Novelist Bankim Chandra Chottopadhyay was one of Bengal’s foremost 19th century scholars who captured colonial India’s imagination and one of the leading minds behind the creation of Bengali prose, literary journalism and social satire. He was considered to be a literary genius in his own right, but not without contradictions.
India got its national song ‘Vande Mataram’ from Chattopadhyay’s ‘Anandamath’. The novel is set in the background of the Sanyasi Rebellion, when Bengal was facing a famine. Chattopadhyay, an influential figure on the Bengali renaissance, kept the people of Bengal intellectually stimulated through his literary campaign. The novel became synonymous with India’s struggle for freedom from the British.
Chattopadhyay was born on June 27 in 1838 in a Brahmin family in Kanthalpara village near Naihati in what was then known as the Bengal Presidency. He got married at the age of 11. However, after his wife passed away in 1859, he remarried. Chottopadhyay and his second wife, Rajlakshmi Devi, had three daughters.
Chottopadhyay went on to become one of the first graduates from Calcutta University, and after graduation, he was appointed as the deputy collector of Midnapur by Lieutenant Governor of Calcutta in 1859. He later also acquired a degree in law from Presidency College in 1869.
He worked as the deputy collector serving the British government for 32 years and retired in 1891. It was during his stint as the deputy collector that existing social order and politics began to affect him. Chottopadhyay began to feel a fierce sense of commitment to the art of novel writing — almost as a means of defending it from the criticism that fiction-based works ‘lack human content’.
Writer Sisir Kumar Das, one of the biographers of Chattopadhyay, said it is this passage by Chottopadhyay that “can be described as a manifesto of his plan to foster a new spirit of enquiry among the people of Bengal''.
Chottopadhyay’s literary career began with poetry, before he realised fiction was his calling. His first novel ‘Rajmohan’s Wife’ became the first ever English novel written by an Indian.
Although Chottopadhyay was a great admirer of the English language, he wanted to communicate ideas to the Bengali people in their native language.
Chattopadhyay founded ‘Bangadarshan’ in 1872. The magazine worked as the “medium of communication between the educated and the uneducated classes” at a time English had become the language of communication between the educated class, widening the gulf between the higher and lower ranks of society.
It had a defining influence on the emergence of a Bengali identity and the genesis of nationalism in Bengal. The magazine carried fiction too, and his serialized novels were a hit with the readers — especially the literate women. Almost all of Chottopadhyay’s novels were published in it.
About writing novels in Bangla, Chottopadhyay believed “…the language that alone touches their heart, vilifying and permeating the conceptions of all ranks, will work out grander results than all our English speeches and preaching will ever be able to achieve.”
Chottopadhyay, in all, wrote a total of 13 novels in his lifetime.
Here’s a list of all the novels he wrote:
‘Durgeshnandini’ (March 1865)
‘Vishabriksha’ (The Poison Tree, 1873)
‘Indira’ (1873, revised 1893)
‘Radharani’ (1876, enlarged 1893)
‘Kamalakanter Daptar’ (From the Desk of Kamlakanta, 1875)
‘Krishnakanter Uil’ (Krishnakanta's Will, 1878)
‘Devi Chaudhurani’ (1884)
Chottopadhyay passed away on April 8, 1894, but his body of work continues to occupy an important position in literature and interestingly, in politics too, even today.