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Abdul Karim’s discoveries – Origins of modernity in Bengali literature

‘As a man in a dream who fails to lay hands upon another whom he is pursuing—the one cannot escape nor the other overtake—even so neither could Achilles come up with Hector, nor Hector break away from Achilles.’

—Homer, The Iliad.

‘It is thus to an empty identity that they cling, those who take it to be something true, insisting that identity is not difference but that the two are different. They do not see that in saying, ‘Identity is different from difference,’ they have thereby already said that identity is something different.’

—Hegel, The Science of Logic.

‘On June 23, 1757,’ Sir Jadunath Sarkar, a former Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, once wrote, ‘the middle ages of India ended and her modern age began.’ That this indomitable truth should have been touted in 1948 and that also in a volume called ‘History of Bengal, Muslim Period: 1200-1757,’ perhaps adds a dimple to the grimace of history. ‘When Clive struck at the Nawab,’ our wise old historian noted, ‘Mughal civilization had become a spent bullet.’ ‘Today the historian, looking backward over the two centuries that have passed since then,’ as for his part claimed this bigot of a chronicler, ‘knows that it was the beginning, slow and unperceived, of a glorious dawn, the like of which the history of the world has not seen elsewhere.’

The literature produced since the conquest in 1757 has often been described as ‘modern’ literature. By ‘modern’ is obviously meant ‘European’. To wit: ‘The literary history of Bengal in the 19th century is really the history of the influence of European ideas on Bengali thought,’ wrote Sushil Kumar De, once of Dhaka University. ‘Taking 1800 A.D. to be roughly the date of commencement of the modern era of Bengali Literature,’ this literary historian also claims: ‘The problem of English education now decisively settled, the triumph of the West was fully proclaimed; and the literature as well as the society, in trying to adjust itself to this new order of things, began to take a distinctly new tone and colour.’ This view of our literature, which is still accorded ‘almost an axiomatic status,’ indicates at best ‘nothing but a failure of memory.’ I wish only to raise a point or may be two here.

আবদুল করিম সাহিত্যবিশারদ (১৮৭১-১৯৫৩)

আবদুল করিম সাহিত্যবিশারদ (১৮৭১-১৯৫৩)


Even a cursory review of early Bengali literature, for instance of the works rediscovered by Abdul Karim (1871?-1953) at the turn of the twentieth century, makes this inflexible ‘historical’ argument quite vulnerable. This is perhaps the burden of my slight endeavour here. Who is then this Abdul Karim, anyway? When Haraprasad Shastri (1853-1931) introduces him as ‘a Muhammadan gentleman in Chittagong’ no one is surprised, for in putting it that way Shastri is only furrowing a well-worn tradition, if in reverse. Muhamamedan gentlemen are not supposed to be reading and writing Bengali, or procure Bengali manuscripts, let alone produce them. And that too in far away Chittagong, a land forsaken by Indian gods!

‘The search for manuscripts of Bengali Literature,’ as a visibly moved Haraprasad Shastri put it in Calcutta Review in 1917, ‘is still going on unabated, the newspapers and magazines teem with descriptions of old manuscripts of old works brought to light and two names stand prominent in this department of literary activity: one is a Muhammadan gentlemen in Chittagong, Moulvi Abdul Karim, who has collected and described several thousands of Bengali manuscripts of works written both by Hindus and Muhammadans and his descriptions are always full and accurate and possess much literary and historical value.’ ‘The other gentleman,’ Haraprasad adds, ‘is Babu Siva Ratan Mitra who has made a large collection of manuscripts and described them but has not yet been able to publish much.’

On Abdul Karim, or rather on Chittagong, his site of being, Haraprasad Shastri throws up also a highly excitable comment: ‘Chittagong being an out-of-the–way place free from the vicissitudes of the richer and more favoured districts of Bengal have preserved many valuable relics of the past and among these the manuscripts of the works of Bengali Literature, and it is a matter of congratulation that these have fallen into the hands of such an earnest and enthusiastic worker like our friend Abdul Karim.’

Haraprasad Shastri, being his well-cultivated self, upheld his own cause only in the wake of the other two explorers: ‘While these earnest men were enthusiastically working in the plains with Bengali manuscripts, Bengali works, their history, their influence, their literary merit and so on, a Bengali Brahman, who for obvious reasons should be nameless here, was working patiently, quietly with the dusty heaps of palmleaf manuscripts in the Royal and private collections in the depth of the Himalayas, in the city of Kathmandu and in its neighborhood.’ It is in course of this not a slight endeavor that he discovered manuscripts of those now famous oldest extant Bengali texts, better known as Caryapadas in the annals of our literature.

Let’s get it then from the good old Brahman’s own mouth:  ‘But the delight of this Brahman knew no bound when he laid his hands, one fine morning, on a palmleaf manuscript in the early 12th century Bengali script, of a collection of Bengali songs with Sanskrit commentary attached. About the date of the script he had no doubt. It was Bengali on the face of it, much older Bengali handwriting than that given in Professor Bendall’s photo etching at the end of his catalogue of Buddhist manuscripts in the Cambridge University Library, and belonging to the year 1198.’

‘If so, he argued,’ goes on our good Brahman, ‘the script belongs to the early 12th century, the Sanskrit commentary must be [of] earlier [vintage] than that time. The collection of songs must precede the commentary, and the composition of the songs must precede the collection. The songs belong to 20 different authors, whose signatures are invariably attached to the last lines of their songs. The authors therefore must belong to the 10th century at least, and all these afforded food for his thought, reflection and study for several years.’ Besides the fifty songs, two collections of dohas, or dohakosas, were also discovered shortly afterwards.

These reflections on the songs and dohas led to a number of tentative judgments. First, their language was identified to be a form of old Bengali: ‘When the songs are Bengali of the 10th century, the dohas represent the archaic dialect of that period.’ Secondly, ‘the originality claimed by the Vaisnavas in inventing Kirtana [some ‘six hundred years later,’ as adds Shastri] does not hold good any longer,’ as those old Buddhist songs are in no way inferior to these later Vaishnava marvels.

Not least, the social standing of the Buddhist authors of the old differed not inconsiderably from that of the Vaisnava authors. In Haraprasad Shahstri’s own words:  ‘In those old days Brahmans were few in Bengal and their followers almost a negligible quantity. The little Aryan culture the people then had came filtered through Buddhism. But still the poets of the songs came from the highest society of the time. Their language was not boorish but elevated and dignified and they tried to make it as much Sanskritized as they could for even then Sanskrit was supposed to give dignity and add respectability.’ ‘The comparisons, ‘Haraprasad notes, ‘are drawn from natural objects such as [lotuses], mountains, rivers, etc., but what strikes one as peculiar is the oft-repeated simile with boats and their constituent parts, the oars, helms, ropes, pegs, and so on. Another fruitful source of comparison is the milking of cows. The authors seem to have been substantial boatmen, cowherds and men in a similar position.’

For some time this must have sounded seditious, or sacrilegious to Shastri’s compatriotic ears, whom he called ‘spiteful people’. ‘Spiteful people may magnify a printing mistake here and a clerical there into grave serious mistakes and inexcusable faults, but that is the storehouse of information to which everyone must turn in his need, he wrote at the time in turning to the Buddhist contribution to proto-Bengali and Bengali literature of our early modern ages.


I condescend to cite here the discoverer of the oldest known Bengali songs of the 10th century or thereabouts, in some detail, for two reasons. First, these remarks do suggest that origins of the Bengali language itself must be a modern incident and that the literature it spawns is also nothing if not modern. My second point is that these remarks of Haraprasad Shastri’s anticipates mutatis mutandis conclusions we might draw from the more than remarkable new discoveries made by Abdul Karim, better known as the Sahityavisarad, since 1893.

What’s new, then? Abdul Karim discovered that there existed also Muslim writers of quality in Bengali literature and, what’s more, their quantity also is far from negligible. In diction their works, for instance, those of the 17th century lauraetes Kazi Daulat (1600-1638) or Syed Alaol (1607-1680) are no less ‘elevated and dignified,’ i.e., Sanskritized in measure than Bharatchandra Ray’s (1712-1760)  or Madhusudan Datta’s (1824-1873) of later fame. Genealogically speaking, the Bengali Muslim writers drew on both pre-Islamic Indian and Indo-Islamic materials found in languages such as Arabic, Persian and Hindusthani. In terms of thematic apperception, they made forays into much terra incognita for Bengali literature. In their desire to relay to a Bengali reading public or rather auditors the culture of Islam by way of a standard Bengali, they gave pride of priority to the secular motifs. Apart from a few manuals drafted for religious purposes, the dominant motifs in all works of the time are secular.

Syed Sajjad Husain, English translator of the Descriptive Catalogue of Bengali Manuscripts by Abdul Karim, writes in his introduction: ‘Syed Sultan’s Nabi Bangsa [Genealogy of the Prophets], perhaps the most ambitious work of its kind in which the author’s aim is to give a biographical account of the prophets from Adam to Muhammad, was undoubtedly inspired by the desire to create for the Bengali Muslims a kind of a national religious epic. It was intended to be both historical and imaginative. In his descriptions of Satan in particular the author gave free rein to his imagination though the didactic purpose is never lost sight of.’ Sayed Sultan (1550?-1648?) is, per Muhammad Enamul Haq, ‘one of the oldest known poets of Bengal.’

To provide a second instance here let’s quote Sajjad Husain once more: ‘Similarly, Muhammad Khan [1580-1650], author of Maqtul Husain [The Slaying of Husain], and one of the disciples of Syed Sultan, took up the story of the conflict between Husain, grandson of Prophet Muhammad and Yazid, ruler of Damascus culminating in the former’s defeat and assassination at Karabala. The purpose clearly was not only to write history but to impress upon the Muslim the lessons of one of the greatest tragedies in the annals of Islam.’ I hope a third instance, in addition, should suffice for now. In Muhammad Hanifar Larai [Muhammad Hanifa’s Battles] ‘we meet a semi-historical person called Hanifa believed to be a son of Caliph Ali, who engaged in a series of adventures which are far from being historical,’ and ‘Fatemar Suratnama [In Praise of Fatima’s  Beauty] recreates the daughter of prophet Muhammad in the likeness of a Bengali beauty.’ The words inside inverted commas, let it be noted, are Syed Sajjad Husain’s.

This free rein of imagination, only to be expected in modern literature, has caused some consternation—nay concern—in late colonial Bengal’s learned circles. One hypothesis, advanced by Syed Sajjad Husain,  holds that it ‘appears to have been to create in Bengali for the Muslim readers something like an exact equivalent, built out of Muslim history, of the Hindu myths and legends which formed the stuff and substance of contemporary Bengali literature.’

Bengali Muslim authors, c. 15th-18th centuries found themselves confronted with two main modes of literary works, ‘as part of the general heritage of the Bengali language,’ as Sajjad Husain puts it. ‘One was a corpus of lyrical literature developed by the [Vaisnava] poets. The central figures in the [Vaisnava] cult were Krishna and Radha, and the literature which these poets produced wove beautiful fantasies around their passionate attachment to each other.’ In course of the development, Krishna and Radha got refined into symbols into which profound cosmic and spiritual meanings could be read.’ The manifest eroticism of Vaisnava lyric poetry is often explained away as a metaphor for ‘a deeper mysticism,’ with Krishna and Radha substituting for aspects of ‘the timeless and the temporal,’ of the transcendent and the subject. ‘The second type of literature that the Muslim poets confronted,’ Sajjad Husain observes, ‘was represented by the Mangala Kavyas, poems celebrating a pantheon of local deities.’


Syed Sajjad Husain, not unlike the hoi polloi of this minor profession, seems to have collapsed most works of Muslim writers into the category of puthi literature, of a literature of mere imitation, of Dobhashi puthi vintage 18th century, and what’s more, he seems to completely deny the genre any literary worth whatsoever. He, however, would grant them some negligible felicity in the ethnographic archive of the modern. To wit: ‘As the traditional culture of the villages disintegrates gradually under the impact of industrial and technological change, the puthi seems destined to die out as literary form sooner or later. Recognition of this truth need not however prejudice our appreciation of the puthi as a magnificent record of the workings of the popular mind in East Pakistan [what is now Bangladesh], as vast storehouse of legends and stories, as social document of incalculable value providing an index to the thoughts and beliefs of the people of East Pakistan.’

Unfortunately, Husain is not alone. He seemingly would find himself in good company. His not so strange bedfellows are certain Brahminical gentlemen from the West Bengal State of our great neighbor India (i.e., Bharat). Sometime ago Dipesh Chakrabarty, a Brahmanical gentleman as well as a world shattering historian in Chicago among other sites, made the remarkable discovery that the old Bengali literary historian and editor Dineshchandra Sen (1866-1939), a Baiddya of East Bengal, by the way, had been long fascinated with the folk-literature of Eastern Bengal on account of an affliction, of a species of parochial nationalism, or even better put, a pathology named ‘politics of identity.’ Our good friend Dipesh Chakrabarty gives it a pretty hoary sounding title: ‘Romantic Archives,’ that is to say a species of medieval relic, now fortunately adrift in the global ocean.

Gautam Bhadra, another distinguished historian and a Kayastha gentleman, in his ‘Abdul Karim Sahityavisarad Memorial Lecture’ delivered in Dhaka in 2003, i.e. on the savant’s 50th death anniversary, also applies the Chakrabarty thesis. He too finds Abdul Karim as a nationalist of sorts, a hysterical type that is. Bhadra translates ‘Politcs of Identity’ as ‘Atmasattar Rajniti’.

Does he pay any attention to Abdul Karim’s mumerous writings or for that matter to the arguments of the old Haraprasad Shastri? Apparently, and sadly I must say, not at all. He depends only on the catalogue, without reading into the texts at all. Thus in Bhadra’s view Abdul Karim appears to embody it all, the contradictions of all nationalism in Bangladesh. He stops just short of calling it ‘Muslim nationalism’. What is right or wrong with Abdul Karim? Bhadra finds it in Abdul Karim’s putative accent on Chittagong, where he just happened to find almost all of his manuscripts, as also on his valorization of Bangladesh as a privileged site where he found himself domiciled on partition in 1947 and, finally, in his fervor on the identity of Muslim poets, his co-religionists, as indicative, nay proof of his identity politics. It seems Syed Sajjad Husain is not dead, nor Sir Jadunath Sarkar either.

Time, if not space here, today hardly permits me to take up the issue further. But I chuckle. I will limit myself here to only flagging some of the holes in their cosmos. These gentlemen are yet to address the question of modernity in Bengali Literature. Syed Alaol, as everyone now knows, was by all evidence Abdul Karim’s most favourite star. There may be more reason than one for his appreciation of a savant of a poet like Alaol. It just happened that he also was a Muslim, a rather good Muslim well-embroiled in letters. Dusan Zbavitel, a European specialist in Bengali literature, has not long ago written: ‘It was not easy for a Muslim poet to be recognized by the Hindu-dominated Bengali society, in the subsequent era, but Alaol did win distinction and general recognition. His diction was flawless and his style was truly poetic. As a good narrator he was able to enlarge the thematic repertory of Bengali literature by attractive and widely read renderings of foreign sources and to invigorate the tendencies towards a definite secularization of Bengali poetry.’

If secularization indeed arrives how far could our modern age lag behind? This will take us back to square one: what is modernity anyway? ‘When the sun dipped into the Ganges behind the blood-red field of Plassey, on that fateful evening of June, did it symbolize the curtain dropping on the last scene of a tragic drama?’ Or, ‘Was that followed by ‘a night of eternal gloom for India,’ as the poet of Plassey imagined Mohan Lal foreboding from the ranks of the losers?’ This hoary cry coming from the wilderness once mastered, Tarzan-like, by Sir Jadunath Sarkar now seems to have found its resounding echo in the worldly voices of our new philosophers in global times, you know them, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gautam Bhadra and their many readers who must remain nameless here for obvious reasons. One never knows who knows.


  1. Gautam Bhadra, Nera Bottolai Jai Ko’bar?’ 2nd ed. (Kolkata: Chatim Books, 2011).
  2. Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Romantic Archives: Literature and Politics of Identity in Bengal,’ Critical Inquiry, no. 30 (Chicago: Spring 2004), pp. 654-82.
  3. Sushil Kumar De, Bengali Literature in the Nineteenth Century (1757-1857), 2nd ed. (Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1962).
  4. G. N. Devy, The G N Devy Reader (Himayatnagar, Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2009).
  5. Munshi Abdul Karim and Ahmad Sharif, A Descriptive Catalogue of Bengali Manuscripts in Munshi Abdul Karim’s Collection, Syed Sajjad Husain, trans. (Dacca: Asiatic Society of Pakistan, 1960).
  6. Jadunath Sarkar, ed., History of Bengal, Muslim Period: 1200-1757, 3rd ed. (Dacca: University of Dacca, 1976).
  7. Haraprasad Shastri, ‘Bengali Buddhist Literature,’ in Haraprasad Shastri Racana-Samgraha, vol. II, Satyajit Chaudhuri et al., eds. (Calcutta: West Bengal State Book Board, 1981), pp. 840-859.
  8. Dusan Zbavitel, Bengali Literature (Weisbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1976).
  9. Slavoj Zizek, The Most Sublime Hysteric: Hegel with Lacan, Thomas Scott-Railton, trans. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014).

This piece was first published by The Daily Star on October 10, 2015

Copyright 2015 Salimullah Khan

Modernity’s many lineages: a tribute to Jasimuddin


And when old words die out on the tongue, new
melodies break forth from the heart; and where the
old tracks are lost, new country is revealed with its wonders.
−Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali

As old Greece had its Iliad and Odyssey and old India its Mahabharata and Ramayana, so modern Bengal does its Nakshi Kathar Math and Sojan Badiar Ghat. Good old great poems of the Ionian and Indian peninsulas, as everyone knows, are epics. And our two modern poems, however, belong to the genre of things known as ballads or sagas if you will. They are significantly named for a peasant society: Math and Ghat, i.e. field and wharf, in that order. But they are two, one almost says twin, ballads of modern Bengal, a country of two (or more) rivers, of two (or more) communities, a country that is no more, or almost no more. And Jasimuddin (occasionally ‘Jasim Uddin’ in a manner of rendering in English) is their author. Let us say a few words about the poet before turning to the poems themselves.

Jasimuddin was born on a very convenient date, namely January 1, 1903. It may be perhaps more of a legend than real. His place on earth is however less prone to legendary treatment. Tambulkhana, in Faridpur, is a lesser village where the poet was born. It is some eight miles off Govindpur, the village on his father’s side where he grew up. ‘I had been born and brought up,’ to put it in Jasimuddin’s own words, ‘in a village populated entirely by cultivators, and the folk songs were in my blood.’ Jasimuddin then did not have to look further up than his own folks for his motifs, fields and wharfs. Jasimuddin’s work is about the folk, as Verrier Elwin said it many years ago. ‘I do not know whether The Field of the Embroidered Quilt can be classed as folk-poetry, but it is obviously poetry about the folk.’ It is in fact a little more than that as we will presently see.

Dineshchandra Sen, Jasimuddin’s early mentor, too wrote: ‘I consider Maulvi Jasimuddin’s Nakshi Kathar Math as one of the best lyrical poems in our language.’ Writing three quarters of a century later the present writer would likewise concur. ‘Its pastoral descriptions and a unique array of picturesque scenery introduced off and on in this love tale,’ reasoned Sen, that grand old chronicler, ‘will acquaint one with the purity, strength, devotion and poetry of Bengali domestic life.’ ‘The author’s penetrating insight into the very character of our masses, his talented grasp of the characteristics of feminine feelings,’ Sen remarked, ‘have invested the poem with life-like presentation of the moral and cultural traits of Bengalis.’

‘In fact,’ Sen went on saying, ‘I do not know of any modern poets who have such an intimate knowledge of this beautiful land of ours.’ Why on earth, one wonders. Western civilization or the new education, its grand trope, spreading out from Calcutta, ‘reaching the remotest country town where any middle class inhabitant aspired to be educated,’ belonged to the town and its denizens, the middle classes. It brought many challenges along with the well churned out responses.

‘It created its own culture and its own literature,’ Jasimuddin wrote in the 1950s, ‘with themes and rhymes which were partly European in spirit, and partly linked up with the upper levels of culture in other parts of India. Almost every literate man’s eyes looked westward. The songs of the middle classes were sung to the accompaniment of modern European instruments such as the violin and the abominable portable harmonium, and the traditional instruments of Bengal fell out of fashion.’ ‘In the dazzling light of the western sun,’ as Jasimuddin’s own metaphor has it, ‘the little earthen lamps with which people used to see into the corners of their own rooms had lost their power of illumination. They look out at the whole world, but the beautiful things which lay at hand were hidden from sight.’

By the turn of the twentieth century, Jasimuddin laments, there was hardly anyone around to dare turning the tides about. Even Rabindranath Tagore, for all his fame, was writing for the middle-classes. ‘He hesitated to present the old tunes in their original form to people who would have despised them.’ ‘What he did,’ Jasimuddin noted, ‘was to create ‘a kind of sophisticated version of them.’

It is at this conjuncture that Jasimuddin finds himself in the middle of a small group of middle class ballad-collectors under Dineshchandra Sen. Jasimudddin was already there before he would be looking out with Sen to find out his own passage to modernity. Let’s get it from the horse’s own organ: ‘To me, unlike [Dineshchandra] Sen, the tunes meant even more than the words: they embodied the meaning of the traditional life I loved. They made me mad with their beauty and power, and I was set on making the reading public understand what was in them. It was not only for the sake of the reading public; it was a question of preserving the life of the tradition itself.’

Thus speaks our modern poet out loud: one awaited the poet who will have loved the new learning but will give no short shrift to old treasures either. ‘The old songs and ballads were too long-drawn-out for the new time-conscious man to spend hours listening to them: they repeated themselves interminably and were full of ideas and incidents unpleasing to the modern mind. Yet there was so much in them that might have been preserved. Had there been any great mind with a touch of poetry, someone who loved the new learning and loved his country’s past, it might have been possible to save both. The old songs and tunes, still alive among the people could have been collected and revised, purged of their corrupt and outworn elements and recreated. They might have become a link, making the people’s mind intelligible to the educated man and bringing the new outlook down to the consciousness of the illiterate.’

In the ballad Sojan Badiar Ghat [rendered Gipsy Wharf in English] modernity already arrived in the guise of communal riots. Sojan, the lover, is Muslim man and Dulali, his beloved, is a Namasudra woman or a Hindu of the ‘scheduled’ caste in the colonial register. As Barbara Painter, translator into English, notes, ‘Sojan and Dulali were destined from the beginning to be ill-starred lovers. It is not acceptable for them to marry outside their fellow religions and elopement into the forest seems the only solution. For some time they live happily in their forest cottage, but eventually Sojan is caught and imprisoned. Dulali is remarried by her orthodox parents to a farmer in a distant village. When Sojan is released from jail he finds his family gone, his village disrupted and his beloved remarried. In despair he joins a band of wandering water gypsies.’

Further: ‘In his wanderings with the gypsies, Sojan has been living in the hope of finding Dulali. When he finds her in the water-side village happily remarried, she at first rebuffs him for seeking her out. Then her love for him proves too strong. She steals away in the night, and rejoins Sojan, only to find that his grief at her cold reception has led him to take poison. She takes poison too and the lovers die like Romeo and Juliet.’ ‘The two communities, however, do not embrace each other because of this tragedy,’ thus concludes Barbara Painter her melancholy introduction to the UNESCO edition of the poem in 1969.

Relations between the Muslim and the Namasudra communities in certain districts of lower Bengal, including Faridpur, have been tense since the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1933, when Sojan Badiar Ghat saw the light of day, things could not have been worse. The question of communal award was taking its toll. Times could not be more unpropitious in Bengal to depict Hindu-Muslim affairs in such terms. It is a pity to learn that Jasimuddin was accused of nurturing a communal (i.e. pro-Muslim) bias, in writing this ballad. Many, including the eminent Suniti Kumar Chatterjee and the learned Narendra Dev, reportedly joined the fray. Such misunderstanding was in fact symptomatic and was part of the times. Jasimuddin’s ballad of the gipsy, in retrospect, seems to have been a prophetic saga. The partition of Bengal was anyway not far away, a decade and a half at most.

Jasimuddin’s political outlook is not naïve, on the contrary, it was a remarkably ‘communitarian’ worldview that he embraced. His was emphatically not a ‘communal’ outlook at all. He will be the last man to disregard ruling contradictions among the people. He in fact grasps it well how trouble might arise out of nowhere when the milieu is always already brittle, as was the case of a quarrel at the Muharram festival in the village of Shimultali. Jasimuddin however misses no opportunity to identify the role of the privileged classes, personified aptly in the Naib, or rent collector for the bhadralok Zamindar in stirring up the riots.

Although historians of modern Bengal give it habitually a short shrift, one ignores the communal tension at a great cost to their professional integrity. Since the end of the 19th century relations between the two communities in southern and south central Bengal had been very tense. ‘There was always a strong under-current of ill-feeling and whenever petty incidents occurred between individuals, large numbers on both sides would be ready to vindicate the honour of their respective communities,’ writes Sekhar Bandyopadhyay.

Communal collisions were legion between circa 1911 -1947. But their configurations changed midway quite palpably for those who have an aptitude for analysis. The Muslim-Namsudra relations were ‘seriously agitated during the convulsions of 1911 in Jessore-Khulna’. As Sekhar Bandyopadhyay enumerates, two years later in 1913, a dispute culminated in violence at Silna, a marketplace near Gopalganj. Likewise, in the same year ‘there was also a disturbance at Tarail in Kasiani police station. And then during the Non-cooperation [also the Khilafat] movement a political dimension was added to the already embittered relationship.’ It continued till 1921-22. In the high tide of Non-cooperation movement, the Muslims and the Namasudras found themselves on the opposite sides of the fence.

Things overturned themselves, however, by 1925-26. By then, when the Khilafat movement had died down, ‘the two peasant communities were again coming closer, if not in Faridpur, then definitely in other surrounding districts, against the Hindu bhadralok and their nationalist agitation.’ ‘In Narail subdivision of Jessore the Muslim and Namasudra sharecroppers has already combined again under the leadership of Nausher Ali to demand two-thirds share of the produce from their caste Hindu jotedars,’ notes Sekhar Bandyopadhyay. And this was to prove their undoing. ‘The movement which continued for greater part of 1924-25 was dubbed by the Congress as communal and was repressed ultimately by the police.’

Jasimuddin had these convulsions in mind when he undertook his task. No individual, not even a poet of such integrity, would prove equal to these trends of the times. Until partition in 1947, the tides were not to subside. After 1947, on both sides of the fence, it is as they say a different story.



  1. Jasimuddin, ‘Folk Music of East Pakistan,’ Journal of the International Folk Music Council, vol. 3 (1951), pp. 41-44.
  2. Jasim Uddin, Gipsy Wharf, Barbara Painter and Yann Lovelock, trans. (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969).
  3. Jasimuddin, The Field of the Embroidered Quilt: A tale of two Indian villages, E. M. Milford, trans. (Calcutta: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1939).
  4. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, Caste, Protest and Identity in Colonial India: The Namasudras of Bengal, 1872-1947, 2nd (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015).