A fascination with childhood - as historians, anthropologists, psychologists and pedagogues have noted - is a rather recently developed phenomenon in the West. Philippe Aries, in his ground-breaking study Centuries of Childhood (1962) traces the emergence of a sentiment de l’enfance or an ‘awareness of childhood’ in the early modern period. Critics like DeMause, Stone, Plumb, Pollock and others have since argued in favour of or against Aries, emphasizing either a ‘change’ or a ‘continuity’ in reviewing the history of childhood. More recent critical strategies are inclined to study childhood as a social construct that is bound to vary with time and culture. In other words, though “the immaturity of children is a biological fact” differences would exist “in the ways in which this immaturity is understood” by different cultures in different periods (Prout and James, quoted in Heywood).Given this idea of childhood as a socio-cultural invention, the vast area of pre-colonial Bengali childhood remains to be critically examined. The versions of childhood and children as represented in medieval and early modern Bengali texts are yet to be researched and critiqued to produce a substantial body of study that would collectively outline and define the principles and paradigms of  ‘indigenous’ Bengali childhoods.

The ideas of childhood that are generated through a reading of Bengali children’s books of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries illustrate a complex (and often uneasy) blend of the indigenous and the foreign precepts, of the old and the new social orders and a combination of the traditional and the reformed world views. In the early decades of the nineteenth century along with a new print culture, there was the inception of an English schooling system. Breaking away from the traditional educational systems like pathshalas or makhtabs, the new curriculum emphasized a rationalist pedagogy and initiated a whole new order of disciplines that were far removed from the prevalent indigenous ones. With such a momentous change in schooling and education, the norms dictating juvenile education as well as juvenile conduct underwent radical changes. Simultaneously, there remained, till the late years of the nineteenth century, residues of thriving pre-print traditions that surfaced in the form of the widely available cheap Bat-tala books and also continued as popular forms of entertainments and practicing folk rituals like jatra, kathakata and panchali. The numerous memoirs, biographies and autobiographies that recall a period of growing up in mid or late nineteenth century Bengal record this simultaneity of traditional and new-fangled elements. These writings speak of both indigenous and colonial cultural aspects as important influences moulding contemporary middle and upper-middle class Bengali childhoods.

For the newly formed urban middle class, children increasingly became a subject of special concern and childhood an area of growing importance. Manuals for parental guidance advocating a hygienic practice and a rationalist discipline for child-rearing (for instance, Paribare Shishu Shiksha [Child Education in the Family],1890 or Santaner Charitra Gathan [Developing a Moral Character in Children], 1912) began to be published.  The puritan and reformative elements of Brahmoism did much to usher in a modern childhood in the Bengali society. By the turn of the century, a flood of children’s books from Brahmo households and Brahmo authors like Pramadacharan Sen , Rabibdranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Gnanadanandini Devi, Shibnath Shastri, Yogindranath Sarkar, Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri enlivened the juvenile reading sphere with entertaining, lighthearted writings and attractive pictures. They brought to the children’s domain a playful spirit and endowed it with much of the innocence and happiness that became intricately associated with the cult of the modern child. Also apparent in their construction of a separate terrain for children was a studied censorship, especially noted in the will to erase all traces of sexuality from children’s texts. The asexuality of the modern child – unlike the more ‘unguarded’ childhoods of the earlier ages – was an active imposition of an adult ideology at work which consciously sought to fence in the ‘naivety’ and ‘vulnerability’ of children. However, beyond these moral reformations and ideological reconstructions, childhood remained further divided by the social variables like religion, caste, class and gender.

Thus as winds of change blew over Bengal, the societal norms were reviewed and reformed. Along with the shifting dynamics of the institutions of home and family the paradigms of childhood too signaled a change. The rigorous discipline and the severe penalties of Branaparichay (1855) are tempered by a cheerful indulgence in the happy rhymes of Hasi Khushi (1897). The children’s periodical Sakha (1883) carried the Wordsworthian dictum “The Child is father of the Man” as its epigraph while Tagore’s romantic apotheosis of the child found repeated expressions in numerous works, most famously in Sahaj Path (1930) – an innovative alphabet book that was unlike any other. Periodicals like Amar Desh (1920) hailed their young readers – the boys and girls of Bengal - as the future citizens of a nation.

In nineteenth century Bengal, ‘child’ and ‘children’s literature’ were re-formed and reinterpreted in the cultural and intellectual climate of colonialism. This reformation and radical change was fraught with complex anxieties that infected both the children and their guardians. Ashis Nandy notes that

          with greater and more intense cross-cultural contacts, childhood now more frequently
          becomes a battleground of cultures.…the Indian middle class child became, under the growing
          cultural impact of British rule, the arena in which the battle for the minds of men was fought
          between the East and the West, the old and the new, and the intrinsic and the imposed.
          (Nandy 65)

The following illustrations offer visual examples of childhood as portrayed in Bengali children’s books. Indeed, these evidences point to the fact that instead of one homogenous idea of the child or a single precept of childhood, there existed simultaneously, fragments of different versions of childhood – be it indigenous or Western, traditional or modern, idyllic or realistic.

References Consulted
Aries, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood
Heywood, Collin. A History of Childhood
Nandy, Ashis. Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias.

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