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.