Past on the Wall

The Reading Public: Bangla Letters and Reading Manners

For last few years in the University of Hyderabad I’ve been studying print and ‘Colonial public sphere’ in nineteenth century Bengal for my PhD. I have made an attempt (beyond the axiomatic frame of parlour and the street)  to understand the transition in 19th century Bangla literature and its public life – from oral through print.

I closely follow;

one, the new professions that emerged along with print such as editors, reviewers, writers;

two, new formations such as literary societies or sabhas, reading clubs, publishing houses; and

three, the new readers who were discovered from schools and households, on roads, in railway stations.

My investigations have made me travel.

Documents about Bengali culture are well preserved in the British Library in London and National Library and Asiatic Society in Kolkata. There are documents in Angus Library in Oxford where I have spent considerable amount of time going through frazzled Returns-Reports related to print, Police Files, old prints from nineteenth century.

Being a Bengali helps. I can see shadows of our past urban cultures written down in these old, now “endangered” documents.

Bangla Literature found itself being discovered since late eighteenth century under the aegis of British colonial administration. Colonial activities centred in Calcutta also provided an impetus for the cultivation of Bangla literary public. Bengal evolved through a renaissance following this discovery.

Liberating literature from pockets of courtly productions and through a series of reformation movements, Bengal discovered its renaissance ‘public’ who would draft petitions, edit newspapers and nurture literary traditions.

This journey of Bangla letters was initiated and patronised by the Baptist Missionary church and the British empire in India. Journals and accounts of Baptist missionaries documented apprehensions about the early years of this cultural transition. Among the many concerns for the early printers, the most nagging was financial difficulty to meet the expenses of printing and sustaining a publication network.

The East-India-Company-backed publishing institutions -such as Calcutta School Book Society, Vernacular Literature Society – also had many concerns about their financial management. Editorship often changed hand. Quite a significant number of newspapers were published with varying frequency and, at times, resurfaced after a year’s gap or so till 1860s.

In 1856  the “Act to prevent the Sale or Exposure of Obscene Books and Pictures” brought a literary discipline and punishment in the public life of Bangla literature. Hawkers of Dasarathi Ray’s panchali were arrested and penalised. Printers, not knowing much about registration or copyright, were caught unawares. The Act brought bureaucratic knowledge documentation – a process which saw its initiation in James Long’s successive returns on ‘Bengali’ literature around the same time. In the course of the nineteenth century, Bangla literature was catalogued and registered.

Quite understandably certain sections of Bengali literature were found objectionable for their vulgarity, some for their seditious quality. However, till the end of 1860s, other than school texts, children’s literature and many other categories still survived. Cheap song books, Nakshas did a brisk business with their satire and racy language. With legal codes on copyright, obscenity, registration they found themselves gradually pushed out of stable returns because of modern literary sensibility. This literary sensibility not only called out the obscene and the seditious but also often marked Bangla literary inheritances as “lowly” and “crude”.

Yet the rising “bhadralok” (gentlemanly) sensibility did not banish Bangla’s “lowly” literary inheritance altogether. Bankimbabu (Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay) and Rabindranath Tagore, two doyens of Bengali culture as we know it, used Mangal gaan, panchali, padabali, Carit Sahityain their crafts. Gautam Bhadra’s recent study reminded how battala (another “low” form of Bangla literary craft) survived in Bankimchandra’s writing as well (2011).

This unsettles a clear departure from cheap and oral literary sensibility and style with the coming of print. It hints at a continuous exchange between the ‘high’ and the ‘low’ literature.

My PhD initiated me into the roads to follow readers and readership which evolved through years of these literary exchanges, of disciplining acts and of useful domestic literature.

My thesis is my first wee step in that direction.


A graduate from University of Hyderabad, Sayantan Mondal is currently an Asst. Professor in the department of English at Gandhi Institute of Technology and Management. He has been an Erasmus Mundus Fellow at the University of Oxford during 2015-16. His areas of interest are Reading-readership, Nineteenth Century literature, Dalit Studies and Translation.

Sayantan Mondal

Sayantan Mondal

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