Children’s literature in Bengal owes its first flowering to the awakened consciousness of Bengal’s intellectuals even as early as the latter half of the nineteenth century. As it came into contact with the world abroad, Bengal began contributing to all spheres of intellectual and academic life. It was therefore not accidental that the first text-books in Bengali were written by that mighty stalwart of the 19th century, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar who translated Aesop’s Fables (Kathamala) and published it.
Thakurmar Jhuli (The stories from Granny’s bag) or Thakurdada’s Jhuli (Grandpa’s bag of stories), a compilation of the fascinating fairy stories from the inexhaustible fund of tales of grandmothers have been handed over from generation to generation. It may also be noted that as early as the beginning of the 20th century Bengal had a children’s monthly magazine—Mukul–edited by Pandit Sivanath Sastri, the veteran leader of the Brahmo movement and published by the Brahmo Mission Press.
But the child’s world of fantasy began to be seriously explored in all directions in the last hundred years by some of the dozens of Bengali literateurs headed by Rabindranath himself. The readers of this article need no introduction to Tagore’s Sishu, a book of poems on the child’s world of imagination or his play Mukui (The Crown), written for and staged by the students of Santiniketan. Even his first, second and third books on the lessons in Bengali include beautiful easy readings in prose and verse. The creative atmosphere prevailing in Jorasanko, the home of the Tagores, did not fail to leave its mark in the sphere of children’s literature. Abanindranath Tagore, the maestro in Indian painting urged by his uncle, Rabindranath, has delighted thousands of Bengali children for years. His Khirer Putulor, the doll made of Khir or thickened milk is meant for very young children with illustrations by himself. Khatangir Khata (The account book of the cashier) or Bhutpatrir Deshe (In an eerie land) with their beautiful illustrations delight even the grown ups of the complex world of today. Nalak narrates the birth of Gautam Buddha. Shakuntala tells the story of Shakuntala in his inimitable language that is rich and pictorial. He was known to be the Tagore that ‘writes’ pictures. His Raj Kahini (Tales of Rajasthan) rouses an abiding interest in the heroic tales of India. But his Alor Phulki (A Spark of Light) with Coock-o-ro, a cock, the harbinger of the dawn as the main character may find its place in the world literature for children if it can ever be translated.
Jogendranath Sarkar and Upendra Kishore Ray Choudhury, whose birth centenaries were celebrated within a few years of Tagore’s, were two of the pioneers who wrote exclusively for children. Jogendranath Sarkar compiled the story of the Ramayana in easy verse and has written delightful short stories for children besides his standard verses with the Bengali alphabets. He also started publication and a bookshop, displaying thereby an attitude and a vision. Upendra Kishore’s Tuntunir Boyee is a fascinating book of anecdotes of a small bird named Tuni. Tuni makes a fool of the all powerful king as the clever fox makes a fool of the tiger who is keen on marrying a human girl. The book was illustrated by the author. Upendra Kishore was the first to have condensed the stories of the Mahabharata and Ramayana in simple prose for children. Satyajit Ray, his grandson, has immortalized one of his stories Goopee Gayen and Bagha Boyen by making his well known film on it. All his sons and daughters as also some of the other members of his family excelled in writing for children. But his eldest son, Sukumar Ray, occupied the foremost place in children’s literature in Bengal. An ardent admirer of Tagore, Sukumar living in the age of Tagore, could evolve a distinct style and form of his own – the form of satire but without malice on the idiosyncracies of the men parading as the custodians of knowledge and enlightenment. Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, he wrote HaJaBaRaLa in which a boy in his dream finds himself in the woods where the animals speak and act like human beings. The story not only provokes laughter from the children but also provides an equal interest for the adults for the hidden satire on the weaknesses of individuals and institutions. Sukumar Ray’s Abo/ Tabol or nonsensical rhymes, a few of which have been ably rendered into English by his son, Satyajit Ray, are comparable to those of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear. Ray and Jaroslav Hasek of Czechoslavakia were contemporaries. Both died young in 1923. The Good Soldier Swaiieck reminds us of Pagla Dasu of Sukumar Ray.
Incidentally, Sukumar Ray edited a well known monthly magazine Sandesh from 1915 to 1923. It included apart from his own writings and illustrations, stories, articles and poems of the best writers of the day. Sandesh is again being published as a bi-monthly magazine for children, edited by Lila Majumdar and Satyajit Ray, the two eminent and popular writers of children’s literature of the day.
The fact that Upendra Kishore who was also a pioneer in printing owned a press, Ray and Sons, must have helped in publishing and printing books and the magazine.
One is amazed at the number of translations into Bengali of the world’s classics published in the span of the last four or five decades. Arabian Nights and The Treasure Island translated into Bengali by Kulada Ranjan Roy, the younger brother of Upendra Kishore, were avidly read by the young and the adult alike. Sukholata Rao, the eldest daughter of Upendra Kishore, wrote Galpo-Aro-Galpo (Stories More Stories) based on the European fairy tales. In Bengal the two most popular English authors are Shakespeare and Charles Dickens whose works have been extensively translated and adapted for the children. Jules Verne is another who is widely appreciated in Bengal. One of the very popular stories with Bengali children is Uncle Tom’s Cabin the Bengali translation of which has run into many editions. So is Gullivers Travels competently translated by Lila Majumdar. Twenty-Three Tales of Tolstoy is another popular book with children. Conan Doyle is a great favourite too.
It is significant that besides Sandesh there have been quite a number of· magazines exclusively for children- Monchak, Rang Mashal, Sishu Sathi, Suktara, to mention a few. The two eminent writers of adventure, the late Hemendra Kumar Ray and the late Somindra Mohon Mukhopadhya wrote regularly in these magazines. Abar Jaker Dhan by Hemendra Kumar Ray and Nil Kuthi by Somendra Mohon Mukhopadhya were serially published in Monchak.
It is not possible to survey the vast area of children’s literature of Bengal in one short article which, however will be incomplete if Lal Kalo (Red and Black) by Girindra Sikhar Bose, a wonderful story about the red and black ants, is not mentioned. Coming to the recent period, some of the outstanding contributors to children’s literature include the late Narayan Ganguli, Premendra Mitra, Satyajit Ray, Lila Majumdar, Maheswata Debi, each of whom has a distinct style of story telling and can be reviewed separately. Some of the characters of their books Tenida, Ghanada, Pheluda are real to the children and are idealized by them. Bibhuti Bhusan Bandopadhya with whom many readers may be acquainted through Pather Panchali which again has been condensed for the children as Am Antir Bhepu, has described the magic of the forest life in his Aranyak--a necessity for the city-bred child.
Satyajit Ray has been able to fill a void in children’s literature: The sense of adventure in the young adolescent age finds a satisfying outlet in his books. Every year they look forward to the fresh adventures of Pheluda, the detective and his teenage assistant, who are usually accompanied by a colourful person, Lalmohan Babu. Satyajit Ray has also experimented with science fiction. Professor Sharku is one such creation.
Nothing more than a very brief introduction of the children’s literature in Bengal has been attempted in this article. Much had to be left out. Books and journals on popular science, sports, mountaineering, ecology are being published. But of course in comparison to the demand the achievement has been little. It is particularly so when we think of the vast millions who are deprived of education and of books, the level of literacy being one of the lowest in Bengal. Writers, barring a few exceptions, do not seem to take them into account. The street urchin who is happy if he gets a job in a tea shop or the poor farm boy who is hired as a day labourer hardly ever features in these books. The disparity between the fortunate few and the unfortunate millions widens. A writer could help to bridge the difference in his own way. An outstanding example has been Phatikchand by Satyajit Ray. It is the story of a boy coming from a well-to-do family, how he is picked up by two ruffians and rescued by a juggler with whom he stays on. Calcutta with all its poverty as also with its varied interests seems to unfold before the young readers who learn to love the city inspite of everything. The boy is ultimately handed over to the parents. The juggler goes back to his native land. The boy will forever cherish the memory of those days which gave him such a valuable experience. Few stories in the world of children’s literature are as human as Phatikchand.
A few words about publication. In the early forties the Signet Press had made a mark in the publication of children’s literature when it brought out beautifully got-up, well edited books and reproductions of classics of children’s literature. Signet reigned supreme for more than a decade. In the meantime, publishers small and big have joined in as they had realised the tremendous possibilities of the market. But at present, the cost of production does not permit new ventures which cannot last long except in the case of big concerns like Ananda Publishers of the Ananda Bazar Group which brings out Ananda Mela, a magazine for children containing coloured photographs. The publication of children’s literature is fast becoming a market for vested interests. Nevertheless, the tradition of Bengal refuses to surrender. Every year on the eve of the Puja holidays or during the Tagore birth anniversary celebrations, fresh publications see the light of the day even if for a short duration. If small loans from the Banks or from the State in any other form could be arranged, just as facilities are available in other business ventures or translation made in other Indian languages, the possibility of the big money monopolising the book trade perhaps could be averted.
(Vol. III Nos. 9-10 Sept/Oct 1979)