more on the bengal initiative and rajsekhar*

Arun Bose


Several noted writers and thinkers have argued, and many still do, that the so-called Bengal Renaissance never happened, or in any case it is a misnomer because it refers to a much-touted renaissance which aborted. Or that it refers to pale, farcical, morally repulsive imitation of renaissances (of which there have been many) occurring in other climates and soils in other countries and civilisations from time to time throughout human history (including the history of hominid ancestors of human-beings, about whose life and times we seem to know a little more every year, thanks to invention of new scientific tools such as physical dating devices and advances in genetics).


To name only some instances of such negative verdicts on the Bengal Renaissance, Manabendra Nath Roy, Rajani Palme Dutt, Sushobhan Sarkar in some of their writings, some modern post-modernists in some of theirs and Nirad C Chaudhuri in all of his, belong to this category. As do a host of writers of theses, their supervisors and examiners, who endorse their views in reviews and review-articles,—who are filling the pages of journals, magazines and newspapers nowadays. This negative view is also shared by those who believe that the only authentic Bengal Renaissance has been inspired by Indian communists and pro-communist leftists from the 1920s and 1930s, and also by various upholders of Balashaheb Ambedkar’s call for a genuine Indian Renaissance, before and after he presided over mass-conversions to Indian neo-Buddhism ; by Dravidian and Tamil renaissance in the south ; and by various renaissance movements in north-eastern and eastern India. All of them deny, disparage what I uphold as the three streams of the Bengal Renaissance though not all insist their own is the one and only genuine renaissance on Indian soil.

But the Bengal Renaissance is recognisable, and has been so recognised, as a vital force for vibrant, creative change gripping all who belong to Bengal in all walks of life. Visible, in partly over-lapping and partly mutually exclusive streams, their path-breaking architects include Ram Mohun Roy, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, Ramkrishna Paramhansa, Naren Datta (who became Swami Vivekananda), Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Aurobindo Ghosh (who became Sri Aurobindo), Ameer Ali, Rabindra Nath Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, as well the scientists Prafulla Chandra Roy, Jagadish Chandra Bose, C V Raman, Satyendra Nath Bose, Meghnad Saha, Prasanta Mahalanobis (of the Indian Statistical Instituate) Bipin Chandra Pal, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, Bhupendra Nath Basu, Subhas Chandra Bose, Radha BInode Pal, Dhurjati Prasad Mukherjee, Rajshekhar Basu. They were path-breakers in philosophy (religious, non-religious, deistic, polytheistic, agnostic or atheistic), law and jurisprudence, politics, economics, history, sociology, statistics, literature and literary criticism, music and music criticism, painting, i.e. in the coventionally classified sciences and arts in many fields.


The distinguishing features of the third stream are essentially these:


First, they were strictly scientific in their approaches, their aims and programmes and procedures to put them into practice.


Second, pride of place was assigned to the legacies of the four vedas subsuming the upanishads and the Vedanta, and the Mahabharata both recognised as being due to Krishna Dvaipayan Vyasa.


Third, equal stress was laid on the technology of innovative experiments in laboratories and on practical marketed applications. As well as in active dissemination (instead of passive diffusion) of the results of these experiments. Further, ‘experimental methodology’ in this sense was to be introduced in educational institutions, govermental, quasi-governmental and private, which were to be turned into hot-beds of scientific activity in all walks of life. While these scientific approaches and procedures impregnated all branches of human activity, the stress within the conventionally identified ‘natural sciences’ was on new departures in chemistry, botany, biology, physics, psychology, astronomy, architecture.


Fourth, the watchword of adherents of the third stream was, and remains today, Bengal Initiative, with stress on both these words (the phrase being coined by Prafulla Chandra Roy in his youth when as a student of chemistry in Edinburgh University in Scotland he published against great odds his India Before and After The Mutiny in 1886, outlining his credo which was adopted by adherents of the Bengal Initiative. ‘Bengal Initiative’ was also the name given to an organisation founded by Prafulla Chandra Roy and his associates which has been reactivated in recent years.

The massive unfolding of the Bengal Initiative also took the form of myriad new institutions springing up like a hydra-headed creature all over Bengal. From chambers of commerce, industry and finance, the stock exchange to trade unions, workers’ committees, to educational institutions-especially the national council of education, national colleges and schools (including night schools). On to akharas, gymnasia, wrestling and football clubs and hockey clubs, swimming pools and swimming clubs, circuses and tea-shops. Medical doctors’ and lawyers’ waiting rooms and chambers, common rooms of students and teachers’, libraries became institutionalised, and so did all means of transport and communication-as channels of contact and communication for the long arms of the Bengal Initiative. All these institutions and channels became dotted with nerve centres for Bengal Initiative protagonists within and around them to clash with their opponents. Where opponents and enemies interpenetrated each others’ ranks, disagreements hardening into hostilities, opponents and enemies changing sides, with some thriving as double agents, loyalists turning betrayers and vice versa. All this was replicated within and across private and public bureaucracies at all hierarchical levels, including the jail administrations and security services, from the top to the lowest levels. Adherents of the Bengal Initiative put all the emphasis, in precept and practice, in creating instead of capturing and controlling institutions.


These unusual happenings were vividly and grippingly fictionalised, with almost audio-visual attention to detail, going into its intricacies and finer points and nuances, but holistically, in Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Chaturanga’ and ‘Char Aadhyay’ novels, some of his poems, songs, short stories and dance-dramas, and paintings and incisive articles and speeches. But most effectively in Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s compact novel Pather Dabi. Its central character, the ambidexterous sharp-shooting Sabyasachi was recognisable and recognised as the proto-type revolutionary, forever challenging every kind of imperialism, from Bengal to China and Japan, experimenting with diverse social forces, realistically recognising their capacities and incapacities, standing up for them, not condescendingly but as one of them, never giving up. His novel Sesh Prasna was an extension of the story of Pather Dabi, as were some of his numerous short stories, and ironic and paradoxical articles and speeches. His autobiographical Sri Kanta, parts 1 to 4 paid attention to almost every aspect of his life and work, as well as to most aspects of the current phase of the still continuing Bengal Renaissance.


As elsewhere in India and the world at large, the Bengal Initiative’s many-sided activities were also reflected in police reports, interrogations of suspects, prisoners and detenus and externces, as well as in records of confabulations of members of governmental bureaucracies, court trials and political bureaucracies of political parties and factions and in newspapers and magazines which often read more like leaflets and handbills of the Bengal Initiative.


Though a prominent participant, Rajshekhar Basu was not entirely satisfied with the ideas and activities of the pioneers of the third stream of the Bengal Renaissance. He put his own highly unorthodox stamp on it by suggesting that Parasuram, a key figure in the tales of the Indian Puranas and the Mahabharata, was the most appropriate source of inspiration for the modern scientific revolutions of inventions and innovations in all walks of life in Bengal and India, desired by the pioneers of the Bengal Initiative as well as all main streams of the Bengal Renaissance. Rather as Moses or Musa was and still is in the Judaic-Christian-Muslim traditions, Prometheus was in the pre-Socratic traditions of the ancient Greeks, transmitted to the English Scottish, Celtic-American traditions via Kant and Hegel, German, Russian and Slavonic romantics of Europe. Or like the Caesarian traditions established by Julius and Augustus Caesar (strongly reinforced by the committed empire-builders of the English East India Company, who glorified Caesarian traditions to capture most of Indian territory and to redesign it economically, militarily, administratively, politically and culturally). Or again like the Franco-Italian-Spanish Bonapartist imperialist traditions or the Dutch, Portuguese and Yankee American traditions of religious-cultural, political and technological economic imperialist penetration whose founders were cult-figures from Vasco da Gama, to David Ricardo and Alfred Marshall and on to Henry Ford, Edison and Marconi. What was common to all of them was their appeal to some kind of scientific methodology to promote their imperialist aims and programmes. To such scientific methodology Rajshekhar was determined to contrapose the scientific methodology applied to all walks of life emanating from the mythical Parasuram. To make Parasuram a living legend of Bengali folklore, side by side with Kali, Rudra, Ram and Radha-Krishna which were strongly entrenched in Bengali folk-lore whose impact was felt in all strata of society for hundreds of years, waxing and waning from time to time, but never becoming extinct.