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‘Bengal Renaissance’

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In his Notes on the Bengal Renaissance (1946), Bengali Marxist historian Sushobhan Sarkar characterised the social and cultural awakening in 19th-century Bengal as the “Bengal Renaissance.” However, he pointed out serious limitations of this renaissance in Conflict within the Bengal Renaissance (1967): “it did move on the axis of the upper stratum alone of society, the ‘bhadraloks’; it could not draw in the Muslim community and the masses of the backward Hindus.”

Recently, the cult figure of the Bengal Renaissance and eminent Bengali novelist, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, has come under public scrutiny. While delivering the first Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay Memorial Lecture, organised by the Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation in Kolkata, the Bharatiya Janata Party national president Amit Shah said: “The Congress never respected the
national song ‘Vande Mataram’ and had neglected the ideals of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. It had also censored the national song to two stanzas instead of accepting the whole song to suit its appeasement politics. This led to the Partition.”

Shah’s lecture has triggered public debate among political scientists and historians. Historian Sabyasachi Bhattacharya does not deny that “some literary critics of Bankim’s times pointed to his habit of ‘heroising’ Hindu characters and denigrating Muslims.” He feels that Bankim Chandra continues to remain “relevant in our times.” Political psychologist Ashis Nandy has opined that the idea of Bengal’s Hindu nationalism, as articulated by Bankim Chandra, was “mildly violent,” which “may not go well with the Sangh Parivar’s brand of violent nationalism” (see Suvojit Bagchi, “Battle over Bankim Chandra in Bengal,” Hindu, 29 June 2018).

The above debate articulating around the legacy of a 19th-century icon of the Bengal Renaissance reminds us that the naxalite movement in West Bengal in the late 1960s and the early 1970s questioned the cult figures of 19th-century Bengal quite violently. The recent contestations over Bankim Chandra’s writings testify that cultural traditions always get new meanings in different political times.

Arup Kumar Sen

Kolkata

Updated On : 9th Jul, 2018

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