Globalization of Bengali Literature: Then and now in the 21st Century
Sabyasachi Ghosh Dastidar
If one has to talk about globalization of Bengali, or Bangla, as the theme of 2009 Muktadhara New York Book Fair, one may ask is our beloved Bengali becoming more popular around-the-world, or loosing its significance? Are more outsiders learning Bengali these days than before? Let me first look back at the recent past of Bengali literature.
Bengalis and their literature has gone through four distinct and glorious periods of possible “globalization,” or more correctly significant development beginning in the early 19th Century drawing notice from her neighbors – the larger Indian culture to which we belong. Those four periods are (1) the Bengal Renaissance, Indian Renaissance and the Hindu Reform Movement of early 1800s, (2) the Indian Nationalist Movement coupled with anti-1905 Bengal partition – the Banga-Vanga-Birodh – movement, and the Self-reliant or Swadeshi Movement of early 1900s, ending in partition of India and Bengal in 1947, (3) the Bengali Language Movement that began in earnest in 1948 at Pakistan Parliament but culminated on February 21, 1952, the Ekushey or Twenty-first, the Language Martyr’s Day, and finally (4) the 1971 War of Liberation of Bangladesh and post-Liberation pride in all-things-Bengali. The Renaissance led by Raja Ram Mohon and Hindu Reform Movement were influenced by a large number of luminaries like Vidyasagar, Sri Ramakrishna, Brahmo Samaj, Young Bengal and Vivian DeRozio. As this era was associated in pride in Mother Bengal, Mother India and their native culture and their mother tongue, all the luminaries wrote their ideas in Bengali, the language they spoke. Anglicization hadn’t taken a firm hold in Bengali minds yet. For the first time Bengal’s State work was being conducted in Bengali, until then the Muslim rulers of Bengal used Persian for their State business. Exceptions to the rule were the Maharajas of Tripura and Cooch Behar who used Bengali in their administration. Writings of leaders of Renaissance and religious reformers were the beginning of modern Bengali literature. A large part of that discourse was on religion, especially Hindu religion including the rot within Hindu practices. Almost four hundred years after Sri Chaitanya’s pacifist Vaishnavism-driven art, music and literature Bengal witnessed flowering of Bengali literature unparallel anywhere in India since the Middle Ages. The religious movements of Brahmo Samaj and Hindu Reformation competed with each other to capture the Bengali and Indian minds enriching Bengali literature which included questioning the religious practices and Hinduism itself. (Questioning Bengal’s other main religion Islam was not practiced, although Bengali Muslims like Rokeya Begum and Nazrul Islam in the early 20th Century attempted to advance reformist ideas in Muslim culture, as Syed Ahmad Khan attempted in northern India. Their effect on the Muslim society was marginal at best.)
Bengal and Indian Renaissance led to the rise of Indian nationalism where Bengali nationalism complimented Indian nationalism. When people wrote about Banga Mata or Mother Bengal it was not a secessionist mother but a reincarnation of Bharat Mata or Mother India. Bengali nationalists – Hindu and Muslim – often said it is like strengthening an arm strengthens the entire body. Devotion to God played an immense role in the modern Bengali literature of Renaissance and post-Renaissance. This period produced not only writers and philosophers, but also poets, composers, singers and theologians like Bankim Chandra, Michael Madhusudan, D. L. Roy, Rabindranath, Abanindranath, Rokeya, Kazi Nazrul, RajaniKanto, Hasan Raja, Vivekananda, Mir Mosharaf, Sarat Chandra, Dinabandhu Andrews, AtulPrasad, David Hare, Mukunda Das, Swami Pranavananda, Rev. Lal Behari Dey, Sri Aurobindo and so many more. This was a period when rest of India – and Europeans arriving in India and wanting to know Indian and Hindu cultures – learned Bengali to understand the culture of India. One can argue that this was a period of “globalization” of Bengali – if one can use that term. Religion and religious literature played a very important roles for non-Bengalis’ attraction to learn Bengali. And those religions were caste-less Vaishnavism of Hinduism, new thinking of Brahmo religion, and the liberal-reformed Hinduism of Vidyasagar and Sri Ramakrishna. Non-religious secular literature as we understand today was yet to mature and small in volume to attract beyond India. Yet this flowering of Bengali almost stopped with the partition of Bengal in 1947 as if by divine symbolism Kazi Nazrul’s pen fell silent at the same time! This pre-partition period witnessed the rise of Mahatma Gandhi-led Indian Independence Movement and Mohammad Ali Jinnah-led separatist Muslim Pakistan Movement which led to partition of Bengal and marginalization of Muslim-majority East Bengal in Pakistan and Hindu-majority West Bengal in India. Thus marginalization of second-largest linguistic group in India and fifth-largest in the world began.
It seems it was not just Nazrul whose pen froze with partition, but the entire Bengali nation and their literature – Muslim and Hindu – came to a halt. Who can we cite a star similar to those mentioned earlier? A victim of partition was in her religious identity and writings, music and dance on Mother Bengal as it was associated with Hinduism. In East Pakistan pan-Muslim identity took a front seat as opposed to the Bengali-Muslim identity that drew strength from the pre-Islam and post-Islam Bengal, her festivities and rituals rising from its soil. The new mood was a reaffirmation of the rising Islamic identity with the rise of Muslim League’s influence in Bengal. The saying, “We are Muslim, and they are Bengali” meaning Hindu Bengali was reinforced for some time. It would take almost 75 years from a Bengali homecoming revolution started by Roekya, Mosharaf, and Nazrul that was completed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the Bengali nation. But this process of reinventing our identity also continued in Hindu-majority West Bengal in India. Ironically there rose a different form of anti-Bengali anti-nativist-Hindu, anti-nationalist atheist politics in the name of Left, secularism and Communism. Strangely the people who promoted this were none other than the East Bengali Hindu refugees who chose not to live with their Muslim-majority neighbors and oppressed-caste poor Hindu neighbors while preaching “Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai” (Hindus and Muslims are brothers together) yet saying to themselves “kintu tader sangey bash nai” (but don’t live with them as neighbors.) Thus two main sources of literature were taken off of the Bengali narratives: Bengal-based devotional and religious literature, and that of nation-based literature which had attracted outsiders to Bengali literature. In post-1947 era two Bengalis were reaching out to the outside world not as leaders in their own right but as part of a larger world of Islam for Muslim East Bengalis and to Marxist world through the Left and Communist politics of Hindus of West Bengal.
1952 witnessed a new assertion of East Bengalis, Hindu and Muslim, especially of Muslim East Bengalis towards their love of the language. Yet because of press censorship, propaganda and restrictions on travel that revolution did not reach the other half of Bengal, or more specifically, Indian Bengalis. But the language nationalism was on yet restricted to East Pakistan only. This march continued until 1971 when the East Bengalis took the center stage of world politics and her courage, culture and language came to the attention of the entire globe. This brought the two Bengalis a bit closer for a short time since the straw curtain of 1947, but soon vitiated by communal politics of West Bengali Communists – most of whom were of Bangladesh-Hindu origin who left Muslim-majority Bangladesh for Hindu-majority India – yet chanting “Yahya-Mujib ak hai,” perpetrator of genocide General Yahya Khan and undisputed winner of Pakistan election Mujibur Rahman leading the persecuted majority-Bengali are the same and one, and “Indira-Yahya ak hai,” mass killer Yahya Khan and liberator of Bangladesh Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi are the same and one. As a result the literary force that could expand as a culturally-unified linguistic group fell victim to a new divisiveness. Still learning of Bengali at home received full State support in Bangladesh ushering a new era in Bengali culture. With new passports Bengalis, especially Bangladeshis, now reached seven corners of the world globalizing them, rather than their science, industry and literature globalizing as many had wished for. The ray of hope was finally quashed with the murder of Sheikh Mujib in 1975 in favor of an Arabic- and Urdu-Islamism rejecting Bengal’s pre- and post-Islam Hindu past and composite Hindu-Muslim literary heritage. It was not really a murder of an individual but an idea. Simultaneously the Communists, led by Bangladeshi Hindus who left their home for “Hindu India,” came to power in West Bengal in 1977 rejecting the idea of Bengali, Indian and Hindu nationalism in favor atheist militancy negating the Bengal’s Hindu and Muslim past and their literary heritage in favor of Marxist literature of China and Russia. Who read those besides fundamentalist Marxists? In this process Bengali literature instead of globalizing, the Bengalis themselves started the process of marginalizing in favor of either Islamism or Marxism. Since then that process of marginalization of the Bengali and Bengali literature is continuing.
The plight of Bengali language and literature can be summed up through the lens of universities in the United States: shrinkage. Thirty years ago universities who offered any Indian language was most likely to be Bengali, excluding Sanskrit and Tibetan. However, thirty years later it is to the contrary. Now there are more colleges who offer Hindi or Hindi-Urdu than Bengali, additionally Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Punjabi and other languages are also offered. From 1950s through 1970s if universities offered Bengali it is was less to do with Rabindranath and Bankim – which was important – but it was the literature of Vaishnavism – Sri Chanitanya and post-Chaitanya era, Brahmo literature, writings associated with Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Aurobindo, of Hindu-Muslim puthi literature – mostly related to devotion to God, Islam, Mother Kali, or with native-Bengali-Hindu religion that post-partition Bengal rejected. All the Bengali-proficient American and European friends I personally know fall into this category. Then there are a few who learned Bengali in post-Bangladesh period were anthropologists who went to Bangladesh to learn about the newly emerging post-Liberation society.
From Bengal partition of 1947 to 2009 in the 21st Century Bengalis will be hard pressed to find a single individual who has attracted international acclaim for his/her literature. We are fortunate to have stalwarts like Nobel-winning Mother Teresa, Amartya Sen and Mohammad Yunus. Accidentally their work has to do with our poverty and human degradation, and in case of Sen it also had to do with our famine, not popular subjects for globalization of a language, and most of their writings are in English. Even Satyajit Ray’s Oscar fame had to do with poverty through the narratives of Bibhuti Bhusan – a pre-partition story teller. The true beauty of our land, the green-and-gold of the countryside, free-flowing rivers, the dirt paths of rural Bengal, flowering of shiuli during Sarawasti Puja, the baul-matua-murshidi-kirtan songs, the drum-beat of our festivities so eloquently narrated by Jibanananda and Jashimuddin are not attraction enough for globalization of a language in the midst of rising intolerance of Communism or Islamism, and routine violence and daily strikes associated with political extremism. It is not the global community but it is the Bengalis at home who have changed their focus from their own language. Bangladesh which attained a secular nationhood through a language movement – two hundred years since the French Revolution which brought the French-speaking people together – now has her preamble to Constitution written in Arabic replacing Bengali alphabet. When the Communist government of West Bengal opened a new university in North Bengal it chose its emblem in Hindi script over Bengali. Even the Calcutta University and Calcutta Corporation two of the oldest institutions of Colonial British India have Bengali in their emblems but not in Communist-ruled West Bengal who otherwise has banned learning of English and Hindi in schools so that poor Bengalis can’t link up with rest of India or with rest of the world. (Ministers send their kids and grandkids to private English-medium schools. Minister often lectures in English to Bengali audience that I once objected to a minister.) A new generation of Bengali or Bengal-born or Bengal-ancestry – but not with strong linguistic and religious identity – has attained fame lately writing in English. Some of them are Bharati Mukherji, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh, Suketu Mehta, Vikram Seth, Monica Ali, Chitra Banerji Devakaruni, and Tahmina Anam. Such is the reality. Today in Bangladesh and in West Bengal the trickle of foreign visitors are mainly associated with religion: visitors to Mother Teresa’s mission, visitors from Arab countries wanting to spread the new Wahabi Islam, followers of Srila Prabhupada’s ISKON who consider Sri Chanitanya as their first guru, visitors to Ramakrishna Mission, and followers of Sri Chinmoy. (In 2009 when my Marxist-American friends visited West Bengal, hardly any Bengali Marxist could be found who wanted to have a discourse with him. On the other hand in 2008 when some of my foreign friends visited Bangladesh they found delight in socializing with religious folks.) Some of the foreigners who are trying to Islamize Bengal Bengali literature is inconsequential to them than the literature of the religion written in foreign languages. This is also true who are trying Christianize Bengal, but less so. Once an assistant headmaster of an Islamic madrassa school complained to me the sad plight of Bengali literature in his curriculum as that was considered unimportant. The urge to learn Bengali literature for the last three Hindu-oriented groups is true but they are looked as Bengal-lovers by West Bengali atheist rulers, and are considered as nuisance rather than true friends of Bengal which they are. Nevertheless, one can argue that through West Bengal a little bit of Bengalization has taken place in India. But then again as Bangladesh and West Bengal has different definition of what is “Bengali” this may be challenged by some. The first is “Bengali” name. At one time names like Sabyasachi, Shefali, Shuvo, Joyeeta, Pratima, Amitava, Shiuli, Sujata, Meghna, Januma, Atreyi were known as “Bengali” name. But no more. Now one can find such names from Kerala to Kashmir and from Manipur to Mumbai. Then there are the words like dada (older brother), didi (older sister), ma and baba; and such items like wearing of conch wedding sankha bangles and wearing of “Bengali-style” sari, and men’s dhuti-punjabi popularized by none other than Hindi movies. Even Bengali festivities of Durga Puja of the Mother Goddesses and Kali Puja have gone all-India. I am not sure if these amounts to any globalization of our literature, but in the periphery it creates some attraction to all-things-Bengali. In an age of increasing marginalization, I am happy at least some aspects of our language and culture are still attractive to outsiders. In New York if one sees a white or a black American walking down the street in sari she is most likely to be followers of Bengali Sri Chinmoy or Srila Prabhupada. Same is true when we find an adult attending our pathshala to learn Bengali. One more sign of hope is our second generation who are going in droves to Bangla pathshalas when they are in K-12 school and taking Bengali classes while at college. Through their writing they may not propagate Bengali literature but at least is spreading the knowledge of Bengal. I thank them for this. I thank Muktadhara and Biswajit Saha who have single-handedly kept the flame of globalization of Bengali alive as well as bringing divided Bengalis of the Subcontinent closer. As if he is trying to bring a separated couple back together by retying their wedding knot. For Muktadhara and for rest of us let me pray, “banglar maati, banglar jal, punya houk, punya houk hey bhagaban,” O God, let the soil of Bengal, water of Bengal be blessed for ever!
See Anrarkatik Bangla Utsab (International Bangla Festival) 2009 Smarak Grantha (Commemorative Book), June 26-28, 2009, published by Muktadhara Foundation Inc., New York; 43-45