IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 23 | Regions | Bengal Studies


Victor van Bijlert
Bengal Studies Page Editor

Victor van Bijlert's involvement in Indian languages and philosophy goes back to adolescence. It began as a hobby at age fourteen and developed, by age sixteen, to a stage at which he was learning Sanskrit on his own, translating texts with the use of a dictionary. Today his interests have broadened to non-Western concepts of modernity in philosophy, literature, egalitarianism, human rights and self-empowerment. After several years of teaching Bengali language and Indian philosophy in the Netherlands, he recently assumed a research and teaching position at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta. With the Bengal Studies Page of the IIAS Newsletter, Victor hopes to promote the study of Bengal in Europe in terms of its modern aspects.

From the beginning of his university studies, in which he specialized in Sanskrit, Greek and Indian philosophy, Hindi, Tibetan, and cultural history, he was already gravitating towards what has become his present interest in modernity. In 1987, Victor defended his PhD dissertation, The Buddha as a Valid Means of Cognition.

Your PhD was not about modernity. Are there connections between the experience of writing your thesis and what you're doing now?

I was already interested in Bengali literature in 1975, but back then I couldn't study it until I'd done three years of Hindi. While studying Hindi I also actually got more interested in Indian philosophy and that's why I turned in that direction.

Indeed, my dissertation was not on anything modern... but when I was finishing the manuscript, I stumbled on William Radice's excellent and fresh English translations of Tagore's poems. When I read that I thought, 'This is something I should also do. I will and shall be able to do this.' I felt that William Radice was the first to set a very high standard for the translation of Tagore's poems. In 1996, my translation of Tagore's Gitali was published. This was the first time a compete volume of Tagore was translated into Dutch and, if I may say so myself, it was a very good one.

But in 1985, my wife, who is Bengali, came to the Netherlands for the first time, and that's the real origin of my Bengal Studies interest, of course. As opposed to the grammar and theory I learned in university, she actually taught me spoken Bengali. She was an excellent teacher.

How would you describe Bengal Studies?

It is often described as area studies, but I prefer to call it ­ like they have in England ­ cultural studies. This includes popular and literary cultures and the sociology of that literary culture. I mean, why would you not have an academic study of Bengali literature, or Bengali films or songs or visual arts? You have it, for instance, in English. Yet, somehow, in order to defend it, one always has to link it somehow either to development aid, or larger political issues. It has to be argued that one studies it as part of something else. But you really don't do that with English. I always felt that Bengal Studies could and should be something like a multidisciplinary study of the development of Bengali modernity that includes all these things [i.e. political, social, religious, cultural issues]. I'm not intruding on development studies, I just don't think that one should necessarily argue it only from that point of view. In the same sense, Bengal and modernity should always be seen in connection with the rest of South Asia, and not as an isolated area.

Within Indian Studies, it is often argued that Bengali is only a provincial language, one of the fifteen Indian languages, but not the major language. It's always very difficult to say, 'but look, this is also the national language of a nation state, albeit a small nation state'. There are about four to five hundred million speakers of Hindi at the most, and often it's not their mother tongue, but a second tongue. There are two hundred fifty million Bengali speakers. So we're not really talking about a small language.

It should also be said that Bengal Studies are not terribly well funded. [It's continuation in Europe] is very much due to the devotion of various scholars. Sometimes they are not even appointed for Bengal Studies but for something else.

Why is the Bengal Studies Page an important feature in the IIAS Newsletter?

It has become quite an interesting feature of the IIAS Newsletter, I think, and, as far as I know, it's the only one of its kind. It was initially thought to be a kind of forum, the only forum that was available for scholars in Europe that is part of a larger framework [of Asian Studies research news]. There are, for instance, new and sometimes important books on Bengal ­ let's say the sheer fact that there exist more than one translation of an important Bengali novel, for example. The Bengal Studies Page would be an ideal forum either to ask whether there are other translations or just to inform an interested public about some important publications that have come to light.

What are your plans for the Bengal Studies Page?

Ultimately, it might be nice if it could become the starting point of a kind of journal on Bengal Studies, Bengal Cultural Studies, or Indian Cultural Studies. Because that's still, more or less, what I have in mind and this is a sort of summary of that. However, as opposed to journal format, the informality of the IIAS Newsletter enables one sometimes to write very small contributions. [In terms of the articles,] I do have to say that it's still difficult to get a large variety of contributions. Often one gets something sent on the two or three major Bengali writers ­ always on Tagore. I feel that one cannot ignore that, but it would be nice if there would be something else sometimes. I am very happy that van Schendel has asked me to review his book on the Chittagong Hill Tracts, for example. I would actually like some more varied publications, and what I also hope for is to get other people so far that they would be stimulated to consider writing something for this page ­ on the visual arts, for example ­ or if others could break a little bit through the traditional disciplinary traditions, even those within Bengal Studies. ­ (TC) *

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 23 | Regions | Bengal Studies