Bankim Chandra Chatterjee was the pioneer of a new form of art, he began to write when there was no well-established prose style.
Everyone is aware that he is the man who penned our national song, “Vande Mataram”, which was set to music by Rabindranath Tagore. His other famous Bengali novels were ‘Mrinalini‘ (1869), ‘Chandrasekhar‘ (1877), ‘Rajani‘ (1877), ‘Rajsimha‘ (1881), ‘Anandmath‘ (1882), ‘Devi Chaudharani‘ (1884). ‘Bangadarshan‘, a monthly Bengali magazine, was started by him in 1872.
Although widely acclaimed as a Bengali novelist, hardly is anyone aware that his first novel was not in his mother tongue.
In fact, he was the first Indian to write an English novel in India. The novel, ‘Rajmohan’s Wife’, was published in 1864. But the book was not a success and soon went into oblivion. This otherwise remarkable creation remained unidentified till it was periodically published in an English weekly, ‘Indian Fields’.
This was his only novel in English. He felt his work in English wasn’t appreciated and writing in Bengali will give him recognition and edge. Well, that surely worked!
‘Rajmohan’s Wife’ is centered around the female protagonist Matangini. She selflessly rebels against her cruel husband, Rajmohan, to save her sister’s husband whom she loves. She is caught between the forces of transgression, oppression, temptation and the need to uphold the chaste image of conventional Indian wife. She puts her faith in the emerging India with the belief that the society will help her fight for dignity and self-freedom.
The novel has commendable historical significance because Chatterjee drafts the story from the lens of the women of mid-19th century. A new version includes a great prologue and epilogue written by Sahitya Akademi Award winner Meenakshi Mukherjee.
Chatterjee began his literary work with Ishwar Chandra Gupta’s newspaper, ‘Sangbad Prabhakar’ where he used to write and make illustrations.
He inspired a number of prominent Indian personalities with his work and ideas. Bipin Chandra Pal decided to start a patriotic journal in 1906 titled ‘Vande Mataram’, and Lala Lajpat Rai also published a journal with the same name.
But when it comes to writing, Chatterjee’s style remained distinct. He lived in an age of social reformation where he presented conventional virtues and vices. He wrote extensively on characters of history and the Bengali society of his time. His work reflected bourgeois and conservative sentiments. He combined Sanskrit and colloquial Bengali in a manner that made it an essential read. The deep chasm lying between the language of the masses and the language of the classes was combined by him in Sankritized Bengali.