Just as Swami Vivekananda was revered by Bengalis, much in the same way Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar is the 19th-century polymath reformer who modernized and simplified the Bengali alphabet and propagated widow remarriage.
The immense passion he evokes across the state is evident in the widespread reaction to the vandalism of his statue in Kolkata on Tuesday.
The first book a Bengali child is handed is Vidyasagar’s “Barna Parichay” (Introduction to Bengali letters). This is followed by a text written by Rabindranath Tagore, “Sahaj Path”.
As the legend goes, Vidyasagar learned English numerals by observing milestones by the side of the road on a journey to Calcutta (now Kolkata). He used to often travel along with his father from his native Midnapore for higher studies.
Born as Ishwarchandra Bandyopadhyay in 1820, he earned the title “Vidyasagar” — the “ocean of knowledge” for a good reason. He brought the magic of William Shakespeare alive in Bengali by translating a number of the bard’s dramas as well as a number of Sanskrit classics.
He simplified Bengali typography and interpreted complex notions of Sanskrit grammar in easy legible Bengali language.
Besides his work in the field of education, he was a philosopher, writer, translator, printer, publisher, entrepreneur, reformer and philanthropist. He was also a powerful voice against the oppression of women in 19th century Bengal.
Vidyasagar changed the rules of admission in Sanskrit College, where he taught, to allow non-Brahmin students to study there. He opened a school for women and was instrumental in bringing the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act, in 1856, for which he endured the wrath of conservative Hindus.
He is known as a leading social reformer of the 19th century across India. Along with Ram Mohan Roy and others, he helped shape the modern Bengali, and in an extension, the Indian society. He was always at the forefront of the Bengali Renaissance.