Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART XIIIby Nurul Kabir
THE Hindu-Muslim social, political and economic divide and subsequent discriminatory growth of the two communities of the same populace led to mutual animosity, which helped the British to perpetuate colonial rule in India for 190 years. Moreover, British linguistic ventures in Bengal profoundly influenced the development of Bangla, particularly its prose, on two religious-cultural lines that found expression in two distinct styles of the prose — one Sanskritised created by the Hindu writers and the other Persianised created by the Muslim ones. The linguistic division, again, facilitated political division further between the two religious communities, eventually contributing to the geographical division of Bengal. The Hindavi/Hindustani was made to grow into two languages, Hindi and Urdu, with two scripts, Devnagri and Persian, identifying themselves with Hindu and Muslim populations in the rest of India. Similarly, in Bengal, Bangla was made to grow into two varieties, Sanskritised and Persianised, although with the same script. As Hindi and Urdu influenced the partition of India, Sanskritised and Persianised Bangla influenced the partition of Bengal.
The people of Bengal used to communicate among themselves through spoken prose for centuries, but Bengali litterateurs expressed their thoughts only through poetic means until Ramram Basu published his prose work, Raja Pratap Aditya Charitra, in 1801.
Earlier, Portuguese Catholic missionaries, who arrived in Bengal in the 16th Century, learnt Bangla and wrote Bangla prose for preaching Christianity in East Bengal. They are said to have written in, or translated into, Bangla at least two books before the end of the 16th century, ‘marking the beginning of the public manifestation of the written form of the Bangla prose’.
Later, Dom Antonio, a Bengali from Bhushna of East Bengal, who grew up with a Portuguese Christian missionary and eventually baptised into Christianity, and Manoel-da-Assumpsam, another Portuguese missionary living in Bhawal of Dhaka, wrote two books in Bangla prose, Brahmin-Roman Catholic Sangbad and Kripar Shashrer Arthabhed respectively, in the early 18th century. Assumpsam also wrote a book on Bangla grammar in Portuguese, and compiled a book of Bangla-Portuguese vocabulary, which was eventually printed in Lisbon in Roman script in 1743. The metal type of Bangla script was not made until 1778.
An important point to note here is that the Bangla words that Manoel-da-Assumpsam had compiled in his book were mostly the ones used by ordinary Bengalis in their day-to-day lives. Besides, the form of Bangla prose that the Portuguese missionaries used to preach Christianity in Bengal was the one spoken by ordinary Bengalis. Gopal Halder notes that ‘the Portuguese, while writing Bangla prose, did not maintain the Sadhu form of the language…it had the touch of East Bengal’s colloquial Bangla, and they used a lot of Arabic and Persian words in their Bangla prose.’ [Gopal Halder, ibid, pp 67-68]
The Portuguese missionaries, however, could not advance and influence Bangla prose the way, and to the extent, the British missionaries did.
The British Christian missionaries started coming to Bengal in the 1780s. They set up a Baptist mission and a printing press in the village of Srirampur of West Bengal, a place of Danish settlement those days, in January 1800 with a view to spreading Christianity among ordinary Bengalis. The group that set up the Christian church consisted of four missionaries — John Thomas, William Carey, William Ward and Joshua Marshman. They published the Bangla translation of Gospel of St Mathew, under the title of Mangal Samachar Matiur Rachita, in May 1800. Then they translated Bible into Bangla. They published the entire New Testament and the first part of the Old Testament in February 1801.
William Carey (1761-1834), had played the most important role behind the publications while Ramram Basu, a non-Brahmin Hindu who was hired by the missionaries in question as a munshi, a writer that is, substantially helped Carey in his efforts to preach Christianity in Bangla and thus develop Bangla prose. Carey also published a Bangla grammar in English in 1801. Earlier, A Upjohn published an Engraji-Bangali Vocabulary, English-Bangla lexicon in other words, in 1793. Later, Henry Pits Forster (1761-1815), an official of East India Company in Kolkata, prepared two volumes of Bangla-English lexicon, Vocabulary, which were published in 1799 and 1802 respectively. Carey is said to have depended a lot on Forster’s lexicon while preparing his own Bangla-English dictionary.
Earlier, in 1768, the British East India Company shifted the centre of power from the Muslim aristocracy-dominated Murshidabad to Kolkata, which would eventually be the centre of a new Hindu elite to be created by the colonial regime in a few decades. The company, meanwhile, resolved to get its English officers and employees trained in Bangla to ensure direct interaction with Bengalis concerned, independently of local intermediaries. Accordingly, Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, an official of the company, wrote a book on Bangla grammar in English and published it in 1778.
The British, then, set up the College of Fort William in Kolkata, primarily for English civilians to learn local languages, in May 1800; William Carey was appointed head of Bangla department. Carey hired two Sanskrit pundits including Mrityunjay Vidyalankar (1762-1819), a Brahmin hailing from Medinipur, a remote district of Orissa of the time, who had punditry in, and a passionate bias for, Sanskrit. Carey also recruited six associates including Ramram Basu (1757-1813), a non-Brahmin Hindu from Bengal having expertise in chalita or popular Bangla and Persian, to write textbooks in Bangla prose for English civilians.
William Carey published two books in Bangla — Kothopokothan in 1801 and Itihasmala in 1812, the first one a bilingual text to ‘help the English officials to learn the Bengal language’ and the second a collection of 150 stories. Meanwhile, Carey’s prose style underwent a significant change. The words and syntax used in works in question became quite different from those used in the first edition of his Bangla translation of the Bible. The Bangla prose of the translated Bible was lucid, for Carey’s target population for religious conversion was ordinary Bengalis.
The Fort William College changed the scenario. The target group this time was British civilians, while writing Bangla textbooks for them, and that too with the help of Sanskrit pundits, Carey’s Bangla no longer remained lucid. The change was even reflected in his later Bangla editions of the Bible. In this regard, Sukumar Sen writes: ‘The words used in the Bangla translation [of the Bible] were predominantly tadbhaba [that are derived from Sanskrit], colloquial and simple … Although the syntax of the prose was often inconsistent with that of Bangla, the language was quite lucid – thanks to the abundance of tadbhaba words — compared to the later editions of the works that gradually got Sanskritised.’ [Sukumar Sen, Bangla Sahitye Gadya (Prose in Bangla Literature), First Ananada edition, Ananda Publishers Private Limited, Kolkata, 1998, p 22]
In fact, the change of his associates as well as his workplace profoundly changed William Carey, the man who laid the foundation of modern Bangla prose, and those changes virtually changed the syntax and semantics of Bangla. It got more and more Sanskritised. In this regard, Professor Serajul Islam Chowdhury says: ‘When Carey got the assignment of teaching English civilians Bangla, he was no longer a resident of rural Bengal, nor was he a priest anymore, rather he became a professor residing in the city of Kolkata. All the natives that he used to mix with in the Kolkata city were Sanskrit pundits, not the ordinary people of rural Bengal. Munshi Ramram Basu got away from him. He rather drew closer Pundit Mrityunjay Vidyalankar, a Brahmin from Orissa having passionate liking for Sanskrit. Consequently, tatsama words increased in the two [later] volumes of the [Bangla-English] dictionary that he published in 1818 and 1825.” [Serajul Islam Chowdhury, op-cit, pp 21-22]
There is a clear pattern in the gradual increase of the use of Sanskrit words in Bangla prose. In this regard, Zeenat Imtiaj Ali, a researcher of Bangla spelling, points out: ‘Of the two thousand words of Charyapada, the most ancient sample of Bangla language, the original tatsama words — words that are same as that in Sanskrit — were only one hundred, which is only five per cent. Later, in Srikrisna Kirton, the percentage of Sanskrit words increased. Still, it did not exceed 12.5 per cent.’ [Zeenat Imtiaj Ali’s essay, ‘Bangla Banan: Tatsama Shobdo’, is cited in Serajul Islam Chowdhury, Bangalir Jatiyatabad, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2000, p 18]
The use of tatsama words in Bangla prose increased substantially in the 19th century, with the direct intervention of the Brahmin pundits. It eventually reached 80 per cent. William Kerry, the professor of Bangla and Sanskrit at the College of Fort William, Kolkata, wrote in 1818, ‘The Bengalee may be considered as more nearly allied to Sanskrit than any of the other languages of India …four-fifths of the words in the language are pure Sanskrit.’ [Sajanikanta Das, Bangla Goddo Sahityer Itihas. Quoted in Serajul Islam Chowdhury, ibid] The same William Kerry wrote in 1801 that in ‘pure’ Bangla, although originating from Sanskrit, ‘multitudes of words originally Persian are constantly employed in common conversation, which perhaps ought to be considered helping rather than corrupting the language.’ [ibid]
Meanwhile, a section of the Hindus who politically collaborated with the English colonial rulers and became rich out of East India Company’s policies and patronages, and started learning the language of power, English, managed to develop themselves to be the new elite of colonial Bengal. Some members of this English-literate Hindu elite, such as Raja Rammohan Roy (1774-1833), Ramkamal Sen (1783-1844), Radhakanta Dev (1784-1867), Bhabanicharan Bandyopadhyay (1787-1848) Debendranath Thakur (1817-1905) and Akshoykumar Dutta (1820-1886), came forward in the first half of the 19th century to develop the Bangla prose.
History records that one of the major motivations of these great Bengalis to create ‘modern’ Bangla prose was to bring in reforms of Hinduism, particularly to combat a newly developed trend among the educated Hindu youths to get converted into Christianity those days, thanks to the active proselytisation of enthusiastic Christian missionaries on the one hand and the natural charm of the monotheistic Christianity’s apparent egalitarianism compared to the idolatry- and caste-ridden polytheistic Hinduism on the other.
Notably, a group of Evangelical Christians was out in the late 18th century on a mission to convert Indians into the Christian faith, but the administration of East India Company was opposed to the idea for fear that such proselytisation would have negative political impact in India. The British administration was so careful about the political sensitivity involved in the proselytisation efforts that it denied the Christian missionaries the permission to operate from Kolkata, forcing the latter to be stationed in the Danish settlement of Srirampur. Moreover, as Shibnath Shasri writes, ‘when Srirampur-based missionaries published a booklet in Persian in 1807, projecting superiority of Christianity over Islam, the English rulers in Kolkata got so afraid of the political repercussions that they wrote to the Danish administration, requesting the latter to stop distributing the booklets.’ [Shibnath Shasri, Ramtanu Lahiri O Tatkalin Bangasamaj, (ed.) Biswajit Ghosh, Nabajug Prakashani, Dhaka, 2012, p 85] Subsequently, ‘the Danish authorities seized some 1,700/1,800 copies of the booklets from the Christian missionaries like Kerry and others, and handed over them to the Kolkata based council of the British governor general.’ [ibid]
To be continued.
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