Author: Trailakyanath Mukhopadhyay
Publisher: Kebalram Chattopadhyay, 34/1 Kalutolla Street, Calcutta.
Printer: Printed by Kebalram Chattopadhyay, at the Bangabasi Steam Machine Press, 34/1 Kalutolla Street, Calcutta.
Date & edition: Unknown (imperfect title page)
[First published 1892]
Unknown (imperfect title page)
About the book:
Pubished in 1892 the book is distinctive not only as an early bird among Bengali fairy tales but for several other interesting aspects. Firstly, Kankabati has a female protagonist. Instead of the archetypal fairy-tale journey undertaken by the prince in the quest of his beloved, it is the little girl Kankabati who undergoes an adventure to save Khetu – to whom she is betrothed since her childhood.
Though the journey is finally revealed as a delirious dream, it is nonetheless important in underlining the girls’ role in the new and considerably reformed Bengali society. We are told that Kankabati, under Khetu’s guidance, learns to read and write – and that by the time she is done with Barnaparichay and elementary arithmetic, she becomes an avid reader, eagerly pursuing books, newspapers and even the advertisements printed in them. However, this emancipation is of little help and Kankabati is as helpless as her illiterate mother against the authoritarian and oppressive decisions of her father. Ramtanu Ray, a money-wise and conservative Brahmin, greedy for dowry, settles Kankabati’s marriage with an aged and wealthy widower. On learning that she is not to be married to Khetu but to the senile Janardan Chaudhuri, Kankabati lapses into a state of feverish unconsciousness.
The course of her eventful dream-journey is filled with strange encounters with fantastic creatures and talking animals. During this journey Kankabati’s behavior as well as the choices she makes all emphasize her selfless sacrifice for the sake of her future husband. The dream ends in the sacrificial pyre on which Kankabati sits to be a satee.
The direct references to contemporary social realities and political debates along with a subtle satirical stance on part of the author make the text much more complex than most linear fairy tales. The story however, has a happy fairy-tale ending with Khetu and Kankabati getting married and ‘living happily ever after’.
A specialty of the book lies in its ample use of illustrations – a rarity in contemporary publications. Also interesting is the fact that quite a few of these are strikingly similar to John Tenniel’s famous Alice illustrations.
This edition does not mention any illustrator and though the wood cuts bear no signature initials, secondary sources have identified ‘H. Sen’ or Haridas Sen as the engraver of many of the woodblocks used in the book.
Kankabati was reviewed by Rabindranath Tagore in the periodical Sadhana (Feb-March1893). It drew high praises from Tagore who found the story, in spite of its faults, to be refreshingly different from the run of the mill Bengali children’s books that were almost always heavily didactic and austere in style. With its absurd happenings, a dream journey and a lighthearted and playful spirit, Kankabati, he noted, reminded him of “an English book called Alice in the Wonderland”.
Genre: Literary fairy tale. Kunstmarchen (reinvention of a traditional folk tale).
Source: The National Library, Kolkata
Pages from the book:
Illustrations from Kankabati
References consulted for this entry
Mukhopadhyay, Trailakyanath. Kankabati. Reprint edition, Mitra and Ghosh.