The role of the intellectuals in shaping the public opinion and leading the people is beyond. One such phenomenon which attracted wide interests among both the Marxist and non-Marxist scholars was the ‘Bengal Renaissance’ which is sometimes equated with the ‘Indian Renaissance’. It is because a cluster of contemporary intellectuals became associated with various movements of ideas mostly derived from western- sources.
‘Indian Renaissance’, often equated with Bengal Renaissance, has been a widely debated subject among intellectuals and historians. The most debatable aspect of this subject has been its naming which clearly echoes the Italian intellectual experience and cultural phenomenon of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Europe billed as the ‘Renaissance’.
Among the Marxist historians Susobhan Sarkar was the first to analyze ‘this flowering of social, religious, literary and political activities in Bengal’. In his essay, Notes on the Bengal Renaissance, first published in 1946, he declared that the ‘role played by Bengal in the modern awakening of India is thus comparable to the position occupied by Italy in the story of the European Renaissance’.
This ‘modern’ movement arose because the ‘impact of British rule, bourgeois economy and modern Western culture was first felt in Bengal’. Thus, the modernity brought into India by the British ‘produced an awakening known usually as the Bengal Renaissance’. It generated such intellectual force that ‘for about a century, Bengal’s conscious awareness of the changing modern world was more developed than and ahead of that of the rest of India’. Such a rosy picture of the 19th century intellectual activities has now been seriously questioned.
The concept of Bengal, of Indian Renaissance has come under criticism. The critics point out that, unlike the European Renaissance, the range of the 19th century intellectual ferment was rather limited and its character was rather less modernists than was earlier assumed. The ‘traditionalist’ and ‘modernist’ dichotomy cannot be applied as the so-called ‘Renaissance’ intellectual was a deeply divided personality.
The break with the past was severely limited in nature and remained mainly at the intellectual level. Most of the intellectuals did not have the courage to implement even at their own individual levels the principles they preached. And those, like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, who publicly campaigned for their ideals, faced continuous failures. In most cases, the same traditional scriptural authority was sought to derive sanction for their policies and practices against which the intellectuals launched their ideological struggle.
Moreover, this intellectual movement remained confined within an elitist Hindu framework which did not include the problems and realities of the lower castes and Muslims. The social forces, which could have given the ideas a solid base and moved them in the modernist direction, were not present. The colonial power remained the ultimate guarantee for the implementation of the reforms proposed by the thinkers.
But the colonial state was not quite keen to take radical measures for the fear of alienating the traditionalists who formed the great majority. This led to frustration among the enthusiasts for the reforms and the movement in general retreated and declined by the late 19th century.
Some of the Marxist historians who have criticised the concept of the ‘Renaissance’ in Indian context are: Barun De in the articles ‘The Colonial Context of Bengal Renaissance’ (1976) and ‘A Historiography Critique of Renaissance Analogues for Nineteenth Century India’; Asok Sen in his book Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and His Elusive Milestones (1977), Sumit Sarkar in his articles ‘Rammohan Roy and the Break with the Past’ (1975), ‘The Complexities of Young Bengal (1973), and ‘The Radicalism of Intellectuals’ (1977), all of which are now collected in a book A Critique of Colonial India (1985); and K.N. Panikkar whose various essays on this theme from 1977 to 1992 have been collected in the book Culture, Ideology, Hegemony (1995).