The literary public sphere in Bengal: Aesthetics, culture and politics, 1905-1939

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Sudipta Sen


Colonialism, Nationalism, Print culture, Literary sphere, Bengali literature, Literary periodicals

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Asian History | History


This dissertation studies the public sphere shaped by a profusion of literary periodicals in twentieth century colonial Bengal. It looks at how leading periodicals like Prabasi, Sabuja Patra, Kallola, Paricay a, Dhumketu, M asika Mohammadi, Moslem Bharata, Saogat and other major literary and miscellaneous journals were engaged in the conscious agenda of shaping reader communities and how various social groups connected with the literary sphere. It demonstrates how in a colonial society such as British Bengal freedom of expression assumed a centrality in demands for self-determination that were severely curtailed by the state's censorship legislations. It also studies how ruminations on the nature of the self and society in the pages of literary periodicals, beyond the concerns of direct political struggle, constituted important ways of addressing questions of the autonomy and antinomianism in nuanced and indirect ways. This suggests tangential but complex interactions between a burgeoning field of literary production and anti-colonial political activism. The history of the literary sphere enables an insight in to the significance of print culture within the narrative of Bengali nationalism.

This dissertation provides a history of how questions of political and social change that in the nineteenth century had been at the center of social reform debates continued and assumed different dimensions in the early decades of the twentieth century. It shows how in a colonial context literature became an almost exemplary medium for imagining social change and how the very act of reading literature entailed a kind of social and political introspection that disrupted contemporary and typical late-Victorian ideas of leisurely private readings. During the post-Swadeshi (i.e. post 1905) decades, literature became particularly laden with the almost impossible task of predicating society on communities of readers (pat [dotbelow]haka sam aja). The result was an idea of Bengaliness, a particular form of identity articulated in aesthetic and literary terms, invested with its own distinctive cultural and ideological project. The literary sphere and the specifically Bengali linguistic and cultural formation that it engendered became a sanctified domain that the Bengali intelligentsia could claim and guard as their own.


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