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Article

Thibaut d'Hubert

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.

Article

The history of the Bengali community in Assam, along with many other communities such as the Marwari traders and the Nepalis, can be dated to the early decades of British rule in Assam when the East India Company found itself relying on Bengali amlahs (court officials) for its policing, legal and revenue administration of the newly acquired kingdom of Assam. The Bengali community grew partly due to the encouragement that the Company gave the Bengali language by using it in its courts, administration, and schools. While in 1873 Assamese replaced Bengali as the medium of instruction and language of the court, with some caveats and exceptions, the province of Assam, which was formed in 1874, brought together four historically distinct spaces in the region, including the two Bengali-speaking districts (Sylhet and Cachar) of the Barak-Surma Valley. The decades leading to Partition witnessed various factors, including employment opportunities and cultural and linguistic belonging, leading to contradictory pulls in Sylhet and Cachar on the question of whether it should be integrated with Bengal or Assam. Another important factor was the growth of linguistically based Assamese nationalism whose politics lay in the articulation of a unique Assamese literary and cultural identity along with the securing of employment opportunities. The latter would lead to a demand of an Assamese homeland free of competition from the Bengali middle class. A referendum in July 1947 based on limited franchise led to Sylhet being integrated to Pakistan while Cachar remained part of Assam and India. Other than the Bengali-speaking communities of Sylhet and Cachar, a history of the Bengali-speaking communities in Assam involves the story of peasant cultivators from East Bengal who continuously migrated into Assam in the early decades of the 20th century. While earlier pre-colonial patterns of migration were seasonal, the colonial state’s primary aim of acquiring high agrarian revenue led to specific policies and schemes that encouraged peasant migration into Assam from East Bengal. This further encouraged an intensification of commercial agriculture especially jute, changes in the transport network in the Brahmaputra valley, a developed credit network, and some local elements such as Marwari businessmen and Assamese moneylenders. However, with time this migration created conditions of insecurity for Assamese peasants who faced ejection from their lands as a result of the growing competition for cultivable land and higher rents. The colonial state’s attempt at regulating the migration—such as through the Line System in the 1920s—became a site of contestation among many emerging nationalist and political perspectives, whether of the Congress, the Muslim League or others. The tussle between the preservation of the rights and claims of indigenous peasants over grazing and forest reserves and those of Bengali Muslim immigrants over land defined the politics of the 1940s in Assam until Partition.

Article

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.