Durgeshnandini by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay

Published in 1865, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s first Bengali novel Durgeshnandini revolutionised Bengali prose writing. Many consider it to be the first modern novel in an Indian language.

Durgeshnandini is set in the sixteenth century during the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar when the Mughal army was fighting the Pathans for control over territories in eastern India. Many characters in the book—Mughals, Rajputs and Pathans—are historical figures.

Stirring and colourful, Durgeshnandini created a sensation among Bengali readers with its vigorous storytelling and its bold portrayal of romantic love.

Durgeshnandini, Synopsis

The story is set in the backdrop of Pathan-Mughal conflicts that took place in the south-western region of the modern-day Indian state of Paschimbanga (West Bengal) during the reign of Akbar. Jagat Singh, a General of the Mughal army and son of Raja Man Singh meet Tilottama, daughter of Birendra Singha, a feudal lord of south-western Bengal in Mandaran (in modern-day Hooghly district, West Bengal) and they fall in love with each other.

While they are preparing for a marriage ceremony, Katlu Khan, a rebel Pathan leader attacks Mandaran. Birendra Singha dies in the battle and Jagat Singh is imprisoned along with Birendra’s widow Bimala and their daughter Tilottama. Katlu Khan’s daughter Ayesha saves Tilottama from her father’s lust, but Ayesha herself falls in love with Jagat Singh. Later, Bimala avenges her husband’s death by stabbing Katlu Khan.

In the meantime, Man Singh signs a pact with the Pathans and they set Jagat Singh free. But Ayesha’s lover Osman challenges Jagat Singh in a duel which Jagat Singh wins. Realising that Jagat Singh who is a Hindu prince would never marry a Muslim woman, Ayesha gives up hope for him, but she eventually helps Tilottama marry Jagat Singh.

Durgeshnandini, a Bold Experiment

In Durgeshnandini, Bankim Chandra skillfully sets up a romance between a young Rajput commander of the Mughal army and the daughter of a minor ruler. Prevailing social norms barred love across caste and religion. Bankim Chandra seems to question this in this novel in an indirect way.

Tagore penned in the memory of Bankim Chandra, his mentor:

“Bankim Chandra had equal strength in both his hands, he was a true sabyasachi (ambidextrous). With one hand, he created literary works of excellence; and with the other, he guided young and aspiring authors. With one hand, he ignited the light of literary enlightenment ; and with the other, he blew away the smoke and ash of ignorance and ill conceived notions”

Tagore on Bankim chandra

Bankim Chandra, a Renaissance Man

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay is widely regarded as a key figure who contributed immensely to the literary revival of Bengal. Some of his writings, including novels, essays, and commentaries, were a breakaway from traditional verse-oriented Indian writings and provided an inspiration for authors across India.

His adoption of western ways of storytelling normalised novel writing and in a way made works of other western writers more accessible and acceptable.

Bankim Chandra also started the tradition of experiments in Indian literature. A tradition that usually took longer than others in finding newer ways of expressions, found an active proponent of novelty in the form of Bankim Chandra.

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