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North Kolkata and its Bangiya Sahitya Parishat

4 August, 2022 17:56:10
North Kolkata and its Bangiya Sahitya Parishat

Bangiya Sahitya Parishat is a familiar landmark in North Kolkata’s Manicktola area and most people know this heritage institution as one of the few surviving public libraries in the city. Kolkata has always prided itself as an intellectual hub where libraries and reading rooms once mushroomed in almost every locality, catering to enthusiastic bookworms in the vicinity. But Bangiya Sahitya Parishat is a lot more than a mere library that strives to whet the appetite of bibliophiles. This hallowed institution was conceived with the notion of upholding the growth and spread of Bengali language.

Towards the end of 19th century there was an emergence of Bengali nationalist sentiment among the educated Bengalis. They felt the need to be proud of their rich legacy and expand the purview of Bengali language. The need to set up a platform to initiate the practice of Bengali culture and its rich literary heritage was felt and L. Liotard and Kshetrapal Chakraborty decided to form 'Bengal Academy of Literature' in 1893. Binoykrishna Deb of Sobhabazar royal family was a patron of the organization and on July 23, 1893, it was formally launched at his mansion. Deb was unanimously selected the president of the establishment. The study and development of Bengali language and literature was the main objective of the Parishat and broaden the gamut of Bengali literature both by translating works in other languages to Bengali and promoting the production of original Bengali literature.

Six months after the 'Bengal Academy of Literature' started functioning, Umeshchandra Batabyal, one of the members of the organization, expressed his displeasure, "I feel ashamed to introduce myself to the people of my country in an alien language." A majority of the members supported him. Before the turn of the year, on 29 April 1894 (17 Baisakh 1301 according to Bengali calendar) the society was re-named Bangiya Sahitya Parishat with Romesh Chunder Dutt as its first president and Rabindranath Tagore and Nabinchandra Sen as joint vice presidents. Litterateur Rajnarayan Bose made it mandatory that only Bengali would have to be used for discussions and all reports, including minutes of meetings would have to be written in Bengali. Any deviation from this rule by any member would entail a fine of one paisa per word.

Acharya Ramendrasundar Trivedi was the main influence behind the setting up of Bangiya Sahitya Parishat Library. The library, which started with a handful of books donated by a few authors, publishers, editors of periodicals and well-wishers has now grown into a huge library with a collection 1,01,719 books and 17,558 journals, and the number keeps increasing. The collection includes very rare and valuable books as well as many precious Bengali and English periodicals of the 19th century such as ‘Digdarshan’, ‘Samachar Darpan’, ‘Samachar Chandrika’, ‘Friend of India’ etc. Besides Bengali books, the library has a fairly good collection of books in Sanskrit, English and Hindi too.

Renowned historian Professor Jadunath Sarkar once praised his disciple-colleague Brajendranath Bandyopadhyay for painstakingly cataloguing and arranging the books and periodicals scientifically, saying, ‘Today the Parishad Library is the greatest research center next to the Calcutta University Library — not only for its vast collection of Bengali books, but also English and any other language— and all this is the result of Brajendranath's immense patience, labour and core competency.’

Within five years of setting up the Parishat, members of the Jorasanko Tagore family and their followers made their presence felt in the literary council. In the Bengali year 1306, membership of the Parishat went up to 350. Dwijendranath Tagore was the president of the society then. Rabindranath, Satyendranath, Jyotirindranath, Gaganendranath and others insisted on shifting the Parishat office from Raja Binoyakrishna Deb's house to some a public place. Dissension broke out in the meeting and many walked out. Finally, the decision was taken to move the office to a rented house, north of today's Town School. Binoyakrishna's folowers formed 'Sahitya Sabha' that started operation from the Deb mansion.

In 1901, Maharaja Manindra Chandra Nandi of Kashimbazar donated seven acres of land in Halsibagan on Upper Circular Road, the present-day’s 243/1 Acharya Prafulla Chandra Road (APC Road) for building the Parishat’s independent premises. The entire cost of construction came to a whooping Rs 27 thousand and subscriptions were collected from members and well-wishers for speedy completion of the building. Maharaja Yogindranarayan Roy of Lalgola donated Rs 10,000 for the construction of two floors. Srinath Pal of Murshidabad made a gift of two-and-a-half thousand square feet of marble! In December 1908, the property was ready and the Parishat finally moved to its new abode. On the inaugural day of the Parishat, there was a frenzy among the masses who had gathered in large numbers to witness the historic moment. According to contemporary accounts, two separate meetings had to be held on two floors of the building to accommodate all the audience. The pediment in front of the roof was temple-shaped, so many called it Parishat-Mandir (temple). The edifice is now enrolled in the first category of heritage buildings enlisted by the Kolkata Corporation. 

Built during the height of the nationalist movement, this building was once an 'icon' of Bengal’s pride. Rabindranath was closely associated with the operations of the association since its inception. Many other stalwarts like Ramendrasundar Trivedi, Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay , Navin Chandra Sen, Haraprasad Shastri, Jagdish Chandra Bose, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy, Hirendranath Dutta, Shibnath Shastri, Jadunath Sarkar, Ashutosh Mukhopadhyay, Abdul Karim Sahityabisharad, Akshay Kumar Maitreya, Vidhushekhar Shastri, Upendranath Brahmachari, Pramtha Chowdhury, Yogesh Chandra Ray Vidyanidhi, Rajashekhar Bose, Chintaharan Chakraborty, Sunitikumar Chatterjee, Brajendranath Banerjee, Sajanikanta Das, Muhammad Shahidullah, Vinaykumar Sarkar, Sukumar Sen, Nirmalkumar Bose, Tarashankar Bandopadhyay and many more Bengali intellectuals have enriched this institution  from time to time. 

Bangiya Sahitya Parishat Library

Bangiya Sahitya Parishat Library has one of the largest collections of rare books and periodicals from the early period of Bengali printing which include books published from the Savitri Library, 17th century cartographer John Ogilby's 'Asia/India and Persia'; which was reprinted by the Asiatic Society some years ago, rare maps of Bengal like James Rennell’s 'Bengal Atlas' Hallhead's Bangla Grammar, the first printed book in Bengali script, the first illustrated Bengali book, 'Annadamangal', books and newspapers published from Serampore et al. These are the assets of this institution. In fact, many renowned bibliophiles donated their entire collection of books to the Parishat, including Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Ramesh Chunder Dutt, Ramendrasundar Tribedi, Ritendranath Tagore, Satyendranath Dutta. Jatin Pal’s collection of primarily English books are also housed in Sahitya Parishat library. 

Apart from books, the Bangiya Sahitya Parishat Punthisala and Chitrasala store rare old manuscripts, personalia of literary figures, portraits, photographs and more. The Puthisala is a treasure trove of rare ‘Punthis’ (manuscripts). Apart from the first Bengali literary masterpiece, 'Srikrishna Kirtan' (the only manuscript by Badu Chandidas which was discovered by Vasantaranjan Ray from the loft of a cowshed!) there are scores of decorated manuscripts (Chitrita Puthi) including Laxmaner Saktishel by Dwija Kabichandra and Shahnama in Persian. The Manuscript Museum has 9427 punthis in Bengali, Sanskrit, Hindi, Assamese, Odiya, Tibetan, Persian, and Ceylonese in its collection.

The Chitrasala (picture gallery) was established in 1908 and archaeologist Rakhaldas Bandopadhyay, who was also the Parishat’s assistant secretary at that time, pioneered the collection of archaeological artifacts from different parts of Bengal. There are statuettes, portraits, and photographs of celebrated writers, as well as a copper plate with Tagore’s signature engraved and his wedding invitation designed by the poet himself. 

Personalia of many notable celebutantes are displayed in the picture gallery, among which are a property deed of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. The Centenary Hall hosts a display of sculptures from the 11th–13th century, and these include statuettes of Manjusree, Bodhisattva, Kalyansundaram, Chamunda etc., terracotta artefacts, old coins, dolls, textile, six copper plates and more. On display are ancient sculptures of Pala and Sena period, gold coins and coins made of other metals from the Kushan and Gupta period, terracotta plaques, bronze sculptures etc. Statues created by well-known sculptors, numerous portraits and oil paintings were also installed. An exclusive picture gallery can easily be set up with the large volume of vintage oil paintings and photographs the Parishat has in its possession. A collection of manuscripts and letters by stalwarts like Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Rabindranath, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, playwright/actor/director Girish Chandra Ghosh, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy, Sister Nivedita, Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, Nirmalkumar Bose await serious researchers.

As part of the museum’s centenary celebration, a new exhibition hall was set up, a new literary memorial room was also created. Two new galleries have been added to the museum -- one is the folk art of Bengal, the other is the daily art of Bengalis. It is here that Kadambari Devi's (Rabindranath’s sister-in-law, Notun Bouthan) hand-woven 'Sadh's Seat' is kept for Biharilal Chakraborty. Catalogues are regularly updated and scientific preservation of manuscripts and documents are underway.

One wing of the Punthi Parishad continues to publish valuable books from time to time. Apart from classics like 'Buddhgan and Doha', 'Shrikrishnakirtan', 'Sangbadpatre Sekal Katha', 'Bangla Samayeekpatra', 24 volumes of 'Sahitya Sadhak Charitmala', five volumes of 'Bharatkosh', the publication of rare books has been resumed. 

There was a temporary lull in the Parishat’s activities for some time but things have picked up in the   last decade. Two of its buildings have been renovated and readers-researchers are once more thronging in in large numbers. Conservation work is in full swing. New books are being published, rare books are being re-printed and digitized books are made available to readers through various platforms. Regular   discussions and meetings are organized in the Parishat’s premises.  

On the occasion of the 130th Foundation Day of Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, a meeting was organized at Ramesh Bhavan on July, 25 this year. This year’s Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay Memorial award was given to Yajneshwar Chowdhury, Brajendranath Bandyopadhyay Award went to Ashish Khastgir, Archana Chowdhury Award was given to Anuradha Roy and Hamiruddin Midya was the recipient of Ila Chand Memorial Award. Ashutosh Mallick was honoured with the Nirupama Chand Memorial Award for being the most frequent user of the library reading room. An exhibition of books and magazines is also being hosted where book lovers can buy books at a discounted rate. The book exhibition-cum-sale will be on till August 8.


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