Summary and Keywords
The literary history of Bengal is characterized by a multilingual ecology that nurtured the development of Middle Bengali literature. It is around the turn of the second millennium, during the Pāla period (c. 8th–12th century), that eastern South Asia became a major region for the production of literary texts in Sanskrit and Apabhramsha. Early on, Bengal developed a distinct literary identity within the Sanskrit tradition and, despite abrupt political transitions and the fragmentation of the landscape of literary patronage, fundamental aspects of the literary culture of Pāla Bengal were transmitted during later periods. It was during the Sultanate period, from the 14th century onward that courtly milieus began to cultivate Middle Bengali. This patronage was mostly provided by upper-caste Hindu dignitaries and (in the case of lyric poetry at least) by the Sultans themselves. During the period ranging from the 15th to the early 19th centuries, vernacular literature can be divided into two broad categories: short narrative forms called padas or gītas (songs), which were often composed in an idiom derived from songs by the Old Maithili poet Vidyāpati (c. 1370–1460); and long narrative forms in Middle Bengali called pā̃cālīs, which are characterized by the alternation of the prosodic forms called paẏār and tripadī and the occasional insertion of songs.
These poetic forms are the principal markers of the literary identity of Bengal and eastern South Asia (including Assam, Orissa, and Arakan). The Ḥusayn Shāhī period (1433–1486) contributed to the consolidation and expansion eastward of vernacular literary practices. Then, the political landscape became fragmented, and the multiplication of centers of literary production occurred. This fragmentation fostered the formation of new, locally grounded literary trends. These could involve the cultivation of specific genres, the propounding of various religious doctrines and ritual practices, the fashioning of new idioms fostered by either dialectal resources, classical idioms such as Sanskrit or Persian, and other vernacular poetic traditions (Maithili, Avadhi, Hindustani). The late Mughal and early colonial periods witnessed the making of new trends, characterized by a radical modification of the lexical component of the Middle Bengali idiom (i.e., Dobhāṣī), or the recourse to scripts other than Bengali (e.g., Sylhet Nagari/Kaithi, Arabic). The making of such new trends often implied changes in the way that authors interacted with Sanskrit, Persian, and other vernacular traditions. For instance, Persian played as crucial a role as Sanskrit in the various trajectories that Middle Bengali poetry took. On the one hand, Persian in Bengal had a history distinct from that of Bengali; on the other hand, it constituted a major traditional model for Bengali authors and, at times, Persianate education replaced the one based on Sanskrit as the default way to access literacy.
Even if Middle Bengali poetic forms continued to be used in the context of various traditional performances, the making of a new literary language in the 19th century, the adoption of Western genres, and the development of prose and Western prosodic forms occasioned a radical break with premodern literary practices. From the second half of the 19th century, with the notable exception of some ritual and sectarian texts, access to the ancient literature of Bengal began to be mediated by philological analysis and textual criticism.
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