The Emergence and Development of Bengali Literature

Bengali literature dates back to around 650 AD, though we do not have much information on that period. Between 1200 AND 1800 AD, Bengali literary activity developed rapidly and in the early part of these years received patronage from the Muslim rulers.

The modern day era of Bengali literature has seen a movement away from western influences to greater interest in Bengali literature as whole, stimulated t a large extent by the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.

Bengali literature periods

Bengali literature has a very old and rich history which can be divided into three periods: ancient, medieval and modern.

Ancient period

For the ancient period, roughly between 650 AD and 1200 AD, we do not possess much information or examples of literary works. The most famous specimen of poems of ancient Bangla that have come down to us are the 47 spiritual hymns now known as charyapada, composed by Buddhist monks. Because the language of these hymns in only partly understood, it is called sandhya or twilight language.

Medieval period

In the medieval period of Bengali literature, between about 1200 AD and 1800 AD. literary activates grew enormously. This is seen in many different ways:

  • Varous anecdotes, rhymes and sayings particularly relation to agriculture, as seen in the verses of Dak and khana.
  • Vaishnava poetic narratives which tell of the romantic relationship between the Purnaic characters of Radha and Krishna. The greatest of vaishnava writers was the poet Baru. Chandidas, who translated poet Jaydev’s Snaskrit lyrics about Radha and Krishna into Bangla.
  • Patronage form Muslim rulers particularly Sultan Aluddn Hussein Shah, his son Nasrat Shah and commander-in-chief, Pragal Khan. The 45 year rule of the Hussein Shah dynasty (1493-1538) in Bengal not only led to political, social and cultural prosperity, but also nurtured Bangla language and literature. It was during the rule of Hussein Shah that some Bengali poets began composing lyrics in special poetic form, known as Brajabuli. At the same time, the Bengali poets started translating famous works form Sanskrit.
  • This period also saw poems written on popular themes of Muslim culture. The grates contribution of the Muslims to Bengali literature during this period was, however, the introduction of narrative and romantic poems, many of them being translations or adaptations of Arabic or Persian romances.

Modern period

The modern period of Bangla literature started during the British colonial period.  There were many influences during this time:

  • Between 1800 and 1850, Christian missionaries nad Sanakrit scholars made an important contribution in their prose writing. Important writers at this were William Carey (published Bangla translation of Bible in 1800), raja Rammohan Roy (expressed his thought on social reforms in prose), Peary Chand Mitra (wrote the first novel in Bangla, Alaler Charer Dulal)
  • Between 1850 and 1900, Bengali writers, influenced by western thought and literature, created novels and poems. One of the most important literary figures of this period is Bankim Chandra Chattapadhyay who wrote fourteen novels some of which became famous. Dinabandhu Mitra wrote the famous Nildarpan(1860), which depicts the merciless exploitation of Bengali farmers by English indigo traders. The play played a significant role in ending indigo cultivation.
  • At the end of the nineteenth century, Rabindranath Tagore played a significant part in developing Bengali literature (see Section A). Following Rabindranath, many writers were influenced by the socialist revolution which took place in the Soviet Union and this can be seen in the work of people such as Kazi Nazrul Islam and sukanta Bhattacharya.
  • More recent times have seen the political dividiosn of Bengal and of Bengali literature into the literature of West Bengal and the literature of East Bengal/east Pakistan. In this period amongst the most important prose writers are Kazi Abuld Wadud, Dr Muhammad Shahidullah, Abul Fazal and Ahmed Sharif. Some important novelists are Kazi Imdadual Huq (bdullah) and shahadat Hossain. Important poets of the time include Abdul Quadir, Bande Ali Miah,, Benajir Ahmed, Jasimuddin , Ahsan Habib, Syed Ali Ahsan, Hasan Hafizur Rahman, Farrukh Ahmed and golam Mostafa, Apart from writing poetry, Golam Mostafa also wrote Vishwanabi (1942), a fine biography of the prophet of Islam.

The most significant and creative phase of Bengali literature, not only of Bangladesh but also of Bengali literature as a whole, started after  the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. Every branch of Bengali literature now saw renewed interest. Some of the writers and poets you may hear of include.

  • Poetry: Al-Muhmud, Shamsur Rahman, Abdul Mannan Syed, Syed Shamsul Huq, Rafiq Azad, Shahid Qadri, Abu Hena Mustafa Kamal, Nirmulendu Goon, Mahadeve Saha, Abul Hasan, Alauddin Al Azad, Farhad Mazhar, Humayun Azad, Khondakar Ashraf Hossain, Rudro Mohammad Shahidullah, Ruby Rahman, Quazi Rosy and Masud Khan.
  • Play: Syed Shamsul Huq, Momtajuddin Ahmed, Abdullah Al-Mamu, Mamunur Rashid and Selim Al-Din.
  • Novels and stories: Shawkat Osman, Selina Husain, Shawkat Ali, Akhterzzaman Elias, abu Zafar Shamsuddin, Abut Rushd, Alauddin Al-Azad, , Humayun Azad, Syed Shamsul Huq, Hasnat Abdul Hai, Bashir Al-Helal, Humayun Ahmed, Rizia Rahman, Rahat Khan, Nasrin jahan, Imdadual Huq Milon and Taslima Nasrin. Of course, there are many others!

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