of Hindu life, was ultimately a rigid impersonal monotheistic faith, that was actually quite distinct from the pluralistic and multifaceted nature in 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. 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. Their contribution to the Bengal Renaissance was multi-faceted. Several members of the family, including Rabindranath, Abanindranath, Gaganendranath and Jyotirindranath Tagore, Asit Kumar Haldar and Jnanadanandini Devi have been associated with the movement.
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. But the modernization and efflorescence of Bengali culture was catalyzed by its contact with Western culture after the establishment of British rule in Bengal in 1857. Bengalis were the first people in Asian modernity to interact with Western culture in deep and meaningful-enough ways to produce works of lasting global interest. One serious comparison considers impacts of the so-called dramatis personae of the Bengal Renaissance like Keshab Chandra Sen, Bipin Chandra Pal and M. N. Roy. For about a century, Bengal's conscious awareness of a rapidly-changing modern world was more profound and predated that of the rest of India. Many of the leading figures of various fields in India and even the entire Asian region first ushering in both local and foreign new influences were Bengalis. Reformation of religion, society and education started with Rammohan Roy in India. The first great moderns in various fields in Asia- Novelist (Bankim Chandra Chatterjee), poet (Rabindranath Tagore), painter (Rabindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore and Abanindranath Tagore along with Japanese Yokoyama Taikan), sculptor (Ramkinkar Baij), philosopher (Krishna Chandra Bhattacharya) and scientist (Jagadish Chandra Bose along with Japanese Kitasato Shibasaburō) were from Bengal. The role played by Bengal in the modern awakening of India is thus comparable to the position occupied by Italy in the European renaissance.
There are other notable distinctions. The modernity of the Bengal Renaissance is sometimes referred to as post-Enlightenment modernity. Unlike the Italian Renaissance, it influenced and managed to impact a rather substantial portion of Indian society, however nearly all of its leading figures and advocates were members of the middle class, many of whom were also in sympathy with the goals of socialism.
According to Nitish Sengupta, 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, 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.
During the Bengal Renaissance science was also advanced by several Bengali scientists such as Satyendra Nath Bose, Anil Kumar Gain, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, Prafulla Chandra Ray, Debendra Mohan Bose, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Jnan Chandra Ghosh, Gopal Chandra Bhattacharya, Kishori Mohan Bandyopadhyay, Jnanendra Nath Mukherjee, Sisir Kumar Mitra, Upendranath Brahmachari and Meghnad Saha.
Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858–1937) was a polymath: a physicist, biologist, botanist, archaeologist, and writer of science fiction. He pioneered the investigation of radio and microwave optics, made very significant contributions to botany, and laid the foundations of experimental science in the Indian subcontinent. He is considered one of the fathers of radio science, and is also considered the father of Bengali science fiction. He also invented the crescograph.
Anil Kumar Gain (1919–1978) and Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis (1893–1972) 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 (1894–1974) 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.
The Bengal School of Art was an art movement and a style of Indian painting that originated in Bengal and flourished throughout British India in the early 20th century. Also known as 'Indian style of painting' in its early days, it was associated with Indian nationalism (swadeshi) and led by Abanindranath Tagore.
Following the influence of Indian spiritual ideas in the West, the British art teacher Ernest Binfield Havell attempted to reform the teaching methods at the Calcutta School of Art by encouraging students to imitate Mughal miniatures. This caused controversy, leading to a strike by students and complaints from the local press, including from nationalists who considered it to be a retrogressive move. Havell was supported by the artist Abanindranath Tagore. As with the Italian Renaissance, artists drew inspiration from the past. Abanindranath drew inspiration from Indian miniatures, and Nandalal Bose was inspired by the murals of Ajanta Caves.
Some prominent artists associated with the Bengal school include Nandalal Bose, Abanindranath Tagore and Gaganendranath Tagore, Asit Kumar Haldar, Kalipada Ghoshal, Sunayani Devi, and Beohar Rammanohar Sinha. The Bengal school's influence in India declined with the spread of modernist ideas in the 1920s, and it eventually led to the development of modern Indian painting.
Rabindranath Tagore was the most famous musician of this period.
Satyajit Ray was considered one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century. Although traditionally, the Bengali Renaissance is said to have ended with India's Independence, Ray is regarded by some as the last prominent figure of the movement.
Rabindranath Tagore is the most influential literary figure of the movement. Tagore's 1901 Bengali novella, 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/non-white person of 'colour' to win the Nobel Prize in any category).
Begum Rokeya is widely known for her work Sultana's Dream, which depicts a futuristic society of role reversal, in which men are locked away in seclusion, in a manner corresponding to the traditional Muslim practice of purdah for women.
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 or 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, Isvar Chandra Gupta, 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.
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.
The Bengal Renaissance can be said to have started with Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1775-1833) and ended with Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), although there were many other stalwarts thereafter embodying particular aspects of the unique intellectual and creative ferment.
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