Bengali or Bangla as a Bengali would say, is also a member of the Indo-European family of languages. It takes its birth from a form of Prakrit or Middle Indo-Aryan to finally emerge from the Apabhramsa-Avahatta in the tenth century. The Bengali script has been derived from the Brahmi alphabet of the Ashokan inscriptions (273 to 232BC). History of Bengali language has been divided into three eras – Old Bengali (950-1350), Middle Bengali (1350-1800) and Modern Bengali (1800 to the present day). Old Bengali is survived only through a collection of forty-eight poems (1050-1200) known as the charva songs. These were composed by the siddhacharyas (enlightened ones) who were mainly Buddhist.
Middle Bengali covers a huge period. The 15th century mostly covered the narrative poetry genre, the theme being mainly of religious content. Among these, Krittivas' Ramayan has been credited to be a classic. Other narrative poems include Srikrishnavijaya by Maladhar Vasu and Srikrishnakirttan by Baru Chandidas. Literary exploits of the 15th century also include Chaitanyamangal or Chaitanya Bhagavat (1540), the biography of Saint Chaitanya, by Brindavan Das. In the 16th century Bengali literature contained narrative epic poems dealing mainly with the stories of popular goddesses like Chandi (Chandimangal by Kavikanan Mukundaram Chakravarti) and Manasa. Towards the end of this century there was a wave of Vaishnavism and this gave way to the new lyrical activity in the form of music combined with poetry.
The 17th century has nothing much to boast of, except for its secular romantic verse tales that were written solely by Muslims. Even the Muslims of Arrakan, who had close intellectual contact with Bengal, were active in literary pursuits in Bengali. Daulat Kazi, the first Bengali Arrakanese poet wrote the romantic verse tale Sati Mayana. Eighteenth century saw Bengali literature take an affinity to secular poetry and the narrative verse. Rameshvar Bhattacharya's Sivasankirttan portrayed Shiva as a poor farmer and Gauri, his wife, as a human heroine. The end of the eighteenth century saw two new forms of poetry come into age, the Kavi and the Panchali.
Nineteenth century was the period when the actual literary renaissance of Bengali took place. Michael Madhusudan Datta (1834-1873) and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-1898) were the founders of the modern age in Bengali literature. Madhusudan was the first Bengali poet to write in blank verse and combined western influences into the essence Indian literature. His Meghnadvadhkavya (1861) written in blank verse has the same flavour of Milton's Paradise Lost. Madhusudan treated Meghnad, one of the villains of Ramayana, in the same human angle as Milton portrays Satan, absolutely away from the traditional approach.
The first Bengali theatre was established by a Russian adventurer, Gerasim Lebedoff (1749-1818). For about 25 years productions were mostly adaptations of Sanskrit or English plays with exceptions like Dinabandhu Mitra's Nildarpan (1860).
The evolution of Bengali Literature started in the later half of the 19th century. The first truly romantic Bengali novel is Bankim Chandra's Durgeshnandini (1865), while the first Bengali novel of social realism is Peary Chand Mitra's Alaler Gharer Dulal (1858). The leading novelist of the age was Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who gave the nation its national song Vandemataram from his political novel Anandamath. This century also saw the advent of the periodical press in the form of Digdarshan (a monthly magazine) and Samachardarpan (a weekly), both published by the Serampore missionaries. Drama and literary prose also saw a huge renewal in this age. The great dramatists of the 19th century were Girishchandra Ghosh (1844-1911), Amritlal Bose (1853-1929) and D L Ray (1863-1913), and the great prose writers were Debendranath Tagore and Ishvarchandra Vidyasagar.
Popularity of poetry also grew in this period. Biharilal Chakravarti’s (1834-94) Saradamangal (1879) and Sadhar Asan (1888-1889) brought in a breath of fresh air by its tender and refined lyrics. This style of writing even influenced Rabindranath Tagore who himself gave a new meaning to Bengali literature. Tagore was a poet, novelist, short-story writer, dramatist, essayist and literary critic all rolled into one. No other Bengali had written at such length and breadth of a language and age. He was the first Indian to receive a Nobel Prize, which he got for his poem Gitanjali. The post Tagore age had very few writers of his calibre, some of whom were Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (1876-1938), Prabhatkumar Mukherjee (1873-1932) and Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951).
The modern age begins with a group of writers who wrote for Kallol, a modernist movement magazine founded in 1923. The most popular among the group were Kazi Nazrul Islam and Mohitlal Majumdar. In this age two people who had the same literary ability as Tagore were Jibananda Das (poet) and Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyaya (novelist). Pramathanath Bisi and Rajshekhar Basu were exponents in literary criticism and humourous writings respectively. Tarashankar Bannerji is most notable for his novels while Annadashankar for his prose of ideas.
The contemporary period is led undoubtedly by Sunil Gangopadhyaya (poet, novelist, children’s story writer), Buddhadev Guha (fiction writer dealing mainly with jungle stories), Mahashweta Devi, Nirendranath Chakraborty and Samaresh Majumdar.