Fieldwork in Bengali zone Part I Jan-Feb18

In January-February 2018, I had the good fortune of being invited to participate in an interesting performance within the Dhaka Art Summit, a beautiful gathering of artists and performers. The event that I was part of was a ‘Retrial’ of a famous legal case of the early 20th century, that of a missing heir who apparently returned from the dead. The protracted trial and associated political-social drama, inspired a major Bengali movie and an important micro-history. This performance, directed by Zuleikha Chaudhuri, was aimed at being a questioning of the legal process itself, its capacity for delivering justice, especially to the vulnerable individual who cannot produce adequate documentation. I was called upon to perform as well as criticise the role of James Hamilton Lindsay, the colonial district magistrate, who tried to squash the claim of the returned heir by use of violence.

This was a beautiful way to visit Bangladesh for the first time. The survey proved to be rich with results in a variety of ways, most importantly through the forming of relationships with scholars and scholarly institutions in Bangladesh.

I found an intellectual home in the ICSBA, a premier institute for the study of Bengal art in all its forms, created through the enthusiasm of Professor Enamul Haque, erstwhile director of the National Museum of Bangladesh. I was invited to present a paper here, which I did, and to which I received very kind feedback from the assembled scholars, including the eminent scholar of Person-Arabic inscriptions in Bengal, Muhammad Yusuf Siddiq. These conversations confirmed what had been a suspicion for some time, that I must consider inscriptions within the range of material artefacts encompassed by the concept of legal documents.

I was given access to study the Persian manuscript collection at Dhaka University library, and here I found a collection marked by a significant number of locally composed and/or locally scribed, many in the 19th century, signalling a very prolonged life of Persian in Bengal. I found an interesting manuscript, a set of summary translations of Sadr Diwani Adalat court judgments related to Hindu and Muslim law, apparently to facilitate local understanding. Persian clearly made more sense to people in Bengal, or at least to lawyers in Bengal than either English or Bengali.

The National Museum of Bangladesh is a wonderful institution for a number of reasons (I really admired the breast-feeding booth, clearly signposted). Room 33, which displays manuscripts showed me the full range of manuscript culture in Bengal, which ranged from a manuscript of Alaol’s Bengali-language Padmabati, to Persian-language kabin-namas. I requested digital copies of some of these materials.

I was also able to make a trip to Chittagong University, where I found significant collections, both at the Museum and the University library. Both yielded a small number of documents, but this was supplemented by a range of manuscripts, which I am still processing.

The biggest discovery for me, however, was the understanding of the intense interplay of languages and scripts in the Bengali zone. Even today, Arabic is frequently written in Bengali script in Bangladesh, as on this bus, which says “Fi aman Allah” (In the protection of God) and on this auto-rickshaw (CNG, in Bangladesh lingo) which says “La ilaha il-Allah Muhammad al-rasul Allah.” (There is no God but God, Muhammad is hisProphet.)

But there is nothing new about this play with scripts; the medieval Bengali tradition is famously ‘dobhashi’ – a loosely applied term that usually means one language written in another script and/or a language with a highly mixed vocabulary.

I learnt, especially from a thrilling meeting with Prof. Anisuzzaman, eminent historian and translator of the constitution of Bangladesh, that this inter-lacing of languages extends from medieval Bengali “puthi” literature into the realm of legal documents. I am now following Prof. Anisuzzaman’s lead into the Persian-Bangla document collections in the India Office collections and the BNF, Paris.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the generosity and contribution of Mr Muhammad Sajjadur Rahman and Mr Shamsuddoza Sajen, without whose friendship and support I could never have achieved any of this.

On scripting Bengali

A couple of months ago, I wrote a guest blog post for কথকতা, a really interesting blog edited by my friend Mr. Mohammad Sajjadur Rahman. It took a lot of prodding on Sajjad’s part to get me to write in Bengali, in the course of which, I made some very useful technical discoveries about typing in non-cursive Indic scripts, such as Bengali. I will write a separate blog post about this soon.

I am very proud of my first little ‘thoughtful’ post written in Bengali, so here is a link to it.

Here is also an English version of it. Here is also an opportunity for me to than Sajjad for his encouragement in writing critical, if not academic pieces in Bengali, and to Mr ABM Shamsuddoza (Sajen) for teaching me much that is in the piece below.

Bengali in many forms, or, the play of scripts

Bengali is considered to be one of the New Indo-Aryan languages that emerged from Sanskrit. Despite the technical accuracy of that proposition, Bengali vocabulary abounds in Arabic and Persian words. Such mixed-vocabulary languages used in medieval Bengali literary compositions, is known as ‘dobhashi’ language, and since such language was used in the pre-print age, it is also referred to as ‘puthi Bangla’ or manuscript Bengali. Although both Hindu and Muslim authors of the pre-modern age used such language, after the linguistic reforms of the 19th century, such language (and register) came to be referred to as Musulmani Bangla. Possibly the pro-peasant social reformer and linguist, Rev. James Long, had something to do with the coining of this term. In any case, much has been said by experts on this topic, and I have nothing to add to it. What I wish to attract attention to in this little piece, is Bengali’s flexible use of alternative scripts,  and the use of Bengali script to write other languages.

Historically, di-graphia exists in other South Asian languages, most famously in the language that eventually separated into Hindi and Urdu. But in that case, the separation is complete, or at least is perceived as complete: written in the Arabic script, the language is called Urdu, written in Nagri script, it is Hindi. In Bengali, the play between scripts continued for much longer, and, I would argue, extends until the present day.

Let us take an example from the streets of present-day Dhaka. On vehicles and store-fronts, one frequently encounters substantial chunks of Arabic text, written in Bengali script. This can be the kalima: ‘La ilaha il-Allah Muhammad al-rasul Allah,’ as seen on the rear of this auto-rickshaw or ‘CNG.’ It can also be autonomous Arabic sentences or fragments, such as ‘Fi aman Allah’ (in God’s protection), as seen on the front of this bus.

In both cases, the phenomenon described extends beyond the adoption of key words from a high status or sacred language (in this case Arabic), within the local or host language (Bengali). Both examples are entirely Arabic, grammatically and on the basis of vocabulary; but written in Bengali script. Clearly, in both these examples, the Arabic sentence or phrase serves invocatory purposes, and as such, is adopted phonetically and semantically by Bengalis who use it, but who do not necessarily have or need technical grammatical understanding of it. As such, it makes full sense to transliterate it in Bengali script, but it is still striking that Bengalis choose to do so, overriding the sacred quality ascribed to the Arabic script across the Islamic world.

I am not sure when exactly Bengalis developed such a passionate attachment to their script. The significant debates preceding the language war of 1971, for example the refusal to keep the language but relinquish the script, as proposed by the Pakistani side, are illustrative of that attachment. However, the examples of transliteration and preference for Bengali script that I offered from present-day Dhaka may not entirely be explicable with references to the 1970s. As it happens, I came across a document from the 1780s, where we see a linguistically similar phenomenon (another language written in Bengali script). This time, however, the purpose was entirely non-religious; it was written by the infamous Sikh merchant Omichand (Amir Chand), who played a well-known role in the conspiracy to remove Nawab Siraj al-dawla from the throne of Bengal. Amir Chand was a banker and litigated frequently in the Mayor’s court of Calcutta, pursuing defaulting British debtors. Perhaps in the course of one of these cases in the 1730s and 40s, Amir Chand wrote the letter below, and signed it in a highly cursive Nagri script.

This letter, despite being written in Bengali script, remained illegible to me until recently, that is until I realized that  the language of this letter may have been some thing other than Bengali. Indeed, the letter ends by stating great injustice has happened to him – ‘bahut be-insafi hua.’ The entire letter, in fact, is in Hindi, but it is written in Bengali script.

The opposite was also true – Bengali was also written in other scripts. Of this, the phenomenon of Sylheti Nagri is perhaps best known; but Bengali was also written in Arabic-derived scripts. We have one such example from Gharibullah’s translation to Bengali of the Persian story series: Qissa-yi Amir Hamza (Stories of Amir Hamza). Gharibullah was perhaps from Hughli, and wrote in the second half of the eighteenth century, the manuscript that was preserved in Jessore, and commented upon in the 1920s was in Arabic script. Moreover, the book was printed in the nineteenth century in two scripts; Arabic and Bengali.

So, what are the implications of this graphic variation and flexibility? While this is something that would require far more research, I think it represents Bengal’s continued cosmopolitanism (in the Sheldon Pollock sense, but refusing his specific arguments) and resistance to the disciplines of linguistic standardization that print-culture and national education has been trying to impose on populations throughout the world since the nineteenth century.

While the post itself ended here, I am beginning to reflect on the history of constriction of the scope of Bengali language and script; when and how did our vision of Bengali language forget the possibilities outlined above? Who were/are the agents of that process?

The twists and turns of Modi (script)

This week and the next, I have the good fortune of having Dr Prachi Deshpande here in the UK. I think she is one of the smartest historians of early modern India, with an interest in the histories of language and script use, and an expertise in the archaic Marathi script of Modi.

Together, we are looking at the bunches of Persian documents (mainly Adilshahi farmans) that I collected from Pune in December, peering at the margins, where summaries and signatures in Modi crop up. We are also looking through the the archive of a family of landlords from Dhar, who were kind enough to share their heritage with me. Although these documents are in Persian and/or Hindi/Rangri; the Nagri-script part of these documents demonstrate clear evidence of incursion of Modi as well as Gujarati letter forms.

Let’s see what else we can find!