The best in Bengali literature since the beginning of the nineteenth century is doubtlessly a product of western influence. The development of Bengali prose, the punctuation marks for which, with a solitary exception, were borrowed from English, led to the introduction of periodicals and newspapers, plays and farces, novels and short stories, essays and criticism. Blank verse and sonnets were introduced and a new body of epic and lyrical poems appeared. More important was the freedom gained by Bengali literature from its erstwhile religious character. Literature was instilled with ideas of patriotism and humanism, individualism and universalism. A new set of values was brought in, the spirit of questioning persisted, social pictures were drawn with realism, and the mysteries of the mind and the body probed into.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) represents the high point of Bengali literature, which was made known to the world at large by his works alone. One is at once struck by the richness and variety of his works, though literature was not the only field of his creativity. His contribution was invaluable to music and painting, dance and the theatre, and his response to the political, social and economic problems of the country, significant. His religiosity and mysticism (derived from the Upanisadas), his belief in the greatness of Indian civilization, his bond with the middle class and his faith in the benevolence of the West were, with the passing of time, transformed into a quest for the universal, and a rejection of nationalism that leads to aggression, a sympathy for the toiling masses, and a criticism of colonialism and militarism. There was much idealism in his call for building a new world, but its spirit of humanism and internationalism, and its awareness of political and economic issues are unmistakable.

Of the writers who followed Tagore, Saratchandra Chatterjee (1876-1938) is well known for his criticism of Hindu social practices in his novels; Qazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976), the poet, is distinguished for a fusion of Hindu and Muslim traditions and for his boldness in favour of the working class; and Jasimuddin (1903-76) is known for reintroducing purely rural matter and diction in poetry. A wave of Marxist and Freudian ideas is discernible in the literature of the post- first world war era, and so is the influence of contemporary western poetry.

Another result of the contact with western culture was the introduction of the theatre. The endogenous dramatic entertainment used to be the yatra, open-stage performances having Puranic themes with plenty of songs thrown in. In their effort to emulate the colonial expatriates, wealthy Bengali families built western-style theatres for the performance of plays in Bengali, and in 1872 the first Bengali public theatre was established in Calcutta. The yatra was gradually pushed to the countryside, and the theatre became a vehicle of nationalism and exercised considerable influence on the public. Films at times stole a march over the theatre, but the popularity of the stage was restored by group theatres which experimented with themes and techniques of the western theatre.

Creativity in music, in the main, was expressed by a definite move towards the vernacular, and towards individual performances from group singing. It was first manifested in setting simple Bengali words to classical modes of north India, while the blending of western melodies came later. With the growing sense of nationalism, popular tunes like the Baul, Bhatiyali, or Kirtana were resorted to, either within their own given range or with a little innovation. To these were added. again, a sophistication of words which reached its height with Tagore. He made use of modes of Indian music, but broke the rules in which they were meant to be used, thus departing from the original form, adopting western melodies, and unhesitatingly borrowed folk tunes of Bengal. For the first time the Tagores produced the Bengali form of musical notation that ended the oral tradition of handing over compositions from one generation to another. Nazrul Islam made experiments with Perso-Arabic melodies and gained immense popularity. Interest was also taken in the traditional folk music of Bengal, which was hitherto neglected as unsophisticated by the urban gentry. A new wave of classical Indian instrumental music was created by Alauddin Khan (1862-1972) and members of his family, which had taken both home and abroad by storm. The work of Tagore, Uday Sankar (1900-77), and Bulbul Chowdhury (1916-53) has given the dance a new respectability and an ability to interpret secular themes.

A new school of Bengali painting was developed with the materials from the West, but, led by RanindranathTagore (1871-1951), the style was modeled on the Indian. Themes varied from the Puranic to Mughal historical, and much of the style of the period was recreated. Jamini Roy (1887-1972) revived the art of the Bengal patas in his works. Rabindranath Tagore's paintings represented a world of fantasy in forms that were unique, and Zainul Abedin (1914-76) brought in a new realism in his black and white brushwork, depicting the scenes of the Bengal famine of 1943. These people were followed by a generation who, more often than not, took to the mode of western painting.

The intellectual development which took place in the nineteenth century and onwards was very diverse, and it is undeniable that it represented a new awakening to which many people have applied the much debated term of Bengal Renaissance; yet, it was more like a grafting than a growth. Its inspiration came from western education, and th culture was, therefore, the product of a minority which was the English-educated urban middle class. The very source of its inspiration created an inviolable gap between those who had had the opportunity of receiving western education, and those who did not have that. For historical reasons, the Hindu predominated in the educated urban middle class. It is, therefore, not surprising that the new culture also took on a character that was essentially Hindu.

As English education began to be available to the Bengali Muslims, another stream flowed within this culture which was the middle class - semi-urban at first, but urban after the first world war - and Muslim. The traditional approach to problems was reflected in the polemics with Christian missionaries or amongst various Muslim sects, or in the debate over whether certain art forms had religious sanction. At the same time, another trend reflected a modernist approach in the interpretation of Islam, or with regard to social questions such as education, women's liberation, polygamy, and the practice of pir-muridi. This liberalism soon developed into a universal humanism of a secular kind, much to the dislike of the traditionalist, and the debate between the two schools of thought was later continued in the Pakistan period. However, one thing which clearly emerged was a growing consensus that the Bengali language should have an important place in society.

During the Pakistan period the infrastructure, did not undergo any major change. The Zamindari system was abolished, but the lot of the peasantry did not improve. The middle class, however, developed further. There was more mobility from the village to the city, and more opportunities for education, employment, and contact with the outside world. The women began to come out of the purdah; art forms which once were taboo in Muslim society gained general acceptance; and, free of competition from the Hindu, the middle class could afford to be secular. They were also anxious to retain their Bengali cultural identity, which was an anxiety that has been expressed from the late nineteenth century and now strengthened in the atomosphere of a multi-lingual state. The first conflict in the new state centred round the issue of the state language, a position for which the claim of Bengali was also put forward. The subsequent economic and political development led to the birth of Bangladesh under the leadership of the middle class, but through a process of violence to which the people resorted for the first time.

A conflict between an urgent religious sense and liberal humanism has been a distinguishable feature of the Pakistan period. This was also reflected in the Bengali attitude to his culture, a scrutiny from the standpoint of religious identity and a general acceptance of the Bengali tradition. This led to a process of historical research that was of importance. A growing awareness of the social and economic exploitation of the masses and of cultural changes in the world at large was reflected.

Bangladesh was conceived as a secular and socialist democracy. Her six years of existence have shown, however, that the dream has not come true, and that there is a lot of ambivalence regarding the desired political, economic, and cultural configuration of the country.

However, the pattern of intellectual activities set during the British period has continued. Literature still remains the main field of creativity, experiments have been made with forms and diction; more works have been produced; the number of writers has increased: but the stress continues to be on poetry. Classical music, more cultivated in the fifties and early sixties, seems to have declined, while vernacular music has flourished. Since Bangladesh came into being, a kind of pop music has surfaced which has done away with many inhibitions, but its words are mostly spiritual and intensely sentimental. The rise of the theatre had been the most noticeable development in Bangladesh, and the unexpected support it has enlisted from the community is remarkable. A revival of folk art forms took place in the sixties. The use of endogenous materials in tapestry, of bricks in mosaic work, and adoption of the medium of tempera are some of the noticeable features in fine arts.

The political change has given the Bengali language a new role to play as a vehicle of office work and a medium of higher education. An aspect of intellectual creativity in Bangladesh has been an effort to meet this challenge.

Patronage has been extended by the government to intellectual activities,. This has brought honour and financial rewards for artists but has not necessarily helped develop creativity. Since the government controls the media - television, radio, and, to a large extent, the press - censors films and the theatre, and regulates the importing of cultural materials, public taste is likely to be shaped or at least greatly influenced by government policies.

The historical process, through which we have arrived on the threshold of the year 1979, leaves the gulf wide open between the vast majority of the people and the educated urban middle class who are in control -of the state machinery. Thus, social conditions are hardly conducive to the flowering of creative potentials of the more numerous and underprivileged masses.


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