Eduardo Acosta, PhD Candidate in South Asian Languages and Civilizations
In 1871, the Bengali intellectual Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay wrote a scathing assessment of the poet Ishwar Chandra Gupta, who had been an influential and popular writer in Bengal. “He stands between the past and the present,” wrote Bankim, “A dozen years have not elapsed since Ishwar Chandra Gupta died, yet we speak of him as belonging to a past era.” This indictment of Ishwar Gupta shows Bankim’s nationalist apprehension of what should be the literary history of Bengal, a preoccupation that has received a fair share of attention in modern scholarship. However, Bankim’s ideation of a literary past that included his almost-contemporary also points to a question that was heavily disputed throughout the 19th century: when was exactly the literary past of Bengal?
This paper analyzes different texts dealing with the literary history of Bengal written in Bangla and English during the nineteenth century. From Kashiprasad Ghosh’s 1830 article “On Bengali writers” to Dineshcandra Sen’s magnum opus Baṅgabhāṣā o sāhitya, this paper queries the different—and sometimes contradictory—narratives and idioms of change, innovation, and corruption that these literary histories deployed in order to periodize the literary past of Bengal. Rather than taking for granted the medieval/modern division, this paper hopes to complicate the matter of periodization and of the historical precedent of Bengal’s past that were enacted during the nineteenth century.