This compelling story of the ‘Bengal Renaissance' could not have come at a more appropriate time. The year-long celebrations of the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore — the very epitome of this 19th century “Awakening” and, to quote the author, the quintessential “Renaissance man” — are under way.
Superbly documented, the book brings to the fore Subrata Dasgupta's skill as a chronicler of events and reveals the consummate researcher in him. The story of this awakening is one of the encounters of a cultural kind that energises a new creativity. The product of this cross-fertilisation and blending of two traditions with their distinctive ethos and idioms inspired an elevated consciousness, which Dasgupta calls the “Indo-Western mind”.
There is the Orientalist, William Jones (1746-94), the forerunner of this “mind”; Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833), widely considered the pioneer of the Bengal Renaissance; and the “enfant terrible”, Henry Derozio (1809-31), embedded, as the author notes, in Indian culture yet drawing upon “ideas and style strongly influenced by the Western intellectual tradition.”
As the narrative progresses, we come across Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-91), whose contribution was “practical” humanism, which imbued the awakening with “the mentality of a practical, secular humanist committed to the progress of the human condition, to the principle and practice of egalitarianism, to an integrity that others could rely upon absolutely”. It was these values that would fashion the ‘Renaissance mind'.
If it was Rammohun Roy who campaigned against ‘sati' and Vidyasagar against child marriage, the story of Rassundari Debi, thrust into marriage when she was just 12, is about what it was like to be a traditional Bengali Hindu female in a male-dominated 19th century social mileu.
Rassundari's book Amar Jiban (My life) meant a lot more to the blossoming of the Bengal Renaissance. Hers was the voice of her gender. What more, by writing it, she — even if unwittingly — transplanted a “peculiarly Western literary genre” (autobiography) into a very Indian ambience, the first feminists. Who but Michael Madhusudan Datta (1824-73) could be the “Jolly Christian Rhymer”' of “Exquisite Graces” (the title of the chapter on him) — the mercurial, revolutionary poet whose creative output earned him a place among the notables in the literary history of Bengal.
As the story of Bengal Renaissance unfolded, it was imbued with the spirit of nationalism. Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838-94), the author of historical romances and an architect of the “awakening”, owed it to the English to have drawn the Indian consciousness to the desire for liberty and a national identity after centuries of subjugation. His composition Vande Mataram is a hymn to this new consciousness. The “Indo-Western mind”, considered in the book as the ultimate product of the Renaissance, found expression in Swami Vivekananda ((1863-1902).
In the chapter “The sound of monistic music”, the author argues that, in Vivekananda's scheme of things, material progress and spiritual progress were not at odds with each other; this is because he maintained that both science and religion sought unity in diversity.
Moving on to the advent of modern scientific research in India, the author refers to Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937) who, at the International Physics Conference in August 1900, talked about the similarity between the responsiveness of living and non-living matter to physical stimuli — a commentary on nature's monism. He goes on to say that Bose was most likely drawn to his “Bose-ian thesis” not only on the basis of scientific reasoning. There was the likelihood of a monistic strain in the scientist; making it thus an “Indian response to Western science... another extraordinary example of the cross-cultural mind that characterised the Bengal Renaissance.”
The concluding part of this fascinating story of the Bengal Renaissance, is dedicated, for good reason, to Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). The author explains that this literary colossus, at one level, symbolised the new awakening of the Indian mind and, at another, represented its legacy in the age that followed. In this sense, his life “in the era of the Bengal Renaissance becomes less a chapter and more an epilogue to this story.” “A Renaissance needs a Renaissance man. The Italian had Leonardo da Vinci. Bengal had Rabindranath.”