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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 42 New Delhi October 8, 2016

Re-reading Bengal Renaissance

Sunday 9 October 2016, by Arup Kumar Sen

This year is the birth centenary year of Benoy Ghosh, who is a pioneer in writing and documenting the social and cultural history of Bengal. He got attracted to Marxism in his student days. After his graduation in 1937, he started working as a journalist, and worked in some of the leading Bengali dailies and periodicals of the time. After moving away from the CPI in 1948, as many other intellectuals did, he did his Masters in Ancient Indian History and Culture, and established himself as a leading scholar in the field of social and cultural history of Bengal.

His book, Banglar Nabajagriti (Bengal Renaissance), published in 1948, initiated a major debate on the cultural transformation of Bengal in the 19th century. In his preface, he stated that the book was an attempt to write the history of Bengal renaissance, initiated in the 19th century, and its legacy flowing in diverse areas with immense possibilities. He tried to establish the historical foundations of the Renaissance from an orthodox Marxist perspective, and lamented the absence of historical memory among the Bengalis about their glorious past. The sole reason behind writing this book, he argued, was to document the great cultural heritage of Bengal.

In the new edition of the book, published in 1979, he completely revised his position. He argued as early as in 1970 that there is a big gap and flaw in our understanding of the social and cultural history of Bengal, and this cannot be filled up merely by more information collected from the archives or library, without proper historical and social insight. In his self-criticism, he stated that we restricted our analysis about the impact of Western science and philosophy on the minds of a few elites, completely ignoring their impact or possible impact on the ninetyfive per cent of the population. He observed that even on the eve of the last quarter of the 20th century, we find the typical co-existence of progressive and reactionary thought in different spheres of the Bengali society, from the religious guru cult to political Marxism.

In 1978, he characterised the “Bengal Renaissance” as a myth. In this connection, he criticised the Communist Parties in India for their dependence on the urban middle class and for maintaining their existence by becoming part of the system of exploitation. He even criticised many of those who claimed themselves to be real Marxist-Leninist, but whose middle-class world of babu politics and theoretical debates in the Coffee House were far away from the world of the village or the peasants. He stated that during the period 1948-1978, his journey to the villages, and exposure to village life, society and culture made him sceptical about the “Bengal Renaissance”. He concluded by saying that on the basis of Marx’s article on the future results of British rule in India, the nabajagriti or renaissance of Bengal in the 19th century cannot be established as a ‘historical truth’.

The 1979-edition of the book is reprinted on the occasion of his birth centenary. The vivid documentation in the book of the composite culture of the Hindus and Muslims in Bengal testifies to the depth of his journey for a different world. He observed that most of the Bengali Muslims were converted lower-caste Hindus. Even after conversion, both the Muslims and Hindus were often found to have the same types of names and titles, and they worshiped the same folk gods and goddesses, such as Satyapir,Manikpir,Kalugaji,Sitala and Rakshyakali. The popular religious cults in Bengal attracted followers from both the religious communities. Ghosh further observed that most of the Muslim women in the villages of Bengal were not found to wear borkhas. Common architectural styles were often found in temples and mosques.

In our age of sectarian politics and crude form of cultural nationalism, reading Benoy Ghosh offers fresh insights for re-imagining Bengali politics and culture.