Bengali Culture is considered to be one of the richest cultures in India. Know more on the cultural heritage of West Bengal, through this article.
Travel to India : West Bengal : Bengali Culture
Culture Of West Bengal
History of West Bengal
The present culture of Bengal has its roots in the history of the state. In the past, Bengal kept shuffling between the hands of various rulers, making it exposed to different cultures. Mauryans, Guptas and Palas were succeeded by Sena Dynasty, who lost Bengal to Qutb-Din-Ibaq, the Sultan of Delhi. After the death of Aurangzeb, Bengal became independent, with Muslim governors running the administration. The Battle of Plassey, in 1757, saw Siraj-ud-daul, the last independent ruler of Bengal, being defeated by the British. In 1947, with the independence of India, Bengal was divided into East and West Bengal, with the former being given to Pakistan and the latter being made a part of India.
There is a popular saying 'What Bengal thinks today, Rest of the India will think tomorrow'. This tells what a rich genetic inheritance the people of Bengal have. Bengal has been home to great social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Vidyasagar. The great saint Ram Krishna Param Hans and Nobel Laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore also had their roots in Bengal's soil. Today, Bengalis reflect a mixture of traditional values and modern traditions. They have deep affinity toward art, craft and music and mainly believe in socialism.
Religions in West Bengal
People belonging to almost all the religions practiced in India can be seen in West Bengal. However, Hindu and Muslim domination still prevails. The minority communities in the state include Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. Fairs and festivals form an important part of all the religions of Bengal. It is said that in Bengal, there is a festival for every season, every region and every occasion. Apart from the grand festivals, like Durga Pooja, Diwali and Id, small sects organize fairs at various dargahs and mandirs in West Bengal.
The theatre in Bengal dates back to 18th century. Reflecting the rich art and cultural lineage of the state, it gained prominence during the freedom struggle of India, when it was used as a tool of expression. Apart from the religion folk dramas prevalent in many parts of Bengal, Bengali plays with nationwide popularity are also churned out on a regular basis. Girishchandra Ghosh, Rabi Roy, Sisir Bhaduri, Badal Sircar, Shobha Sen and Soumitra Chatterjee are some of the prominent names in Bengali theatre.
The tryst of Bengal with cinema began in 1890s, when the first "bioscopes" became popular in Kolkata theaters. By 1900, the first production company in Bengal was set up, by Hiralal Sen, named the Royal Bioscope Company. The first Bengali movie, Billwamangal, was released on 8th November 1919, only six years after the first full-length Indian feature film, Raja Harish Chandra. In contemporary phase, the immense contribution of great Bengali director Satyajit Ray can not be ignored. Other prominent film makers in the Bengali film industry are Bimal Roy, Ritwik Ghatak, Rituparno Ghosh and Aparna Sen.
Bengali literature is regarded as one of the richest in the world. Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Dinabandhu Mitra, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Rabindra Nath Tagore, Sharat Chandra and Ishwar Chandra Bandyopadhyaya are some of the classic names in Bengali literature. The first evidence of Bengali literature is formed by a collection of 8th-12th century CE Buddhist mystic poems from Eastern India, named Charyapada or Charyageeti. The first Bengali novel was Alaler Ghorer Dulal. Bengali literature includes a variety of classic prose, poetries and fiction and non-fiction drama.
Tribes in West Bengal
A discussion on the culture of West Bengal is incomplete without the mention of its tribal population. There is a variety of tribes found in almost all the nooks and corers of the state, which add a beautiful flavor to its culture. About 38 in number, the tribes comprise nearly 2% of the entire population of West Bengal.
Bangla Music forms an important part of Bengali cultural heritage. In fact, the music of West Bengal compliments and adorns its culture. There is a lot of variety within Bengali music, from Bangla classic to Banga folk and even rock. Apart from the vocal and instrumental classic, Majlishi classic (with thumri and toppa) form an important part of Bengali Music. Then, there is the Rabindra Sangeet, Ganasangeet, Jeeban mukhi gaan and Bengali film song.
Bengali people are considered to be great foodies and the appreciators of good taste. The staple Bengali food comprises of rice and fish. Fish recipes also form a part of every festive celebration in Bengal. Salmon, Hilsa, Bhekti, Magur, Carp, Rui and Prawns are some common verities of fish cooked in the state. The typical Bengali food has a distinct kind of taste, due to the use of mustard oil and panch-foran (mix of five special types of species). The perfect blend of sweet and spicy flavors in dishes is considered the forte of Bengali cuisine.
About Bengali (aka Bangla) language
Bengali (aka Bangla) is spoken in northeastern India and Bangladesh by over 200 million speakers, and thus ranks 6th in number of native speakers in the world. It is linguistically related to Sanskrit and has had a rich history as a literary language since the close of the first millennium. The history of Bengali is marked by the diversity of the cultures that took part in its formation. It is at the crossroads of eastern, South, and Southeastern Asia, and Bengali culture was immensely enriched by those cosmopolitan encounters. Therefore learning Bengali is an invitation to learn more about Asia, specifically about South Asia’s encounter with the world.
In South Asia, Bengali literature became emblematic of Indian literature as a whole through the success of its poets and novelists. Bengali intellectuals were the first to import literary forms such as the novel and sonnet in India. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was the first non-western author to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. His art and philosophy deeply influenced artists and intellectuals worldwide. Medieval Bengali literature is also one of the richest of the subcontinent. It became the medium of many religious traditions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam) and it was in dialog with several other literary traditions (Sanskrit, Persian, Hindi…). Today Bengali literature remains a creative domain as shown by the works of poets, novelists, essayists, and scholars living in India, Bangladesh and other countries in the world. Bengali creative expression is not limited to the written word. There exists a rich and vibrant tradition of performance in Bengali, primarily theater, music, and cinema. Bengali directors like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Aparna Sen, and Rituparno Ghosh have enriched the cinematic medium in no small measure while the theater of Shambhu Mitra, Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, and Utpal Dutt remain important influences to theater lovers all over India. The musical compositions of Kazi Nazrul Islam, Dwijendralal Ray, and Rabindranath Tagore and the Bengal School of Art are central features of modern India’s cultural efflorescence.
Bengali at SALC
The Bengali program at SALC has a long history of teaching and research with figures like Edward C. Dimock and Clinton B. Seely . Today the program is led by Thibaut d’Hubert and Mandira Bhaduri, in collaboration with Rochona Majumdar, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and a dynamic group of graduate students. It offers a wide array of teachings from the basic introduction to the language and its beautiful script for practical use, to the study of material from all periods. There are also Bengali language and culture events organized at the U of C to provide students with occasions to practice and learn about Bengali outside the classroom. Advanced students are also encouraged to follow and participate in the intellectual life of the Bengali speaking world and emphasis is put on composition of scholarly essays in the language.
Lecturer Mandira Bhaduri (1st and 2nd years)
Assistant Professor Thibaut d’Hubert (3rd, 4th years and advanced)
Dipesh Chakrabarty and Rochona Majumdar offer a wide array of non-language courses that pertain to the history and culture of Bengal. Both work with texts, both literary and visual, and supervise doctoral projects on Bengal.
1st year Bangla (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 11:30 am. – 12:30 pm)
2nd. year Bangla (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 12:30 – 1:20 pm)
3rd and 4th year Bangla (See with the instructor)
Bengali placement exam:
Contact either Professor Thibaut d’Hubert or Lecturer Mandira Bhaduri regarding this matter.
Students’ response to the Bengali program:
“For me, the Bangla program at SALC has been incredibly intellectually engaging in a number of ways. What makes it unique is that we practice talking in a number of registers ranging from the everyday to the literary and academic. We engage with texts, audio recordings and videos which show us much more of the language than just the standard forms current today: from present-day dialects in both Bangladesh and West Bengal to works from the previous five centuries, we quite literally get to learn it all. The works with which we engage too cover much of the forms of discourse in Bengal: essays, novels, poems, songs, plays, short stories, philosophical writings, religious tracts and more. All of this is done with a grounded sense of history and context, attentive to the connections between Bengal and the greater world.”
--Ishan Chakrabarti, graduate student, SALC
“I have been a native speaker, a student and lover of Bengali Literature and language, but the Bengali programme at the University of Chicago has really made me understand the nuances, multifariousness, and beauty of the language. I have learnt how to read Bengali for the first time as it should be read, with great attention to grammar, syntax, cadence and the historical context of the text. Though we are a small group of students and teachers working together, our interests and engagement with each others' work (whether it be of the pre-modern or modern periods, or whether it be Persianized or Sanskritized Bengali) makes it a very fulfilling experience. I look forward to reading Bengali at the University of Chicago with fellow enthusiasts as long as I am here.”
--Ahona Panda, graduate student, SALC
“My experience with studying Bangla at the University of Chicago has been amazing. I was particularly happy with how much the program and the teachers are accommodating to student needs-whether you want to learn to speak modern Bangla, study 19thto early 20thcentury Bangla literature or delve into medieval Bangla, the teachers will meet your needs! I am also very happy with the availability of Bangla books in the library. Finally, the presence of modern culture from Bangladesh and West Bengal-authors, film-makers etc.-has been a real asset in learning not only the language, but Bengali culture as well.”
--Aleksandar Uskokov, graduate student, SALC
“Classes were designed to integrate students' research interests and a portion of each quarter was dedicated to developing a philological approach to reading texts from a variety of periods and genres. For instance, the Bangla program afforded me the opportunity and guidance to read pre-modern manuscripts of the Ramayana of Krittibasa. Moreover, at the advanced level, the instructor’s facility with Persian and Sanskrit, as well as their respective literary histories greatly augmented the depth of our scholarship.”
--Nabanjan Maitra, graduate student, Divinity School
“I've had a wonderful experience so far learning Bangla at U Chicago. Since I became interested in it, the Bangla faculty here have been very helpful in accommodating me in pursuing my interests. It is a delight to learn from the ever-patient and encouraging instructor, who not only insists on necessary, useful, and rigorous grammatical and nuts-and-bolts exercises in class, but also devotes time in class to delving into the rich heritage of Bangla literature. Aside from the great state of Bangla language study here, U Chicago also has a fantastic Indology apparatus which will be an important complement to anyone interested in pursuing the history, society, or literature of what is sometimes called the shob cheye mishti bhasha, the sweetest language.”
--Leopold L. Eisenlohr, M.A. student, Divinity School
"As a native speaker and lover of Bangla, I came in to the department with a certain amount of confidence, only to find out how incredibly limited my vision of the language and its cultures was. SALC trains us to read Bangla as an ever-emergent language, replete with a wide range of grammatical forms, syntactical sophistication, and a constant traffic between modern and medieval Bangla. We are also taught how to trace familial connections between Bangla and other linguistic cultures surrounding it, such as the influences of Persian and Sanskrit. This, more expansive, vision of the language makes a study of Bengali society, culture and politics far more illuminating."
--Supurna Dasgupta, graduate student, SALC.
"The Bangla program at the University of Chicago offers its students a rare opportunity to study the language as it appears in a variety of registers, time periods, and geographies. The instructors are adept at tailoring their courses to meet student interests, such that students emerge better equipped not only to understand the nuances of the language but to pursue their own research. Courses appeal to a range of student abilities so that discussions and lessons are engaging and beneficial for all. Finally, the community of Bangla students at the University of Chicago—who span disciplines and academic divisions—offers an exceptional space for the exchange of ideas and research interests."
—Andrew Halladay, graduate student, SALC
Recent Bengali-related events at the U of C
Who should I approach if I would like to do research on Bengal?
You should approach Thibaut d’Hubert, Rochona Majumdar and Dipesh Chakrabarty.
Who should I contact regarding admission process?
Please contact the Department Secretary: Tracy L. Davis, Office: Foster Hall 212, firstname.lastname@example.org
Can I audit a class?
No. SALC does not permit auditors in any of the department’s language classes. Please register for the class.
What if I have a conflict on one or more of the days, can I still take the class?
In that case, contact Lecturer Mandira Bhaduri for 1st and 2nd year Bengali and Professor Thibaut d’Hubert for 3rd and 4th year and advanced,