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Bankimchandra - Essays in Perspective

Bankimchandra - Essays in Perspective
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Item Code: NAR533
Author: Bhabatosh Chatterjee
Publisher: Sahitya Akademi, Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 1994
ISBN: 8172015542
Pages: 743 (4 B/W and 1 Color Illustrations)
Other Details: 11.00 X 9.00 inch
weight of the book: 2.4 kg
About the Book

BANKIMCHANDRA CHATTERJEE (1838-1894), the premier and pioneering figure in Bengali-and Indian-literature, was born about eight decades after the battle of Plessey and graduated from the University of Calcutta a year after the Sepoy Mutiny. He thus grew up in a crucial phase of transition marked by chaos and change, in an unsteady equilibrium of an old and a new order, and his unique talent fashioned-and continually refined-a mode/modes of articulation that represented and reshaped the sensibilities and aspirations of a nation. It is indeed a pity that in India (and abroad) he is known chiefly as the author of Vande Mataram, an incantatory anthem that inspired generations of patriots and freedom-fighters ; the plenitude of his creative endeavors’, the range and depth of his vision and his shaping influence on almost every aspect of modern Indian culture are little known.

To think about the solitary individuals who strengthened the bonds of solidarity, who embodied in themselves the spirit of the times and also altered the dialect and cultural ethos of the community, who preserved and enriched humanity's precious treasures, is our perennial duty. There are many ways to commemorate a phenomenon like Bankim, and the least the men of letters can do is to register their honest, unprejudiced responses that would, we can only hope, set up new standards and produce a discriminating intelligence that alone ensures the true perspective. To restore the past as a living presence, .to recreate and remodel the image of our eminent ancestors is the moral obligation of a society that is awake to the danger of separation between the past and the present.

Bankimchandra's literary and other achievements are part of the nation's history ; a full assessment of his work that spans diverse fields is a stupendous job and beyond our limited resources. Ours is a much humbler task. Keeping in view his counsel that it is wholesome 'to consider questions that arise from different and even opposed points of view', we have sought to provide a plurality of perspectives. The present collection of essays covers several aspects of his personality and genius, seen from contrary angles, to which eminent critics and scholars, Indian and Western, have contributed. We have also incorporated the tributes and reminiscences of the author's illustrious contemporaries, disciples and admirers. However, to read afresh the past authors 'through the eyes of the present' is a necessary task to be undertaken by every succeeding generation, and this volume is both a homage and an attempt at revaluation by more recent critics. Apart from valuable studies of the many aspects of Bankimchandra's art and thought, the volume contains, in the appendices, a full and comprehensive chronicle of his life, from year to year, a bibliography of his publications in English, Bengali and other Indian languages, an English rendering of the prologue and the first chapter of Anandamath by Sri Aurobindo, and excerpts from the author's ideas and speculations (in the English original). Reproductions in colour of some of the author's photographs and of some famous portraits add to the value of the publication.

The volume has been planned by a board of distinguished members and edited with care and reverence by Professor Bhabatosh Chatterjee, for whom the work is an act of piety.


IN an essay written in 1894, a few months after Bankimchandra's death, Sri Aurobindo-he was then barely twenty-two-summed up in a brief phrase the achievement of the foremost literary figure and thinker of nineteenth-century Bengal-and India : he created 'a language, a literature and a nation'. Bengali prose and the fictional mode had been in the period of gestation before Bankimchandra came upon the scene. The tentative groping suddenly, almost magically, began to blossom, and one has to read Rabindranath's reminiscent pieces to realize the full significance of the growth.

This volume is a modest acknowledgment of our large debt to a man who is one of the makers of modern India, striving through trial and error to arrive at his ideal of synthesis of all that is best and worth preserving in the East and the West. It covers several areas : reminiscences, tributes, assessment (not obviously exhaustive) of Bankimchandra's influence-direct and indirect-on the literatures of other Indian regions, critical studies, revaluations, and attempts to find his link with modern sensibility and literary technique and also the relevance of his creative work and thought to the present context. The contributors are well-known in their respective fields, and quite a few are eminent scholars, critics and philosophers. And there is a wide gap of generation : some are Bankimchandra's contemporaries and disciples, and some are comparatively young researchers. The nineteenth-century men of letters are placed beside the moderns. Readers' reception spannning more than eight decades is a barometer of changing responses and critical yardsticks and an instructive experience. The views expressed in the essays vary and are often conflicting ; this is reassuring. Disagreement is often a sign of health, and uniformity is a sign of inanition. The apparently wide-ranging studies may, however, be misleading. This is primarily a memorial volume and does not aim at a comprehensive treatment of the subject : it is not a review of or guide to research, although students of literature may find it a helpful companion. Our chief objectives are to show the extent of our obligations to our esteemed ancestor, to emphasize the continuity between the past and the present, and to promote the interest of sensitive readers, especially of non-Bengali and English-speaking readers, in the work of Bankimchandra, who, we believe, still is and will continue to be a living power.

Sahitya Akademi owes a very special debt to Professor Bhabatosh Chatterjee who edited the volume with rare devotion and meticulous attention to detail and offered us inspiring guidance at each stage of execution. He bore a heavy burden ; but for him, it was a labour of love.


BANKIMCHANDRA belonged to the truly great men of all time, and to remember him is something more than an act of piety. It is to awake to the danger of separation between the past and the present, to re-enter a half-forgotten world from which we have almost deliberately shut ourselves out, to search for the lost key. To think about the solitary individuals who strengthened the bonds of solidarity, who embodied in themselves the spirit of the times and also altered, through love, dissemination of knowledge and creative power, the dialect and sensibilty of the community, who preserved and enriched humanity's precious treasures, is our perennial duty. But we must be on guard that this obligation is not reduced to an inane ritual. The irony is that this happens too often and we are seldom aware that remembrance-active remembrance-is a commitment, to a way of life. Still, in this benighted climate when a feeble flicker strikes the eye as a sign of grace, even a modest memorial is a positive gesture.

There are many ways to commemorate a phenomenon like Bankim, and perhaps the most urgent need is to bring him back to life, to discuss his art and thought, to debate about his achievements-a polemic that does not fall into acrimony. The debate should aim at not the resuscitation of his stature, the threat to which is mostly imaginary, nor at a repudiation of his significance, which for many is a wholesome engagement. There should be twin objectives : to sift the wheat from the tares (if there are any), and to stimulate the interest of the people-of various levels of intelligence-to have direct-or indirect-access to his work. (The publication of inexpensive editions of his writings in the Bengali original and translations, theatrical performances and audio-visual aids are necessary to promote the cause.) Bankim's detractors commit the folly of assuming that skilful destructive analysis and continuous drum-fire can perpetually silence a living voice. His admirers commit the opposite folly of supposing that a genius needs no laurel, that what is vital sustains itself. They forget that the majority of our people cannot read or write, that public memory needs constant whetting, that we live in an age when technologically controlled disinformation has assumed a menacing form blocking genuine communication, that we should think about him for our own benefit, and finally that even the weightiest writings may contain quite a bit of dead wood. They should be reminded of Bankim's counsel.

Let us not be awed and silenced by the imposing authority of ancient names, or be led away by pretended learning or antiquated jargon. Let us look steadily and boldly into the face of things ; discard falsehood whenever we meet with it, hoary and hallowed by time though it may be ; and if in our search we meet with truth, let us drag it out of the darkness under which it was hid, and enthrone it in the light of Heaven.

To restore the past as a living presence, to recreate the image of our eminent ancestors, rescuing them from the mould into which we have cast them-by design or through insensibility-are in a sense a self-questioning. As we look back, we see ourselves in a mirror with disturbing clarity. But this may also mean a fresh beginning, a stimulus to go on a new journey. The journey may be unending, with no beacon-lights or shores in immediate view, but to make this journey is the moral obligation of a society that calls itself civilized. The job is stupendous, spanning a wide field, and there are many areas that are, for good or ill, under the exclusive dominion of an impersonal machinery before which the man of letters feels helpless. He either comes to terms timidly with the mighty machine or shrinks into a corner, for in the present unpropitious times, especially in the last few decades, there has been almost a total schism between thought and action. The least the man of letters can do is to register his honest, unprejudiced responses that would, we can only hope, set up new standards and produce a discriminating intelligence. There is no denying that objective conditions beget ideas ; but ideas too, however fettered and opaque, can reshape the social situation, and a radically altered landscape alone ensures the true perspective. There are, again, unforeseen and often insurmountable obstacles, apart from exterior problems. For instance, Bankimchandra, as a literary artist, thinker and human being, presents difficulties of a peculiar nature, and as a critic (whatever the field) addresses himself to the business and attempts an appraisal-or a reappraisal-of his accomplishment and its impact, he is likely to miss the wood in the trees and lose his way in the snarled forest. One major difficulty, leaving aside for the moment our own inherent limitations, is setting the field of observation. Should we approach him as a pure literary artist, dissociat-ing his art from extraliterary considerations ? Should we see him as a patriot, prophet and humanist, track out and analyze the traceries of his thoughts, and like a detached but interested observer, watch the force of his ideas directing or redirecting the course of events in our nation's history? Or should we see him as a philosopher and sage, engaged in the formulation of a new creed to salvage his battered people and humanity? Again, the question whether it is permissible to disentangle his art from his thoughts is a riddle that may deter our progress. But even if we succeed in fixing the tent, new hurdles obstruct and arrest our movement.

IN a fresh estimation of a major writer whose work has attained to the distinction of `classic', an almost insuperable hindrance is his established reputation, the literary/extrinsic tag fastened on the jamb at the doorway ; we are all familiar with the formulated phrases that exile a writer to the isolation of a cell walled off from the living world. With changes of taste and the climate of opinion, the labels change ; but the old labels, weather-worn and grey, also stick. What enhances the difficulty is the curious fact that while each sticker is a falsification (or, should we say, an infliction), each has a certain appropriateness and justification, and the common reader, confronted with such profusion of 'secondary intentions' that come between the author and his audience, prefers deference to the most respectable opinion or to the most dreaded chimera. The same perilous swamp awaits us-the mire is of course our own insensitivity-as we encounter Bankimchandra, and the confusions we struggle with are, at least apparently, related to the nature of his personality and his genius. His life (or whatever little we know of his life), thought and creativity show puzzling paradoxes : an epicure (in the current sense) and an ethicist (with a streak of puritanism) ; warm and aloof ; tender and detached ; an agnostic and a pietist ; a rebel and a conformist ; a liberal and a conservative ; a crusader for science with deep distrust of deductive reasoning and a believer in miracles ; a wavered between freewill and predetermination ; an ardent patriot and a critical observer-his criticism often bordering on derision-of India's past ; a prophet of nationalism (more specifically, of Hindu nationalism), and a humanist with width of vision and a preacher of universal love ; rigidly dogmatic and an uncompromising rationalist ; a zealous advocate of equality (irrespective of sex, caste and class) and an upholder of conventions ; a champion of progress (even admitting anarchy in the social order*) and a concerned defender of stability ; a sympathetic delineator of primal passions and a stern moralist ; a realist with acute-often cynical-observation, and a visionary portraying the exile and the kingdom to come.

We witness thus a variety of Bankims, as many incarnations as there are critical groups or schools, and expositors can hardly be blamed. What is , we wonder, the real Bankim ? We are advised to distinguish the man from his work; but the task is not easy, as the authorial presence is unmistakable in his varied writings, creative and critical. Are there any clues to this elusive genius? We may, in this connation, refer to some statements that may throw light on his thought-process and creative method. The first is his explanatory note in the preface-reminiscent of John Stuart Mill's remark in his essay on liberty-to Bengali Selections (compiled and edited by him at the request of the Syndicate of the University of Calcutta for the Entrance Examination, 1895) :

The statement has several levels of meaning. First, it implies the incompleteness of our knowledge of reality (in whatever sense we use the word real). The ancillary assumption is that truth-or, human apprehension of truth is not absolute, but relative. Secondly, the acknowledgement of contrary and alternative attitudes and views underlines the absurdity of dogmatic assertion and enjoins on us the need for humility, the need to listen to and respect the voices of dissent. Thirdly, it has an aesthetic implication that is most pertinent to our understanding of Bankim's mind and art. A literary object may be composite, incorporating. in its capacious structure a heterogeneity of emotion, disposition and stance, including both either/or, for/against. Does this structure achieve unity (the concept of organic unity is an Aristotelian inheritance), or is there a rupture, an effect of the collision of antagonistic elements? Coleridge in his elucidation of the Imagination says that this power reveals itself 'in the balance or reconcilement of opposite or discordant qualities'. Does the nineteenth-century poet-philosopher use the two terms-`balance' and 'reconcile-in.ent'-as interchangeable ? But 'reconcilement' indicates concord, a state of resolution, while `balance'-7-a metaphor drawn from the measuring apparatus-suggests an insecure equilibrium in which the two sides are of equal weight. It is true that Coleridge's emphasis is on the unifying power of the Imagination, but he also recognizes-maybe implicitly-a state of tension in which the poise may slide into strife. The co-existence/conflict of dissimilar passions and ways of thinking may produce discordance, and unity is not necessarily an artistic virtue. Existence means contradiction, and harmony is often an artificial encrustation on the living. If we assume that art represents life (the term representation means different things to different people), then harmony need not be its end; it may as well end in shreds. A literary object (with all its variants, additions and excisions in different versions/editions) requires close scrutiny, aimed at the discovery of hidden fissures, silences and absences that may contain divergent points of view. It necessarily follows that as an alert reader participates in the text, he finds hints and suggestions not overtly stated, which the author, for whatever reason, may have intended to suppress, or which reflect the author's subconscious/unconscious intentions, or which convey indirectly the inarticulate feelings of characters reacting to specific situations. Meanings also lie hidden in certain unexpected words and images. The collaboration of generations of readers brings forth multiple responses that accumulate and extend progressively the area of significance. This invalidates the notion of the closed text. However, while admitting the theory that the text continually expands, we should recognize the value of the original text/texts that give ultimate sanction to our wanderings; otherwise, our pursuit would lack direction and degenerate into a ramble. Literary appreciation thus involves a two-fold journey: a going forward in exploration of uncharted sign-posts and repeated return to the starting point with new insights.

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