In this post, Raahi Adhya looks at the Bengali children's literary genre of the roopkatha, and its intersections with the politics of swadeshi or anti-colonial movement in Bengal, as well as the role it played in fashioning the "inner world" of the Bengali middle-class.
The roopkotha is a children’s literary genre that has held a lasting significance in the cultural history of Bengal. The tales in this genre typically centre around the adventures of young princes and princesses who have to contend with characters like rakshasis/rakshasas (carnivorous demonesses and demons), magical birds/animals and malicious stepmothers, inevitably emerging successful in these missions. In the early and defining stages of its crystallisation over the turn of the 20th century, the roopkotha was crucially linked to the Swadeshi (from swadesh, literally meaning, ‘a country of one’s own’) or anti-colonial movement in Bengal, entrenched as it was within a cultural-nationalist drive to collect ‘indigenous’ literary material to construct the ‘true’ literary history of Bengal. The establishment of the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad or Bengali Academy of Letters in 1893 symbolised as well as bolstered this endeavour to consolidate the Bengali language and literature through a process of ‘collecting’ material from the countryside that was “unmolested by modern influences” (Sen, 1920, 264-265). As Partha Chatterjee (1989) has argued, the discourse of Swadeshi was heavily informed by a polarisation of the cultural sphere into the ‘outer’, ‘material’ world and the ‘inner’, ‘spiritual’ world. It was understood that the colonised may have been forced to incorporate the material life imposed upon them via colonial institutions — aspects like science, technology, schooling and statecraft — but they were to keep a firm hold on their ‘true’ inner selves, wherein lay their real strength. At the same time, radical shifts within labour relations, legal parlance and domestic patterns during this time in Bengal resulted in new ideas about the family wherein the demands and expectations from children were also changing, especially as raising “men of character” (Bose, 1995, 120) became linked to the future of the nation. Indeed, the family came to viewed as the “hidden nation” (Bose, 1995, 141) that was to be insulated from the outside world, which was already being controlled by the colonial rulers. Needless to say, as a children’s literary genre taking shape during this time, the roopkotha engaged with the question of interiority both discursively as well as narratologically. In this article, I will focus on the discursive ways in which the roopkotha straddled the dialectic of the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’.
In many ways, the roopkotha almost embodied this ‘inner world’ of the nation in the way that it was
packaged. For example, in the preface to Thakurmar Jhuli (1907), arguably the quintessential and most popular anthology of roopkotha, Rabindranath Tagore famously wrote, “What is more swadeshi than Thakurmar Jhuli?”, upholding it as a befitting and ‘indigenous’ alternative to “bilater “Fairy Tales’” (Majumdar, 1999, 9) or foreign fairytales. Yet, to organically conflate the roopkotha with this inner world of its Bengali middle-class readership simplifies its complex positioning within the politics of Swadeshi. On the one hand, the roopkotha was discursively located within an ‘inner’ world, as discussed, and also defined by an inward movement from a state of oral, community circulation, into the pages of the book, to be consumed by the middle-class child. Thus, in the preface to Thakurmar Jhuli, Tagore wrote, “Dakshinaranjan has taken words from thakurma’s mouth and turned them into the printed word and yet these pages are so green, so fresh” (11). On the other hand, it was necessary for an ‘authentic’ roopkotha to be collected from the rural countryside, which was located very distinctly outside the world of the middle-class, urban reader. The tales as well as the paratext of the roopkotha are carefully adorned with devices that ensure that this ‘inner’ world remains at a safe distance. For example, the opening rhyme of Thakurmar Jhuli reads:
Across the ocean of wonder once again today
Have arrived all the princes and princesses from a thousand generations away! (Majumdar, 1999,
Thus, not only was the roopkotha spatially located outside the familiar world of the reader, but also temporally removed (‘a thousand generations away’), despite being tales that were collected a few months or at best, a few years prior to their publication. The next lines of this opening rhyme reveal to us a particular symbolic figure that the Bengali intelligentsia used to stand in for this ‘conditional inwardness’ of the roopkotha— that of the thakurma or the grandmother:
Lo! The snarls of the rakshasas I hear—
Where from or how far, I know not, I fear!...
Sleep, my child, as the scent of the flower wafts in,
Empty thakurma’s bag of tales in the kingdom of your dreams. (Majumdar, 1999, 19)
These lines taken together establish the ‘wondrous’ as a conduit that transports the past to the present, the outside to the inside, where thakurma or the grandmother will empty her bag of tales. Yet, the ebb and flow of the grandmother’s arrival- she has come ‘once again today’- also establishes her movement and her knowledge as not quite belonging in the here and the now. Further, while arguing that Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar’s presentation of the oral tales as roopkotha was the best available version of them, Dineshchandra Sen, the renowned folklorist and literary theorist wrote:
It is not affected by any pedantry or scholarship in classical literature or any modern propagandism…nor do his stories bear any exotic influence—Persian, Arabic, or even Sanskritic. The language is that in which our grandmothers used to tell tales— simple, even archaic, full of naïve rural charms, and always to the point… (Sen, 1920, 195).
Here, Sen associates the characteristics of being simple, archaic and naïve with the knowledges of ‘our grandmothers’ (obliterating all markers of class and caste that informed the process of collecting tales) and puts that in opposition to ‘classical literature’, ‘modern propagandism’ and ‘exotic influence’. Through these words, both the roopkotha and the old women who supposedly tell these tales are projected as insulated from the various ‘outer’ social changes that the Bengali middle class has purportedly been unable to withstand. The roopkotha then presents to us a paradox of interiority— the insistence on the insularity and timelessness of indigenous storytelling traditions that were actually dynamic and alive, was crucial to sustain a nostalgic longing among the Bengali middle-class which, once fulfilled, would threaten this dream of progress. By extension, the roopkotha became a part of the paradox of Bengali modernity at this time— a symbol of what the Bengali middle class, perceiving themselves as ‘modern’, had left behind or were now seeing themselves as opposed to, and therefore as longing for. Despite being part of a Swadeshi exercise of reclaiming traditions therefore, the roopkotha was simultaneously careful to maintain a break or distance from these traditions, thus emerging as an essentially modern literary genre for children over the turn of the 20th century in Bengal.
Being a literary genre that never directly addresses or challenges the authority of the colonial government through its tales, one might question what it is about the roopkotha that was ‘Swadeshi’. Through this article, I have very briefly tried to bring out the discursive devices through which the roopkotha developed in tandem with the Swadeshi turn towards an interiority that could withstand the lashes of colonial modernity. Yet, tracing the crystallisation of the roopkotha simultaneously lays bare the complex ways in which the concept of interiority manifested within the overlapping genealogies of Swadeshi and changing class relations in Bengal. This, in turn, is related to the hierarchies in caste, class, gender and age that marked the process of collecting and publishing the tales that would come to define the genre. The roopkotha can therefore be seen as a space of ‘conditional inwardness’ — a window into the imagined and elusive ‘inner life’ of a community that only makes sense when viewed from the outside. Developed specifically as a genre for children, the roopkotha reveals the aspirations as well as anxieties of the modern Bengali middle-class elites, who were instrumental in giving shape to the genre. The ‘most Swadeshi’ genre of all, therefore, is also revealing of the very fissures and exclusions that marked the discourse and movement of Swadeshi in Bengal.
Bose, Pradip Kumar. “Sons of the Nation: Child Rearing in the New Family.” In Texts of Power: Emerging Disciplines in Colonial Bengal, edited by Partha Chatterjee, 118-144. Calcutta: Samya, 1996.
Chatterjee, Partha. “Colonialism, Nationalism and Colonised Women: The Contest in India”. American Ethnologist 16, no. 4 (Nov 1989): 622-633.
Majumdar, Dakshinaranjan Mitra. Thakurmar Jhuli. Kolkata: Mitra and Ghosh Publishers Private Limited, 1999
Sen, Dineshchandra. The Folk Literature of Bengal. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1920. Film.
Raahi Adhya is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies at SOAS, University of London. She has completed an MPhil in Women's Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, MA in Women's Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences , Mumbai and BA in English Literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Her research interests include concepts of childhood, print histories, folktales, gender and culture. Through her PhD thesis she explores the crystallisation of a literary genre (roopkotha) as children’s literature and anti-colonial literature in Bengal during the turn of the 20th century, putting it in the context of histories of print and orality and debates about gender, sexuality and childhood at the time.