Bengal Renaissance – An Era of Progress

Referred to as the Bengal Renaissance, the 19th century is considered to have been a time of transition from medieval to modern in a number of fields, including literature, religion, social reform, political leanings and scientific discoveries. During this time Bengal formed part of undivided India under British rule, and the Renaissance is said to have begun with Indian religious, educational and social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy (22 May 1772-27 September 1833) who pushed the boundaries of traditional Hindu culture and advocated progress for Indian society even though under the rule of the British. Together with Dwarkanath Tagore of the influential Tagore family of Kolkata, as well as other prominent Bengalis, Ram Mohan Roy established the Brahmo Sabha in 1828, which later become the societal aspect of Brahmo religion referred to as Brahmo Samaj. It is generally agreed that the Bengal Renaissance period ended with the death of Rabindranath Tagore in 1941, but it is also acknowledged that many staunch supporters of the Renaissance continued to encourage progress in different fields.

The intellectual awakening that took place during the time of the Bengal Renaissance has been compared to the 16th century European Renaissance, although it must be noted that Europeans did not face the challenges of colonialism as was the case with Bengal under British rule. In the case of the Bengal Renaissance there was a questioning of practices such as the burdensome dowry system, the unjust caste system and the constraints of some religious beliefs. It was during this time too, that one of the Bengal region’s first social movements came into being, as the Young Bengals promoted atheism and rationalism as a code of conduct to level the caste system.

With Ram Mohan Roy and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar leading the way, the Bengal Renaissance produced a wealth of Bengali literature. Prominent literary figures at the time included Bengali poet, writer and journalist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-1894), and later Saratchandra Chatterjee (1876-1938). With a specific interest in educational reform, the Tagore family was very influential and active in the Bengal Renaissance. Rabindranath Tagore became the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded to him in 1913 for his English translation of poems titled the Gitanjali.

Scientific advances during the Bengal Renaissance included pioneering work in a number of fields by Bengali physicist, biologist, archeologist, botanist and science fiction writer Jagadish Chandra Bose. Other notable Bengali and Indian scientists from this era are Satyendra Nath Bose, Meghnad Saha and Upendranath Brahmachari.

Certainly, the Bengal Renaissance was an exciting time in Bengali history, with contributions by innovative and motivated people benefiting subsequent generations.