Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, Middle Bengali became a major idiom of literary expression in the kingdom of Arakan. It is within the domain of this coastal kingdom, which then comprised the region of Chittagong in today’s Bangladesh, that Muslim subjects of the Buddhist kings started using the courtly vernacular that was previously cultivated by Hindu dignitaries of the Ḥusayn Shāhī sultans of Bengal. By the mid-17th century, which constituted a moment of economic prosperity and maximum territorial expansion, all genres of Middle Bengali poetry were represented in the corpus of texts written by authors living in the urban and rural areas of the kingdom. The many treatises on Muslim beliefs and meditative practices, the hagiographic literature, and the courtly romances testify to the formation of a local Islamic cultural ethos. After the Mughal conquest of Chittagong in 1666, local literacy was still cultivating standards set by authors of the Arakanese period such as Saiẏad Sultān and Ālāol. In Arakan itself, Bengali Muslim literature continued to be produced and transmitted until at least the first half of the twentieth century. A large number of manuscripts was collected in the first decades of the twentieth century and these are preserved in various institutions in Bangladesh. The Bengali literature of Arakan is characterized by its Indic religious idiom and Sanskritized poetics, but also by its complex intertextuality that reflects the region’s connections with north India and the Persianate trading networks of the Bay of Bengal. Up to the 2000s, the Bengali literature of Arakan has mostly been discussed within the framework of the national literary history of Bangladesh, but subsequently scholars have relocated this corpus within the cultural domain of the Bay of Bengal and the Islamicate literary traditions of South and Southeast Asia.
Henk Schulte Nordholt
By exclusively focusing on the agency of the Dutch, colonial historiography ignored the pivotal role of indigenous middle classes in sustaining the colonial regime. Conventional nationalist historiography, on the other hand, presumes a linear development from urbanization, the rise of the indigenous middle classes, education, and the spread of modernity toward nationalism and revolution as the logical outcome of this process. This article aims to disconnect modernity from nationalism by focusing on the role of cultural citizens in the late-colonial period in the Netherlands Indies, for whom modernity was in the very first place a desirable lifestyle. The extent to which their desires, capitalist strategies, and the interests of the colonial state coincided is illustrated by a variety of advertisements and school posters, which invited members of the indigenous urban middle classes to become cultural citizens of the colony. The image of the cultural citizen was framed within the confinement of the nuclear family, which had a conservative impact on gender relationships.