The Bengali literature originated from the classical Indo-Aryan Sanskrit language and literature. But the influence of other non-Aryan languages on Bengali cannot be ignored. It is also believed that the Bengali literature was also influenced by Kol and Dravidian (the Santhals, the Malers, the Oraons) and the Boda and Mon-Khmer speakers in the northern and eastern frontiers. Professor Nihar Ranjan Roy concludes in his Bangalir Itihas: Adiparba that “… in addition to Sanskrit, there were two other languages in vogue in Bengal in the 9th and 10th centuries: one was derived from Souraseni and the other derived from Magadhi. The latter is said to have evolved later into Bengali”.
Bengali Poetry :
Bengali literature has its roots in poetry. Folk tales collected from famous stories or themes composed by “Kobials” or folk poets and Bauls or street singers had long caught the imagination of the captive audiences in the rural areas. These folk tales laid the foundation for modern poetry in Bengal. The Caryas or the mystic and religious songs discovered by Haraprasad Sastri in 1916 from an old manuscript in Nepal represents one of the earliest forms of Bengali literature. Jayadev was one of the earliest and the most famous Bengali poets. His masterpiece Geet Govinda remains a fitting testament of the classical Puranic traditions of the Vaishnav poetry. In the 12th and the 13th centuries a new kind of religious literature emerged, which gathered its themes from popular tales, and came to be known as Panchali or Mangala literature in Bengal. Examples of this form of literature are afforded by Krttivasa’s Sri Rama-panchali (15th century), Maladhara Vasu’s Sri Krishna Vijaya (1480), Vipradasa of Manasa-vijaya (1495) and Vijaya Gupta’s Manasa-mangala (1494). The Dharma-mangala poems of the 18th century also fall in this category. The Chaitanya Movement also led the emergence of long narrative devotional poetry. Examples of this kind include Murari Gupta’s Kadcha, Paramananda Sena’s Chaitanya-chandrodaya and Chaitanya-charitamrata, Vrindavana Dasa’s Chaitanya-bhagavata, Madhava Acharya’s Sri Krishna-mangala and Syamadasa’s Govinda-mangala. Later, Madhusudan Dutta introduced blank verses and sonnets and presented to the world his masterpiece epic poetry Meghnad Badh Kavya, making a true beginning of modern Bengali poetry. Bengali poetry reached its peak in the hands of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, whose book of lyrics called Gitanjali translated into English by himself earned him the Nobel Prize in 1913.
Bengali Prose :
In contrast to the Bengali poetry, the history of Bengali prose is relatively new. It was largely developed and introduced by the missionaries of Serampore and by the Fort William College. Nathaniel B. Halhead published the Bengali grammar in 1778 and William Carey (1761-1834) translated the Bible into Bengali in 1801. The Bengali prose thus developed in the early 19th century was nothing more than a mixture of Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian words. The first Bengali book of prose was Ramram Basu’s Raja Pratapaditya Charita, published in 1801. The author later wrote another book Lipimala. In 1802, Batrisa Simhasana written by Mritunjaya Vidyalankar was published. The same writer also published three other books like Hitopadesh, Rajabali, Vedanta-chandrika and Prabodh Chandrika. Raja Rammohan Roy published his first book of prose called Vedanta Grantha in 1815. During the period 1815-1830, Rammohan Roy wrote thirty books in Bengali. He translated some of the Upanishads and rendered the Bhagwad Gita into Bengali verse. Later on, other writers like Bankim Chandra, Sharad Chandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, Pyarichand Mitra and Tekchand Thakur enriched the Bengali prose with their pioneering works. Since then the Bengali prose went through a complete course of evolution. Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-91), who is considered as the father of modern Bengali literary prose, wrote Sakuntala (1854), Sitar Vanavasa (1860) and Bhranti-vilasa (1869). The other important Bengali writers and novelists of the 19th and the 20th centuries include Charu Chandra Banerjee (1876-1938), Indira Devi (1880-1922), Anurupa Devi (1882-1958), Nirupama Devi (1883-1951), Saurindramohan Mukherjee (1884-1966), Rakhaldas Banerjee (1885-1930), Gokul Chandra Nag (1895-1925), Sailajananda Mukherjee (1900-1976), Bibhutibhusan Banerjee (1899-1950), Rabindranath Maitra (1896-1933), Rajsekhar Basu (1880-1960), Prabodhkumar Sanyal (b.1907), Sita Devi (1896-1974) and Santa Devi (b.1894).
According to Professor Sukumar Sen, the evolution of Bengali novelist tradition can be separated into four well-defined periods.
(a) The Loric Period: This was the earliest form of Bengali literature, which centred on fables and Puranic tales and was either romantic or religious in content. Examples include Lausen’s Adventure from Dharmamangal by the 17th century poet Roopram Chakravarty and Vidyasundar by Bharatchandra.
(b) The Bankim Period: The initial stories of this period, like Chandrakanta and Kaminikumar, were written in verses and provided a romantic setting for the readers. A new era dawned with Pyarichand Mitra’s trend-setting prose-based novel Alaler Gharer Dulal (1858). However, it was Bankim Chandra Chatterjee who finally dropped the curtain on the Loric period by publishing his masterpiece Durgeshnandini (1865). Romesh Chandra Dutt (1848-1909) played an important role in the literary history of Bengal. He wrote four historical romances, Vanga-vijeta (1874), Madhavi-Kankana (1877), Maharastra-jivana-prabhata (1878) and Rajput-jivana-sandhya (1879), besides two novels Samsara (1886) and Samaja (1894). Damodar Mukherjee (1853-1907) wrote Mrnmayi (1874) and Nawabnandini as sequels to Bankim Chandra’s Kapala-kundala and Durgesanandini respectively. Bhudev Mukherjee (Aitihasika Upanyasa and Anguriya-Vinimaya), Sanjib Chandra Chatterjee (Kanthamala, Madhavilata and Jal Pratapchand), Taraknath Ganguli (Swarnalata), Sivanath Sastri (Mejabau and Yugantara) and Swarnakumari Devi (Dipanirvana, Chinnamukula, Malati) are the other important writers of this period.
(c) The Tagore Period: The Tagore period, which co-existed with the Sarat Period, has been the most defining period in Bengali literature. It has its essentially distinctive universal appeal, richness and variety of literary styles. Tagore was not just a Bengali poet or writer but a world phenomenon. His short stories are many and varied in their content, taste, presentation, universal appeal and inherent literary beauty. In his novels, Tagore observed and depicted people in their family and social settings. He also aptly portrayed the Western influence on the Bengali culture and people. (See also: Rabindranath Tagore’s Literary Repertoire)
(d) The Sarat Period: Sarat Chandra Chatterjee can be credited for taking the modern Bengali literature to the masses. He highlighted aspects of human love, faith and society in his writings and championed the cause of the under-priviledged and the women in his stories. His novels and short stories appealed to people of all walks of life. His immaculate writing style made him one of the world’s best-loved novelists. Haraprasad Sastri (1853-1931) wrote two historical novels Kanchanamala (1916) and Bener Meye (1920). Swami Vivekanda was also a vigorous writer in Bengali. Prachya O Pascatya, Bhavvar Katha, Vartamana Bharata and Parivrajaka are the few books which contain his original writings in Bengali. Other writers of the Sarat tradition include famous novelists like Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, Balaichand Mukhopadhyay (‘Banfool’), Abadhoot, Akshay Kumar Maitreya and Vimal Mitra.