Niharranjan Ray's highly acclaimed magnum opus, Bangalir Itihas: Adi Parva, translated here as History of the Bengali People is a seminal work on the history of the Bengalis from the earliest times to the beginning of the Muslim rule in India.
As much a work of literature as of history, this book is not a story of kings and the extension of their power but of the life of ordinary people. Thus, through detailed, methodical discussions on the origins of the various peoples, their language and literature, science, trade and commerce, and religious practices and rituals, their emerges a vivid picture of society and its development.
This able translation by John W Hood has retained the vibrancy and subtle nuances of the Bengali original. In his Foreword to this edition Sumit Sarkar writes: 'Niharranjan Ray was, indeed, a towering figure among my generation of historians. But not many scholars are familiar with his writings these days. The new edition of the English translation, which has done full justice to the original version, hopefully will rectify this.'
Niharranjan Ray (1903-1981), renowned historian, was one of lndia's last great polymaths. He has written extensively and authoritatively on a vast range of subjects including art, classical and modern literature, history, religion, politics and biography.
John W. Hood (trans.) obtained his PhD in Bengali vernacular historiography from the University of Melbourne. In addition to his Niharranjan Ray, published in the Sahitya Akademi's 'Makers of Indian Literature' series, he has written a number of books on Indian art cinema and has translated a variety of Bengali poetry and fiction into English.
Professor Niharranjan Ray's History of the Bengali People is an invaluable book. For years to come this authoritative work will be compelling reading, a beacon for future historians. With characteristic modesty Niharranjan has written: I have not unearthed any new inscription or discovered any new material.... All the facts and sources are generally known in academic circles, and from them I have selected my content.... But I have introduced a new concept of cause and effect in the history of ancient Bengal and its people, and have pre- sented the Bengali reader with a new interpretation.... By following this approach and interpretation a total perception of the history of the ancient Bengalis may be gained.... New sources are often discovered.... I have only attempted to provide a framework to which the future historians of Bengal will attach substance. That is my hope and belief.
Notwithstanding the author's modesty, it is not surprising that such wealth of intellect should be revealed in this work. Indeed, it can be said that for as long as no significant new material is discovered and no new light is shed on the history of the ancient Bengalis as the result of lengthy research, this work will remain at the forefront, its reputation unchallenged. To comprehend the broad vision of such a history and to acquire a thorough knowledge of its period, one should read Niharranjan's work in detail, appreciating his profound insight and perceptive commentary on a diverse range of subjects. In the study of our country's history this book has opened up new paths and has set new standards. Our knowledge of history shall grow as long as subsequent historians use this work as a basis for their research.
History aside, the book is remarkable from a literary and lingual point of view. No Bengali work has hitherto been written - historical or otherwise -in such a clear, comprehensive, scholarly and rational way. Niharranjan has shown a marked commitment to the scientific method; the work is characterized by depth of knowledge, a vibrancy of style, detailed perception, creative thinking of a high order and, above all, an objective independence of thought. The work warrants pride of place in Indian history writing in general. The author has found it necessary to employ unusual words and word forms and expressions to articulate abstruse concepts. Moreover, such a factual, scholarly work is not easily rendered in Bengali or any other Indian regional language; thus the work is original, though difficult. Nevertheless, given the strength and vibrancy of Niharranjan's language, the work is eminently readable, though this would not be possible without such close-knit integrity of subject matter. Indeed, in some places the language of his descriptions and commentary has enhanced the quality of the history. I know of no one who has made such a significant endeavour in Indian letters.
There would have been much personal advantage for Niharranjan had he written this work in English; his book would have had a wide circulation and his fame and reputation would have been far- reaching. However, his choice not to write in English is evidence of his profound reverence and affection for Bengali language and literature.
The significance of the subject matter is also unprecedented. The book is not called a history of Bengal, but a history of the Bengali people. In other words, the aim is not to discuss Bengal's kings and officials and their wars and battles and the extension of their power, for such' superficial' history has been written so much already. This book is a Bengali people's history which endeavours throughout to present a thorough account of the broad sweep of life of the ordinary Bengalis. It can be said, therefore, that the 'heroes' of this historical epic are not the kings, men of wealth or scholars and learned men (although Niharranjan has not neglected to write of them too) but rather the heroes are the common people, outside the upper-caste society and Puranic and Smartic Brahmanism, society's toilers owning little or no land. The predominance of this lowest, largest social class is the chief characteristic of this work. This kind of social history can be ranked with the very best of the work of European and American scholars.
In fact, an earlier intimation of Bengali social and cultural history emerged from The History of Bengal, Vol 1 (in English) published by the University of Dacca and edited by Rameshchandra Majumdar, as well as from the very brief Ancient Bengal and the Bengalis by Sukumar Sen. There is no questioning the scholarship of these two works, but they are based on different principles and are comparatively incomplete.
The subject matter of Professor Ray's vast work is the daily life, society, culture, economy and the like of the people of Bengal. In another sense, it is an endeavour to understand the origins of the modern Bengalis. The origins and the nature of the various peoples of Bengal in earliest times, the borders of the land and its waterways, mountains and forests-and the changes they underwent through time-the geographical influences on the inhabitants of the region and the work that they did, the extent of miscegenation amongst the people, their land systems, methods of cultivation, manufactures, trade and commerce, food and dress, religion and ritual, arts and science, language and literature-in short, a thorough understanding of the various aspects of Bengali life over a thousand years, supported by reason and evidence, is the aim of this book. I have no doubt that Niharranjan's efforts will earn him unqualified praise.
Only those with some experience of historical research can understand the need in such a difficult work for unlimited patience, unflagging effort, faith and devotion, along with refined and acute understanding. It is exceptionally difficult for one man, single-handedly, to write this kind of book, and even more difficult to be successful. Nowhere in Niharranjan's vast work is there any blind trust in the ideas of traditionalist regional histories. I know well a certain Bengali writer who has written that the Brahmans of Varendri come from the Bhadurl clan in the state of 'Bhadao ' -south of the Cambal river-somewhere between Agra and Gwalior and that their ancestors were vassal rulers there. Had he read the history of the Delhi emperors, he would readily have learnt that 'Bhadaoriya was not a Brahman clan but a Rajput Ksatriya one, many of whose members were mansabdars of the emperor.
This book bears no sign of such uninformed, injudicious comment. Above all, to his credit Niharranjan has nowhere attempted to push forward his own ideas in cheap scholarly showing off; throughout, he treats with respect the views of earlier scholars, offers new arguments, considers all the evidence and then offers his own conclusion to the reader. By reference to a variety of sources, he facilitates in the reader an objective and independent view; indeed the author is very thorough in this regard:
Ten years ago the Vangiya Sahitya Parisad invited me to deliver the three Adharachandra Lectures on any period or aspect of Indian history. In response to this invitation I read over the three sessions a paper called 'An Outline History of the Bengali People'. The chairman at these three sessions was the renowned Sir Jadunath Sarkar who, in his chairman's remarks following the lectures, praised me generously and suggested that the 'Outline' be given a complete form. After the lectures had been published as the proceedings of the Parisad, they were received enthusiastically by many of my close colleagues, who also echoed the suggestion of Sir Jadunath. However, at that time I was involved in the writing of the Dacca University History of Bengal, Vol. 1, and so I gave no further thought to providing my skeleton with the flesh and blood of a complete history. I believed, simply, that that purpose would be served by the Dacca History.
A short time later, in 1942, the very comprehensive Dacca University work was published, edited by the eminent Professor Rameshchandra Majumdar. There is no doubt that this work brought great credit to Bengal and to the Bengali intellect; yet it seemed to me that there was still a need for a complete history of the ancient Bengalis along the lines of my 'Outline'. The validity or otherwise of this view may now be judged by the reader. However, in the meantime, Sir Jadunath had sought on more than one occasion to remind me of that duty, and the opportunity to fulfil it was provided by the Government of Bengal. For my disaffection to the Government, I was imprisoned. Before I was unexpectedly released from jail, I enjoyed the unrestricted leisure in which to write ten long chapters of my basic outline. A short time later the manager of the Book Emporium, my friend Birendrachandra Ghosh, enthusiastically sent the manuscript to the press; I thought that while the printing was in progress, I could proceed with the remaining five chapters, a task which went ahead slowly. But suddenly Calcutta was thrown into chaos and obscured by the smoke from the conflagration of communal hostility, and for a whole year not a letter more was printed. Now, a further two years later, the composition and printing have gradually reached completion, and at last the book has been released. I, too, feel a sense of release in this.
When I began writing this book, Bengal was undivided and was a part of an unpartitioned India; now, when that writing is finished, the political leaders have subtly realized the partition of Bengal along with the severing of India's most ancient bloodlinks. In two thousand years of its history, Bengal had never been confronted with such a profound and far-reaching calamity. Consequently, Bengali life today has been thrown into such confusion as might recall the anarchy of the seventh and eighth centuries or the political, social and cultural upheavals of the thirteenth century. Nevertheless, whatever the wishes of the politicians, Bengal and the Bengali people are, historically, one and undivided. This book commemorates that undivided land and its people. Such remembrance is fitting, and will continue to be for a long time to come.
Notwithstanding how much study and research have gone into this book, its composition was not inspired by a thirst for knowledge. In the passion of early youth and in the fervour of nationalist endeavour, I was drawn to travel throughout Bengal. In peasants 'huts, on river landings, at rice harvests, in the shade of the forests, in the hearts of the cities, on lonely frontiers, on the sandbanks of the Padma and on the crests of the waves of the Meghna I saw this land and its people as one, and loved them as one. Again in later youth I roamed throughout Bengal and India on one pretext or another, and I still do. The more I see, the more my love increases. I have written this book inspired by that love and wanting to give to it the deeper foundation of knowledge, so as to realize a more profound, closer involvement in my country. My Bengal and its people are not to be found in the pages of ancient manuscripts; rather, they are inscribed on my heart. To me the ancient past is as alive and real as the immediate past. I have tried to represent in this book that real and living past and not some corpse.
Famine, political upheaval, partition, frontier hostility and violence, personal degeneration, poverty-these are the enemies confronting Bengal today, bringing extreme misery to the ignorant and frustrated Bengali people. Today this misery is like some physical agony oppressing the minds and bodies of many people like myself. It is of great solace and satisfaction to me that this book should be read by Bengalis. If it can excite a degree of hope in their lives, if it can offer some direction for the future, if it can arouse love and reverence for the land and its people and a more intimate understanding of them, and if that wealth of love and knowledge can enhance the bond with greater India, then the purpose of this history will be realized. That is all that matters.
I have been writing this book for a long time; for even longer I have been thinking about its content and discussing it with my colleagues, as well as wandering through the works of past and contemporary scholars. It is not possible to mention them all, nor do I wish to repay my debt to them by a mere statement of gratitude. Although there are many whom it would be appropriate to mention, there would be probably many whom I would omit, and that would be something I would be most unwilling to do, albeit inadvertently and though they would be kind enough to forgive me. Many colleagues-my fellow-travellers-and friends, out of the goodness of their hearts, sat patiently hour after hour, day in and day out, listening to readings of many parts of this book and discussing their views. I am indeed obliged to them. To all of them I offer my humble gratitude, noting that such a debt of friendship cannot be repaid.
The Vangiya Sahitya Parisad, an honoured institution in Bengal, and its President engaged me initially in the composition of my 'Outline ; this book is the fulfilment of that inducement. Now that the work is finished, I would recall my deep respect and heartfelt gratitude to the Parisad and its President; this book is primarily dedicated to them.
I cannot ignore the inspiration given in the writing of this book by a man of great and noble intellect. Without the beacon of encouragement from start to finish of Sir Jadunath Sarkar this work would hardly have progressed at all. His ideals of historical scholarship and his affection and good wishes have been of paramount importance in my life. My gratitude to him is truly unlimited. Graciously he consented to write the Foreword to the book, bestowing on it the greatest of honour.
My wife, Manikadevi, has been inseparable from all my endeavours as well as being an inspiration to them. Her encouragement in the growth of this book has been unceasing, while having to endure so much domestic disturbance. My devotion to her is such that any public expression of gratitude would be inappropriate.
My dear former students, Prabhaschandra Majumdar and Sunil kumar Ray, have been of great assistance in compiling the index of names. My warmest blessings on them both. My friends and colleagues, Sarasikumar Sarasvati, Pulinbihari Sen, and my very dear former student and now Professor, Sudhirranjan Das, made the work light in many ways by their various good favours.
Respectfully I record my gratitude to these close friends. In regard to the printing and publishing, Prasantakumar Sinha, Praphullakumar Basu, Sakti Datta, Debaprasad Ghosh and the managers of the Visvabharati Granthan-Bibhag and the Asutosh Gallery helped me in various ways, and to them I owe a real debt of gratitude.
I am unaccustomed and unfamiliar with the current practice of providing long and extensive footnotes in a factual and widely -researched work such as this. While I have not provided footnotes, I have given a brief reading list at the end of each chapter. My reason is that the ordinary reader has no need of footnotes. His interest is in the material, and from his point of view its thorough presentation is sufficient; everyone knows his aversion to books bristled with footnotes. Moreover, to those research scholars who want to get to the root of the facts I humbly submit that I have used in this book only that material that is already known to them, and nothing that is neither common knowledge nor hitherto undiscovered. Whether my factual material is well known or not, neglected or disregarded, all I have tried to do is present it in a new way, to give it a new order and, in seeking new meaning, to give it a new interpretation. Given that, footnotes seem mere scholarly ornamentation which I see no need to publish. Nevertheless, I can say that I have not knowingly distorted any evidence or used any material that has been proven to be unquestionably false or otherwise unacceptable. Wherever there is doubt or mere conjecture I have been careful to point it out very clearly. At the end of the book I have provided a list of the corpus of inscriptions of ancient Bengal for whosoever may care to use it.
The scholarship of Niharranjan Ray is notable for its seminal value and originality, while no less remarkable is its scope. In more than seventy essays, articles and addresses published in English and thirty-six in Bengali, fifteen books in English and seven in Bengali, he wrote on history, the arts, architecture, anthropology, epigraphy, religion, literature, contemporary politics, such leaders as Gandhi, Nehru and Subhas Bose, and the life and works of Rabindranath Tagore. As well, he enjoyed considerable variety in his professional life. He was for a time librarian in the University of Calcutta, and then Bhagesvari Professor of Fine Arts and Professor of Ancient History and Culture. He was a member of the Rajya Sabha and of the Pay Commission, and was the founding director of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Simla. He served the administration of such institutions as the National Library and the Indian Museum in Calcutta, and was an active worker until his last months for the betterment of education. He was a visiting Professor at a number of universities in India and abroad, was a fellow of such learned bodies as the Royal Asiatic Society, the International Association of Arts and Letters (Zurich) and the Asiatic Society (Calcutta), and was the recipient of many prestigious awards such as the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Government of India's Padmabhushan. He died on 30th August, 1981.
Niharranjan Ray was born in Mymensingh in 1903. His father, Mahendrachandra, was a dedicated teacher guided by strong humanitarian ideals, and a staunch patriot. While not a member of the Brahmo Samaj, Niharranjan was attracted to the ideals of that society; his uncle and cousins were Brahmos however, and must have had some influence on him when he stayed with them while studying for his M.A. degree in 1926. From his family, then, it would seem that he inherited at least something of his love of learning, nationalist commitment and liberal humanism.
Two years after Niharranjan's birth Bengal was partitioned, giving rise to a storm of protest that articulated itself in the swadeshi movement. Even Tagore was for a time moved to write songs and make speeches that helped to maintain the emotion of the nationalism that was taking shape. Characteristic of the Poet's style of protest was his rakhibandhan or the tying of black ribbons around the wrists.
To some, however, songs and speeches and black wrist-bands would seem ineffectual, and the countervailing alternative of bullet and bomb was pursued with determination by the secret societies. The most important of these militant organizations was the AnusiIan Samiti, which involved itself in the collection of arms, fund-raising by banditry and the murder of government officials and spies. Its members were also obliged to give of themselves in such social welfare work as famine relief and nursing the sick, particularly in regions threatened by dangerous infectious diseases. It was essentially a Hindu organization and attracted mostly young men of the upper castes. It was clouded in secrecy and cloaked in ritual.
Hardly a terrorist, Niharranjan Ray did, however, belong to the least stage of membership of the Anusilan Samiti, involving himself in social service work but otherwise offering little more. than sympthetic concern and moral support. He suffered to some extent on the movement's behalf, however, when he was externed from Mymensingh for his association with the Anusilan cause and had to complete his secondary education in Sylhet.
He went to Calcutta University where he studied ancient Indian history and culture, graduating with a double first. In 1926 he won the Mrinalini Gold Medal for his Political History of Northern lndia, AD 600-900. Between 1927 and 1933, he spent some time in Burma with his teacher, Professor Benimadhab Barua. There the two men carried out extensive research into Burmese temple architecture. This marked a significant point in the intellectual development of Niharranjan Ray. While it intensified his interest in art, that interest was also broadened by the growing realization that art cannot be studied in isolation from the society, state and broader culture to which it belongs. It was, in fact, in Burma that the groundwork for the integrationist approach to history which reached its pinnacle in his History of the Bengali People in 1949 was commenced.
On his return from Burma in 1933 Ray set out for Europe where he took doctorates in Letters and Philosophy from the University of Leiden and a London diploma in librarianship. He returned to Calcutta in 1936 having imbibed something of the intellectual's enthusiasm for Marx, and in 1940 he joined the anti-Stalinist Revolutionary Socialist Party. For a short time in the thirties he worked as literary editor for Forward, Subhas Chandra Bose's journal but this was to be only a brief association. He had been stimulated by Gandhi and had taken part in the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1920 and the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1930. At the time of the Quit India Movement in 1942 he was jailed, and in similar circumstances to those in which Jawaharlal Nehru wrote his Discovery of India, Ray started work on his History of the Bengali People.
As Niharranjan Ray was embarking on his academic career, Bengali culture was taking something of a new direction. The arts, especially literature, were no longer the domain of the bhadralok, complementing bourgeois tastes and interests, but were becoming increasingly concerned with the common people. This is not to say that Tagore, for example, did not write about the peasantry or the working class; he did, but in an evident spirit of detachment. However, writers such as Manik Bandyopadhyay and Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay wrote of the common people in just as evident a spirit of empathy. Not only writers, but painters too - Nandalal Bose and Jamini Ray especially were focussing their attention on the ordinary men and women of field and factory, their children, their struggle to survive in a modern economy, their nobility, their frailty, their integrity and their deceit.
There is also an element of nationalism in this. The focussing inward on Bengal and the ordinary Bengalis reflects a trend away from Westernized interests as well as a concentration on and celebration of a regional identity. The quest for a Bengali cultural identity had been pursued on an academic level by Dinesh Chandra Sen from the years preceding the First World War. Sen researched very extensively the folk culture of Bengal and wrote colourfully, though somewhat uncritically, about it in a number of books. In such works as The Folk Literature of Bengal and Glimpses of Bengali Life he enthusiastically blended culture and scholarship with nationalist sentiment.
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