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Entry updated 11 March 2024. Tagged: International.

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Describing sf in Bangla (or the Bengali language) is a topic fraught with difficulties. Any understanding of sf in this linguistic region must begin with an analysis of kalpabigyan, the term generally used as a very rough analogue to sf in Bangla at present.

First of all, there are problems of definition, as kalpabigyan, which is a recent formulation (see below), has a wider range of meanings and applications than those usually associated with sf, because at least in part it does not refer to fiction, commonly understood. This definitional problem originates in the origins of the genre in colonial Bengal where three different kinds of stories with their basis in the new sciences can be seen. These are: (a) bigyannirbhar galpa, science-dependent stories; (b) bigyanbhittik galpa, science-based stories; (c) a combination of rahasya (mystery) and bigyan (science) which is part Science Fantasy and part science mystery/adventure story hybrid, and often goes under the generic label for story in Bangla – galpa. These three categories comprise fiction; nonfictional accounts of stories behind common inventions and the stories of the lives of Scientists; and essays on scientific topics, not all of which are speculative. As a result, when the term kalpabigyan is used to speak of sf in Bangla, it includes all these different categories and thus seems to transcend the possibility of definition. The definitional problem is further compounded by the complexity of the word kalpabigyan itself, whose etymological range of possibilities borrow from an indigenous understanding of science as well as time.

The term kalpabigyan was in fact coined as recently as 1962 by Adrish Bardhan to announce the first SF Magazine in Bangla, Ascharja ["Wonder"] of which he was the main editor, where it was initially associated with bigyanbhittik galpa. Kalpabigyan (see above) does not mean fiction as such; it is a mode of reflection on material changes in poesis and the presentation of those changes in praxis. This is important to remember in the context of what one understands as kalpabigyan in Bangla. Literally understood, kalpabigyan refers to the transformation of material knowledge across time; it further points to a distinction between the material and the transcendental, that is to say the conflict between modern science (which is special knowledge dealing with the phenomenal world) and a transcendental knowledge (that which subsumes and supersedes the material). This distinction is particularly important in the context of Bangla kalpabigyan (and Indian sf in general) where mythological references and abstract philosophical speculation about transcendental knowledge, borrowing chiefly from religion, are often combined to reflect on transformation, even in what is often a straightforward fictional futuristic tale. Here, we will focus only on kalpabigyan generically related to sf and science fantasy, rather than provide a description of the other material that may also be considered kalpabigyan.

To add to these difficulties of definition are problems of history and language, as Bangla is spoken on both sides of the former colonial province of Bengal, part of which now falls under the state of Paschimbanga (West Bengal) in independent India and the other part in the country of Bangladesh (after the partition of India and Pakistan on 14-15 August 1947 up to independence on 16 December 1971, Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan). Though the term kalpabigyan was coined on the Indian side in Paschimbanga after independence – and although it is sometimes used for sf in Bangladesh, and the generic characteristics are similar – there is very little literary contact between the sf in Bangla produced on the two sides of the border between India and Bangladesh. Thus while both regions produce sf, sharing the same language and origin, the two traditions are nearly independent of each other at present.

The history of Bangla SF cannot be understood without a reference to colonial tensions between the acceptance of scientific and technological change, which may be perceived as having been imposed, and the need for a subversive, if not always openly resistant, response to political domination, as it affects the colonized culture (see Imperialism). This ambivalence is characteristic of the Bengali intellectuals of the nineteenth century, a period in Bengal from the early 1800s to the 1920s that is referred to by some historians as the Bengal Renaissance; and is manifested very early, in two works of Future History by Bengali authors, "A Journal of Forty Eight Hours of the Year 1945" (6 June 1835 The Calcutta Literary Gazette) by Kylas Chunder Dutt, and "The Republic of Orissa: A Page From the Annals of the Twentieth Century" (25 May 1845 The Saturday Evening Harakuru) by Shoshee Chunder Dutt (1824-1886), as well as Swapnalabdha Bharatbarsher Itihas ["India's History Revealed in a Dream"] (1862) by Bhudev Mukhopadhyay (1827-1894) (revealingly, the first two were written in English). In the early stage of sporadic production up to the 1920s, these works prefigure a number of allied genres which attempt to reconcile the (sometimes alienating) demands of science with indigenous mythology, folktale and fable. The earliest work of sf proper in Bangla is usually identified as Hemlal Dutta's "Rahasya" ["Mystery"] (1882 Bigyan Darpan), although the story perhaps does not merit the label as it seeks to present the newest technological marvels rather than invent something not yet in actual use (and is in fact less genuine sf than the earlier works cited above). The earliest written work narrated in an easily identifiable sf mode is a Spencerian fable set on Venus, "Shukra Bhraman" ["Travels in Venus"] (written 1892; in Prakritiki coll 1914) by Jagadananda Ray (1869-1933). Ray was a major science popularizer of the period who wrote a number of essays introducing complex scientific subjects in simple language, and "Shukra Bhraman" too was introduced as an essay for the purpose of illustrating, in the form of a dream narrative, many scientific ideas, specifically the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spence.

The most significant work of sf, and undoubtedly one of the best works of Bangla sf in the formative stage, is the highly subversive attack on colonial repression, "Niruddesher Kahini" ["The Story of the Missing One"] by "Acharya" Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937), written in 1896, a short story later significantly expanded, altered and appended to Abyakto (coll 1921), retitled "Palatak Toofan" ["Runaway Sea-Storm"]. Bose, one of the foremost scientists of the period, subtitled the first part in his later version as a "baigyanik rahasya" or "scientific mystery", and founded the genre. Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, another key figure of the Bengal Renaissance and a pioneering Feminist in Bengal, who championed the rights of Muslim women in particular, wrote "Sultana's Dream" (1905 Indian Ladies' Magazine) in English, a short story regarded as one of the first works of feminist sf (see Feminism), and the Utopian novel Padmarag (1924) in Bangla. From the 1920s onwards, sf and science fantasy became a regular part of magazines for teenagers and young adults, which attempted to inculcate the scientific temperament through scientific essays produced in an engaging style, as well as fiction. Since the nineteenth century, scientific essays and rhymes had been written by the foremost litterateurs in Bengal at the time, including Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-1894) and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), and the trend continued in the twentieth century.

Of special significance are four magazines, Sandesh (1913-current) edited by Upendrakishore Roychoudhuri and Sukumar Ray among others, Mouchak (1920-current), during this period edited by Sudhir Sarkar, Rangmashal (1937-1946), edited by Hemendrakumar Ray and subsequently, Debiprasad Chattopadhyay, and Ramdhanu (1927-1988), edited in succession by Bishveshvar, Manoranjan and Kshitindranarayan Bhattacharya. It is in these magazines that we find the flowering of kalpabigyan. Sukumar Ray (1887-1923) published a number of rhymes and short tales in the manner of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll but with distinct scientific elements, and a number of essays between 1913 and 1923 in the magazine Sandesh with the palpable purpose of scientific education. Some of these essays are framed as stories to demonstrate scientific fact in the manner common in early kalpabigyan, for instance "Shanir Deshe" ["In the Land of Saturn"]. His other significant work is the story "Heshoram Hushiyaar'er Diary" ["The Diary of Heshoram Hushiyaar"] (1922), a Parody reworking of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912).

Between Hemendrakumar Ray (1888-1963) and Premendra Mitra (1904-1988) the genre came into its own. Mitra published a series of serialized sf novels and novelettes in Ramdhanu and Rangmashal, including Sekaler Katha (1927; exp vt Pipde Puran 1931), Patale Paanch Bachar ["Five Years in the Ocean Depths"] (1931), Ramdhanu (1931) and Prithibi Chariye ["Beyond the Earth, Rangmashal"] (1937). Hemendrakumar Ray, the founding figure of children's literature in the field of adventure stories and detective stories, also wrote a series of kalpabigyan adventure novels, including "Meghduter Martye Agaman" ["The Martian Invasion"] (1925-1926 Mouchak) and its sequel "Maynamatir Mayakanan" ["The Magical Forest of Maynamati"] (1926-1927 Mouchak), and Dragoner Duswapno ["The Dragon's Nightmare"] (1939 Mouchak). A number of other authors, including Manoranjan Bhattacharya and Kshitindranarayan Bhattacharya (1909-1990), produced short stories in Ramdhanu; as did, at a later stage, Leela Majumdar (1908-2007) and Satyajit Ray in Sandesh. Bhattacharya's short stories feature characters from Hindu mythology in uncharacteristic situations, jokingly titled Puranas (tales involving gods, demigods and mythical figures), such as "Mangal-Purana" (May-June 1932 Ramdhanu), which features characters from the epic Mahabharata and intelligent creatures from Mars; they display the best features of the kalpabigyan tradition which constantly seeks to reconcile modernity and tradition while criticizing the excesses and pretensions of both.

Subversion and Parody are dominant features of the kalpabigyan phenomenon, whose crowning example is Hemendrakumar Ray's novel Amanushik Maanush ["Inhuman Man/Overman"] (1950). While works before independence feature Bengalis in a distinct position of subservience to the colonizer/white man, or ignore the colonial reality altogether, works in the last decade of colonial rule and the first decade post-independence display a distinctly new style of Satire in which the ghosts of colonialism and European hegemony are exorcized by assertive and dominant heroes. Bibhutibhushan Bandhyopadhyay's Chaander Pahar ["The Moon Mountain"] (1937), for instance, while it is not sf but an adventure story, nonetheless inspired many kalpabigyan authors who followed his example in creating dominant Bengali heroes engaged in adventures in foreign lands. But Amanushik Maanush strikes at the core of the Aryan mythos that had been a constant feature of the Indian national movement as well as other Orientalist stereotypes, and had also had a strong presence in Bangla literature. Premendra Mitra at this point also started writing the Ghanada stories featuring the teller of tall-tales, Ghanashyam Das, beginning with "Mosha" (1945 Alpana Puja Annual). These stories transform the cultural phenomenon of "adda" (see above) into sf tall tales. Ghanada adventures combine highly accurate descriptions of the real world and its political and geographical peculiarities with imaginary scientific inventions and developments, mocking the armchair Bengali intellectual as much as the European explorers à la Lord Dunsany's Jorkens (see Club Story). While the stories of Ghanada are enjoyed by teenagers as well as adults, they are distinctively mature in their treatment of issues of pressing social concern, particularly war, racism (see Race in SF), and economic disparity. Mitra continued writing Ghanada stories and novels until his death in 1988. Selections were translated into English as Snake and Other Stories (coll 1990) and Mosquito and Other Stories (coll trans Amlan Das Gupta 2004) and Adventures of Ghanada (coll trans Lila Majumdar 2006). Starting with the early "Kuhaker Deshe" ["In the Land of Magic"] (1931-1932 Mouchak), Mitra also wrote the Mamababu series of adventure novels with kalpabigyan elements. Apart from Kshitindranarayan Bhattacharya, whose first sf work was Dhumketu (1944) and Leela Majumdar, with Batash Bari (1984), Rajshekhar Basu (1880-1960), who wrote under the pseudonym Parashuram, also produced several important short stories that may be considered amongst the best works of kalpabigyan satire: the Alternate History of colonialism "Ulatpuran" ["Upside-Down"] (1927); the sf fable "Gamanush Jatir Katha" ["The Story of the Gamma-Men"] (1945); a commentary on world Politics from the eyes of a Martian, "Mangalik" ["Martian"] (1955); and the alchemy fantasy "Parash Pathar" ["Philosopher's Stone"] (1948)

The sixties to the eighties in Paschimbanga saw the height of sf and kalpabigyan production in the region. Other than Mitra's Ghanada, two scientist heroes began to appear in stories and novels: Professor Shonku by Satyajit Ray and Professor Natboltu Chakra by Adrish Bardhan. Professor Shonku first appeared in the story Byomjatrir Diary ["Diary of a Space Traveller"] (1961 Sandesh), and he appeared in thirty-nine further adventures, until Ray's death. Professor Shonku's stories are all retrospective narrations, recorded from his diary in the first person. Shonku, notably, lives outside Kolkata in the tiny village of Giridi in Jharkhand, but is a world-class inventor-technologist (see Invention; Technology) who travels all over the world and is feted by the international scientific community. This figure of the benevolent inventor averse to material gains is a consistent feature in Bangla sf, a feature whose essence may be found in the literal meaning of the term kalpabigyan itself, but it also draws partly on its roots in fiction for teenagers and young adults, who are meant to learn how to serve the interests of the nation through science. Premendra Mitra continued to write other sf novels and short stories, including the important novel Manudwadash ["The Twelfth Manu"] (1964), included in Mindscape (coll trans Tutun Mukherjee 2000), and Surja Jekhane Neel ["Where the Sun is Blue"] (1988).

The period also saw the emergence of several exclusive kalpabigyan magazines, all associated with the editorial teams of Adrish Bardhan, Ranen Ghosh, Amitananda Das and Sujit Dhar: Ascharja (1963-1968); the short lived Fantastic (1975-1976); and Bismay (1982-current, sporadically); as well as Kishor Gyan-Bigyan (1981). The revived Sandesh under Satyajit Ray, Leela Majumdar and others also carried kalpabigyan. These magazines carried translations of prominent short works of Anglo-American sf, reprints of older kalpabigyan stories, along with numerous contributions by almost all the practising sf writers in Paschimbanga including Premendra Mitra and Leela Majumdar, as well as the authors of the next generation, Satyajit Ray, Adrish Bardhan (1932-    ), Syed Mustafa Siraj, Anish Deb (1951-2021), Ranen Ghosh, Amitananda Das, Enakshi Chattopadhyay (1934-    ), Dilip Raychaudhuri (1928-1966), Samarjit Kar (1934-    ), Gurnek Singh (1931-    ), and Manoranjan Dey Syed Mustafa Siraj (1930-    ) published his first book-length sf tale, "Saharar Santras" ["The Terror of Sahara"] (1972-1973 Pakshiraj), and subsequently wrote several stories featuring the scientist Chandrakanta. Some of Siraj's short stories have been anthologized in Kishor Kalpabigyan Samagra (anthi, 2008). In fact, most of these authors predominantly wrote in the short story form, and various selections from their works continue to be published in different anthologies. Four prominent authors also put together a combined radio novel in four parts, Sabuj Manush, an episode written by Premendra Mitra, Adrish Bardhan, Dilip Raychaudhuri, Satyajit Ray in succession, and published in Fantastic Annual 1981, edited by Adrish Bardhan. In addition to his remarkable editorial work which established shaped kalpabigyan as it matured, Bardhan himself has so far written over fifty books of science fiction, including Kalir Shesh ["The End of the Kaliyuga"] (2006). Anish Deb, another key author of the period, continued to contribute to the genre in short story collections such as Kishore Kalpabigyan Samagra (coll 2005).

Many of Satyajit Ray's kalpabigyan and fantasy stories were collected in collections comprising a dozen stories each, with the generic title of "gappo" or stories. Ray (1921-1992), an Oscar awardee and one of the world's most acclaimed film directors, also published a short story "Bankubabur bandhu" (1962 Sandesh), and prepared a script featuring a benevolent Alien who befriends a child called "The Alien" which, it has been argued (among others, by Arthur C Clarke), was adapted without credit by Steven Spielberg and Mike Wilson for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), an issue that remains controversial [see further reading for essay by Obaidur Rahman]; it may be, however, that the fact that Spielberg's alien befriends human children because it too is a child and knows no better may preclude any redemptive acknowledgement. Ray was also the founding figure of the Science Fiction Cine Club in Kolkata, closely associated with the sf magazine circle.

Some of the other authors who also wrote in this period include Bimal Kar (1921-2003) and Sunil Gangopadhyay (1934-    ). Kar published some sf, including Haraano Jeeper Rahasya ["The Mystery of the Missing Jeep'"] (1979) and Mandargader Rahasyamay Jyotsna ["The Mysterious Moonlight of Mandargada"] (1995), and published several more stories up until his death. Sunil Gangopadhyay also published the kalpabigyan story series featuring the character Nilmaanush, a Superhero affected by alien technology, anthologized in Kishor Kalpabigyan Samagra (anth 2005) and elsewhere. Nonetheless, these stories, being aimed at children, veer closer to fantasy and adventure, with a very loose basis in either science or active social import. Of authors who predominantly contribute to children's kalpabigyan, the work of Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay (1935-    ), from his first story "Bhela" (1975-1976), may be recognized as the best Bangla kalpabigyan has to offer in the language at present. Although often featuring the supernatural mixed with fantasy elements, the simplicity in his works is a deceptive cover for presenting contemporary social complexity. His two most important kalpabigyan works are Bhutude ghori ["The Ghostly Watch"] (1984) and Patalghar (2000) filmed by Abhijit Choudhury in 2003.

In recent times, due to the increasing pressures from the global market as well as linguistic hybridity, the new trend of Indian Writing in English (promulgated through the acronym IWE) has also attracted sf production from Bengal. A notable precursor in this trend is Amitabh or Amitav Ghosh's novel The Calcutta Chromosome (1995). Among these new authors are Samit Basu with The GameWorld Trilogy (2004-2007) and Rimi B Chatterjee with Signal Red (2005) and Black Light (2010).

A more recent Online Magazine is Kalpabiswa [see links below], published quarterly from January 2016, under whose auspices the first sf conference in Eastern India was held in October 2018 to mark the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818). [BCh]

further reading

  • Satadru Sen. "A Juvenile Periphery: The Geographies Of Literary Childhood In Colonial Bengal" (Spring 2004 Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, Volume 5, Number 1) [mag/]
  • Siddhartha Ghosh. "Science Fiction" (1988 Ekkhan Saradiya Sankhya) [pp119-176: mag/]
  • Shoshee Chunder Dutt. Selections from "Bengaliana" (Nottingham, Nottinghamshire: Trent Editions, 2005) [coll: edited by Alex Tickell: pb/]
  • Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Sultana's Dream and Padmarag (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2005) [trans by Barnita Bagchi: binding unknown/]
  • Obaidur Rahman. "Satyajit Ray and the Alien" (22 May 2009 The Star Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 70) [see links below: mag/]
  • Chattopadhyay, Bodhisattva. "Aliens of the Same World: The Case of Bangla Sf" in Home in Motion: The Shifting Grammar of Self & Stranger (Oxfordshire: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2011) [nonfiction: anth: edited by Pedro F Marcelino: pp125-131: binding unknown/]
  • Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, editor. The Inhumans and Other Stories: A Selection of Bengali Science Fiction (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2024) [anth: translated by the editor: pb/]


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