Sylhet Nagri Script and Literature:
Documentation and Textual Study
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a distinct script
was widely used by the rural Muslim population of the Barak-Surma region in the
northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent. Over the years the script came to
be known as Sylhet Nagri Script and formed the creative expression of the
distinctive culture of the region.
The Region: The
region was partitioned in 1947 and is presently under two nation states of India and Bangladesh. It includes the three
districts of Assam in India - Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj - and
four districts of Sylhet in Bangladesh
– Sadar Sylhet, Maulabi Bazar, Habiganj and Sunamganj. This is an ancient
region the political cartography of which changed again again, though cultural
frontier remained porous. The region can be seen as a distinctive ‘cultural
zone’ closely linked with Bengal but not quite
the same. It formed a frontier zone – not only the eastern edge of Gangetic Valley
and hence eastern frontier of Bengal but also western border land of
South-western China and Burma. Historically,if from the east came Brahmanism and later Islam, from the
west poured in the tribals, Austrics as well as Mongoloids of Tibeto-Burman
origin. The region was marked by a continuous process of acculturation-accommodation
and assimilation displayed a spirit of innovation. Sylhet Nagri script is an
expression of this creativity and the literature written in this script
embodies the cultural history of the region.
The Script emerged as an alternative script for Bengali as spoken in the Sylhet-Cachar
or Surma Valley region. It was a simple
alphabetical system with thirty two letters in all and was based on the
principle of one letter one sound. Originally there were no conjuncts, though a
few were introduced subsequently. The exact date of the origin of the script is
not known. Some scholars think that the script originated between fourteenth
and seventeenth centuries when Islam emerged as a social force in the region. That Islam acted as a catalytic agent in the
emergence of the script is a well established fact. By the eighteenth century
this easy-to-learn script became very popular among the rural Muslim masses and
was used for religious composition and social exchange. There seems to be an
element of secrecy associated with the use of the script at least till the
sixties of the nineteenth century when the script was standardized and put to
print for more general use. However, some users of the script proscribed their
writings from being put to print.
There is a fairly large corpus of Sylhet Nagri literature. All the writings in the script are in verse.
Most of it deals with Islam in Sufi form though in the nineteenth century some
reflected reformist ideology. A number of texts are in the form of debates on
Islamic theology at a very popular level. Others include advice manuals,
hagiography and social commentaries. The book-production combine both Semitic
and non-Semitic traditions. The binding is done on the right so that, as per
Semitic system, pages open from left to right. But within the texts lines run
from left to right as in the non-Semitic practice.
The material has not yet come under serious academic scrutiny
primarily because of its inaccessibility. So far the texts lay scattered
in the remote villages of Assam
and Sylhet. Since 2004 the School of Cultural Texts and Records of Jadavpur University has taken
up the initiative to retrieve this important but endangered literature from extinction.
So far 55 distinct works in a total of 103 versions have been
located, accessed and digitally copied from the institutions and individuals in
Kolkata, West Bengal, in Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj of Assam, India and in Sylhet, Bangladesh.
The material is of immense significance. It throws light on the
socio-cultural history of the region at a time when Islam emerged as a social
force. The script and the literature form creative expressions of the acculturation process
emerging out of the confrontation of indigenous culture with Perso- Islamic
civilization. The stages in Muslim identity formation can be studied through
sociological insights into these texts. The texts may also yield significant
socio-linguistic information on the social, economic, cultural and religious
factors that gave rise to the need for a distinct script and hence a distinct
identity for its users.
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