Fieldwork in Bengali zone Part II Mar18

In March, I was back in Bengal in just over a month, this time in its western part, centred around the colonial city of Calcutta (now Kolkata). I was fortunate to once again be supported in my research by Mr ABM Shamsuddoza Sajen, who had worked together with me in Bangladesh. We joined and split forces according to our respective skill-set and interests – Sajen concentrating of Bengali and print materials, I concentrating on Persian manuscripts and documents.

We began our efforts to discover the story of Persian in Kolkata with a visit to the Nakhoda masjid, said to be established by Kucchi merchants in the early twentieth century. Reading the Persian inscriptions in the mosque, however, pointed to a much earlier date – at least the mid-19thcentury. If nothing else, this beautiful mosque hinted at stories of a multi-lingual Kolkata de-centred from the assumed Anglocentrism.

Nakhoda mosque

We started our survey of libraries and archives with the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad – that institutional legacy of language activism that we often incorrectly fold into a unilinear story of the Bengal (Hindu) Renaissance, opening with Ishwarchandra Sharma, and continuing through Bankim to Tagore.  As Sajen explained to me, Abdul Karim Sahitya Bisharad, one of the most active language activists of the twentieth century, had catalogued the entire collection. Later, however, the manuscripts deemed to be “Musalman puthis” (based on content, rather than language) were moved to Dhaka University. The scholar Ahmad Sharif wrote the Puthi Parichay as an introduction to this enormous multi-volume catalogue, and also published several other books on medieval Bengal. Incidentally, it appears that Ahmad Sharif’s collected works in 10 volumes from Adabi publishers, and books by Sajanikanta Das and Bomkesh Mustafi (available on may offer a road map through the world of Persianate Bengali. In this connection, in order to grasp the pathos of Bengali language for the majority of its speakers, these articles and books must be basic reading:

Abdul Karim, “What is the language of Bengali Muslims?”

Gautam Bhadra, “Baṃla puthi talika nirmaṇ o atmasattar rajniti, munshi Abdul Karim sahityabisharad,” in Gautam Bhadra (ed.) Munshi Abdul Karim sahityabisharad o atmasattar rajniti(Dhaka: Saṃhati Prakashan), pp. 11–. 80

Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Romantic Archive: Literature and the Politics of Identity in Bengal,” Critical Inquiry, 30: 3 (2004), 654-82

Salimullah Khan, “Abdul Karim’s discoveries,” Daily Star

The beauty of the Sahitya Parishad is that it is open on weekends (closed Thursday), so we were able to use the weekend to find out about their collection. It turned out that they have 1600+ Bengali puthis – of which there are 5 catalogues, which catalogues up to 1500 – I bought the latter 4.

The first volume, in two parts is on internet archive.

 Amulya Charan Bidyavushan(ed.) Bangla Prachin Punthir Bibaran, vol3 no.1. Bangiya Sahitya Parishat, 1330 BS

Taraprasanna Bhattacharya, Bangla Prachin Punthir Bibaran, vol3 no.3. Bangiya Sahitya Parishat, 1339 BS

A visit to the manuscripts rooms showed us that the manuscripts were collected by specific individuals, for example, around 200 by Ishwarchandra (Vidyasagar). Unfortunately, the catalogues do not respect the integrity of such collections, so the only way to discover what kind of materials a particular scholar had been interested in would be to work in the manuscripts rooms, for which permission may be difficult to procure.

It is not clear whether there are any Persian MSS.

There is a printed catalogue of all books, which runs into 500 pages, with many interesting books – maybe up to 100,000. These books include B165 – Assam Burunji 4 vols. This is a history book, there are copies in the Rare Book section of the National Library.

These are a great number of Bengali epistolaries – Patra Kaumudis – which are clearly relevant and to be collected.

While at the Sahitya Parishat, we were given a very interesting tour of the folk art gallery by the curator, Ms. Debishree Kundu; we reciprocated by reading some part of two Husain Shahi inscriptions in their collection, once a hadith and the other a Persian inscription recording the establishment of a jami‘ mosque.

The Asiatic Society at the corner of Park Street was an obvious place to visit. Here the Persia manuscripts were well catalogued by the intrepid Russian Orientalist Vladimir Ivanow (on whom Farhad Daftary has a great book). There are two collections of Persian manuscripts – one with the shelfmark PSC, which includes parts of Tipu’s library; the other the Curzon collection (collected by Denison Ross with government funding).

The collections include some interesting inshas, and a majmu‘a (collection) of (copies of) sanads associated with zamindārs under Tipu’s regime.

There is also a catalogue of Persian books, from which Sajen listed some interesting books.

The Victorial Memorial Hall is a wonderful place to work in, principally because of its current director, Dr. Jayanta Sengupta, and his team. As it happens, I have a dual connection to the VMH; my colleague Dr Andrew Rudd (English) and I are leading a collaboration between the University of Exeter and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, aimed at a digital exhibition of “Company paintings” based on the collections in the RAMM and at VMH. This is is a wonderful project in itself, about which I will write separately; it has has led me towards an interest in Mughal and late-Mughal  art, and specifically in artists’ signatures.

Victoria Memorial Hall

There is a fully typed list of Persian manuscripts (around 136 in total), most of which have been digitized and can be consulted for research.

The collection includes some very interesting MSS related to Tipu, among which is the Treatise on the art of artillery (C210), dated to AH1197 (f. 104b), of which the digitized copy begins on folio 38. The text includes a section on accountancy, including the cryptic accountancy or siyaq numbers (ff. 51-53), on military protocol including when Muslims can/cannot fight (ff. 53b-69), with illustrations, on types of forts and maps (ff. 70-71) and detailed rules for rules for the army and various posts therein.

There is also a Victoria Memorial Document Collection, which includes a small number of miscellaneous documents in Bangla, Persian (including a sanad of Aurangzeb’s period given to Rai Mahasai of Bansberia), and documents in Persia, English and Modi from Pudokottai. Clearly these were donated by the various zamindari families to the VMH some time in the early 20th century, and would offer useful, if fragmentary glimpses into a range of private collections.

National Library

The Persian printed books collection developed out of several sources, which includes the Buhar collection and the Hidayat Hussain collection.

There is no separate catalogue for the Persian printed books; they have to be searched on the NL’s online catalogue. Browsing the shelves yielded a copy of the Hyderabadi administrator Bashiruddin Ahmad’s Farāmin-i Salātin (1926), which includes a very large number of letter forms. Searching the catalogue by this author name revealed that he published other books of ‘Persianate’ interest, such as the Vagiyat-i mamlikat-i Bijapur (Agra, 1915).

The Persian manuscript collection consists of several distinct collections, including the Jadunath Sarkar collection and the Buhar collection.

I found the manuscript of Ruqa‘āt-i Nawāzish Khan within the Jadunath Sarkar collection. I have been looking for this for a long time, for it was written by a minor mansabdār  associated with a family of zamindārs in Malwa, on whom I am completing a monograph. The MSS is unfortunately in a bad condition, not possible to copy; I have hand-copied some parts of it.

The West Bengal State Archives on Bhavani Dutta Lane is clearly the biggest repository for the kind of material that I am looking for.

West Bengal State Archives

There is a catalogue, Guide to the Records of the State Archives of West Bengal (Calcutta, 1977), Part I 1758-1858, which revealed that there are thousands of Persian records in this institution, contained within the Khalsa records (the Murshidabad Nawabi’s treasury records, later moved to Calcutta); the Bazi Zamin records (pertaining to tax-free lands and titles to them) and various categories of records collected as well as issued by the East India Company during its political and financial takeover in Bengal until the transition to Crown rule. The excellent archivists in the relevant reading room also told me that there were even more thousands of Persian records, tucked away in the files of revenue proceedings. This is clearly a treasure house, which I will tackle in the coming years.

During future visits, besides the institutions discussed above, Sajen and I planned to look at the Ashutosh collection, which occupies an entire room in the National Library, with a catalogue in the Rare Books Room. The Bangiya Sahitya Sangshad also has significant manuscript collections. Another angle worth investigating to understand the collections of the Calcutta Madrasa (now mostly in Dhaka) is via the book Tārikh-i Aliya, which offers an institutional history of the Calcutta Madrasa, later Aliya Madrasa). We clearly also need to undertake broader study into the history of Bengali language and script use, about which I wrote a light-hearted guest blog elsewhere some weeks ago.

Books to read include:

R.D. Banerjee, History of Bengali Script

Suniti Kumar Chatterji

Also, while we remained in Kolkata this time, Chandernagore could clearly offer an interesting Franco-Persian angle; Sajen spotted a book in the Biswa Bangla book store on Park Street, published by the L’institut de Chandernagore. The book has a facsimile of a farmān.

There is clearly a great deal more to do, if the idea of “Persianate Bengal” is to be pursued with seriousness. While that would spill beyond the immediate scope of the project, such a sub-project could cross-fertilise it immensely.  There is clearly a Ph.D. in there.