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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

Thibaut d'Hubert

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.

Article

Syed Jamil Ahmed

Theatre in Bangladesh is best understood in the plural form of “traditions,” since it is a quadruple intertwining of four distinct streams: Sanskrit, indigenous, modern, and applied. Both the Sanskrit and the indigenous traditions employ narration, dialogue, song, dance and music, and eschew “conflict” as the driver of action. Traceable to sometime between the 5th and 6th centuries ce, from which period the earliest textual evidence of a primary form of Sanskrit play is available in ancient Bangladesh, the tradition continues in early-21st-century Bangladesh, albeit only in the academic milieu. More importantly, the secondary forms of Sanskrit plays, which are almost entirely rendered in music and/or dance, serve as a link between the ancient Sanskrit tradition and the indigenous forms of theatre seen in globalizing Bangladesh. Prevalent at least since the 9th century ce, the indigenous theatre tradition is widely prevalent in early-21st-century rural Bangladesh. It displays a wide array of forms such as masked dances suggestive of Buddhist masked dances and festivals of the Himalayan belt; illustrated sung narratives evocative of similar performances in China and Tibet; and song-and-dance performances such as the rās nŗtya of the Manipuri ethnic community, members of which migrated to Bangladesh from the erstwhile independent state of Manipur from the mid-18th century. However, the dominant forms are religious sung-narratives eulogizing Hindu deities, Muslim holy men, Buddhist spiritual teachers, and Christian saints, such as Manasā, Gāzī Pīr, Mādār Pīr, Siddhartha Gautama, and Saint Anthony. Secular sung-narratives, some devised around the renowned collection of ballads titled Maimansimha-gītikā, are also very popular. A second cluster of dominant forms, known by the generic term jātrā appended to a specific name, emerged by adapting European dramaturgy through various acculturations in the 18th century. The tradition of modern theatre emerged out of the conflict-driven notion of European dramaturgy in the mid-19th century—a time when colonial Bengal was negotiating cultural disjuncture ushered in by colonial modernity. Remaining mostly in cultural backwaters till 1971, the modern theatre tradition of Bangladesh emerged with vigor after the War of Liberation, engineered most energetically by about 250 nonprofit city-based ensembles of Group Theatre practitioners. Although amateurs, the groups have successfully striven for artistic excellence, producing memorable plays on the following themes: the liberation war, political protest articulated by Marxist class struggle, machinations of hegemonic masculinity, remonstration against the oppression of the ethnic communities, and cultural-nationalist agendas (most significantly articulated by Rabindranath Tagore). The last-named thematic gave rise to Theatre of the Roots in the 1980s, most memorably enunciated in plays by Selim Al Deen, who rejected European dramaturgy to craft his unique narrative mode of playwriting that evokes the techniques of the sung-narratives of the indigenous theatre tradition of Bangladesh. The tradition of applied theatre is the youngest inclusion in the quadruple intertwining, having emerged in the fervent yearnings of freedom from the internal colonization of the state of Pakistan, as voiced in street theatre plays produced during the years immediately before the liberation war. In the late 1970s, it reemerged as applied theatre brands, popularized as Popular Theatre and Mukta Natak. By the early 1990s, numerous nongovernmental organizations, drawing on the culture and ideology of “development” deployed by the Global North, began to co-opt applied theatre, feeding on rural poverty like vultures in the air.