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Bengali literature (Bengali: বাংলা সাহিত্য, Bangla Sahityô) denotes the body of writings in the Bengali language. The earliest extant work in Bengali literature is the Charyapada, a collection of Buddhist mystic songs dating back to the 10th and 11th centuries. Thereafter, the timeline of Bengali literature is divided into two periods − medieval (1360-1800) and modern (after 1800).
Medieval Bengali literature consists of various poetic genres, including Hindu religious scriptures (e.g. Mangalkavya), Islamic epics (e.g. works of Syed Sultan and Abdul Hakim), translations of Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian texts, Vaishnava texts (e.g. biographies of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu), and secular texts by Muslim poets (e.g. works of Alaol).
Novels were introduced to Bengali literature in the mid-19th century. Rabindranath Tagore, poet, playwright, novelist, painter, essayist, musician, and social reformer, is the best known figure of Bengali literature to the world. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. In the post-partition era, the Bengali literature comprises the literatures of Bangladesh and West Bengal.
The first works in Bengali, written in new Bengali, appeared between 10th and 12th centuries C.E. It is generally known as the Charyapada. These are mystic songs composed by various Buddhist seer-poets: Luipada, Kanhapada, Kukkuripada, Chatilpada, Bhusukupada, Kamlipada, Dhendhanpada, Shantipada, Shabarapada etc. The famous Bengali linguist Haraprasad Shastri discovered the palm leaf Charyapada manuscript in the Nepal Royal Court Library in 1907.
Pre-Chaitanya or Early Vaishnava literature denotes the literature of the time preceding the time of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. These include: Many words since have been lost as the old scripts were disregarded, meaning words have been changed including many vegetables 'Sri Krishna Kritana by Boru Chandidas; lyrical poems, known as the Vaishnava Padavali of Vidyapati and Chandidas; Sri Krishna Vijaya, the partial translation of Bhagavata Purana by Maladhar Basu and Krittivasi Ramayana by Krittivas Ojha.
Basanta Ranjan Roy Bidyatvallava discovered the torn manuscript of the Sri Krishna Kirtana from the cowshed of Debendranath Chatterjee's house at Kakinlya village, Bankura district in modern-day Paschimbanga (West Bengal). Sri Krishna Kirtana was written by Boru Chandidas in the later half of 14th century CE. It is considered as the second oldest work of Bengali literature after Charyapada.
The 15th century is marked by the emergence of Vaishnava lyrical poetry or the padavali in Bengal. The poetry of Vidyapati, the great Maithili poet, though not written in Bengali, influenced the literature of the time so greatly that it makes him a vital part of Middle Bengali literature. He flourished in the modern-day Darbhanga district of Bihar, India in the 14th century. His Vaishnava lyrics became very popular among the masses of Bengal. The first major Bengali poet to write Vaishnava lyrics was Chandidas, who belonged to the modern-day Birbhum district (or, according to another opinion, Bankura district), Paschimbanga in the 15th century. Chandidas is also known for his humanist proclamation—"Sabar upare manush satya, tahar upare nai" ("সবার উপরে মানুষ সত্য তাহার উপরে নাই ।।")—"The supreme truth is human, there is nothing more important than he is.".
The Bengali translations of two great Sanskrit texts the Bhagavata Purana and the Ramayana played a crucial role in the development of Middle Bengali literature. Maladhar Basu's Sri Krishna Vijaya (শ্রীকৃষ্ণবিজয়, Triumph of Lord Krishna), which is chiefly a translation of the 10th and 11th cantos of the Bhagavata Purana, is the earliest Bengali narrative poem that can be assigned to a definite date. Maladhar Basu flourished in the modern-day Bardhaman district of Paschimbanga in the 15th century. Composed between 1473 and 1480 C.E., Sri Krishna Vijaya is also the oldest Bengali narrative poem of the Krishna legend.
The Ramayana, under the title of Sri Rama Panchali, more popularly known as the Krittibasi Ramayana, was translated by Krittibas Ojha who belonged to the modern-day Nadia district, Paschimbanga. He also, like Maladhar Basu, flourished in the 15th century.
Post-Chaitanya or Late Vaishnava literature denotes the literature of the time succeeding the time of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. These include: biographies of Chaitanya by Gaudiya Vaishnava scholar-poets and later Vaishnava Padavali with a special subgenre based on the life of Chaitanya. Major figures of the Late Vaishnava literature are Krishnadasa Kaviraja, Vrindavana Dasa Thakura, Jayananda, Govindadasa, Jnandada, Balaram Dasa etc.
Mangal-Kāvya (মঙ্গলকাব্য, "Poems of Benediction"), a group of Hindu narrative poetry, composed more or less between 13th Century and 18th Century, eulogise the indigenous deities of rural Bengal in the social scenario of the Middle Ages. Mansa Mangal, Chandi Mangal and Dhormo Mangal, the three major genus of Mangal-Kāvya tradition include the portrayal of the magnitude of Manasā, Chandī and Dharmathakur, who are considered the greatest among all the native divinities in Bengal, respectively. There are also minor Mongolkabbosomogro known as Shivāyon, Kālikā Mangal, Rāy Mangal, Shashthi Mangal, Shitol Mangal and Komolā Mangal etc. Major poets of Mangalkavya tradition are Mukundram Chakrabarty, Bijay Gupta, Rupram Chakrabarty etc.
In the middle of 19th century, Bengali literature gained momentum. During this period, the Bengali Pandits of Fort William College did the tedious work of translating the text books in Bengali to help teach the British some Indian languages including Bengali. This work played a role in the background in the evolution of Bengali prose. In 1814, Raja Ram Mohan Roy arrived in Calcutta and engaged in literary pursuits. Translating from Sanskrit to Bengali, writing essays on religious topics and publishing magazines were some the areas he focussed on. He established a cultural group in the name of 'Atmiya Sabha' (Club of Kins) in 1815. Another significant contributor of Bengali literature in its early stage was Ishwar Chandra Bandyopadhyaya.
In 1857, the famous 'Sipahi Bidroha' (Sepoy Mutiny) took place. With the wind of it, 'Nil Bidroho' (Indigo Revolt) scattered all over then Bengal region. This Nil Bidroha lasted for more than a year (In 1859-1860). The literature world was shaken with this revolt. In the light of this revolt, a great drama was published from Dhaka in the name of 'Nil Darpan' (The Indigo Mirror). Dinabandhu Mitra was the writer of this play.
Michael Madhusudan Datta (1824–1873) introduced blank verse (Amitrakshar Chhanda), literary epics and sonnets in Bengali language. Datta's first epic Tilottama Sambhab Kabya (তিলোত্তমাসম্ভব কাব্য, Birth of Tilottama) was published in 1860. This was the first Bengali poem written in blank verse. The story of Tilottama Sambhab Kabya is taken from Hindu Puranas. Datta's greatest work Meghnad Badh Kabya (মেঘনাদবধ কাব্য, Slaying of Meghnad) was published in two parts in 1861. The story of Meghnad Badh Kabya was borrowed from Hindu epic the Ramayana and deals chiefly the final battle, death and funeral of Meghnad, son of Ravana during the Lanka War. Datta also wrote a lyrical poem–Brajangana Kavya (ব্রজাঙ্গনা কাব্য, Women from Braj, 1861)–and an epistolary poem Birangana Kavya (বীরাঙ্গনা কাব্য, Valiant Ladies, 1861–62). Datta's last book of poems, Chaturdashpadi Kabitabali (চতুর্দশপদী কবিতাবলী, Sonnets), is a collection of 102 sonnets written at Versailles, France in 1865. Datta also wrote four plays–Sharmishtha (শর্মিষ্ঠা, 1859), Padmavati (পদ্মাবতী, 1860), Krishnakumari (কৃষ্ণকুমারী, 1861) and Maya-Kanan (মায়া-কানন, The Magical Forest, 1874)–and two farces–Ekei Ki Bole Sabhyata? (একেই কি বলে সভ্যতা, Is That What You Call Good Manners?, 1860) and Buro Shalikher Ghare Ro (বুড়ো শালিখের ঘাড়ে রো, Old Man Rejuvenated, 1860)
In this time, Michael Madhusudan Datta emerged as the first epic-poet of modern Bengali literature. Datta, a Christian by conversion, is best known for his Ramayana-based masterpiece, "The Slaying of Meghnadh," (in Bengali "Meghnadh Bodh Kabyo" (মেঘনাদ বধ কাব্য)), which essentially follows in the poetic tradition of Milton's Paradise Lost. Those who have read it consider this work a world-class epic poem of the modern era. Michael Madhusudan Datta is also credited with the introduction of sonnets to Bengali literature. He ruled the Bengali literature world for more than a decade (1858–1863). Datta can also be credited to be a pioneer of the blank verse in Bengali literature. His style was deemed as "Amitrakshar Chhanda".
Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838–1894) is considered one of the leading Bengali novelist and essayist of the 19th century. His first novel Durgeshnandini, considered a benchmark in the history of Bengali literature, was published in 1865. He also wrote "Vande Mātāram", the national song of India, which appears in his novel Anandamath (1882). His other novels include: Kapalkundala, Bishabriksha, Krishnakanter Will, Rajsingha, Devi Chaudhurani etc. Bankim Chandra has critically analysed the Bhagavat Gita and the problems of Krishnaism from a historical perspective in his Dharmatattva (1888) and Krishna Charitra (1882). Kamalakanter Daptar (1875) is one of his best known humorous sketches.
Bengali literature has also produced many other notable talents. For example, famous and popular Bengali poets include Ishwar Chandra Gupta, Biharilal Chakraborty, Swarnakumari Devi and Kaykobad. Romesh Chunder Dutt and Mir Mosharraf Hossain are notable for their works of fiction. Girish Chandra Ghosh and Dwijendralal Ray were prominent playwrights of the time, whereas Akshay Kumar Boral and Ramendra Sundar Tribedi are famous for their influential essays. Rassundari Devi authored the first full-fledged autobiography in modern Bengali literature in 1876.
This era also saw a rise in new literary publications, magazines and newspapers. A number of educational institutes also appeared all over the region. Both these developments helped to nurture and advance the modern Bengali literary movement.
The Pre-Tagore era also saw an undercurrent of popular literature which was focused on daily life in contemporary Bengal. The prose style, as well as the humour in these works, were often crass, blunt and accessible. A masterpiece in this regard was "Hutom Pechar Naksha" (The Sketch of the Owl) written by Kaliprasanna Singha, and satirically depicts "Babu" culture in 19th century Kolkata. Other notable works in this regard are "Alaler Ghorer Dulal" (The Spoilt Brat) by Peary Chand Mitra, "Ramtanu Lahiri o tatkalin Banga shamaj" (Ramtanu Lahiri & contemporary Bengali society) by Nyaymohan Tarkalankar, and "Naba Babu Bilas" & "Naba Bibi Bilas" by Bhabanicharan Bandopadhyay. These books arguably portrayed contemporary Bengali dialect and popular society effectively, and also incorporated now-extinct music genres such as Khisti, Kheur and Kabiyal gaan by stalwarts like Rupchand Pakhi and Bhola Moyra. Books like these have become rarer since the emergence of Tagore culture, and the burgeoning preference for literary elegance and refinement in Bengali society.
Possibly the most prolific writer in Bengali is Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore dominated both the Bengali and Indian philosophical and literary scene for decades. His 2,000 Rabindrasangeets play a pivotal part in defining Bengali culture, both in West Bengal and Bangladesh. He is the author of the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh, both composed in Bengali. Other notable Bengali works of his are Gitanjali, a book of poems for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, and many short stories and a few novels. It is widely accepted that Bengali Literature accomplished its contemporary look by the writings and influence of Rabindranath.
In the fields of Drama and Satire, he influenced and created a very worthy posterity of him in Natyaguru Nurul Momen. Nurul Momen was an educationist, playwright, director, humorist, lawyer, broadcaster, philanthropist and essayist of Bangladesh. He is recognized as the pioneer of modern Bengali drama,"acting as a bridge between earlier and later playwrights in terms of content and style", and even referred to as the "Father of Bangladeshi theater".
In the similar category is Kazi Nazrul Islam, who was invited to post-partition Bangladesh as the National Poet (he had been suffering from dementia and aphasia since 1942) and whose work transcends sectarian boundaries. Adored by Bengalis both in Bangladesh and West Bengal, his work includes 3,000 songs, known as both as nazrul geeti and "nazrul sangeet". He is frequently called the "rebel poet" mainly because of his most famous and electrifying poem "Bidrohi" or "The Rebel", and also because of his strong sympathy and support for revolutionary activities leading to India's independence from British Rule. His songs and poems were frequently used during the Bangladesh Liberation War as well. Though he is acknowledged as the rebel poet, Nazrul very effectively contributed in all branches of literature. He wrote poems that light the fire against inequality or injustice and at the same time is known for his poignant romantic poems as well. He wrote a lot of Islami Ghazals and in the same time wrote a number of Shyama Sangeet (songs for the Hindu Mother Goddess, Kali). Nazrul was not only a poet, he was writer, musician, journalist and philosopher. He was sent to jail for his literary works against the then prevailing British rule.
After Rabindranath Tagore, two dramatists radically brought about a major change in Bengali theatre. One was Nurul Momen and the other was Bijon Bhattacharya. Nurul Momen created the first modern and experimental plays from East Bengal, which later became East Pakistan and subsequently, Bangladesh. Nurul Momen (1908–1990), also known as Natyaguru, was an educationist, playwright, director, humorist, lawyer, broadcaster, philanthropist and essayist of Bangladesh. He is recognized as the pioneer of modern Bengali drama, "acting as a bridge between earlier and later playwrights in terms of content and style", and even referred to as the "Father of Bangladeshi theatre".
Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay was one of the most popular novelists of early 20th century whose speciality was exploring the life and suffering of women in contemporary rural Bengal. His sympathy towards the common rural folks in "pallisamaj" and a trademark simplified Bengali as a writing style made him one of the most popular writers in his time. Even long after his death many Bengali and Bollywood blockbusters were based on his novels. After him Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay and Manik Bandopadhyay were the three Bandopadhyays who broke out into a new era of realistic writing style. Where Bibhutibhusan and Manik had long standing influence on the two of the most brilliant film directors from Bengal, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak respectively. Other famous Bengali novelists include Humayun Ahmed, Humayun Azad, Jagadish Gupta, Satinath Bhaduri, Balai Chand Mukhopadhyay (Banophool), Shawkat Osman, Saradindu Bandopadhyay, Kamal Kumar Majumdar, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Syed Shamsul Haque, Akhteruzzaman Elias, Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Bimal Mitra, Bimal Kar, Samaresh Basu, Mani Shankar Mukherjee (Shankar), Shyamal Gangapadhyay and Amar Mitra. Seeds of Bengali science fiction are evident in the writings of Jagadish Chandra Bose, which was later put into a definite genre by writers such as Jagadananda Roy, Begum Roquia Sakhawat Hussain, and Premendra Mitra, Satyajit Ray. Muhammed Zafar Iqbal and Abdullah-Al-Muti are also very popular in this genre.
Bengali literature is also famous for short stories. Some famous short story writers are Rabindranath Tagore, Manik Bandopadhyay, Jagadish Gupta, Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Rajshekhar Basu (Parasuram), Syed Mujtaba Ali, Premendra Mitra, Kamal Kumar Majumdar, Shibram Chakrabarti, Saradindu Bandopadhyay, Subodh Ghosh, Narendranath Mitra, Narayan Gangopadhyay, Satyajit Ray, Leela Majumdar, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Ratan Lal Basu, Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Samir Roychoudhury, Subimal Basak, Basudeb Dasgupta,Subimal Mishra, Syed Waliullah, Amar Mitra, Shawkat Osman, Akhtaruzzaman Ilias, Hasan Azizul Huq, Shahidul Zahir, Jyotirindranath Nandi, Humayun Ahmedetc.
Rajanikanta Sen, Atulprasad Sen, Dwijendralal Ray, Jatindramohan Bagchi, Kumud Ranjan Mullick, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Jibanananda Das, along with Buddhadeva Bose, marks the beginning of the major move to transcend the Tagore legacy . Commonly called "polli-kobi" (pastoral poet) Jasimuddin, Shamsur Rahman, widely known for his 'playing with words' are also notable. Others are Al Mahmud, Abul Hasan and Abdul Mannan Syed.
Seminal Hindu religious works in Bengali include the many songs of Ramprasad Sen. His works (still sung today) from the 17th century cover an astonishing range of emotional responses to the goddess Kali, detailing complex philosophical statements based on Vedanta teachings and more visceral pronouncements of his love of the goddess. They are known as Shyama Sangeet and were the literary inspiration for Kazi Nazrul Islam's later, famed Shyama Sangeet. There are also the laudatory accounts of the lives and teachings of the Vaishnava saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (the Choitanyo Choritāmrit) and Shri Ramakrishna (the Ramakrishna Kathamrita, translated roughly as Gospel of Ramakrishna). There is also a large body of Islamic literature, that can be traced back at least to Noornama by Abdul Hakim. Bishad Sindhu depicting the death of Hussain in Karbala is very popular novel written by Mir Mosharraf Hossain. Later works influenced by Islam include devotional songs written by Nazrul, and popularized by Abbas Uddin, among others.
The mystic Bauls of the Bengal countryside who preached the boundless spiritual truth of Sôhoj Pôth (the Simple, Natural Path) and Moner Mānush (A person of The Heart) drew on Vedantic philosophy to propound transcendental truths in song format, traveling from village to village proclaiming that there was no such thing as Hindu, Muslim or Christian, only moner mānush.
The literature discussed so far can be more or less regarded as the common heritage of both Bangladesh and West Bengal. Since the partition of Bengal in 1947, the east and west parts of Bengal have also developed their own distinctive literatures. For example, the Naxalite movement has influenced much of West Bengal's literature, whereas the Liberation War has had a similarly profound impact on Bangladeshi literature.
Nurul Momen, Syed Waliullah, Shahidullah Kaisar, Shawkat Osman, Ahsan Habib, Farrukh Ahmed, Syed Ali Ahsan, Syed Shamsul Haque, Abu Zafar Obaidullah, Sufia Kamal, Al Mahmud, Abubakar Siddique, Ghulam Murshid, Hasan Azizul Huq, Selina Hossain, Arunabh Sarkar, Shawkat Ali, Akhtaruzzaman Ilias, Rafiq Azad, Nirmalendu Goon, Taslima Nasrin, Abul Hasan, Abid Azad, Humayun Azad, Humayun Ahmed, Muhammed Zafar Iqbal, Hasan Hafizur Rahman, Shaheed Quaderi, Khondakar Ashraf Hossain, and Helal Hafiz to name a few.
Nihar Ranjan Gupta, Ashutosh Mukhopadhyay, Kamal Kumar Majumdar, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Syed Mustafa Siraj, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Samaresh Basu, Atin Bandyopadhyay, Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Mahasweta Devi, Moti Nandi, Bimal Kar, Narayan Gangopadhyay, Shankar, Suchitra Bhattacharya, Bani Basu, Buddhadeb Guha, Abdul Jabbar, Amar Mitra, Satyajit Ray and others.
Rajshekhar Basu (1880–1960) was the best-known writer of satiric short story in Bengali literature. He mocked the charlatanism and vileness of various classes of the Bengali society in his stories written under the pseudonym "Parashuram". His major works include: Gaddalika (1924), Kajjwali (1927), Hanumaner Swapna (1937), Gamanush Jatir Katha (1945), Dhusturimaya Ityadi Galpa (1952), Krishnakali Ittadi Galpa (1953), Niltara Ittadi Galpa (1956), Anandibai Ittadi Galpa (1958) and Chamatkumari Ittadi Galpa (1959). He received the Rabindra Puraskar, the highest literary award of Paschimbanga in 1955 for Krishnakali Ityadi Galpa. Rajsheskhar was also a noted lexicographer, translator and essayist. His Chalantika (1937) is one of the most popular concise Bengali dictionaries, while his Bengali-language translations of Meghaduta (1943), the Ramayana (1946), the Mahabharata (1949) and the Bhagavat Gita (1961) are also acclaimed. His major essays are included in Laghuguru (1939) and Bichinta (1955).
Important novelists and short story writers of post-independence West Bengal are Jagadish Gupta (1886–1957), Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay (1889–1971), Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (1894–1950), Premendra Mitra (1904–1988), Manik Bandyopadhyay (1908–1956), Bibhutibhushan Mukhopadhyay (1894–1987), Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay (1899–1970), Achintya Kumar Sengupta (1903–1986), Annadashankar Roy (1904–2002), Buddhadeb Basu (1908–1974), Satinath Bhaduri (1906–1965), Narayan Gangopadhyay (1918–1970), and Subodh Ghosh (1900–1980). Noted poets of this age are Jibanananda Das (1899–1954), Sudhindranath Dutta (1901–1960), Bishnu Dey (1909–1982), Amiya Chakrabarty (1901–1986), Samar Sen (1916–1987), Subhas Mukhopadhyay (1919–2003) and Sukanta Bhattacharya (1926–1947). Major dramatists include: Sachin Sengupta (1892–1961) and Bidhayak Bhattacharya (1907–1986). Prominent prose-writers of this age are Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay (1890–1977), Sukumar Sen (1900–1992), and Pramathanath Bishi (1901–1985).
One of the path-breaking literary movements in West Bengal is known as The Hungry generation or Hungryalism. The famous poets of this movement are Malay Roy Choudhury, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Binoy Majumdar, Utpalkumar Basu Samir Roychoudhury, Falguni Roy, and Tridib Mitra. The fiction writers are Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Basudeb Dasgupta, Subimal Basak, Malay Roy Choudhury and Samir Roychoudhury. The painters are Anil Karanjai and Karunanidhan Mukhopadhyay. In 2011 director Srijit Mukherji incorporated the Hungry generation movement into mainstream cinema when he directed Baishe Srabon wherein famous film director Gautam Ghose portrayed the role of an anti-establishment Hungryalist poet. Mrigankashekhar Ganguly directed and produced a short film based on Malay Roy Choudhurys poem Stark Electric Jesus.
Prakalpana Movement, branded by Steve LeBlanc, the noted US critic, as 'a tiny literary revolution', 'nurtured' by Kolkata, has been fostering its new genres of Prakalpana fiction, Sarbangin poetry and Chetanavyasism for over four decades, spearheaded by Vattacharja Chandan, beginning in 1969. It is probably the only bilingual (Bengali -English) literary movement in India mothered by Bengali literature, that has spread its wings worldwide through the participation of well known international avant-garde writers and mail artists such as Richard Kostelanetz, John M. Bennett, Sheila Murphy, Don Webb, with notable Bengali poets, writers and artists like Vattacharja Chandan.
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