The history of Bengali children’s books dates back to the early nineteenth century. The immense impact of the
newly-introduced printing technology was compounded with the earnest efforts of various missionary agencies
and benevolent societies. It was the zealous missionaries who, with their didactic interests, initiated a culture
of educational and diverting books for children in Bengal. The new priorities of an expanding empire under a
foreign dominion forced radical shifts in the socio-economic dynamics of the traditional indigenous society.
Education was one of the earliest sectors to get pushed into a momentum and rapidly headed towards an
irreversible and unprecedented change. The nineteenth century, therefore, becomes a crucially important time
as the gradual but steady swing from the indigenous village schools to a completely foreign Departmental
system, not only changed the institutes, pedagogies and curriculum but also revolutionised the traditional feudal
society, creating possibilities of upward mobility through the avenues of a new education. In a changing colonial
climate, social, cultural, religious and literary reformations swept through Bengal. Along with and as part of these
changes in wider spheres, the concepts of ‘childhood’ and ‘children’s literature’ too came to be reinterpreted and
redefined in the course of the nineteenth century.
As a result the boundaries of childhood in nineteenth century Bengal became largely fluid with the markers of the
ideal child varying widely from the demure and pious models in Sherwood’s or Edgeworth’s tales to the more
light-spirited and playful children in the turn-of-the-century rhyme books. In fact, as the century progressed
through the diverse and complex manifestations of the Bengal renaissance, the duration of childhood was
stretched and expanded to include the early and the late adolescent years. Therefore the maturity levels of the
implied reader in a text designed for children in the 1820s would be vastly different from that of a juvenile
publication in the early twentieth century. The books read by Ramtanu Lahiri aged thirteen in 1826 would be a
far cry from those read by Punyalata Chakraborty or Nirad C Chaudhuri about seventy to eighty years later.
(It would however, be wise to note here that this ‘modern’ juvenile book culture radically affected and redefined
the concepts of childhood and pedagogy largely among the urban middle-class and did not have such a sweeping
influence in the rural interiors.)
For this project concerning early Bengali children’s books, titles have been selected for documentation following
one or more markers of identification that help to label a text as part of children’s or young adult literature. In
the more definitive cases, there are intrinsic textual evidences such as an indicative title, a subtitle, a preface
or an ‘Announcement’ that help to identify a text as a publication specifically designed for children. Sometimes,
a book, a series or a periodical meant for a wider circle of readership includes children as part of its intended
audience. In absence of these, for some texts, there are testimonials in publishers’ records, descriptive
catalogues and book advertisements. Another major source for identifying books read by children in the past
are provided by the ‘evidences’ of reading gleaned from contemporary memoirs and biographical works.
Identification becomes problematic when there are no such textual or extra-textual proofs of a book being
specifically directed at and read by children. (Of course as in the histories of children’s literature in other cultures,
there are plenty of evidences to indicate that children did read a lot of books that were not meant for them.)
In a case like this, the design (typographical features, illustrations etc.), the contents and the language – aspects
that reflect the ideas of pedagogy, censorship and childhood implicit in the book, become important pointers
that help to locate it as a publication in the juvenile domain.
The images reproduced in this website are mostly digital photographs that had been taken following the
guidelines and restrictions of the source libraries and institutions (without damaging the spinal bindings or
without using flash). Where such an option for digital imaging was not available, the means of reprographic
documentation had been photocopies and print-outs. These were then scanned to be used as images. Such
methods obviously could not and did not yield ready to use images. The raw images therefore had to be edited
before they could be used for the web pages, but the noise cleaning and the photo re-touches have been
limited to a minimum level since it is important that they should reflect and indeed document the vintage
quality and the antiquity of the originals.
The website displays representations from a century of Bengali children's books. Apart from the
linear navigations in the 'Catalogue' and in the 'In Addition' sections, the titles listed under
the former are further searchable by 'Author' (the category includes Editor/Translator/Contributor)
and 'Genre'. The thumbnails can be viewed as larger images by clicking on them. Roman
transliterations of Bengali words are often problematic and confusing and are hardly made less
cumbersome by the use of diacritical markers. For reasons of practical convenience, the website
adheres to phonetics and pronunciations rather than following any particular normative chart.
Though undertaken as an individual project, this has been, in actuality, a team venture. The credits for image
editing and web designing go to Upal Sengupta while Anumeeta Majumdar and Paramita Ghatak of
A.P. Websolutions have taken care of all technicalities related to website development and maintenance.