West Bengal was responsible for several writers and novelists who propelled India’s nationalist movement in the pre-Independence era. Each contributed through their words, penned as scathing remarks to an unequal society in need of social reform. In that chapter of Indian literature, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay remains one of the most revered names.
During his years in Rangoon, he wrote some of his prominent works including Parinita and Biraj bau (both written in 1914), as well as Palli Samaj (written in 1916).
While in Burma, he continued to revise the drafts of many of the works that he had penned down in Bhagalpur, while simultaneously creating new fiction. In 1916, he came back to India and settled at Baje Shibpur, near Kolkata. Ten years later, he moved to his own house in Samtabere, a village on the banks of the Rupnarayan.
Sarat Chandra is hailed as one of the greatest novelists in Indian literature to have penned contemporary women. Some of his iconic female characters are Paro in Devdas (1917), Vijaya of Datta (1917-1919), Hemangini of Mejdidi and Kamala of Shesh Prashna (1929). His women spoke their mind and did so without any fear of society’s ire.
For instance, in Shesh Prashna, Kamala dismisses the Taj Mahal as a monument that satisfied an emperor’s ego, instead of the conventional ‘monument of love’ line of argument.
He wrote his women as outspoken at a time when they were confined to their homes, even as West Bengal was witnessing social movements for women’s remarriage, education and greater freedom.
The iconic Chandramukhi, a baiji (courtesan) in Devdas, was a downtrodden woman for society but Sarat Chandra chose to tell her tale of unrequited love. His women never bowed to societal norms and even if they did, it was always out of their choice.
Born on September 15, 1876 in Devanandapur, a hamlet located in undivided Bengal during the pre-Independence era, Chattopadhyay was among the five children of Motilal Chattopadhyay and Bhubanmohini. His father did not have a regular job, as a result he spent most of his childhood at his mother’s family home in Bhagalpur, Bihar. There, he attended the Durga Charan Balak Vidyalay.
Chattopadhyay began writing at a tender age. His earliest stories, Korel and Kashinath, which he had penned as a teenager, are still widely read. While in Bhagalpur, he cleared the university entrance examination.He attended college for two years, but failed to complete higher studies due to his family’s financial situation. Instead, he took up a job in Bihar in 1900.
His first short story was published in 1903 in his uncle, Surendranath Ganguli’s name. Baradidi, a novella, was published in 1907, now under his own name, in the local magazine Bharati. At the age of 27, Chattopadhyay went to Burma, where he was employed as a clerk in a government office in Rangoon. In 1906, he married Shanti Devi and the couple had a son. However, both his wife and son passed away in the plague of 1908. He remarried a young widow Mokshada in 1910.
Two of the tallest Bengali litterateurs of his time were Bankim Chandra Chattopadyay and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
Sarat Chandra’s writing from an early age showed influences of Bankim Chandra Chattopadyay, who also stood against Hindu orthodoxy — social injustices and superstitions.
However, Sarat Chandra demarcated himself with his easy writing, pitched as high drama, that rested more on colloquial language unlike the harder to read Bankimi Shadhu bhasha, a sanskritised version of Bangla.
Sarat Chandra’s pedigree was also in stark contrast to that of Tagore. While both wrote on social inequality, poverty, and caste issues, Sarat Chandra for most part had lived in poverty, unlike Tagore who had only observed it from a distance.
Here is a look at some of the works that made Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay immortal:
Srikanta / শ্রিক্যান্ট / श्रीकांत
First serialised in 1916 in Bangla monthly magazine Bharatbarsha, the travelogue of Srikanta went on to became a big hit. A year later, the 13-part story was published as a book and called Srikanta-Part I. The four-part series chronicled the protagonist’s life on the move and the characters that influenced him.
There had been several movies, mostly in Bangla, on this particular character nurtured by Sarat Chandra for over a quarter of a century. Many believed he took inspiration for Srikanta from his own life. The movies mainly dealt with specific chapters from Srikanta’s life, barring the most recent one, Iti Srikanta (2004) by Anjan Das, which tries to give a complete picture of the character.
In the film Rajakshmi O Srikanta (1958), the bohemian protagonist played by Uttam Kumar finds his childhood love at a rich friend’s ‘mehfil’, as singer Pyaribai (Suchitra Sen), and goes after her, only to leave her again.
In Kamal Lata (1969), Srikanta falls in love with a Vaishnavi (worshipper of Lord Vishnu). Played by hit pair Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen again, Srikanta and Kamal Lata tell the story of an eternal, selfless love that is complete but only in separation. Iti Srikanta shows this conflict of the man torn between the court singer and the sage.
After leaving Rajlakshmi, and before meeting Kamal Lata, Srikanta goes to Burma and meets Abhaya on the way. This chapter of his life was the plot for yet another film, Abhaya O Srikanta (1965). Incidentally, like Srikanta, Sarat Chandra too had gone to Burma in search of work and stayed there for a long time.
Abhaya, played by Mala Sinha, is a woman deserted by her husband. Srikanta helps her find the husband but the latter, having married another woman, refuses to accept her. Abhaya takes care of Srikanta when he is unwell during a plague outbreak. This relationship is more of respect and gratitude than romantic as Abhaya reminds him of his Annadadidi.
Srikanta, with Farooq Sheikh in the lead, was also adapted as a Hindi TV serial aired on DD in the 1980s.
Swami / স্বামী / स्वामी
Sarat Chandra is known as a feminist, with his female characters making such strong impression. Swami is the story of a bright young girl, Saudamini, who has a mind of her own. She has academic ambitions and is encouraged by her uncle to study literature and philosophy. Saudamini is in love with Narendra but is married off to a much older Ghanshyam. This is the story of this reluctant wife, with a past that makes her feel guilty (she can’t forget Narendra’s kiss), who struggles to adjust to a new life way different from the way she was brought up. Drawing strength from her soul that knows the right from wrong, Saudamini takes on her simpleton husband’s cunning stepmother, fights for his rights. The story ends with the stubborn girl’s voluntary submission to Ghanshyam, her ‘Swami’.
Swami was first made into a movie in Bangla, with Pahadi Sanyal, Amita Bose and Pradeep Kumar in the lead. In 1977, Basu Chatterjee made a Hindi version with Girish Karnad, Shabana Azmi and Vikram.
Another lesser known Bengali version, Antaratma, was released in 2008.
Devdas / দেবদাস / देवदास
It might not have been one of his best critically acclaimed works, but Devdas definitely tops the popularity charts. Adapted as movies several times in several languages — there was even a silent one — Devdas is a unique story that depicts the protagonist as an ultimate loser.
The plot once again has a childhood love, Paro, whom Devdas loses due to societal norms, and the courtesan, Chandramukhi, in whom he finds refuge, showing how the subject was quite close to the writer’s heart. The story also depicts the prevailing societal customs in the early 1900s that kept a love story away from its logical end.
Choritroheen / চরিত্রহীন / चरित्रहीन
This novel set in the Bengal of early 1900s gives readers four very strong women characters. Two of them are shown to have done something that earned them the notoriety of being choritroheen, or characterless, though it is established in the end, and very late, how they, and also the other two, were wronged by the men in their lives.
Savitri, the Brahmin girl forced by poverty to take up a job done by women from ‘lower castes’; Surbala, a young pious wife who dies in the end; Sarojini, an educated, modern woman caught in adverse familial circumstances; and Kiranmayi, the intelligent and argumentative married woman who elopes with another man — the four as different as chalk and cheese have their fates strung together, with three men playing important roles in all four lives. A serial by the same name aired on Doordarshan in the 1980s was immensely popular.
Pather Dabi / পথের দবি / पोथेर दाबी
Pather Dabi (the right of way) was different from the usual Sarat Chandra creations. Set in British India, the story has a passionate freedom fighter and the charismatic leader of a revolutionary group as its protagonist. The introduction to the book mentions the thrilling story behind its release. All its 5,000-odd first prints were apparently sold out in a week. But it caused an enormous furore, and a ban was imposed soon after. This was lifted much after Sarat Chandra’s death in January 1938.
It is the story of a secret society by the name of Pather Dabi, which aims to free India from the colonial rule. Protagonist Sabyasachi is the leader of this organisation that has many other powerful characters as its members.
The story touches upon contemporary issues ranging from untouchability, orthodoxy and faith to rich-poor divide and the status of women in the society, criticising the British policies and also India’s inherent customs of religion and social structure with the same intensity.
The crumbling heritage building on Howrah’s 4, Nityadhan Mukherjee Road, which had served as the office of novelist Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay when he was president of the Howrah district branch of Indian National Congress between 1921 and 1936, will be restored. On Monday, the building’s owner met artist Shuvaprasanna, the chairman of the West Bengal Heritage Commission, to verbally agree to the restoration under the commission’s supervision.
This structure, which is more than 100 years old and built on four cottahs, had originally belonged to Adhornath Chattopadhyay. According to Nirmal Ghoshal, secretary of the Shibnath Banerjee Labour Institute, which has an office in that building, “Adhornath offered Saratchandra the use of the building to open an office of the Howrah unit of Bangiya Pradeshik Congress Committee there.” The building had hosted the likes of Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru.
In 2013, a PIL was filed at the Calcutta High Court seeking permission to repair this house. “Permission was granted and work had started. However in 2014, the project was abandoned because of controversy,” said Himansu Halder, a member of Shibnath Banerjee Labour Institute.
Later on, a portion of the building collapsed and the roof developed cracks. The original staircase collapsed years ago. “Now we can’t go to the first floor. The Monglahaat draws a crowd in front of the building and a collapse will put a lot of lives at risk,” Ghoshal added.
Sandip Saha, director of Chowdhary Exports Private Limited that currently owns the property, is keen to do his bit. “We are local residents of Howrah. Had we known that this house would be declared a heritage building, we wouldn’t have bought it,” Saha said, adding that he will discuss the proposal with the existing tenants of the house.