Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, born on June 26, 1838, was educated at the Hoogly College and belonged to an orthodox family. He was offered the government post of Deputy Magistrate and Collector which he accepted and held until he retired 1891.
He did for Bengali fiction what Michael Madhusudan Dutt had done for Bengali poetry, that is, he brought in imagination. Chatterjee was more fortunate than Dutt as he did not have to set up his own diction from the very start. The prose style was already standardized; what Chatterjee did was to break its monotony, shear off its ponderous verbosity and give it a twist of informality and intimacy. Chatterjee’s own style grew up as he went on writing.
Chatterjee, following the discipline of Isvarchandra Gupta, began his literary career as a writer of verse. Fortunately he was not slow to feel that poetry was not his metier. He then turned to fiction. His first attempt was a novel in Bengali submitted for a declared prize. The prize did not come to him and the novelette was never published. His first fiction to appear in print was Rajmohan’s Wife. It was written in English and was probably a translation of the novelette submitted for the prize.
Durgeshnandini, his first Bengali romance, was published in 1865. The next novel Kapalkundala(1866) is one of the best romances written by Chatterjee. The theme is lyrical and gripping and, in spite of the melodrama and the dual story, the execution is skillful. the heroine, named after the mendicant woman in Bhavabhuti’s Malatimadhava , is modelled partly after Kalidasa’s Sakuntala and partly after Shakespeare’s Miranda.
The next romance Mrinalini(1869) indicates an ameturishness and a definite falling off from the standard. It is a love romance against a historical background sadly neglected and confused. After this Chatterjee was not content to continue only as a writer of prose romances, but appeared also as a writer with the definite mission of simulating the intellect of the Bengali speaking people through literary campaign and of bringing about a cultural revival thereby.
With this end in view he brought out monthly Bangadarshan in 1872. In the pages of this magazine all his writings except the very last two works first came out. These writings include novels, stories, humorous sketches, historical and miscellaneous essays, informative articles, religious discourses, literary criticisms and reviews. Vishbriksha (The poison Tree, 1873) was his first novel to appear serially in Bangadarshan.
Chandrasekhar (1877) suffers markedly from the impact of two parallel plots which have little common ground. The scene is once shifted back to eighteenth century. But the novel is not historical. The plot has suffered from the author’s weakness for the occult. The next novel Rajani(1877) followed the autobiographical technique of Wilkie Collins’ A Woman in White.
The title role was modelled after Bulwar Lytton’s Nydia in Last Days of Pompeii. In this romance of a blind girl, Chatterjee is at his best as a literary artist. In Krishnakanter Uil (Krishnakanta’s Will, 1878) Chatterjee added some amount of feeling to imagination, and as a result it approaches nearest to the western novel. The plot is somewhat akin to that of Poison Tree.
The only novel of Chatterjee’s that can claim full recognition as historical fiction is Rajsimha (1881, rewritten and enlarged 1893). Anandamath (The mission house of the Anandas, 1882) is a political novel without a sufficient plot. It definitely marks the decline of Chatterjee’s power as a novelist. The plot of the meagre story is based on the Sannyasi rebellion that occurred in North Bengal in 1773.
As fiction it can not be called an outstanding work. But as the book that interpreted and illustrated the gospel of patriotism and gave Bengal the song “Bande Mataram” (I worship mother) which became the mantra of nationalism and the national song. Incidentally it gave tremendous impetus to the various patriotic and national activities culminating in the terrorist movement initiated in Bengal in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Devi Caudhurani by Chatterjee was published in 1884. The story is romantic and interesting and delightfully told, no doubt. Chatterjee’s last novel Sitaram (1886) has for its theme the insurgence of a Hindu chief of lower central Bengal against the impotent Muslim rule. The central figure is well delineated but the other figures are either too idealistic or impalpable.
After the novels, the humorous sketches are the outstanding productions of Chatterjee. Kamalakanter Daptar (The Scribbling of Kamalakanta, 1875; enlarged as Kamalakanta, 1885) contains half humorous and half serious sketches somewhat after De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-eater. It shows the writer at his best.
Bankim Chatterjee was superb story-teller, and a master of romance. He is also a great novelist in spite of the fact that his outlook on life was neither deep nor critical, nor was his canvas wide. But he was something more than a great novelist. He was a path finder and a path maker. Chatterjee represented the English-educated Bengalee with a tolerably peaceful home life, sufficient wherewithal and some prestige, as the bearer of the torch of western enlightment. No Bengali writer before or since has enjoyed such spontaneous and universal popularity as Chatterjee. His novels have been translated in almost all the major languages of India, and have helped to simulate literary impulses in those languages.