A Popular Literature for Bengal

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By a popular literature for Bengal I mean a Bengali literature. Bengali literature must for a long time to come be nothing more than merely the popular literature of Bengal. As long as the higher education continues to have English for its medium, as long as English literature and English science continue to maintain their present immeasurable superiority, these will form the sources of intellectual cultivation to the more educated classes. To Bengali literature must continue to be assigned the subordinate function of being the literature for the people of Bengal, and it is as yet hardly capable of occupying even that subordinate, but extremely important, position.

I believe that there is an impression in some quarters that Bengali literature has as yet few readers, and that the few men in the country who do read, read only English books. It must be admitted that there is a certain amount of truth in this supposition, but it is by no means wholly true. It may be that there are few systematic readers of Bengali, because there are so few Bengali books capable of being read through. But it is not altogether correct to entertain the idea that the absolute number of purely Bengali readers are in reality so few. The artizan and the shopkeeper who keep their own accounts, the village zemindar and the mofussil lawyer, the humbler official employé whose English carries him no further than the duties of his office, and the small proprietor who has as little to do with English as with office, all these classes read Bengali and Bengali only; all in fact between the ignorant peasant and the really well-educated classes. And if to these be added the vast numbers who are likely to benefit by a system of vernacular education, extended and developed so as to suit the requirements of the country, we may be in a position to appreciate fully the importance of a literature for the people of Bengal; for these classes constitute the people.

And we Bengalis are strangely apt to forget that it is only through the Bengali that the people can be moved. We preach in English and harangue in English and write in English, perfectly forgetful that the great masses, whom it is absolutely necessary to move in order to carry out any great project of social reform, remain stone-deaf to all our eloquence. To me it seems that a single great idea, communicated to the people of Bengal in their own language, circulated among them in the language that alone touches their hearts, vivifying and permeating the conceptions of all ranks, will work out grander results than all that our English speeches and preachings will ever be able to achieve. And therefore it is that I venture to draw the attention of this Association to a subject of such social importance as a literature for the people of Bengal.

A popular literature for Bengal is just blundering into existence. It is a movement which requires to be carefully studied and wisely stimulated, for it may exert a healthy or a pernicious influence on the national character, according to the direction it takes. The popular literature of a nation and the national character act and react on each other. At least in Bengal there has been a singular harmony of character between the two since the days of Vidyapati and Jaydeva. Jaydeva was the popular poet of his age and the age which followed him. It may seem absurd to say so now, but it must be remembered that all who read at that period, read in Sanskrit; and, besides, Jaydeva's poems used to be sung, as they are even at the present day.

And it would be difficult to conceive a poem more typical than the Gitagovinda of the Bengali character as it had become after the iron heel of the Musalman tyrant had set its mark on the shoulders of the nation. From the beginning to the end it does not contain a single expression of manly feeling—of womanly feeling there is a great deal—or a single elevated sentiment. The poet has not a single new truth to teach. Generally speaking, it is the poets (religious or profane) who teach us the great moral truths which render man's life a blessing to his kind; but Jaydeva is a poet of another stamp, I do not deny him high poetical merits in a certain sense, exquisite imagery, tender feeling and unrivalled power of expression, but that does not make him less the poet of an effeminate and sensual race. Soft and mellifluous, feelingly tender and as often grossly sensual, his exquisitely sounding but not unfrequently meaningless verse echoed the common sentiments of an inactive and effeminate race. And since then all Bengalis who have ventured on original composition have followed in his footsteps. The same words may be used to describe the writings of Madhava, the second best of the Bengali Sanskrit poets. The writings of the poets who wrote under the patronage of the Nuddea Raja were the same in character, and worse perhaps, for they had all the faults of Jaydeva in an exaggerated form and but few of his redeeming beauties. Till lately, the Bidya Sundar, the best known production of that age, continued to be the most popular book in all Bengali literature. After the Nuddea poets, we come to the day of the kabis, jatras and love-songs, the only species of literary composition to which the nation confined itself for generations. And fit intellectual food they were for a race who had become incapable of comprehending any other class of conceptions!

Along with this species of poetical literature, Bengal was developing within itself two other systems which were the peculiar property of the Bengali intellect—Law and the Nyaya Philosophy. The Bengali had lost all dignity of character and all manliness; but he had not lost his acuteness of intellect. So from the days of Kulluka Bhatta to those of Jagannath volume after volume and commentary after commentary were written to interpret and expand and alter and mystify a system of law, which already in the hands of its original framers had gone beyond the proper limits of legislative interference, and set unbearable restraints on individual freedom of action. And this unlimited expansion and development of an already ponderous system of law, or rather of law and religion welded into one solid mass, tended only to multiply ad infinitum the iron bonds under which the Bengali already groaned—until all his pleasures and his aspirations became restricted to his hookah and his love-songs. In weightier matters the spiritual guide and the interpreter of law regulated, even still regulate?, his destiny.

And the splendid Nyaya Philosophy which flourished side by side with it, and to have matured and developed which constitutes the sole claim of Bengal to intellectual pre-eminence in any department over the other provinces of India, had little influence on the people, for it did not reach then?. It was to them an unintelligible jargon with which they had no concern, which nobody cared to interpret to them, and the inherent rationalism of which therefore remained a secret with its exclusive professors. What a blow to the immense mass of Bengali superstition would that philosophy have been, if it had been allowed to see the day! But the only effect which it had on the destinies of the people was the importation of its subtleties into the endless mazes of Hindu law, and its endowment with a borrowed strength which it never could have commanded of itself.

And thus the national character and the productions of the national intellect acted and reacted on each other. Indolent habits and a feeble moral organization gave birth to an effeminate poetical literature; and then for ages the country fed and nourished itself on that effeminate literature. The acute but uncreative intellect of the Bengali delighted to lose itself in the subtle distinctions of the law, and he indulged in the favourite pastime till he had succeeded in making his own bonds tighter and more intimate.

And so the Bengali stood, crushed and spiritless, insensible to his own wrongs, till a new light dawned on him, to rouse him, if that were possible, from his state of lethargy. And with this new dawn of life came into the country one of the mightiest instruments of civilization, the printing-press. Gradually the change set in, and a demand began to be made for a literature of another character than that of the Gitagovinda school. It is not my wish to pursue the history of the national mind any further, for the facts are known to all. It is my object to point out to those who wish to bestow attention on the subject, first, that there is already a certain demand for a popular literature for Bengal, and that the demand is likely to be greater very speedily; secondly, that both the quantity and quality of the supply is of vital importance to the community; lastly, that, whatever the quantity is, the quality is very inferior at present.

If you will look over the quarterly returns published by Government, you will find that the Bengali mind is anything but unproductive. But its productions are remarkable for quantity alone; the quality is on an average contemptible—often they are positively injurious. Excepting a few books of recognized excellence, they are, when they are nothing more mischievous, either clumsy imitations of good Bengali models, or abject copies of the silly stories of the later Sanskrit writers, or a string of harmless commonplaces. I beg leave to point out two causes as conducive to this state of things.

The first is the disinclination of the more educated classes to write for their country in their own language. Authorship is with us still the vocation of the needy and fawning Pundit, or the ambitious school-boy, or the idle scribbler who must needs be an author simply because he cannot be anything else. Those who can teach their country, consider it beneath their social position to do so. It is degrading for the dashing young Bengali who writes and talks English like an Englishman, to be caught writing a Bengali book. And if anything induces him to stoop to this vulgar course, the book comes out stealthily, without the great man's name on the title-page, and hence many of our best books are anonymous. There are a few honourable exceptions, and these men have done an immense good to Bengali literature. It is a fact that the best Bengali books are the productions of Bengalis who are highly cultivated English scholars. The matter for regret is how few these books are, and how few the scholars who have written them.

The second cause is the absence of sound and intelligent criticism. Intelligent criticism may be said to be a thing unknown to the Native Press. There is some inherent defect in the Bengali character which renders the task of distinguishing the beautiful and the true from the gaudy and the false a task of even greater difficulty than the higher effort of creation. This deficiency in the culture of the cultivated Bengali reacts on the literature. The blundering critic often passes a verdict, which, if he happen to be an authority accustomed to command respect on literary matters, misleads by its error and strikes at the root of all excellence. Those who have seen, as I have, an audience of Bengali gentlemen sitting patiently to listen for hours to the flash and froth and rant which is poured forth in native theatres, and calling the whole thing a good drama, will doubtless understand why the Bengali drama is so inferior in its character. And the same sort of criticism keeps down other branches of literature to the same low level.

Another great impediment to the formation of a respectable and readable popular literature for Bengal is the extremely low idea some people entertain of the capacities of the Bengali-reading public. It is assumed that books intended for them must contain childish stories and information suited to children only and treated in a childish style, or they will not suit the understanding of the adult reading population of Bengal. No kind of literary excellence—no sentiments of a manly and elevating character must be permitted to creep into such books; no glimpse of that wondrous world of scientific knowledge which European research has revealed; nothing but its dry details and naked skeleton can be allowed to the Bengali reader. He will not understand them, he will not read books which contain such things. This idea is a great mistake. The fact is that the Bengali will read only such books as contain anything worth reading; and books manufactured on a principle which ignores him as an intellectual being he will not read, and he does not read. Our most popular authors have succeeded by following precisely an opposite course. It is by following the principle of so-called simple publications, that so respectable a body as the Vernacular Literature Society have failed to make any contributions to the popular Bengali literature worth the name. It is, however, due to that body to say that the Bengali periodical published under their auspices offers a remarkable exception to this criticism, and that it is the most useful publication of the kind in all Bengali periodical literature.

I have to suggest only another topic in connection with the subject for discussion—the creation of some suitable agencies for the circulation of readable books in the mofussil. Books will doubtless reach the most remote village in the interior when it will pay tradesmen to carry them there, but that day is distant yet. The mofussil mainly depends at present on supplies brought by itinerant hawkers. Their visits are always few and far between; their stock scanty and ill-selected. I mention the subject because I have often heard complaints from residents in the mofussil. The Vernacular Literature Society has special agencies of its own at many places; and these agencies are, I believe, available on certain conditions to the general public for the sale of books not published by the Society, but I am not aware that the public make use of them to any considerable extent. Cannot the system be utilized to a greater extent?

To me it seems that all that can be done at present is the establishment of village Public Libraries. I know that a few such institutions have been already called into existence by public-spirited residents in the mofussil. It is desirable that they should become more general. A beginning may be made in every village where there is a Vernacular or Anglo-Vernacular School. One of the teachers of the school under the supervision of the School-Committee may keep cnarge of the books, and in the school-house room may be found for the book-shelves. Thus village libraries may be formed at once without more cost than the price of the books and the shelves. Educational officers who travel so much, and officers in the executive and administrative departments who command so much influence, may do much in this direction if they think fit. I do not think the suggestion is one difficult to carry out—it has been already carried out in several places.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.