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February 1, 2024

An early feminist from Bengal: Recalling Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay

Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, a preeminent novelist from Bengal, was born on 15 September 1876 at Debanandapur, Hooghly in British India. The son of Motilal Chattopadhyay and Bhubanmohini Chattopadhyay, he immersed himself in literary pursuits from an early age. His literary creations endure as timeless masterpieces, garnering continued readership and acclaim. This short essay aims to illuminate the life and literary genesis of Chattopadhyay, the luminary whose profound impact on Bengali literature and feminism resonates with significance and enduring relevance.

Life and career

Chattopadhyay’s formative years transpired predominantly at his uncle’s residence in Bhagalpur, Bihar, owing to the economic crisis stemming from his father’s unstable employment. Chattopadhyay’s literary proclivities were perceived as an inheritance from his father, who authored numerous stories. Reflecting on his lineage, Chattopadhyay acknowledged inheriting a restless spirit and a profound literary inclination from his father. The demise of his mother in 1895 further strained the family’s circumstances, prompting support from various relatives during challenging times.

Throughout his adolescence, Chattopadhyay’s admiration for Western literature, notably authors such as Marie Corelli, Charles Dickens, and Ellen Price, led him to adopt the pseudonym St. C. Lara. Despite his intellectual fervour, financial constraints impeded his pursuit of higher education after successfully passing the university entrance examination.

His marriage to Shanti Devi in 1906 marked a significant chapter in his life, yet tragedy struck in 1908 when both his wife and son succumbed to the plague. Grieving this profound loss, Chattopadhyay turned to study as a source of solace, delving into diverse subjects such as sociology, history, philosophy, and psychology.

In 1910, Chattopadhyay remarried Mokshada Devi, a young widow, renaming her Hiranmoyee. Beyond marital ties, he undertook the task of educating her and devoted substantial time to his literary pursuits.

In 1900, Chattopadhyay affiliated himself with the Banali Estate in Bihar, subsequently assuming the role of an assistant to the Settlement Officer in the Santhal district settlement. Under the pseudonym of his uncle Surendranath Ganguli, he penned his inaugural short story, Mandir in 1903, earning the esteemed Kuntolin Award in recognition. The local periodical, Bharati, published his novella, Barodidi, under his authentic name. Relocating to Burma (now Myanmar) in the same year, he served as a clerk in a government office in Rangoon before securing a permanent position in the Accounts Department of Burma Railway.

During his thirteen-year tenure in Burma, Chattopadhyay not only revised earlier drafts but also produced new works of fiction. His return to Howrah in 1916 marked a pivotal juncture in his literary trajectory. A contributor to the Jamuna magazine under various aliases, he assumed the presidency of the Howrah district branch of the Indian National Congress from 1921 to 1936.

Chattopadhyay, a fervent advocate of feminist principles, staunchly opposed Hindu orthodoxy, superstition, and bigotry. Not swayed by prevailing patriarchal norms, his authentic and revolutionary writings, such as Biraj Bau (1914), Palli Samaj (1916), Parineeta (1916), and Devdas (1917) stand testament to his rejection of societal conventions. Concurrently influenced by the national freedom movement, his 1926 work, Pather Dabi (1926), delved into the narrative of a revolutionary movement in Burma and the Far East. His final completed novel, Sesh Prashna (1931), intricately explored issues about love, marriage, individuality, and society.

A glance at his major works

The story Swami stands as a manifestation of Chattopadhyay’s feminist ideology. Depicting the narrative of Saudamini, an ambitious and intelligent woman tussling with emotional uncertainties concerning her husband, Ghanshyam, and her lover, Narendra, the story intricately explores themes of gender dynamics. Although Devdas did not receive critical acclaim initially, the love story has endured as his most iconic creation. The novel Parineeta is characterised by its social protest themes, delving into prevalent issues of caste, religion, and gender during that era. The four-part novel Iti Srikanta (released in 1916, 1918, 1927, and 1933), is revered as Chattopadhyay’s masterpiece. Featuring the protagonist Srikanta, an aimless wanderer, the narrative vividly resurrects nineteenth-century Bengal, exposing a society entrenched in prejudice that necessitated radical transformation.

Film adaptations

Chattopadhyay’s literary legacy has been extensively translated onto the cinematic canvas, with approximately fifty films adapted from his works in various Indian languages. Notably, the seminal novel Devdas alone has witnessed approximately sixteen cinematic renditions, testifying to its enduring popularity and cultural resonance. Additionally, Parineeta has been adapted into film twice.

The 1977 film Sabyasachi stands as an illustrative example of this cinematic engagement, drawing inspiration from Chattopadhyay’s work Pather Dabi. The cinematic realm thus serves as a testament to the enduring appeal and adaptability of Chattopadhyay’s literary oeuvre across diverse linguistic and cultural landscapes.


Chattopadhyay contributed to the literary landscape with a prolific output exceeding thirty novels, novellas, and stories. Infusing his creations with a distinct personal touch, Chattopadhyay drew inspiration from his own life’s trials, utilising personal tragedies as foundational elements in his narratives.

Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay passed away on 16 January,1938, in Kolkata, from liver cancer. His enduring legacy continues to be celebrated through the annual Sarat Mela, a week-long fair held in late January each year in Howrah, India. This commemorative event serves as a platform for showcasing both his literary works and the multifaceted aspects of his life, attesting to the enduring significance of his contributions within the cultural milieu.


Ganguly, S (2005) Introduction. In: Chattopadhyay, S. Parineeta. New Delhi: Penguin Books, pp. 1 – 11.
Sil, N P (2012) The life of Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay: drifter and dreamer. New Jersey: FDU Press.  
Roy, G (2020) Saratchandra. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers.

Written By

Biswarup Das
University of North Bengal

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