Legendary litterateur is no more

The Sahitya Akademi winner published more than 80 books in Bengali, reports Tehelka Bureau

NABANEETA DEV SEN 13 January 1938 to 7 November 2019

Sahitya Akademi winner Nabaneeta Dev Sen died at in South Kolkata on November 7 after suffering from cancer for a long time. Dev Sen was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) into a Bengali family on 13 January 1938. She was the only child of the poet-couple Narendra Dev and Radharani Devi, who wrote under pen name Aparajita Devi. She was given her name by Rabindranath Tagore.

Her childhood experiences included World War II air raids, seeing people starving in the Bengal famine of 1943, and the impact of large numbers of refugees arriving in Calcutta after the partition of India. She attended Gokhale Memorial Girls’ School and Lady Brabourne College.

She received her BA in English from Presidency University, Calcutta (then a college), and was a student of inaugural batch of the Department of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University, from where she obtained her MA in 1958. She obtained another MA (with distinction) in comparative literature from Harvard University in 1961 and went on to receive a doctorate from
Indiana University in 1964.

In 1960, she married Amartya Sen, an economist and academician and then a Lecturer of Economics at the Jadavpur University, who would be awarded the Nobel prize four decades later and who was also christened by Rabindranath Tagore. She moved to Britain with him and they became the parents of two daughters, Antara Dev Sen and Nandana Sen. She then completed her post-doctoral research at the University of California at Berkeley and Newnham College, Cambridge University.

After her divorce in 1976, she returned to Calcutta with her daughters. Her hobbies included reading, records, and travelling. In addition to Bengali and English, she could read Hindi,
Oriya, Assamese, French, German, Greek, Sanskrit, and Hebrew.

Dev Sen was a writer in residence at several international artists’ colonies, including Yaddo and MacDowell Colony in the United States; Bellaggio in Italy; and the Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem.

She delivered the Radhakrishnan Memorial Lecture series (1996–1997) at Oxford University on epic poetry. She was a visiting professor and a visiting creative writer at several universities including Harvard, Cornell, Columbia, Chicago (USA), Humboldt (Germany), Universities of Toronto, British Columbia (Canada), Melbourne, New South Wales (Australia), and El Collegio de Mexico.

She held the Maytag Chair of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Colorado College, 1988–1989. She represented herself and India in many international conferences, both academic and literary, and at the Festival of India USA in 1986.

She held important executive positions in international academic bodies like the International Comparative Literature Association (1973–1979), and the International Association of Semiotic and Structural Studies (1989–1994). She was the chief editor of Bengali in the Macmillan’s Modern Indian Novels in English Translation series. Dev Sen was the Vice-President of the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, an academy for Bengali literature. She was the founder and president of West Bengal Women Writers’ Association.

She was the founder secretary and later Vice-President of the Indian National Comparative Literature Association. She was a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain. She was a member of the Advisory Board for Bengali, Sahitya Akademi from 1978 to 1982, as well as the Member and Convenor, Bharatiya Jnanpith Award Language Advisory Committee from 1975 to 1990.

In 2002, Dev Sen retired as Professor of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University, Calcutta. She worked with the treatment of women in world epics; she wrote several short stories presenting Sita in a different way from how she appears in the Ramayana). From 2003 to 2005, Dev Sen was the J. P. Naik Distinguished Fellow at the Centre of Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi.

She was a University Grants Commission Senior Fellow at University of Delhi.

Literary career

Dev Sen published more than 80 books in Bengali: poetry, novels, short stories, plays, literary criticism, personal essays, travelogues, humour writing, translations and children’s literature. Her first collection of poems Pratham Pratyay (First Confidence) was published in 1959. Her second poetry collection Swagato Debdoot was published 12 years later.

Dev Sen received many national and international awards and honours, including: Gouridevi Memorial Award, Mahadevi Verma Award (1992), Celli Award from Rockefeller Foundation (1993), Sarat Award from Bhagalpur University of Bihar (1994), Prasad Puraskar, Sahitya Akademi Award (1999). She has also received Rabindra Puraskar, Kabir Samman, Samskriti Award, Kamal Kumari National Award (2004), Mystic Kalinga Literary Award (2017), and the Big Little Book Award for children’s literature in 2017, when the award focused on Bengali writing. She was awarded the Padma Shri (2000), the fourth highest civillian award by the Government of India..