Where Would Nationalism Be Without Bengali, Marathi, Punjabi? The Case For Classical Status
How these languages created and enriched what is today known as Indian nationalism.
One of the main focus areas of the new National Education Policy released this year is that of multilingualism in Indian middle and high school education. In a bid to impart a holistic understanding of India’s diverse heritage and cultures to the country’s future generations, NEP 2020 promotes multilingual curriculum as well as options to learn classical Indian languages, exchange of language teachers between states, Sanskrit as an optional linguistic course across all levels at school, optional courses on select foreign languages, and an amplified outreach for the learning of the designated Dhrupadi bhashas or classical languages of India, viz. Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, and Odia.
Oddly enough, the list does not include Bengali, Marathi, and Punjabi – three languages which are predominantly spoken across six Indian states – and which trace their origins back to the period between the 7th and 9th centuries CE, with a fairly rich and extant body of ancient as well as modern literature.
The NEP presents a golden opportunity to students of this country to learn Sanskrit and other officially-recognised classical languages as well as to study the important literary works written in those languages in the original. According to provisions numbered 4.17, 4.18, and 4.19 in the NEP, training in the six officially recognised classical languages referred to above, as well as three other languages enjoying the same status as these six (Pali, Prakrit, and Persian), is to become part of the curriculum from middle level in schools (grades VI-XII) and up to the university level. Exposure to the literature in these nine languages will constitute the core area in this programme, some part of which will be compulsory and a significant part being offered as electives. To quote from the NEP 2020:
“4.17. India also has an extremely rich literature in other classical languages, including classical Tamil, as well as classical Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, and Odia, in addition to Pali, Persian, and Prakrit; these classical languages and their works of literature too must be preserved for their richness and for the pleasure and enrichment of posterity. When India becomes a fully developed country, the next generation will want to be able to partake in and be enriched as humans by India’s extensive and beautiful classical literature which contains great intellectual and cultural treasures.
“4.18. In addition to Sanskrit, the teaching of all other classical languages and literature of India, including Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Odia, Pali, Persian, and Prakrit, will also be widely available in schools as options (possibly as online modules), through experiential and innovative approaches, including by integration of technology, to ensure that these languages and literature stay alive and vibrant, especially in those states where they may be best taught and nurtured.
“4.19. For the enrichment of our children, and for the preservation of these rich languages and their artistic treasures, all students in all schools, public or private, may have the option of learning at least two years of a classical language of India and its associated literature, through experiential and innovative approaches, including by integration of technology, in Grades 6-12, with the option to continue from middle level through secondary education and university.”
As such, these provisions have paved the way for Indian students to benefit from the rich literature of these native (excepting Persian) languages. As a much-awaited initiative, this will no doubt prove to be very useful in emancipating the Indian mind from its hitherto English-induced intellectually colonised state. The steps taken in this regard are both desirable as well as commendable.
However, the absence of Bengali, Punjabi and Marathi is particularly noticeable. Each of these three native Indian languages have high antiquity (of at least 1300 and 1100 years respectively) and an exceptionally rich literature of high aesthetic, literary, scientific, spiritual, philosophical, and historical value. Most importantly, individuals, organisations, and cultural/political/literary/social movements originating from these three regions of India have played the leading roles in shaping modern India in all its myriad dimensions. The lion’s share of the thoughts, speeches, and actions of these individuals/organisations/movements originating from Bengal, Maharashtra and Punjab has been recorded in Bengali, Punjabi, and Marathi. And one must not fail to note that the vast literature consisting of recorded thoughts, speeches, and actions have rightly come to be regarded as classic works of literature.
To cite a few examples of the vast body of classic literature recorded, orated, partaken in, and performed since distant antiquity in Bengali, Punjabi, and Marathi, let us quickly mention some indispensable texts. We can start with both Marathi and Punjabi in order to highlight their value and the very valid claims of each of these two contenders for the coveted classical language status. This can be followed up with Bengali language in some detail to demonstrate how a well-reasoned, evidence-based strong case can be built in favour of it as well. And all within the framework delineated by the Ministry of Culture, government of India, back in February 2014.
The Case for Marathi
From the Old Marathi inscriptions found at the feet of the colossal statue of Bahubali in Shravanabelagola, Karnataka, to the classic Bhavartha-Dipika or Jnaneshvari commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, as well as the rich folk songs and poetry of Marathi bards who sang glories to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and his brave Maratha warriors, the ancient Marathi language has a rich repository of resources to offer to the seeker of Indian wisdom and student of Indian culture alike. Evidence of high antiquity, which is an essential criterion according to the ‘classical language’ definition framework of the Ministry of Culture, are of an intertwined nature in the cases of the Marathi and Bengali languages. Songs and poems composed in both Old Marathi and Old Bengali have been found in Manasollasa/Abhilasharthachintamani, an early twelfth century CE encyclopaedic treatise attributed to the Chalukya King Someshvara Bhulokamalla.
We will come back to the Manasollasa evidence of Old Bengali literature later on when discussing this language’s claim to the status. For now, let us point out that in the ‘Gitavinoda’ part of this ancient encyclopaedia, focused on the subjects of music and metrical structures of poetry, there are poetical examples taken from various hitherto existing languages of the time. In that context, there are mentions of verses from a Dashavatarastotra (hymn dedicated to the 10 avatars of Lord Vishnu) which are composed in Old Marathi. Apart from this 1129-30 CE evidence, we also have the Viveka-Sindhu by a Nath Panth yogi named Mukundaraja, from around the same time in the 12th century CE.
In the next century, we get the Mahanubhava sect poet Bhaskarabhatta Borikar’s Shishupala Vadha and Narendra’s Rukmini Svayamvara (both composed in 1292). These are followed by Riddhipura Varnan (1331) and Sahyadri Varnan (1333) in the next century. The Mahanubhavas contributed to the growth of Marathi prose by composing Lilacharitra and Govindaprabhu Charitra. Works of the Bhakti tradition giants such as saint-poets Jnanadev (1275-96) and Namadev (1270-1350) from Maharashtra are also monumental texts in classical Marathi literary tradition. Songs composed by the saint-poet Namadev have later been inducted into the Adi Granth, the sacred book of the Sikhs – once again highlighting the intertwined nature of the evidences of high antiquity in the case of the Bengali, Marathi, and Punjabi languages.
We have already mentioned Jnanadev’s Bhagavad-Gita commentary Bhavartha-Dipika, popularly known as Jnaneshvari. It is an unparalleled literary work, not only in Marathi literature but indeed in all of ‘Medieval’ Indian literature for its profound philosophical depth as well as for its superlative poetic excellence. This literary tradition has continued unbroken into the ‘modern’ age. With the contributions of great nationalist figures like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Lokmanya Tilak, Mahadev Govind Ranade, and last but not the least, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Marathi language and literary tradition has turned into an indispensable source of understanding both India’s past and her present.
In January this year, the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammela – a 142-year-old annual conference of the Marathi litterateurs – had also raised the demand for conferring the status of classical language upon Marathi. A month before that, the current Chief Minister of Maharashtra had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi raising the same demand. Earlier, the Prithviraj Chavan government in the state had appointed an expert committee on this issue, which submitted its report on 16 November 2013 to the Centre.
The Case for Punjabi
Punjabi language, or ‘Panjabi’ in academic parlance, stands out as another strong contender for the status of Indian classical language if one has to go by the criteria given in the Ministry of Culture’s framework. This framework was made available by the ministry in the Rajya Sabha when classical language status was conferred upon Odia during the final days of the UPA-II regime. Branching off in the 7th century CE from the Paishachi Apabhramsha, a late written avatar of Paishachi Prakrit, the Punjabi language at last came into its own through the compositions of the great Nath Panth yogis Gorakshanath and Charpatinath between the 10th and the 11th centuries CE. These compositions by Nath Panth gurus have survived through the largely oral (but later codified in written form) ‘guru-parampara’ tradition of the Nath yogis.
The 13th century Marathi saint-poet Namadeva’s bhakti compositions have made their way into the first major text in Punjabi language, the Adi Granth or the Guru Granth Sahib, which had developed since the 15th century CE through the early 18th century, getting enriched by the utterances and brilliant poetic-philosophical compositions of the 10 Sikh Gurus. Special mention should be made here of the 10th Guru Gobind Singh’s Bachittar Natak and Chandi Di Vaar, classics of Old Punjabi literature, the first of which gives a faithful historical-genealogical account of the Bharatiya Itihasa tradition down to the Guru’s own times and the second presents a greatly inspiring adaptation of Markandeya Purana’s Durga Saptashati/DeviMahatmya/Sri Sri Chandi part in Old Punjabi.
Apart from this, 18th century orature from the bards Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah have enriched the oral traditions of Punjabi literature. Coming to modernity, the language offered fertile space for fiercely nationalistic literature throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. One should also note that major historical documents of the Sikh Empire of Northern India, which reached its zenith in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s time and declined with the defeat of the Sikhs at the hand of the British at the close of the first half of the 19th century, are also accessible in Punjabi language. In the last century, modern poetry as well as narratives written in the latest form of the language have captured the pain and loss of the 1947 partition and various other themes. The language continues to boast of a vibrant oral tradition through songs and poetry in keeping with its old character.
The Case for Bengali
The case for Bengali is a demonstration of evidence-based arguments in favour of giving classical language status to all three languages mentioned here.
The earliest form of Bengali, which germinated in the quickly evolving middle phase of the eastern Indo-Aryan languages, was decrypted from the Charyapada, or the collection of 48 Charya prayer songs in the Buddhist Tradition. This is widely considered among scholars as the earliest recorded form of Bengali. By the 15th century, the strain of the Old Bangla language of the Charyapada had mutated into Middle Bengali. This scriptural language represents the grammatically non-standardised spoken Bengali of the time. Middle Bengali, which in the political history of Bengal coordinates with the beginning of Turkish invasions and Islamic rule in Bengal, survives in a vast body of religious texts, of which the most notable ones are: the early Vaishnavite Poetry of Chandidas, Vidyapati, and the others; the hagiographical writings revolving around the life of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu that developed in the later phases of Middle Bengali literature, along with the Mangal Kavya tradition, the tradition of Shakta Poetry, the songs of Baul, and the Ballads of Eastern Bengal. Today’s Modern Bengali idiom of the masses, spoken by approximately 200 million people across the globe, came into being after painstaking efforts were undertaken towards the formalisation of the language during the 19th century – efforts that had unequivocally led to the Bengal Renaissance and the subsequent Swadeshi movement. From fables outlining the reinstitution of dharma through the revolutionary, self-surrendering devotionalism of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu during the oppressive era of Islamic rule in Bengal (as depicted in Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita by the medieval poet Krishnadas Kaviraj), to the fiery accounts of Bengal’s Agnijug warriors during India’s freedom struggle, when the nation was seething with disquiet against the British Raj (as found in the publications of Jugantar Patrika) – the developing trajectory of Bengali language and literature mirrors the trajectory of the rise of Indian nationalism itself. And this is exactly why Bengali deserves to be treated more than perfunctorily in the campaign for multilingualism in Indian education.
Here is why we think giving Bengali a special linguistic status across all levels of school education, and thus increasing the accessibility of select texts in the original form, will make it possible to organically foreground nationalism in the consciousness of young India.
Exploring Nationalistic Themes and Motifs in Bengali Literarure: From Bankim’s Novels to the Songs of Tagore
The already existing seeds of nationalism sown on Indian soil in the preceding centuries by the likes of Maharana Pratap, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, et al, sprouted into a fully developed tree in the 19th century. In this period, Indian nationalistic thought was augmented, sharpened, and given a modern accent by assimilating certain western ideas through the mediation of English education. An exposure to the utilitarian theory of morality, propagated by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, and its application to social, economic, and political spheres, combined with the ideals of the French Revolution – Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity – provided a great impetus for Indian nationalist thinking by the newly English-educated modern Indians. Along with western ideas came the Western literary forms too – such as novel, essay, the Homeric/Virgilian/Miltonian epic poetry and sonnets.
In the pioneering Bengali novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s magnum opus Anandamath, widely regarded as a foundational text for the understanding of Indian nationalism, the above-mentioned ideas reify in the context of imperial and colonial Bengal vis-à-vis India.
The novel iconically personifies India as the mother and the sannyasins who are fighting for her freedom as her santaan or children. The santaan dal, or the band of renunciate warriors for freedom who see themselves as the children of Bharatmata in Anandamath, famously gave the rousing cry of “Vande Mataram”, meaning “I revere the Mother”. Thereafter, Vande Mataram came to be the unofficial anthem of India’s freedom struggle. The vision of Bharatmata in the image of the weapon wielding goddesses Jagaddhatri, Kali, and Durga – three of the many incarnations of Shakti, the divine feminine of the Hindu pantheon – evoke the essence of the heroic.
The literary and artistic trope of imagining Bharatavarsha, the country as the self-same physical incarnation of the Divine Mother of the Hindu cosmos, is reiterated again and again in the works of Bengali literary and artistic stalwarts. Abanindranath Tagore has rendered the mother in his famous painting Bharatmata while Rabindranath Tagore has invoked her in a number of his songs, poems, and other literary works.
One particular lyric in the category Swadesh in the corpus of Rabindranath’s songs invokes the Mother in this manner:
আজি বাংলাদেশের হৃদয় হতে কখন আপনি
তুমি এই অপরূপ রূপে বাহির হলে জননী!
ওগো মা, তোমায় দেখে দেখে আঁখি না ফিরে!
তোমার দুয়ার আজি খুলে গেছে সোনার মন্দিরে॥
ডান হাতে তোর খড়্গ জ্বলে, বাঁ হাত করে শঙ্কাহরণ,
দুই নয়নে স্নেহের হাসি, ললাটনেত্র আগুনবরণ।
ওগো মা, তোমার কী মুরতি আজি দেখি রে!
তোমার দুয়ার আজি খুলে গেছে সোনার মন্দিরে ॥
Aaji baangladesher hriday hote kakhon aaponi
Tumi ei aporup rupe baahir hole janoni.
Ogo maa, tomay dekhe dekhe aankhi naa phire !
Tomar duwar aaji khule gechhe sonar mondire.
Daan haate tor khargo jwale, bnaa haat kare shankaharon,
Dui nayone sneher hnaasi, lalaatnetro aagunbaron.
Ogo maa, tomar ki muroti aaji dekhi re !
Tomar duwar aaji khule gechhe sonar mondire.
When did you come out of the heart of Bengal,
O, Mother dear, with such inexplicable splendour!
It’s impossible to take my eyes away from you!
The doors of your golden temple have unlocked.
Your right hand holds the blazing sword, the left one takes away fear,
Smile of affection on the eyes, the third eye glaring!
O Mother dear, how uniquely you reveal yourself!
(The doors of your golden temple have unlocked.)
Close Readings of Revolutionary Pamphlets and Understanding the Political Culture in Colonial Bengal: The Jugantar Line
The freedom struggle of colonial India markedly entered the Agnijug, or the Fiery Age of revolutionary nationalism, with the participation of a firebrand youth brigade from Bengal. It saw the rise of lion-hearted warriors like Jatindranath Mukherjee (Bagha Jatin), Kanailal Dutta, Master Da Surya Sen, Khudiram Bose, Prafulla Chaki, and countless others. Literature elucidating revolutionary nationalist ideas of this time are mainly the political pamphlets and accounts published in journals such as Jugantar and Bandemataram.
Jatindranath, aka ‘Bagha Jatin’, meaning ‘Jatin, the Tiger’, was a protégé of none other than Sri Aurobindo, who had given the young man the critical task of creating a ‘secret society’ of youths across the nation who would lead a guerrilla revolution against the British. Thus, under the commandership of Bagha Jatin, the Jugantar group was formed.
Writings published in the magazine Jugantar – mouthpiece of this guerrilla group, inverted traditional assumptions of the dynamics between the colonised and the coloniser in the context of India. The Jugantar writings followed a line of criticism of the Raj through acerbic mockery. In notable articles like Sedition o Bideshi Raja (Sedition and the Foreign King), the Jugantar Patrika argued that Indians owe no loyalty to the Raj for the British had captured power in this nation not through might but chicanery and intrigue.
The overtly daring tone of non-compliance in Jugantar writings was a literary device used to rouse national consciousness among the revolutionaries, causing some serious discomfiture in the colonial government. The British Raj, therefore, concluded that colonial law and order working through standard channels in India is inadequate for suppressing revolutionary violence. Consequently, laws were passed to enforce summary arrests of the revolutionaries, followed with trial by special tribunals without appeal. The revolutionary youths of the Fiery Age, many of whom were sentenced to death by hanging, have since then become blazing icons of India’s freedom struggle. The mourning processions of these revolutionary leaders saw hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Calcutta (now Kolkata). It is their rousing words echoing with nationalistic fervour which needs to be read in the original Bengali composition to be felt in its full emotional import and realised.
The rousing prose and incisive analyses found in the literature of the Jugantar line had served as a spark to the tinder of raw temperament among contemporary Bengalis who were growing tired of conventional politics. Jugantar was the beginning of the conviction that, sometimes, radicalism is the way forward to bring about political change. It is also for this reason why Bengali needs to be introduced in the special capacity of a classical Indian Language, so that nationalistic literature, such as writings on the Jugantar line, could be accessed in its original essence on a pan-India scale.
At a time when British Raj officially ascended the throne of their Indian Empire after the brutal suppression of the Rebellion in 1857, the desire of the Indian mind for political liberation and intellectual emancipation was most prominently expressed through Bengali. It was a time when the creative force of this Eastern Indian language had burst forth like a thousand-petalled lotus. The province in which intellectual and political strivings began for liberating India from the clutches of British colonialism was Bengal. Therefore, if a national education policy, designed with the needs of our times in mind, fails to give the newer generations of students in India a scope to make direct acquaintance with Bengali language, Bengali literature, culture, and history, then there will remain considerable room for doubt as to the policy’s efficacy in helping rekindle a reverence and love of our country and its culture.
To a great extent the nationalism of modern India, and to a considerable extent the broader outline of modern India’s politics, social systems, religion, and spirituality have been built on the solid foundation of the literature available in the Bengali language through various spoken and written resources. This claim may seem like an exaggeration to some today due to the poverty of post-independence curriculum as well as research endeavours, nevertheless it is a fact.
There is ample evidence to support this claim. To start with, one may note that both the national anthem as well as the national song of the modern Indian state happen to be composed in Bengali. Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Deenabandhu Mitra, Madhusudan Dutt, Romesh Chunder Dutt, Chandranath Bose, Swami Vivekananda, the Tagore brothers Satyendranath, Jyotirindranath, and Rabindranath, Sri Aurobindo, and many other Bengali thinkers and writers have contributed to the rich nationalistic literature available in Bengali language.
Modern Bengali language can boast of first-hand accounts of Nabagopal Mitra and the Tagore brothers’ Hindu Mela initiative, of the social reformist and literary magazine Tattvabodhini Patrika, and of the activities of the nationalist revolutionary organisations like Anushilan Samiti, the Jugantar and the Bandemataram groups. It is in this language that the term ‘Hindutva’ was first coined and its modern articulation codified, in a book of the same title by Chandranath Basu, a close associate and friend of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay.
Sri Aurobindo’s rousing invocation to Bengal’s emblematic deity Devi Durga, titled Durga-Stotro (‘Hymn to Durga’), is simultaneously a prayer to arouse Bengal’s martial character and a call to action directed at Bengali youth. In the political pamphlet Bhavani Mandir (‘Temple of Goddess Bhavani’) published in the year 1905 (the year of Bengal’s first partition), Sri Aurobindo corroborated the nationalistic vision and rhetoric presented by Bankim Chandra in Anandamath. The idiom of the matha, or hermitage, as the abode of renunciate sanyasins dedicated to the Mother is reproduced here by Aurobindo from Bankim’s magnum opus like many nationalist writers and artists did before him, to underline the duty of the Indian countrymen towards their motherland. By the device of the powerful composition in Bhavani Mandir, Aurobindo seeks to inspire a nucleus of men who would willingly give up their worldly lives to be in the service of their country; they would “[have] the force of Goddess Bhavani in their hearts and brains, will go forth and carry the flame to every nook and cranny of the land.”
The Bangla writings of Swami Vivekananda (such as Prachyo O Paschatyo, Poribrajok, Bartaman Bharat) as well as of Sri Aurobindo (Kara Kahini, Amader Dharma, Amader Rajnitik Adarsha etc.), on numerous subjects ranging from spirituality, Vedanta and Bhagavad-Gita to politics and even literature and music, are a veritable source of inspiration and the eternal wisdom of India. Knowing this literature is essential in understanding not just Modern India, but the entire gamut of Indic civilisation itself.
Supremely productive actors, playwrights, lyricists, poets and painters such as Girish Chandra Ghosh, Dwijendralal Roy, Rajanikanta Sen, Atul Prasad Sen, Mukunda Das, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Abanindranath Tagore, et al, have dedicated the best of their artistic talents and penetrative imagination to first concretise the idea of Bharatmata and then put an end to her grief and humiliation resulting from the centuries-long colonial subjugation. Thus, through their literary and artistic offerings, these Bengali luminaries brought the dream of inaugurating the temple of Bharatmata’s liberation well within the reach of the Indian masses.
They have not left a single sphere of creativity untouched by their genius of creativity and thought – be it literary works, songs, musicals, plays, comedies, speeches and letters, most of which are written in Bengali. But the flow of creativity and nationalistic fervour of the Bengali language did not end there. Those who are foremost among the next generation of these Bengali nationalist masterminds have also recorded a large part of their nationalist and political thinking in Bengali. For example, titles like Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose's Toruner Swopno (“The Dreams of the Youth”), Joruri Kichhu Lekha (“Some Important Writings”) are also written in Bengali language. Only a very small fraction of such a large repository of written, spoken, published or unpublished nationalist Bengali literature is currently available through translation. And what is available through translation is really just the tip of the iceberg. The modern Indian nationalist thought, starting its expressions in the mid-19th century and continuing through the 20th, has been majorly and faithfully recorded in Bengali language; and so has, in a larger context, the intellectual, spiritual, and creative canon of the Indic civilisation in modernity.
During a recent Q&A session with students and colleagues who are predominantly from the southern and western parts of the country, we felt the necessity to quote from two of Rabindranath Tagore’s essays on the essence of traditional Indian society, titled Swadeshi Samaj and Brahmana; and found out that there is no English or Hindi translation available for these works. For some time now, the editor of a journal on Indic Studies has been requesting us to get a Hindi translation of Rabindranath’s poem Shivaji Utsav done. These instances show that there is a palpable and rising trend among pro-Indic, nationalist scholars, intellectuals, and students to read 19th and 20th century Bangla content produced by the Greats of Bengal.
But how far can the meagre volume of translation help them? Don’t they deserve the chance to read these essential documents – we can call them Indian nationalism 101, or even Indic Civilisational Resurgence 101 – in the original? Given the current state of affairs in our education system and the various mainstream curricula prevalent in this country, our students and researchers have hardly any scope to read the original works by the harbingers of nationalist thought in modern Indian literature, such as Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay, or Madhusudan Dutt, to name only a few. The non-Bengali-speaking students and researchers of this country, who have to rely solely on translations to access most of the Bangla literature written in the 19th and 20th centuries, cannot expect to read the extensive socio-political writings of Tagore beyond a few of his translated novels, poetry and plays any more than they can expect to cut their teeth on the more intricate Bangla prose of Bankimchandra, Vidyasagar, or even of Vivekananda, for that matter. The complex metres of Madhusudan Dutt’s epic poetry cannot be enjoyed without a good grounding in Bengali language and literature at the school level.
In the face of the two-pronged aggression of neo-colonial powers and foreign monolithic religious proselytisation that Indian civilisation is facing today, the Indian public and education policy-makers must ask themselves a simple question: can this battlefield of the fierce struggle between civilisation, on one side, and an unholy alliance of blind, imperialistic ideologies joined by ‘universal’ faiths, on the other, be conquered by riding the artificial pony of translation? Or would it be any wiser to rely on the unreliable – the second and third-hand accounts of these texts via translations, and the often unscrupulously anti-Indian, Marxist, or post-modern interpretations – for understanding? Especially when a good number of Indic terms and concepts are untranslatable in English?
In this case, the supply side is insignificant compared to the vast demand as well as the urgent need for imparting training in the Bengali language and literature to interested students and researchers. Thus, for the cultural enrichment of the younger generation of students and researchers across the country, as well as for making them intimately acquainted with the modern era’s most voluminous and rational articulation of the fundamentals of Indian nationalism and civilisation, a rapid propagation of Bengali language and literature has become highly desirable in view of the exigencies of our challenging times.
In July 2014, the Human Resources Development Ministry, in its reply to a starred question in the Lok Sabha, enumerated the benefits it provides once a language is officially recognised as a classical language:
“i) Two major annual international awards for scholars of eminence in classical Indian languages
ii) A Centre of Excellence for studies in Classical Languages is set up
iii) The University Grants Commission is requested to create, to start with at least in the Central Universities, a certain number of Professional Chairs for the Classical Languages so declared.”
According to a reply from the Ministry of Culture given in the Lok Sabha in 2019, the following are the institutions that are solely dedicated to research and promotion of the classical languages:
Sanskrit: Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, New Delhi; Maharishi Sandipani Rashtriya Ved Vidya Pratishthan, Ujjain; Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeetha, Tirupati; and Sri Lal Bahadur Shastri Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth, New Delhi
Telugu and Kannada: Centres of Excellence for Studies in the respective languages at the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) established by the HRD Ministry in 2011.
Tamil: Central Institute of Classical Tamil (CICT), Chennai.
The University Grant Commission (UGC) regularly awards research projects for the promotion of these officially recognised classical languages. The Ministry of Culture had also mentioned in its reply that the UGC released funds worth Rs 56.74 lakh in 2016-17 and Rs 95.67 lakh in 2017-18.
These amounts are hardly a prince’s ransom, but one should still ask: why should Bengali not be recognised as a classical language? At this point in time, the existing students and researchers of Bengali language and literature, as well as those interested in studying and researching the same right from the school level to the university level, are being deprived of the best opportunity to study and conduct world-class research in the language and literature without even the above basic facilities provided by the HRD ministry and the ministry of culture. And such students and researchers are not only those whose native tongue happens to be Bengali, indeed they hail from all over India, and speak various tongues. Why would any pro-Indic, nationalist government want to prolong such a state of affairs?
The next question is: in today’s scenario, what could be the best possible manner to promote Bengali language and literature in India? The answer is: by wisely using the instrument of the recommendations in the National Education Policy 2020. As mentioned previously, the provisions 4.17 – 4.19 of the NEP 2020 emphasise the proliferation of the knowledge of various officially recognised classical languages of India. Most of these classical languages are indigenous languages, and a curriculum based on a deeper understanding of these languages should be able to decolonise successive generations of students and researchers. Moreover, institutional support and copious funding for research are given to the classical languages. Therefore, the best pedagogical and research opportunities in this country will automatically be available to the students and researchers of the Bengali language and literature as soon as Bengali is officially recognised as one of the classical languages of India.
It should not be either difficult or time-consuming to verify the suitability of Bengali for that official recognition. By virtue of the pioneering work of linguists, literary historians, and scholars of Bengali language and literature, we already have all the resources to prepare solid arguments and furnish the crucial information which would be necessary and sufficient for officially recognising Bengali as a classical language of India. All that is required is to compile the evidence, a framework for which is attempted in the following section. We will have fulfilled our duty as inheritors and admirers of this language and its many priceless treasures, if only we can gather and systematically present these researched facts and arguments from the extensive works by renowned scholars like Dr Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay, Dr Sukumar Sen, Muhammad Shahidullah, Nihar Ranjan Ray, Prabodh Chandra Bagchi, et al, and present them to the culture ministry. The following paragraphs summarize these arguments and information.
At present, the list of officially recognised Indian classical languages (including the year of conferring the official recognition) stands as below:
● Tamil - September, 2004
● Sanskrit - 2005
● Kannada - 2006
● Telugu - 2006
● Malayalam - 2013
● Oriya - February, 2014
It is to be noted that all six languages were officially recognised as classical languages between September 2004 and February 2014, i.e. during the tenure of the two successive UPA governments. In the provisions of National Education Policy 2020, numbered 4.18 and 4.19, Pali, Prakrit, and Persian (a foreign language) have also been given the same status as those six officially recognised Indian classical languages.
According to the information given by the then Union Minister of Culture, Maharani Chandresh Kumari Kotoch (former Congress MP from Jodhpur, Rajasthan) of the previous UPA-II government in the Rajya Sabha in February 2014, the guidelines for officially recognising a language as a ‘classical language’ are as follows:
“(i) High antiquity of its early texts/recorded history over a period of 1500-2000 years;
(ii) A body of ancient literature/texts, which is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers;
(iii) The literary tradition be original and not borrowed from another speech community;
(iv) The classical language and literature being distinct from modern, there may also be a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or its offshoots.”
All four criteria given above are met by the Bengali language and literary tradition. Let us see how, one by one.
#1. According to both Dr Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay and Dr Sukumar Sen, Bengali language got its distinct form in the 10th century AD (Dr Sen demarcates the time as around 950 CE). They have traced the origin of Bengali to the later phase of Magadhi Apabhramsha, a written language which evolved from the spoken language Magadhi Prakrit prevalent in Eastern India. This evolution had started in the 6th century CE and became stable by the 12th century. Most modern-day Eastern Indian languages like Bangla, Assamese, Odia, and Maithili have emerged from a branch of Magadhi Prakrit known as Purvi Ardha-Magadhi. When Maharaja Shashanka established his independent Gauda kingdom in the 7th century CE in Bengal, this new-born Bengali language, a daughter of the Purvi Ardha-Magadhi, became the official language of his Gauda-Vanga Rashtra. This is corroborated by another scholar of repute, Dr Muhammad Shahidullah, a renowned linguist and philologist contemporaneous with Dr Chattopadhyay and Dr Sen.
Dr Shahidullah has termed the progenitor of Bangla as Gaudi Prakrit, i.e. the Prakrit spoken in the Gauda region (Modern Malda district in West Bengal); and he has explicitly shown with his doctoral thesis on the Old Bengali Charyapada literature as well as his work on the Dohas by the Siddhacharyas of Buddhist and Shaivite sects which indicate that written Bengali can be traced to as early as the seventh century – a timeline which coincides with Maharaja Shashanka’s reign in Bengal. As such, the history of both written and spoken forms of Bengali language and literature is at least 1300 years old, if not older.
#2. One of the oldest specimens of written Old Bengali are found in the Charyapada or Charyagiti, which was rediscovered from the library of the royal court of Nepal by Mahamopadhyaya Pandit Haraprasad Shastri in the early 20th century. Dr Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay’s research into these early Bengali verses has established it beyond any trace of doubt that the language and alphabet, meaning and morphology of these Charyapada verses, mainly and essentially belong to Bengali language, and as such Bengali’s claim on the Charyapada verses is far stronger than that of any other modern Indian language. Linguists and literary historians specialising in Bengali language and literature say these oldest literary works of Bengali language are at least 1,300 years old. According to Dr Muhammad Shahidullah, some of the Charyapada verses were composed as early as in the 7th or 8th century CE, as the relatively older Shaivite and Buddhist Tantric Siddhacharya authors (such as Luipada) of these verses hail from that period.
#3. Throughout the history of Bengali language and literature, starting from the ancient Charyapada verses and upto modern Bengali literature, mention of typical Bengali ideas, food habits, geography, deities, pujas and other rituals can frequently be found to be present in this literary tradition, with their distinct Bengali character and fervour remaining intact. This establishes Bengali language and literature as a linguistic culture distinct from the others in Eastern India, which developed independently of Bengali around the same period in the regions adjacent to Bengal. Even in the verses of Charyagiti, phrases like 'Bangal Desh', 'Bangali bhaili', 'Paua Khaal' (meaning the River Padma), etc, and references to the classic diet of Bengalis are prominently present. Through this linguistic and cultural evidence and several others, Bengali language’s claim to the Charyapada verses became the strongest among Eastern Indian languages.
#4. It is not only the Charyapada verses that contain traces of the Old Bengali language. There also are many Sanskrit texts which contain verses, doha, mangalacharana (invocation) and bhanita (introductions and colophons), in Old Bengali. As an example, Dr Sukumar Sen mentions the encyclopaedic work Mansollasa or Abhilashartha-Chintamani written under the direction of the Chalukya Raja Someshvara Bhulokamalla, a ruler from Maharashtra of the 12th century CE. Dr Sen writes that in this encyclopaedic treatise, a section on music and prosody named ‘Gitavinoda’ contains a verse or song dedicated to Radha and Krishna, which is composed in the Old Bengali language of the Charyapada verses. In the same work is found a part of a Dasavatara Stotra dedicated to the 10 avatars of Lord Vishnu. According to Dr Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay, in this stotra, not only the verse dedicated to Lord Parashurama but also the verse aimed at the Matsya avatar is written in Old Bengali.
Although the great Bengali poet Jayadeva’s magnum opus Gitagovinda was written in the most part in Sanskrit, it has always been hailed as the crown jewel in the literary and cultural tradition of Bengal. In the Bengali literary tradition alone, especially within the Bengali poetic and lyrical tradition, its mention is found in plenty. Its influence upon this specific stream of Bengali culture through numerous tropes, motifs, form as well as style is enormous, to say the least. Dr Sen has expressed his firm conviction that it would continue to be a great influence upon and an inspiration for cultural production in Bengali language in the future as well.
This conviction has indeed proved to be prophetic. The Gitagovinda Kavya has acted as a constant source of inspiration, and it whetted Bengali creativity starting from the ancient bard Chandidas’s Sri Krishna Kirtan to Tagore’s Bhanu Singher Padabali and the latest Bengali lyrical ballads of modern Bangla bands. This is a significant phenomenon, to be factored in whenever the question of continuity in the Bengali language and literary tradition comes up. Dr Sen has also pointed out that all folklore and local traditions prevalent in Bengal indicate the Bengali origin of Jayadeva, and it is Bengali literary tradition that has inherited his literary legacy. The efforts of other regions to misappropriate the poet’s origins and legacy will not succeed until and unless actual evidence is produced in place of mere conjecture.
It can be seen that the Bengali language does fulfil all the conditions required for official recognition as an Indian classical language. Beginning with the Gitagovinda, the Charyapada verses, and the Dohas of the Siddhacharyas, flourishing with the Vaishnava Padavali, Mangal Kavyas, the Bengali Ramayana (or Sri Ram Panchali) and Sri Chaitanyacharitamrta, and culminating in Anandamath and finally Gitanjali in the 20th century, the Bengali literary tradition has come a full circle which is unbroken and vast in terms of the diverse area it covers. These works and many more classics of Bengali literature, in every conceivable genre of Indic as well as world literature, constitute the continuous tradition of the Bengali language and literature, which is rich in multidisciplinary resources and still throbbing with life.
In addition to the six languages officially recognised as Indian classical languages so far, there are three other languages which enjoy equal benefits and patronage. One should note that no literary production from any of these nine languages in total has yet received international and universal recognition like the Nobel Prize for literature, whereas the only Indian language poet to have ever received a literature Nobel happens to be a Bengali poet. Why shouldn’t Bengali be officially recognised as an Indian classical language, when the language fulfils all the criteria required for the status, and despite having earned worldwide acclaim?
Recently, the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, has written letters to the Prime Minister as well as the Chief Minister of West Bengal, seeking official recognition for Bengali as one of the classical languages of India. But during the entire length of time from September 2004 to February 2014, when one by one six languages were being conferred the official status of Indian classical languages, Chowdhury, an MP from West Bengal’s Berhampore as well as the president of Congress’s West Bengal unit, did not feel the need to raise the language’s claim for the recognition. This is despite the Congress-led UPA alliance having secured two consecutive terms in the central government. Throughout this long period of 10 years, Chowdhury has been an MP of the ruling party at the centre, and from October 2012 to May 2014, he has served as minister of state for railways under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Even at that time, his new-found love for Bengali language had remained dormant.
It may be mentioned here that during his tenure in the ministry, Odia, the principal language of Odisha, got official recognition as a classical language. Even then, Adhir Babu did not become vocal on the case for Bangla. Therefore, one cannot help but feel that his present activism is essentially politicising an education policy-related issue of national import to stoke narrow provincialism.
We should also worry about another possibility. If Bangladesh ends up officially recognising Bengali language as classical ahead of India, it will be a crucial step towards the complete Arabisation of the language. Already, such machinations are in place, as is evidenced by the blatant dilution of Bengali language through textbooks recently released by the state textbook committee for school curriculum. In such primary and secondary school-level Sarkari textbooks, we have seen a conspicuously disproportionate amount of Urdu and Arabic words being introduced in order to replace everyday Bangla words like Ma (with Ammi) and Baba (with Abbu/Abba). Adding insult to injury, Urdu has reportedly come to replace Bangla on several official signboards put up by municipal authorities in major West Bengal cities like Kolkata and Asansol.
Anticipating the impending danger to Bengali language and culture, pro-Indic, nationalist Bengali activists, scholars, and organisations have already rallied for the designation and celebration of 20th September as the “Pashchimbanga Matribhasha Divas”, that is, the ‘West Bengal Mother Tongue Day’. This is intended to commemorate the death of Tapas Barman and Rajesh Sarkar, who were allegedly killed in police firing on that day in 2018 while protesting the appointment of three Urdu teachers in their Bengali-dominated school. The Indian state of West Bengal was created as a Bengali Hindu homeland and to protect their distinct cultural identity in 1947. But this unique cultural identity and the Bengali language itself have been under constant attack since the 1947 partition from a systematic and creeping encroachment of Urdu language and culture from across the border, which is allegedly being supported and even orchestrated from within every level of officialdom in the state’s current regime.
This insidious Urdu encroachment project has, over the recent decades, given rise to a growing concern among Bengalis across class, caste, and creed that West Bengal is on the verge of losing its true Bengali character, which itself is steeped in the Sanatana Dharma and the Indic ethos, and might very well be absorbed into the Pan-Islamic project which is aggressively and relentlessly being pursued by terrorist organisations across the border, like the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, JMB, JMJB, HUJI, Islami Chhatra Shibir, etc. and their political and religious collaborators who are active throughout West Bengal and India.
In this context, recognising the importance of West Bengal as a border state and understanding the role it can play in overcoming the forces of provincialism and secessionism active within it, the main opposition party in West Bengal and the central government should take immediate steps to officially recognise Bengali as a classical Indian language. There are reasons to apprehend that if this effort is delayed, then the fate of West Bengal and that of the inheritors of Bengali culture will be the same as the fate of Kashmiri Hindus. Perhaps the situation in Kashmir would have been vastly different than it is today had Kashmiri as well as Dogri (both languages of high antiquity) been officially recognised as classical languages and their respective indigenous cultures specially preserved and promoted.
The inexhaustible store of traditional Indic civilisational, religio-spiritual and nationalist thought in Bengali is unmatched by that of any other modern Indian language. It is in this language that God incarnates, saints and leaders like Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Raja Rammohan Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, and Sri Anirvan have spoken, written and given invaluable discourses. Just as the national anthem of the modern Indian state ‘Jana gana mana Adhinayaka’ is composed in Bengali, so is half of the national song ‘Vande Mataram’. The cultural richness, the aesthetic refinement, and the phonetic sweetness of the unbroken Bengali literary tradition, as well as the relentless pursuit of over 1300 years for perfection of the Bengali language by its inheritors, are reflected in both these works. Therefore, if Bangla is officially recognised as a classical language of India, the promotion and dissemination of the language and its literature will get a tremendous boost, and the benefit accrued from the same will be equally nourishing to both Bengali culture and Indian culture as a whole.
Can we really claim to have provided our students the full scope of Indic thought, culture, and spiritual-intellectual treasures, while at the same time excluding the classic literature of Bengali, Marathi and Punjabi from our special programme around the designated classical languages of India as per the NEP 2020?
* Aaji Bangladesher Hridoy Hote”. Gitabitan, Rabindranath Tagore
* Aurobindo, Sri. Writings in Bengali and Sanskrit. Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, 2017: Pondicherry
* Bangla Bhasha” Amra Bangali, accessed on 15/09/2020
* Bloch, J. The Formation of the Marathi Language. Trans. by Dr Dev Raj Chanana. Motilal Banarsidass, 1970: New Delhi
* Explained: How is a language declared ‘classical’ in India, what benefits it enjoys”. The Indian Express, January14, 2020
* Das, Sisir Kumar. A History of Indian Literature 500 – 1399, Sahitya Akademi, 2005: New Delhi
* Marathi may become the sixth classical language” The Indian Express, July 4, 2013
* Sanyal, Shukla. Revolutionary Pamphlets, Propaganda and Political Culture in Colonial Bengal. Cambridge University Press, 2014: London
* Sen, Sukumar. Bangala Sahityer Itihas. Modern Book Agency, 1940: Kolkata
* Sindhu, G.S. Panjab and Panjabi. Guru Nanak Charitable Trust. 2004: New Delhi
* Singha, H.S. The Encyclopedia of Sikhism. Hemkunt Publishers (P) Ltd, 2005: New Delhi
Ahana Chaudhuri is a writer, translator, and digital marketer based in Mysore, Karnataka. She holds a Masters in Comparative Literature and takes a keen interest in Indic Studies.
Sreejit Datta is Director of Civilisational Studies Practice and an Assistant Professor at the Rashtram School of Public Leadership. Datta’s research interests include 'alaṁkāraśāstra', aesthetic philosophy, comparative philosophy, comparative literature, musicology, performance studies, Bhakti, and Vedic Studies. He is an avid translator, writer, and a musician.
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