History of a distinct culture

Print edition : February 01, 2019

Traditional drummers perform during the unveiling of a kilometre-long street “alpona” ahead of Durga Puja festivities in Kolkata in 2017. Although “alpona” has remained a largely private and domestic art in West Bengal, alpona covering long stretches of roads has been iconic of Bengali nationalism based on a linguistic identity in what is now Bangladesh for close to half a century. Photo: PTI

The meticulously researched book covers a whole gamut of themes, touching upon many aspects of the cultural history of Bengal.

THE book was originally written for “intelligent non-academic” Bengali readers and published from Dhaka in 2006. Sarbari Sinha has offered a fine translation which reads like an original piece of work. In her Translator’s Note, Sarbari Sinha has beautifully summed up the purpose and value of this work in the troubled times we inhabit. She writes: “Almost everywhere in the world, the walls are growing taller and more rigid as people turn away from history and ignore narratives that speak of shared destinies. More than ever before, this is the time to tell and share stories on the basis of recorded history instead of hearsay and social myths. If histories do not come out of the confines of academia and become part of everyday conversations, myth-making and bigotries inevitably usurp the intellectual space that is left vacant.” 

Ghulam Murshid’s work emerges from radio programmes and newspaper columns, where they were first offered to a large public interested in knowing about the history and culture of the Bengali people over the past thousand years. On closer look, it would appear that Bengal as a region, the Bangla language, and the Bengali people we know have emerged with distinct cultural markers in the past six to seven centuries, although the prehistory of literary traditions, cultural practices and geographical formations in the region identified as parts of greater river-washed Bengal can go back another couple of centuries or more.

Spread over 14 chapters, 644 pages in all, the voluminous book covers a whole gamut of themes on the cultural history of Bengal. Defining Bengali-speaking and fish-and-rice-eating people as Bengalis, despite differences and difficulties of different kinds—region, religion, caste (despite the apparent lack of it) and rural-urban divide—the author has, as is generally the case, sought endorsement from the venerable Rabindranath Tagore. The latter is quoted as saying: “The history of Bengal is the history of fragmentation. Eastern and western Bengal, Varendra and Rarh, these are not simply geographical divisions; divisions of hearts and minds were meshed up with them, and social unity was also absent. Yet, through it all there runs a strain of unity, and that is the unity of language. What defines us as being Bengali is that we happen to speak Bengali.”

This is not accidental. A long history of cultural investment has made the Bengali adda a Bengali adda. This can only be maintained through a deliberate distinction between a Bengali and a non-Bengali, even though the latter might learn to speak the language, with varying proficiency and accents. Language sophistication, then, is an important marker, which also distinguishes an inhabitant from a probashi, or expatriate.

And once language is taken care of, it is the turn of religion. In contemporary West Bengal, Hindus have appropriated the Bengali identity for themselves—for them, Muslims are Muslims, even if they are Bengali-speaking. Bengali Muslims themselves have struggled with their dual identity, with terrible consequences in their history. To be a Bengali by birth and language, therefore, is a carefully crafted identity.

Well-meaning Bengali scholars have always tried to rise above political divisions to emphasise the value of shared cultural practices—encompassing East and West Bengal as well as religious divides and variations between the rural and urban people, besides class differences between bhadralok and chhotolok (although the latter are not explicitly identified as such).

The unfinished business of the making of Bengali identity of the tribal people, who are not perceived as being proper Bengalis in terms of their cultural sophistication, also remains a problem. All these have led to complex processes of appropriation and exclusion which have made Bengali culture what it is.

Bengali and Muslim

After a short chapter on the antecedents of what constitutes Bengali culture, Murshid appropriately turns to the cultural transformations in the Indo-Muslim era, drawing attention to nearly 550 years of a sort of indirect “Muslim rule” in Bengal, from the early 13th to the mid 18th centuries. The Muslim rulers came down from different parts of Central and West Asia. They spoke different languages and did not belong to a monolithic culture. Although they had a common religious identity, they had not “travelled to Bengal to preach Islam or to establish Islamic rule”. Arabic, Persian and Turkish-speaking Muslim immigrants brought with them “varied cultural and civilisational traits of a vast region of the globe” and, over centuries, also underwent considerable mutations through marriage with local women, beginning the process of becoming a Bengali Muslim. This was similar to North Indian Brahmin immigrants marrying Santhal women to form the process of the making of Bengali Brahmins, even though it might sound scandalous to those with little or no sense of history.

The intermingling between Muslim rulers and nobles of central Islamic lands on the one hand and local intermediaries on the other, besides the “Bengalicisation” of the immigrants, left clear marks on religion, architecture, literature and various other aspects of culture. The use of bricks and terracotta designs gave a distinct character to Islamic architecture in the mosques, mazars and dargahs with all their domes, minarets and arches that began to dot the spiritual landscape of Bengal.

In this and several other features, one can see what Richard Eaton characterises as the “double movement” in Bengal’s Islamic traditions—which features will be privileged when would depend on the ethnic or religious politics of the time.

As Murshid wrote in the chapter on society and religion, the advent of Islam in the medieval period produced a process of opposition and assimilation between the local and the imported religions. This was similar to the kind witnessed earlier under rulers patronising strands of Vedic (Shaivite) and Buddhist (Sahajiya) forms of worship, in a context in which the local rural masses subscribed to a range of beliefs, invoked many gods and goddesses, and performed their rituals and “vratas” (propitiation of folk deities, usually performed by women).

Religious beliefs and practices in Bengal have, thus, acquired many influences to the extent that sometimes they just cannot be easily boxed into one religion or the other. Some such cases are often referred to as syncretism or syncretic sects, revealing accretions from a variety of sources. This would also mean that Islam or Hindu traditions in Bengali communities are not always the exact replicas of their sources. The Bengali interpretation and appropriation would make them something of their own, and thus a marker of their distinct identity. A Bengali Muslim will not be the same as a Bihari Muslim or a Punjabi; no degree of fundamentalism can, for long, dissolve the cultural markers that set them apart. Islam in Bengal, therefore, was going to have its distinct character. 

The process of religious assimilation summed up by the author includes the suggestion that Buddhism was influenced most by tantric modes of worship, which in turn spawned several sects and branches through varied influences and incorporations. Further, as wives, daughters and daughters-in-law of Siva, the non-Aryan goddesses became accepted as deities in the Hindu tradition. A variety of Mangalkavyas illustrate this process. Also, literature associated with the Hindu revivalist movement around the figure of Chaitanyadev and his Vaishnava devotion reveals its resistance to the massive political presence of Islam.

Faith in Bengal has always been devotional and inclined towards gurus or spiritual mentors and teachers. Not surprisingly, therefore, it was the non-dualistic, devotional and guru-dependent Islam that flourished in Bengal. Thus, a tradition of non-ceremonial and syncretic faith—triumphing over institutionalised religion—assimilated Buddhist Sahajiya ideals, the Sufi world view of Islam, and the stress on love in Vaishnavism; it drew even on tantric beliefs and found soulful expression in the Bauls, who emerged as early as the 15th century. The latter sang the songs of love as a matter of the heart, moving away from the usual codified chants or mantras.

The distinctive qualities of its own mark many other aspects of Bengali culture across communities, subregions and centuries. Although Murshid acknowledges the process of Persianisation of the Bengali literary tradition under the Mughals, beginning late in the 16th century, he remarks somewhat cryptically that the conquerors could not make sense of the language, clothes and food of the Bengali people. The author writes: “These roti-and-meat-eating outsiders of the Mughal age detested the fish and rice of Bengal.”

Love of fish

Whatever may be the truth, the reverse assimilation is evident today: by most accounts, the Mughlai in Kolkata, which is the Mecca of Bengali culture now, offers some of the best preparations of kebab, chap and biryani with their mouth-watering flavours catering to varied tastes, ranging from hot and spicy to mild and fragrant. If one has not tasted these, one is not properly introduced to either Mughlai or Bengali culinary culture. These are best prepared by professional cooks or “bawarchis” working for ubiquitous restaurants. In older times, one could lose caste by eating rotis or smelling meat, but from the 19th century those who sought to defy taboos jumped college walls for beef kebabs.

Further, as someone claiming to be not bound to any national or ethnic identity, Murshid claims in his chapter on food culture: “People of many other provinces of India, however, do not view this fish-eating habit of Bengalis too kindly. Many people in the subcontinent still do not eat fish.”

Noting that historical records “reflect the love that the people of this land have for fish”, the author quotes an early text: “Fortunate is the man whose wife serves freshly cooked rice, clarified butter from cow’s milk, leaves and gravy of sardines every day on plantain leaves.” The author concludes: “Bengali food has so far retained its own distinctiveness despite the many changes in food, drinks and modes of hospitality over the past 1,000 years.”

While we discuss gastronomic delights and satisfaction, can we ignore a fine conversation on music, films and other art forms? Murshid offers a detailed discussion in dedicated chapters on all these. These constitute the cultural capital of the Bengali people, with considerable investments going back five centuries, if not ten. The tradition of kirtan, devotional songs sung by the Gaudiya Vaishnavas, formed something of a unique school of music in the early modern era. Excellence in music in modern times can also be seen in the fusion of different kinds, often influenced by Western vocal and instrumental traditions.

The English-knowing Bengali clerk, the babu, had already appeared by the late 18th century, with Calcutta (now Kolkata) picking up English quickly, along with other markers of Western modernity. Many fields such as literature, theatre, films and other modern art forms manifested changes wrought by Western influence in different phases, from the early modern to colonial modern transformations and postcolonial changes.

All in all, great efforts were made to attain sophistication and excellence in several cultural fields—art forms and performance—together comprising the chequered cultural history of the region. Negative comments on Bengalis, either as internal critique or perceptions of outsiders, include the stereotype of the tame, timid but well-mannered, lazy and idle Bengalis attached to the comforts of home and the para, resembling the proverbial frog in the well. One such criticism, as far back as 1885, succinctly stated: “Bengalis will starve to death at home and yet refuse to go out and look for food.” But such critiques should not detract from their cultural attainments. 

When a book on this scale is written, some details might appear problematic for the specialists of different fields and eras of history, but the narrative as a whole captures the larger cultural contours. Since so many varied things have been discussed, a separate chapter on festivities would serve as an occasion to showcase the celebrations, cultural aesthetics and pleasures of life, as in the case of Durga Puja, which has been central to Bengali culture for over two centuries now. “Baro mashe tero parbon” (thirteen festivals in twelve months of the year), goes the popular Bengali saying and with good reason. 

As is the usual practice, followed by Murshid too, we conclude with a reference to Tagore’s extraordinary internationalism and cosmopolitan outlook: “In this age of communal disharmony and heightened cultural and religious identities, we will also do well to remember how Tagore’s work inspired several generations of Hindu and Muslim Bengalis to draw closer on the basis of their shared linguistic identity. The ideal of a liberal, secular and humanist universalism that formed the underpinning of Tagore’s work and his world view continues to inspire progressive Bengalis today.”

The author, translator and publisher deserve much appreciation for meticulously bringing out this huge volume covering many scintillating aspects of the cultural history of Bengal.

Raziuddin Aquil teaches history at the University of Delhi. He was previously Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. His books include The Muslim Question: Understanding Islam and Indian History (Penguin).