Bangla, or Bengali is a member of the Indic group of the Indo-Iranian or Aryan branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Its immediate predecessor was the spoken Apabhramsa-Avahatta, prevalent in the eastern region. The history of Bengali language and Literature is usually divided into three major successive stages of development:
(i) Old Bengali Language & Literature
(ii) Middle Bengali Language & Literature
(iii) Modern Bengali Language & Literature
The formative period of the Bengali language also marked the beginning of literature. The literature of this oldest period, probably beginning from 10th century, is known for the mystic poems called Caryagiti or Carya songs, discovered from Nepal by Mahamhopadhyay Haraprasad Shastri. A few fragments of Carya songs were found to occur in some old texts and also in some descriptive spoken accounts. They were translated even in Tibetan. Some four hundred words of Bangla were also found in Sarvananda’s commentary on Amarakosa. A few stray words were also found in the copper plate grants dating between the ninth and the fifteenth century.
The period between 1350 and 1800, was the medieval period of Bengali literature – known as the period of Jayadeva (12th century), the renowned court poet of Lakshmanasena, Vidyapati (13th century) with his love lyrics, and Badu Chandidas, the author of Sri Krishna Kirtan, the most important philosophical work of the period.
The period from 1500 A. D. to 1800 A.D. was known as the Late Middle Bengali period. During this period, there was a marked influence of Chaitanya and it was this influence that led to the development of Vaishnava literature. Chaitanya’s life was first depicted by Swarup Daamodar and his teaching was developed into a doctrine by Sanaatan and Rup Goswami and by their followers at Vrindavan and finally by Krishnadas Kabiraj, the author of Chaitanyacharitamrita. According to his biographers, Chaitanya liked to hear to the songs on Krishna and he liked especially the songs of Jayadeva, Vidyapati and Chandidas. When Chandidas’s reputation became well established among the Vaishnava Tantrists, his name began to be attached to poems and songs of forgotten and half forgotten, as well as of well known poets.
The oldest known narrative poem of the period on a non-Puranic theme was Manashaavijaya by Vipradaas, a Brahmin from a village, not very far from the West bank of the Hooghly. At the beginning of the poem, Vipradaas gave a very scanty account of himself and his family. In this work of Vipradaas, the story of the goddess Manasa was presented in a form that did not appear in other works of the class. Another poem on the same goddess was written in the last decade of the fifteenth century. It was Manasaamangal of Vijay Gupta. There was no manuscript material available in support of the presumed data but the language of the composition was very modern.
Outside Vaishnava poetry, the most significant work of the sixteenth century was Chandimangal by Mukunda Chakravarti. Mukunda’s poem was in three parts. The first part was as an independent poem. It dealt with the Puranic story of Shiva, of his first wife Sati and his second Paarvati. The second part of the poem was the flower section and the third part was the merchant section. These two were the main parts of Chandimangal. The Bengal School of Vaishnavism drew for its inspiration from the text of the Bhaagavata Puraana. But then, the medieval Bengali literature was also marked by several spiritual and religious dogmas of the Shaaktas, the Shaivas and the Buddhists as well as the Dravidians and those from the Tibeto-Burman stock, especially the Arrakan, the neighbouring province of lower Burma. It was this last contact during the middle Bengali period; early in the fifteenth century that Bengal got two of its best-known Muslim poets from Arrakan - Daulat Kazi and Aalaaol. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, a literary and cultural centre for the West Bengal Muslims was established in the Bhursut region on the lower reaches of the Damodar. The poet Bharat Chandra Ray, belonged to this region and his early Persianized style of poetry reflected the influences of the styles of the Muslim writers from that locality.
From 1801, with the establishment of the Fort William College by the British, began the Modern Bengali period. The period at its beginning, saw the emergence of prose styles. The vocabulary of Literary Bengali prose was highly sanskritised. As the poetry texts were not suitable for imparting a practical knowledge of the spoken tongue. William Carey’s first job as a professor of Bengali was to produce reading matter in elegant prose. The best prose writers of the time were Ram Ram Bose and Mrityunjay Vidyalankar.
With social reformers as well as profound scholars and public men like Raja Rammohun Roy, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, the journey of modern Bangla literature began, and later blossomed so much as to produce a literary giant like Rabindranath Tagore.
Here is the quick check-list of different literary periods of Bengal: