Lives of the Bengali Poets. By Hari Mohan Mukurjya, Calcutta: New Sanskrit Press. 1869.
Mitra Prakas. No. 1. Dacca: 1870.
The intellectual position of the Bengali among the races of India may be a prominent one at the present day, but in earlier times it was one of the lowest. It is a Bengali writer, Babu Rajendralála Mitra, who has said that in ancient times Bengal was the Boeotia of India. And the observation is correct. The contributions of Bengal to that ancient Indian literature which still commands the respect and attention of European scholars, were few and insignificant. The only Bengali Sanskrit poet of any eminence was Jayadeva, and he does not stand in the first rank. There is not one Bengali name which can compare with those of Kálidása, Mágha, Bháravi and Sriharsa. In other departments the only distinguished Bengali name in the older Sanskrit literature is that of Kulluka Bhatta, the commentator on Manu. The great Bengali triumphs in the Nyáya philosophy and in law cannot be reckoned as falling within this period. The names of Raghunandana and Jagannátha belong to very recent days.
It is difficult to determine the date of the oldest Bengali writers, but probably few of their books are more than three hundred years old. Vidyápati, whose lyrics are perhaps the finest in the language, is certainly one of the first. Mukundarám Chakravartti, commonly known as Kabi Kankan, and the author of the Chandi poems, lived during the reign of Akbar. The Chaitanya Charitamrita is also one of the oldest Bengali books. But, however uncertain their exact date may be, the literary productions of Bengal naturally group themselves into five separate classes, different in spirit and to some extent successive in order of time; and if this be borne in mind, the want of exact dates need cause no difficulty in understanding the brief criticisms which follow.
The first in order are the lyric poets, at the head of whom must be placed Vidyápati. They are exclusively Vaisnavite, and their songs either celebrate the amours of Krishna or the holiness of Chaitanya. They are still sung by bands of Bairágis and are popularly known under the name of kirttan. Their number is immense. The present writer has in his possession a collection which contains more than three thousand of these songs, and he believes that there are other collections equally voluminous. The music to which they are set is peculiar, and is not ordinarily understood even by the professional musicians of Bengal. These, in fact, profess to hold kirttan music in utter contempt, but it nevertheless possesses a sweetness and pathos not ordinarily found in Indian music. The effect, however, is often marred by the discordant sound of the cymbals and drums by which it is accompanied. But if the music is peculiar, the language is no less so. Many of these songs are probably very modern, but others are undoubtedly the most ancient extant specimens of the Bengali language; and in these the language is more like the Hindi of Tulsi Dás than the Bengali of the present day. Doubtless early Bengali and early Hindi differed little, if at all, from each other, and the present divergence is due to the operation of phonetic change in the same vernacular spoken by different branches of the same race, which were separated from each other by the revolution which followed the breaking up of the great empire of the Guptas of Magadha, or by others which are now lost in the silent darkness of Indian history.
It could scarcely be expected that so immense a collection as this Vaisnavite storehouse should be of uniform merit, and one may well wish that nine-tenths of these songs had never been composed: but among the other one-tenth there are gems of rare merit, which in tenderness of feeling have never been surpassed by anything in Bengali literature, and barely equalled by the best writers of the present day.
This school constitutes the literature of Chaitanyaism, while the second we have to notice represents Bengali Pauranism. The principal productions of this school are the Bengali version of the Mahábhárata and the Rámáyana. Their authors, Kásidás and Krittibás, were not mere translators of the great Indian epics. They did not attempt so much in one sense, yet they achieved something more. Taking the story and the matter in general from their great originals, they gave free scope to their own fancy, and in many places established a claim to originality. We do not mean to say that they improved upon the originals, unless it were by greatly curtailing the tremendous bulk of the Sanskrit compositions; but the new matter which they added, while it detracts from the grandeur of the original conceptions of the Sanskrit poets, would, if embodied in some other form, have given them a certain position among original writers. Mukundarám Chakravartti—Kabi Kankan—though he followed no Sanskrit original, belongs to the same school, and deservedly enjoys a higher reputation than either Krittibás or Kásidás. Many passages of his book are touchingly beautiful, but we cannot afford space for extracts. The language of these poets shows no traces of Hindi: but it is still very different from modern Bengali. In poetic power they are decidedly inferior to the best of the Vaisnava poets.
The third class of writers we shall notice are those who flourished under the Nuddea Raja, Krishna Chandra. They enjoy an undeserved celebrity, and toe, in our opinion, a very worthless set. The best known among them is Bhárat Chandra Ráy, who was till lately considered the best of the Bengali poets,—an opinion not yet wholly eradicated, but fast losing ground. Bhárat Chandra is chiefly known by his Vidyá Sundara and his Annadá Mangal. Neither work has much merit, though an exception must be made in favour of the character of Hira, the flower-girl, a coarse but racy and vigorous portrait, not equalled by anything of its kind in Bengali. One other great distinction, however, must be accorded to Bhárat Chandra. He is the father of modern Bengali. His versification, too, is very good, and it is the model followed by many distinguished poets of the present day, as, for instance, Babu Ranga Lal Banerji. In the higher attributes of a poet, Bhárat Chandra is far inferior to many who have preceded and followed him. His works are disfigured, too, by a disgusting obscenity which unfits them for republication at a time when Bengali readers are not all of the rougher sex.
There is perhaps nothing more lamentable in the whole history of literature than the school of Bengali writers who followed the Nuddea poets and preceded the present generation. There is scarcely any readable work (readable even in the sense in which Bhárat Chandra's poems are readable) belonging to that age—the age of the Naba Babu Bilas and the Prabodha Chandrika; as for literary filth, there never was a more copious supply. Happily, the whole mass of rubbish has vanished from public recollection.
To this period belongs the well-known kabi, of which the wealthy Hindus of the last generation were so passionately fond, and on which they lavished immense sums of money. The kabi was a series of songs not often much connected with each other, sung by two opposite bands of performers. Each sought to abuse the other, and the more pungent the abuse, the greater was the triumph of the abuser and the pleasure of the listeners. The singing was generally the most execrable to which human folly has ever given the name of music, though in a few cases the airs were sweet and elegant. The matter was often either commonplace or laboured extravagance, though among the songs of Ram Basu, Haru Thakur and Nitai Das, there are some of peculiar excellence. The following prose translation is from one of those most popular in the present day. It may be called The Young Wife's Lament, and it will be understood only by those who know the very young Bengali wife, who has learned to love but is too timid to speak:
'It is the spring of the year, and it is the spring of my life;
And the lord of my life has left me for a far distant land.
He came to me with a smile and told me he would go:
I saw that smile, and that smile filled my eyes with tears.
I could not let him go; my heart would have made him stay;
But shame said, "Fie! do not, do not keep him back."
So the sorrow of my heart is within my heart shut up.
I would have told it to him when he went to the far-off land;
But when I was about to speak, I could not.'
We have preferred to give this specimen rather than others of superior merit, because it is the most popular kabi among Bengalis at the present day.
There is one other writer—himself a class—whom we wish to notice before we proceed to consider the present state of Bengali literature. We mean Iswar Chandra Gupta. He stands between the past and the present, and singularly illustrates the literary poverty of the age in which he lived, and the progress that has been made within the last few years. A dozen, years have not elapsed since Iswar Chandra Gupta died, yet we speak of him as belonging to a past era; so essentially does he differ from the more prominent writers of the present day.
He was a very remarkable man. He was ignorant and uneducated. He knew no language but his own, and was singularly narrow and unenlightened in his views; yet for more than twenty years he was the most popular author among the Bengalis. As a writer of light satiric verse, he occupies the first place, and he owed his success both as a poet and as an editor to this special gift. But there his merits ended. Of the higher qualities of a poet he possessed none, and his work was extremely rude and uncultivated. His writings were generally disfigured by the grossest obscenity. His popularity was chiefly owing to his perpetual alliteration and play upon words. We have purposely noticed him here in order to give the reader an idea of the literary capacity and taste of the age in which a poetaster like Iswar Chandra Gupta obtained the highest rank in public estimation. And we cannot even say that he did not deserve to be placed in the highest rank among his Bengali contemporaries, for he was a man of some literary talent, while none of the others possessed any. However much we may lament the poverty of Bengali literature, the last fifteen years have been a period of great progress and hope; within that time at least a dozen writers have arisen, every one of whom is immensely superior, in whatever is valuable in a writer, to this—the most popular of their predecessors.
Strange as it may appear, this obscure and often immoral writer was one of the precursors of the modern Brahmists. The charge of obscenity and immorality mainly applies to his poetry. His prose is generally free from both vices, and often advocates the cause of religion and morality. We extract the following passage from the prose portion of the Hita Prabhákar to illustrate his Brahmistic tendencies. His acquaintance with the leading tenets of the ancient Indian systems of philosophy ought not to surprise anyone, even though we have said that he was uneducated; for they were pretty known to most Bengalis of the same amount of culture in a generation which is fast dying out.
Iswar Chandra Gupta is now fast falling into oblivion, and we must proceed to notice the class of writers who have superseded him. But before doing so, we must premise a few words on the present general condition of Bengali literature.
One of the most noticeable characteristics of Bengal at the present day is the large amount of literary activity to be found there in comparison with other parts of India. But while books and newspapers are daily pouring from the press, the quality of our current literature is by no means proportioned to its bulk. In fact, by far the greatest part (of) what is published is absolute rubbish. There are several modern Bengali books of which we shall have to speak in terms of high praise, but the number of these is so small in comparison with the mass of publications yearly vomited forth by the Bengali press, that they go but a little way towards redeeming the character of the whole. We can scarcely expect a better state of things from the class of men who compose the rank and file of Bengali authors and Bengali critics. Authorship in Bengal is the vocation of half-educated scribblers. The educated native has a sort of ultra-utilitarian contempt for the office, and considers himself above writing in his own language. The case of criticism is worse. We can hardly hope for a healthy and vigorous Bengali literature in the utter absence of anything like intelligent criticism. The educated Bengali fails in this department almost as much as the antiquated pundit, in consequence no doubt of deficient culture.
Those who are familiar with the present writers in Bengali, will readily admit that they all, good and bad alike, may be classed under two heads, the Sanskrit and the English schools. The former represents Sanskrit scholarship and the ancient literature of the country; the latter is the fruit of Western knowledge and ideas. By far the greater number of Bengali writers belong to the Sanskrit school; but by far the greater number of good writers belong to the other.
It may be said that there is not at the present day anything like an indigenous school of writers, owing nothing either to Sanskrit writers or to those of Europe. The Sanskrit school stakes for its models the later Sanskrit writers, and they are remarkably deficient in originality. The greater originality of the writers of the English school is the point in which their superiority to the Sanskrit school is most marked. It is characteristic of the Sanskrit school that they seldom venture on original composition. Even Vidyasagar's ambition soars no higher than adaptations, and a few translations. When they do venture on original composition, they are rarely caught straying beyond the beaten track, beyond a reverential repetition of things which have been said over and over again from time immemorial. If love is to be the theme, Madana is invariably put into requisition with his five flower-tipped arrows; and the tyrannical king of Spring never fails to come to fight in his cause, with his army of bees, and soft breezes, and other ancient accompaniments. Are the pangs of separation to be sung? The moon is immediately cursed and anathematized, as scorching the poor victim with her cold beams. The Kokila is described as singing him to destruction; and bees and soft breezes and sweet flowers are enumerated in the order in which they were marshalled in prehistoric times. No lovely woman in the pages of these writers has any other form of loveliness than a moon face, lotus eyes, hair that is a cloud, and a nose that resembles Garuda's beak.
In point of style these writers hardly shine more than in ideas. Time-honoured phrases are alone employed; and a dull pompous array of high-sounding Sanskrit words continues to grate on the ear in perpetual recurrence. Anything which bears the mark of foreign origin, however expressive or necessary it may be, is jealously excluded.
It was reserved to Tekchand Thakur to deal the first blow to this insufferable pedantry, and all honour to the man who did it. Endowed as he was with strong common sense as well as high culture, he saw no reason why this idol of unmixed diction should receive worship at his hands, and he set about writing Áláler Gharer Dulál in a spirit at which the Sanskritists stood aghast and shook their heads. Going to the opposite extreme in point of style, he vigorously excluded from his works, except on very rare occasions, every word and phrase that had a learned appearance. His own works suffered from the exclusion, but the movement was well-timed. In matter he scattered to the winds the time-honoured commonplaces, and drew upon nature and life for his materials. His success was eminent and well-deserved.
In Tekchand Thakur's steps followed other writers who met with equal or greater success, among whom we may name Kali Prosunno Singh as a novelist, Michael Madhusudan Datta as a poet, and Dinabandhu Mitra as a dramatist.
There are few Bengalis now living who have a greater claim to our respect than Pundit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. His exertions in the cause of Hindu widows, the noble courage with which he, a pundit and a professor, first advocated their cause, the patient research and indefatigable industry with which he sought to maintain it, his large-hearted benevolence, and his labours in the cause of vernacular education—all these things combine to place him in the front rank of the benefactors of his country. His claims to the respect and gratitude of his countrymen are many and great, but high literary excellence is certainly not among them. He has a great literary reputation; so had Iswar Chandra Gupta: but both reputations are undeserved, and that of Vidyasagar scarcely less so than that of Gupta. If successful translations from other languages constitute any claim to a high place as an author, we admit them in Vidyasagar's case; and if the compilation of very good primers for infants can in any way strengthen his claim, his claim is strong. But we deny that either translating or primer-making evinces a high order of genius; and beyond translating and primer-making Vidyasagar has done nothing. His brief discourse on Sanskrit literature deserves, and his widow marriage pamphlets claim, no notice here. If we exclude the school-books for children, his translations are five in number:—the Betál Panchabinsati from the Hindi; Sakuntalá, Sitár Banabás, and the introduction to the Mahábhárat from the Sanskrit; and the Bhrántibilás or Comedy of Errors from the English. Of these it is enough to say that they are excellent translations or adaptations, better probably than anything else of the same kind in Bengali. The Sitár Banabás is as little original as the others. The first chapter is taken from the Uttara Rámacharita, Bhavabhuti's noble work; and the remaining three from the Ramayana itself, from which Bhavabhuti too drew his inspiration. It is in fact a reproduction, in smooth and flowing but somewhat nerveless language, of scenes selected from Valmiki's poem. The scenes are well chosen, and the expulsion of the supernatural element gives them a more realistic tone, but Vidyasagar is not free from the tautology and bombast which always disfigure the writers of the school to which he belongs.
The only other writer of the Sanskrit school whom we shall stop to mention, is Pandit Ram Narayan Tarkaratna; and we mention him more on account of his reputation than for any merit to be found in his writings. Among his plays are Kulin Kulasarbaswa, directed against the evils of Kulinism, and Naba Natak, a protest against polygamy. He has also made translations of the Ratnavali, the Malati Madhava and Sakuntala. These translations are execrably bad, and, like his original works, full of bombastic writing. On the whole we consider that this writer's popular reputation is entirely undeserved.
It is with pleasure that we turn from him to the Anglicist school of writers. We have already mentioned Tekchand Thakur, the nom de plume of Babu Peary Chand Mitra. His best work is the Áláler Gharer Dulál, which may be said to be the first novel in the Bengali language. The story is extremely simple and may soon be told. Baburam Babu of Baidyabati is an old Kulin Brahman, who has amassed a large fortune by fleecing the suitors in a Court of which he was an employe. He has retired on his gains, and is a zemindar and merchant. He has four children, two sons and two daughters. The eldest son, Mati Lal, is an ignorant, selfish, dissipated young fellow—spoiled from the effect of the over-indulgent treatment of his father. A Gurumahásay who had taught him Bengali, an ignorant Pujari Brahman, employed from motives of economy as Sanskrit tutor, and a retired tailor who instructed him in Persian, laboured, as might have been anticipated, with but indifferent success. The Gurumahásay, after some little time, retired from office in consequence of the playful habits of his pupil, who used to put quicklime in his daily whey, deposit burning embers in the folds of his garments, and indulge in many other like pleasantries. The Pujari resigned because he found it impossible to restrain his scholar's habit of throwing brick-bats at the head of his instructor, as occasion offered. The Munshi's experience as a teacher abruptly closed, on the occasion of his discovering that Mati Lal had amused himself by setting fire to his venerable beard.
Highly gratified with the progress which his son had made in Oriental learning, Baburam Babu now thought it time that he should learn English. So Mati Lal was sent to Calcutta, where he attended an English school. But he did no more good at English than at Persian and Sanskrit, and preferred to devote his time with other congenial spirits to cards, dice, cock-fighting, kite-flying, and other amusements. At the same time he took to smoking tobacco and charas, as well as to drinking brandy. One day he and his companions were taken up by the police for gambling in a house of ill-fame. They were all convicted and imprisoned, except Mati Lai himself, who got off through the masterly way in which Miyáján Miyá, an old friend of his father, proved an alibi. However, this occurrence put an end to Mati Lal's English studies, and he at once returned home and soon afterwards happily married.
In the meantime the younger brother Ram Lal grew up, and followed a totally different path under the care of Baradá Babu, an intelligent and cultivated man. He took kindly to his books, behaved well to his father and other relatives, had a courteous demeanour towards all he met, and was in fact a model of all that a boy should be. But, for some reason or other, Baburam and his friends disapproved of this sort of thing, and determined to get rid of Baradá Babu. The natural way to do this was a criminal charge. So, with the assistance of Miyáján Miyá, a serious charge was made against the unoffending Baradá Babu, who would have paid dearly for his folly in neglecting to fee the amlah, if he had not known English and so been able to put the facts clearly before the magistrate. For when the magistrate had heard so much of the evidence as he could listen to without neglecting his cigar, his newspaper and his private chits, the sherishtadar strongly urged a conviction, and nothing but his knowledge of English saved Baradá Babu and gained him an acquittal.
About this time Baburam Babu, who is a Kulin of high family, receives an offer of marriage likely to bring some money into his pocket, and at once closes with the proposal. Though Mati Lal's mother, a virtuous and affectionate wife, was still living, Baburam married again, and dying soon afterwards, he left two widows, one of them a mere child. Mati Lal now succeeded to the gadi, and celebrated his father's sraddh in the right fashion. Henceforth, he gave himself up to pleasure, spending money like water on sensual enjoyments of all kinds. His mother remonstrates and receives a blow for her pains, and is obliged to leave the house with her daughter, much to the delight of Mati Lal.
At length, as might have been expected, Mati Lal comes to grief, and is sold up by his creditors. He leaves home, and having arrived in the course of his wanderings at the city of Benares, he fails in with one of the learned pundits of the place, who works his reformation. There, too, he meets his mother and sister and Baradá Babu, who make it up with the repentant sinner, return home with him, and live happily ever after.
This is the simple story of Áláler Gharer Dulál, but the mere narrative is the least merit of the book. Its real value lies in the sketches of character and pictures of Bengali life which it contains. Most Europeans know little or nothing of natives beyond what may be learned in our Courts of Justice—places infested by a class of rascals hardly to be found elsewhere, and in which even otherwise honest and truthful men consider themselves entitled to lie, just as they consider themselves entitled to throw aside all regard for caste and for morality in the temple of Vishnu at Puri. A book like this, full of real sketches from life, is, therefore, specially valuable to them. It is true that there may be exaggeration here and there; it is true that, while the knayes are life-like and full of character, the good characters are too much of mere abstractions. The females, too, are very faintly drawn. They are all alike, and they give very little idea of the influence which the wife within the zenana walls exercise in Indian daily life. But still the characters and pictures, such as they are, give the book a real value. We have no space for long quotations, but the following passage will give some notion of the author's vigorous and natural, if sometimes rather rough and homely, style.
Besides Áláler Gharer Dulál, Tekchand Thakur has written several minor works. Rámá Ranjiká chiefly consists of a series of dialogues between a husband and his wife on various social and moral topics. It is intended for the use of ladies learning to read and write late in life. Mad kháwá bara dáy—ját thákár ki upáy is devoted, like many other recent Bengali books, to an exposition of the evils of drunkenness. Jat Kinchit is a not very interesting exposition of the Brahmist religion. Abhedi—Tekchand Thakur's latest work—treats of the same subject, and has brought down upon him the wrath of the redoubtable Babu Keshub Chunder Sen and his followers.
From Tekchand to 'Hutam' is an easy transition. For Kali Prosunno Singh, or 'Hutam', was one of the most successful writers in the style first introduced by Tekchand. In early youth he made several translations from the Sanskrit, and in particular he is the author of a translation of the Mahabharata, which may be regarded as the greatest literary work of his age. But it is not as a translator that he is known to fame, and familiar to almost every Bengali, but as the author of Hutam Pyancha, a collection of sketches of city-life, something, after the manner of Dickens' Sketches by Boz, in which the follies and peculiarities of all classes, and not seldom of men actually living, are described in racy vigorous language, not seldom disfigured by obscenity. Among them are the Charak Puja, the Bárah Yári, Popular Excitements, Charlatanry, Babu Pudma Lochan Datta or the Sudden Incarnation, and Snan Jattra. The following short extract will give some notion of his style. The scene is laid in the native quarter of Calcutta after nightfall.
In the morning the scene is changed:—
'Loud booms the morning gun. The crows are cawing noisily, and leaving their nightly shelter. Shopkeepers open their shutters, bow before Gandheswari, sprinkle Ganges water on the floor, change the water in their hookas and begin to smoke. Gradually day dawns. Fishermen are hurrying along with baskets of fish. Fisherwomen are quarrelling and running after them. Baskets of potatoes and brinjals from Baidyabati are coming in. The messengers of death, foreign and native, are starting in their round of visits in gari or palki, according to their condition, without a smile in their faces unless fever or cholera is rife. * * * *
'Pundits from the toles and pujaris are going to bathe in the river with a change of clothes in bundles under their arms. They are in a hurry to-day because they must be with their jajmans early. Rheumatic middle-aged gentlemen are out in their morning walks. Oorya bearers, with tooth-stick in hand, are off like the rest to the waterside. The Englishman, the Hurkaru and the Phoenix, are being distributed to their subscribers. Native papers are like venison; they are kept for a day to get a flavour. It is different with English papers; they must be distributed before the sun is up.
So much for Hutam.
One of the best masters of a pure and vigorous Bengali style—neither characterized by the somewhat pedantic purity of Vidyasagar, nor rough and homely like Tekchand and Hutam—one of the best masters, we say, of Bengali style is Babu Bhudeb Mukerji. He has, unfortunately, written little, except works of a technical character, but his little volume of historical tales, from which we have not space to quote, is enough to show that he might have done a great deal more than he actually has done.
The next author to be considered is Mr. Michael Madhusudan Datta, a most prolific writer of poems and plays. There is probably no writer whose merits are more variously estimated—some enthusiasts thinking him fit to compare with Kalidasa, while others regard him as a mere poetaster. For ourselves we agree with neither, and while admitting his considerable merits, we are not prepared to rank him among great poets. He has incurred much hostile criticism by his innovations in language, and by his introduction into Bengali of the use of blank verse, but his rightful place in Bengali literature is perhaps the highest.
His poetical works are the Meghnada Badh, the Tilottama Sambhava, the Birangana and the Brajangana. The two former are what in Europe would be called epic poems, and in India mahakavyas. Both are written in blank verse—the first instances of the kind in Bengali. Of the two, the Tilottama was the earliest, but the Meghnada Badh is Mr. Datta's greatest work. The subject is taken from the Ramayana, the source of inspiration to so many Indian poets. In the war with Havana, Meghnada, the most heroic of Ravana's sons and warriors, is slain by Lakshman, Rama's brother. This is the subject; and Mr. Datta owes a great deal more to Valmiki than the mere story. But, nevertheless, the poem is his own work from beginning to end. The scenes, characters, machinery and episodes, are in many respects of Mr. Datta's own creation. In their conception and development, Mr. Datta has displayed a high order of art, and to do justice to it, or even to give a suitable idea of it, would require a much more minute examination of the poem than the space at our command will allow. To Homer and Milton, as well as to Valmiki, he is largely indebted in many ways, but he has assimilated and made his own most of the ideas which he has taken, and this poem is on the whole the most valuable work in modern Bengali literature. The characters are clearly conceived and capable of winning the reader's sympathy. The machinery, including a great deal that is supernatural, is skilfully and easily handled. The imagery is graceful and tender and terrible in turn. The play of fancy gives constant variety. The diction is richly poetic, and the words so happily chosen as constantly to bring up by association ideas congruous to those which they directly express. Nor is the verse broken up into couplets complete in themselves, in the Sanskrit fashion, but, abounding like Milton's in variety of pause, it seems to us musical and graceful, as well as a fitting vehicle for passionate feelings.
Mr. Datta, however, is not faultless. He wants repose. The winds rage their loudest when there is no necessity for the lightest puff. Clouds gather and pour down a deluge, when they need do nothing of the kind; and the sea grows terrible in its wrath, when everybody feels inclined to resent its interference. All this bombast is unworthy of Mr. Datta's genius and cultivated taste. Equally so is his constant repetition of the same images and phrases till they almost nauseate his readers. Nor is he altogether innocent of plagiarism. Homer and Valmiki are not unfrequently put under contribution, and Milton and Kalidasa have equal reason to complain.
Then again grammar might have been respected; and we must strongly protest against the constant introduction in imitation of the English idiom of such verbs as stutila, swanila, nirghosila.
We have given no extracts from the Meghnada Badh, because we could give no adequate idea of its merits by isolated quotations. The poem is beautiful as a whole, but single passages would give no more idea of it than a brick could give of the building from which it was taken.
Of Mr. Datta's other works, the Tilottama Sambhava was the earliest. It is an epic like the Meghnada Badh, but far inferior to that poem. The subject is the birth of Tilottama, the fairest of Brahma's creation, created for the express purpose of causing discord between the powerful Titan brothers, Sunda and Upasunda, who had expelled the Aryan gods from heaven.
We gladly turn from the Tilottama to a less ambitious but more mature work, the Birangana. It is a series of poetical epistles from heroes, wives to their husbands. It followed the Meghnada Badh, and there is the same gorgeous imagery, the same rich poetic diction, and the same musical variously modulated versification.
The Brajangana is a short and fragmentary poem in rhyme. It sings the woes of Radha during the days of her bereavement—a subject so often treated before, that novelty might seem to be impossible. Mr. Datta, however, has contrived to say much that is both new and beautiful, and he is just as successful in rhyme as in blank verse. In fact, his rhyme is the best in the language. Of his sonnets we are no great admirers, though they might serve to win a name for a less distinguished author. They were composed in Europe. One of them is dated from Versailles, and others are addressed to Dante, Professor Goldstücker, Tennyson, Victor Hugo and Italy,—a sufficiently miscellaneous list of subjects, it must be confessed.
As a dramatist, Mr. Datta is not generally successful. Among his plays are Sarmmistha, Padmavati, and Krishna Kumari; and the first mentioned in particular is very generally admired. In our judgment none of them are of much value. No Bengali writer has yet shown any real dramatic power. Even Babu Dinabandhu Mitra, the best writer in this line, entirely fails when he attempts to portray any of the higher emotions, and as for Mr. Datta, his undoubted poetic genius seems entirely to desert him as soon as he sets about writing a play. His farces, however, are good. One of them, entitled Is this Civilization? is the best in the language. This little work deserves notice independently of its own really great merit.
The Bengali press at the present day is very prolific, but by far the largest part of the books published are mere servile imitations of some successful author. There are imitators of Vidyasagar, imitators of Tekchand Thakur, of Hutam, of Babu Dinabandhu Mitra and of the author of Durgesnandini; but perhaps, no work has formed the model for so many imitators as Is this Civilization? It is a farce with a purpose, being intended chiefly to ridicule and so expose the vice of drunkenness and the other evils by which it is generally attended. The Burtolla Presses and shops actually overflow with little books, containing a dozen or twenty pages each, and selling for an anna or two, all directed against the vice of drunkenness. There are farces, too, of larger bulk, one of which, called Bujhile-ki-na, or Do you understand? is very popular, and often produced at private theatricals; and these, too, like the others, are mere copies of Is this Civilization? This little work, therefore, independently of its being in itself one of the two best farces in the language, gains additional importance from the large number of other books written after its model.
To give any adequate idea of this clever little work by translated extracts would be entirely impossible, because half the fun lies in the absurd jargon interlarded with English words and the cant of debating clubs in which the characters speak. The scene is laid in the "Gyan Tarangini Sabha"—a sort of scientific debating society which chiefly devotes itself to nautch-girls and tippling. The types of life and character which it represents art sufficiently disgusting, and the important question is, whether the representation is correct.
To the shame of Bengal we must say that we fear the picture is a true one. The reformer who never gets beyond tipsy harangues full of English expressions, should not be confounded as he often is by Europeans with the really cultivated class. But it cannot be denied that he is a fair representative of that great horde of partly educated Babus, whose only claim to enlightenment lies in the fact that they drink, wear shabby trousers and stammer out barbarous English. These- are the men who swarm in every office, and plague officials with endless applications for employment, crowd the thoroughfares of the native town in the evening, drain the liquor shops, and form the majority of his audience when Babu Keshub Chunder Sen lectures at the Town Hall. Of education, they have had nothing worth the name. Having spent a few years very unprofitably in learning a smattering of English at some Anglo-vernacular school, they started in life—if poor, at the age of eighteen, as umedwars. If rich, they devoted themselves from the same age with their whole strength to swinish pleasures. The country is overrun with men of this sort, and Mr. Datta's picture is true to the life; but they must not be confounded with the really cultivated class, who, in spite of all that has been said regarding the spread of English education, are comparatively few in number.
The next author whom we must mention is Babu Dinabandhu Mitra, the best Bengali dramatist, indeed the only good dramatic author. He has written altogether five plays, of which two are farces. His earliest production, the Nil Darpan, is better known by name to the European public than almost any other Bengali book. Its connection with the indigo riots gave it a notoriety which it certainly would not otherwise have attained. When public feeling was excited on the subject, just after that conviction of Mr. Long, which fitly preceded the extinction of a Court which had thus proved itself unable to rise above the waves of passion and prejudice; at that time Nil Darpan was usually spoken of as a filthy and scurrilous production, entirely devoid of literary merit. In this judgment we do not altogether coincide; but at the same time we should give it a very low place as a work of art. The importance was political, not literary; and as literature rather than politics is our present theme, we shall not discuss it at greater length.
Of Babu Dinabandhu Mitra's other plays, Lilabati is the most popular; but for our own part, though willingly conceding much that may be said in its favour, we give the preference to another play, Nabin Tapaswini. If it has greater faults than the other, they are redeemed by greater merits. The idea of the play is taken from Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, and the plot is that of a well-known Hindu nursery tale, embellished with the love adventures of a sort of Indian Falstaff. The Falstaff of the story is Jaladhur, a prime minister, whose weight and circumference have marked an embarrassing figure, though he still retains the amorous propensities of youth. The object of his affections is Malati, the young and beautiful wife of a merchant named Kalikanta. Malati has a cousin, Mallika, the purest of women at heart, though endowed with a sharp tongue, the rough edge of which she is not chary of using. Having learnt of Jaladhur's passion for Malati and the solicitations which he addressed to her, she put her cousin up to giving him a series of practical lessons, which form the matter of the play. First of all, Jaladhur is induced to meet his own wife under the idea that she is Malati, and his protestations of love mixed with abuse of his wife are cut short and himself put to flight by the entrance in the scene of Kalikanta, to whose wrath the spurious Mallika (?Malati) would have fallen a victim, if she had not saved herself by telling out to him who she was. This, however, did not occur till Jaladhur had felt the weight of his jealous wife's broom.
The next scene is in the merchant's house, where he has been led to expect that his wishes will at length be gratified. Before venturing on this Jaladhur has induced his royal master, whose health was failing, to send Kalikanta to Arabia in search of that sovereign remedy—the flesh of the Hondol kutkutia, a fabulous animal which had no existence out of the minister's brain. By Mallika's advice, the trader, instead of starting for Arabia, conceals himself near home, and returns by agreement to the house where Jaladhur is in company with the two ladies. The gay Lothario, thus surprised, hides himself, first, for want of better shelter, with a grotesque mask to hide his head, in a cask of tar, and afterwards in a heap of cottonwool, with results which may be imagined. At last he is advised to fly, and Mallika lets him out of a back door, immediately in front of which is a great iron cage prepared for the Arabian beast. He runs into this cage in the dark, and Mallika shuts the door. In the morning he is carried off to Court, and the people on the way crowd round the strange beast, pelt him with brick-bats and poke him with sticks, while he is so much afraid of being recognized that he squeaks and capers about, as the wild beast for which he is taken might be supposed to do. At last they meet the king, and after a time Kalikanta turns up, and the facts are in due course disclosed.
This is the comic vein of the piece, but there is also a serious plot, and the two hang together somewhat loosely. The serious plot relates to the King and his Queen, whom he had put away years before, when she was great with child, and whom many supposed to have been murdered and all believed to be dead. He is now strongly urged to a second mkrriage in the interests of his kingdom, but his heart yearns for his lost Queen, whom he at length discovers in a beggar woman, with their son, now a fine young man, disguised as a hermit. The hermit loves the fair one destined for the king's second wife, and ends by marrying her.
This serious plot is poor enough, but the other story is worked out in an irresistibly comic manner. The character of Jaladhur, too, though doubtless taken in great part from Shakespeare's Falstaff is life-like and consistent, and Mallika, with her love of mischief and fun and inexhaustible fertility of resource, is Babu Dinabandhu Mitra's best female character. Jaladhur's ugly and jealous wife, too, is excellently drawn, and tickles the reader's fancy with her firm persuasion that her corpulent old husband is sighed after and inveigled by all the young women about the place.
Lilabati is a more ambitious work. Its plot is romantic and complicated, and in working it out, the melodramatic element is largely introduced. We have not space to discuss it at length, and must, therefore, content ourselves with expressing the opinion that, as in Nabin Tapaswini Babu Dinabandhu Mitra has proved himself the greatest humourist, so in Lilabati he appears as the wittiest writer in the Bengali language. Neither Tekchand nor Hutam come near him in this respect. Lilabati is now its author's most widely read work, since Nil Darpan has lost its factitious popularity, but in our opinion it is rather in broad comedy and farce that its author excels than in so serious a drama.
It remains to notice Babu Dinabandhu Mitra's two farces. In the "Old Man Mad for Marriage", a not unfrequent kind of folly is cleverly satirized. An old man, named Rajib Mukerji, is very anxious to be married, and people are wont to irritate him by proposing as a match an ugly black-faced Dom woman, known as "Panchua's mother". Some school-boys determine to play him a trick. A sham Ghatak, or match-maker, is sent to him. The preliminary arrangements are completed, and Rajib is to be married. One of the most mischievous among the boys is dressed up as a girl to personate the bride, and some of the neighbours represent her male and female friends. The mock ceremony is gone through, and Rajib passes the night in jollification with the boys. His horrors may be imagined on awaking in the morning and finding that the bride by his side is "Panchua's mother", who offers a young sucking pig to his caresses as their adopted child.
The other farce, Sadhabar Ekadasi, is more cleverly written, but unfortunately it is so disfigured by obscenity that we can neither quote nor analyse it. A great deal of its author's charm, too, lies in his wit, and this it is utterly impossible for us to reproduce in English, depending as it does on similarities between the sounds of Bengali words and ideas which are almost incomprehensible to a foreigner.
There are several other writers still remaining to be noticed, but the limited space at our disposal compels us to bring the present paper to a close. Babu Ranga Lai Banerji is a poet with a high reputation among his countrymen, but we must say that he has done very little to deserve it. His three poems are—Padmini, Karmmadebi and Surasundari, all three being versified stories of Rajput women, taken from Tod's Rajasthan. Padmini is perhaps the best. This writer belongs to the school of Bharat Chandra, though, unlike the old author, he is free from obscenity. Indeed, such merits as he has are chiefly of a negative character.
Babu Hem Chunder Banerji, though less known to fame, is a far better poet. His Indra's Nectar Feast is a spirited imitation of Dryden's Alexander's Feast.
Among the romance writers, Babu Protap Chandra Ghose, author of 'Bangadhip Parajay', has recently been noticed at length in this review. The only other writer of this class whose works it seems necessary to notice, is Babu Bankim Chandra Chatarji, whose Durgesnandini, Kapal Kundala and Mrinalini are among the most popular of Bengali books. Perhaps we cannot do better than give a brief sketch of the story of Kapal Kundala which, if not the best, is the shortest and most easily reproduced of the three. The story then runs thus:—
A young Brahman named Naba Kumar, on his return from Ganga Sagar, was left by his companions on a deserted pait of the coast of Hidgelee. The only inhabitant of the place was a 'Kapalika', or member of one ' of those strange sects which practised the wild and terrible Tantric forms of worship—whose temple is the burning ghat, and for whom no rite is too bloody and disgusting. From him the young man obtained food and shelter. Having provided for his necessities, his unattractive host, with his drinking cup of human skull, went on a journey with a promise to return again. But day after day passed and no Kapalika appeared, till at length Naba Kumar, weary of waiting, determined to find his own way, if possible, through the pathless wilderness of jungle in which the hermit's cave stood, to some region inhabited by men. But in the attempt he utterly lost his way, and the following scene then occurs, which we quote because it is a favourite with native readers:—
'He now perceived that he could not even find his way back. The deep roar of the water boomed in his ear and he recognized the voice of the ocean. Suddenly emerging from the thicket, he saw the sea spread before him. The infinite expanse of the dark waters filled him with a sublime joy. He sat down on the sandy beach. The dark foamy endless waters! Far as the eye could reach on either side, long white lines of foam flashed on the crest of the waves as they broke on the flat line of the beach, and shone against the golden sand like a garland of snow-white flowers. But over the expanse of ocean, too, a thousand waves were dancing and breaking into foam. If the wind could reach the stars and set them in motion across the background of the sky, this alone could fitly image the sight of the white foam-spots on the dark waters of the sea. The sun was about to set, and where the line of soft light fell, the water was transformed to molten gold. And in the distance some European ships could be descried, skimming the ocean like gigantic birds with great white spreading wings.
'How long Naba Kumar continued to gaze at the ocean, he could not tell. Suddenly the darkness of night came down on the bosom of the deep, and he then remembered that his way back must be found.
'Turning his back to the sea, he saw a magnificent vision. There stood on the sandy beach of the deep-sounding sea, dimly seen in the twilight, the figure of a woman such as he had never seen before. Her cloud-like tresses confined by no hand, flowed down below her knee in long serpentine curls. * * Her face was partly hidden, but it shone like the moon through a break in the clouds. There was a mild and subdued light in her large eyes. Her expression was grave: but her face beamed on him like the moon now newly risen over the surface of the deep.'
The young woman thus described in language rather more lofty than distinct, turns out to be a Kapal Kundala, a girl who had been saved from the wreck of one of those Portuguese pirate ships, which in old times ravaged the whole coast of Bengal in search of slaves, and who had been brought up by the Kapalika hermit in his solitary dwelling for ultimate purposes of which she new nothing. She had imbibed from him a deep veneration for his goddess Kali, but her soul revolted from the human sacrifices which the Kapalika offered to Kali whenever occasion offered. The two returned to the hermit's cell, and it soon appeared that Naba Kumar was intended for sacrifice. His host, who was a man of vast strength, had tied him to the stake and would have at once carried out his purpose, but Kapal Kundala concealed the sacrificial knife, and when the Kapalika went to look for it, she cut the prisoner's bonds and the two took at once to flight. After a time they reached a solitary shrine, and induced the pujari to marry them, Naba Kumar, it is needless to say, being deeply enamoured of his companion, and she having no objection to marriage because she had no idea what it meant. The pujari showed them, too, the way to Midnapore, from whence Naba Kumar's residence at Saptagram was easily reached.
This was not Naba Kumar's first marriage. He had been married once before, but while his wife was a mere child; and she having been converted with her father to the Muhammadan faith, they had left the country together, so that husband and wife had never met after the day of their marriage. A strange adventure now befell on the way back to Saptagram. Naba Kumar, having done some trifling service to a Musalman lady of great wealth and apparently high rank, she asked his name and residence, and learned that he was her husband. For the lady was his wife, now Lutf-un-nissa, the favourite courtezan whose lisp and beauty had won her power and wealth among the courtiers at Agra, where her father had risen to eminence through the favour of Akbar. As a mark of gratitude for the service tendered to her, she presented Kapal Kundala with a magnificent set of jewels, which the ignorant girl gave away in complete ignorance of their use and value to the first beggar on the road. Lutf-un-nissa was on her way back from Orissa, whither she had gone in furtherance of an intrigue to divert the succession from Prince Selim. A strange Nemesis had now overtaken her. She who boasted that she carried a heart of stone which neither prince nor courtiers could touch—she was now conquered by the poor wandering but handsome Brahman who had once been her husband. Arrived in Agra, she found Selim seated on the throne, and obtained his permission to return to Bengal. She came to Saptagram, took a house, and spread her net for the affection of Naba Kumar. Finding, however, an insurmountable obstacle in his constant love for Kapal Kundala, she determined on a bold scheme for undermining it.
Kapal Kundala had now been more than a year in Naba Kumar's house. Her name, owing to its Tantric import, was changed to Mrinmayi. She herself had been to a certain extent reclaimed from the character of a cfyild of the wilderness, but she regretted the change. Naba Kumar loved her ardently, but she did not return his feeling. Her heart was pre-occupied by the great goddess Kali, to whose service she was fanatically devoted. She would have died for Naba Kumar, if necessary, but she did not love him, and she could not bear the restraints of the zenana. Setting his authority at nought, she one night stole out into the jungle to gather herbs for a female friend, who wanted them for a philter. Approaching an old ruin, she overheard some conversation which seemed to concern herself. She was detected listening by one of the talkers who appeared to be a Brahman youth. She was seized with fear and fled. She saw she was being followed, and before she reached home and closed the door behind her, she recognized the well-known stalwart form of the Kapalika.
The Kapalika, when his victims had escaped, had given chase, but had fallen and broken his arm. While he lay helpless in bed, Bhawani had appeared to him in a dream and demanded Kapal Kundala as a sacrifice. When the use of his limbs had been recovered, he spent nights and days in searching for her, and at length he had succeeded. But he needed assistance in bringing her to the sacrificial altar, and while watching his opportunity, he met Lutf-un-nissa disguised for purposes of her own as a Brahman youth, and it was these two whom Kapal Kundala had disturbed in their consultations. The two did not agree. Lutf-un-nissa's object was to separate Kapal Kundala from her husband, but she would not consent to violence of any kind. Finding the Kapalika resolved in his purpose, Lutf-un-nissa determined to save Kapal Kundala by telling her the facts, and then to work ofi her feelings of gratitude. Accordingly, next day, Kapal Kundala found on her path a note from the disguised Brahman inviting a second meeting in the wood, and promising important disclosures. No other Hindu wife would have kept the appointment, but she did and not unnoticed.
Kapal Kundala, when going out the night before, had been seen by Naba Kumar, who, though not yet jealous, might readily have been made so. He watched the second night, and found her going out again; and to add to his torments, Lutf-un-nissa's note had dropped unperceived on the floor. He picked it up and read it, and determined to follow. But almost before he had got outside the house, the Kapalika stood before him. Disappointed in Lutf-un-nissa, the terrible devotee now sought to secure the assistance of Naba Kumar himself by working on his jealousy. He told Naba Kumar of his own fall and loss of strength, and of Bhawani's command, and called on him to assist in the sacrifice of his wife, whom at the same time he denounced as a fallen traitress. If he wanted proof, he bade him follow; and the two plunged together into the thicket.
Kapal Kundala had met Lutf-un-nissa in the wood, and the latter, after telling her the Kapalika's story and letting her fully understand his terrible purpose, disclosed also her own identity and history, and the object she had in view. She promised Kapal Kundala riches and comfort in some foreign land, if only she would leave her husband without warning, lb this she might have consented, having no real love for her husband, but when once she had heard the will of Bhawani, nothing remained for her but to fulfil it. She left the place, and at a little distance fell in with the Kapalika and Naba Kumar. For they had been watched throughout. Naba Kumar was fearfully excited by drink administered to him by the Kapalika, and was ready to carry out the hermit's purpose. They all went together to the place of sacrifice—the burning ghat, which is minutely described in all its horrid details, with its crowd of vultures, half-burnt human bodies, and heaps of skulls and bones in all directions. Then they prepared to worship according to the rites of the Tantrikas. Naba Kumar took Kapal Kundala to the waterside to bathe her before she should be sacrificed. There an explanation was given. He begged her to come again. She declared her intention of fulfilling Bhawani's will, and while the debate between them was going on, just as he stretched out his hand to seize her and force her to return, the bank beneath her feet gave way, and she fell into the deep stream below. He leaped after her. Both for a time disappeared. The Kapalika (at) length dragged Naba Kumar to land, but Kapal Kundala was seen or heard of no more. And so the story ends, much to the disappointment of most Bengali readers, who much prefer the orthodox ending, where all live happily ever after.
Mrinalini is a book of a very different stamp, and many consider it Babu Bankim Chandra Chatarji's most successful production.
But here must end out brief and imperfect sketch of Bengali literature—a literature which, with much that is feeble and base and utterly worthless, yet has within it what may encourage no small degree of hope for the future. Its character is for the most part imitative, but what literature, save that of Greece, has ever been independent and original in its youth? Once and again has a voice from that holy land of beauty and truth awakened the torpid heart and mind of Western Europe. Horace himself, the most spontaneous and genuine of all the Latin poets, entertained no higher idea of originality than to make it consist in the importation of a new form of poetry from Greece. An imitator in those days meant an imitator of Latin authors—the imitation of Greek being almost implied in the excellence of any work. And when Europe woke again from the long sleep which followed on the dissolution of the Roman Empire, it was on the translation and imitation of Greek and Latin authors that its energies were employed. Is there no imitation in Dante himself? It may seem improbable that European ideas will ever really be assimilated by the people of India—that all we can effect here is a superficial varnish of sham intelligence. But everything cannot come in a day, and there was a time when it would have seemed almost equally improbable that the little remnant of intelligence preserved in the Latin Church, and the study of classical antiquity, would have grown into what we now see among the Celtic and Teutonic peoples of the West. The Bengalis may not seem to have the fibre for doing much in the way of real thought any more than of vigorous action; but it was chiefly among the supple and pliant Italians tha£ the revival of learning in Europe began; and it is possible to imagine that the Bengalis—the Italians of Asia, as the Spectator has called them—are now doing a great work, by, so to speak, acclimatising European ideas and fitting them for reception hereafter by the hardier and more original races of Northern India.