A Discussion on Sylheti Nagree
Sylhet is one of the distinctive places in Bangladesh with incredibly rich culture, heritage and history. Most prominent example is the Nagree (also spelled Nagri) script, a profound area of study in our Bengali literature. Interestingly, Bengali script is used by the Bengali speaking people however, the use of Nagri alphabets along with Bengali was found only in Sylhet region. This script had been exercised for several centuries. Although limited, this was in practice especially in rural Sylhet till middle of the twentieth century. The only press which used to publish Nagree script was destroyed during the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971.
Scholars have always been engaged in research of Nagree script. According to their research we are informed about what Nagree script is; it’s emerging time, development and when and how the practice of this script was first started.
Mohammad Ashraf Hossain Sahityarotno has carried out an extensive research on Nagri script and literature. Many people believe that he is the pioneer of this special arena. According to his research work, Sanskrit influenced Bengali was the language of the Sylheti people. Although the migrant Muslims from different parts of the world accepted the local language as their means of communication; however, initially they were unable to fully comprehend it. On the other hand, newly converted Muslims and brotherly Hindus, rulers and neighbors were not able to understand the foreign Urdu and Persian mixed language. In order to rule the country and to preach religion, Muslim rulers and preachers had to face difficulties while communicating with the Hindus. It is our belief; the then Sylheti language had attained marvelous mix from many other languages. To help run the state affairs of the rulers and the Hindus and the religious affairs of converted Muslims ‘Sylhet Nagri’ was used which was similar to Bengali and Dev-Nagri. It is said that this language was easily understood by the people and eventually it was named ‘Phool Nagree’ for its simplicity and beauty. It is still believed that this language was sweet and simple for people.
Renowned researcher and scholar Syed Murtaza Ali has mentioned in his article ‘Sylheter Nagri Lipi O Bangla Sahitya’ that one kind of Nagri script was practiced by the Muslims of Sylhet which was different from Dev-nagari script. The practice of this script was found only among the Muslims of Sylhet district.
Practices of this script were limited and it was more likely the scripts of Muslims during that time. Hindus were not that much comfortable with this language. Besides, the practice of this language was found more in the eastern region of Sylhet such as Sadar, Karimganj and Moulvibazar. Then Nagri puthis started spreading all over Cachar district and Kishoreganj subdivision of Mymenshing as well.
Women of that time were more interested in this language and they found it valuable. Research says that Nagri was practiced more by women than men during that time. Interestingly, many people who were unable to write in Bangla used Nagri to sign things up.
We can see that some of the work even antiques from past have got signs in Nagri. These are undoubtedly strong evidences to support that information. Basically Nagri script had no connection with the formal language used as state language. Nagri used to be produced on different aspects of religion; some were produced to tell romantic stories as well. Besides this, some Nagri script were written on the biography of saints and leaders who were devoted to spread Islam. So, all these script included the spiritual belief which touched the heart of the simple community of that time, however, the elites were exceptions. It became a medium of their entertainment. After a long tiring day people used to meet up at a place and recite Puthi (Nagri script) to have some refreshment in their daily life. These punthis brought in consolation at sorrows and misery, and joys during leisure. Nagri punthi retained the trend of rural folk literature by keeping the rural life elegant.
Nagri punthi has vastly contributed to retain the rural folk. People, more specifically the women in rural areas accepted the Nagri script as this could be learnt with less effort and in a very short time. There was a saying ‘Nagri can be learnt in two and half days’.
However, later on the uses of Persian and Urdu languages were discontinued in this country especially after the battle of Palashi. Then the Muslims started Bengali literature giving more importance on it. Soon they realized that Bengali script-especially the combined-letters are too complicated. Moreover, pattern of Bengali prose had been changed by the scholars of Fort William College. Literature of Bharat-Chandra was termed as ‘Yavan (Muslim) blender’. On the other hand the spoken language of Sylhet was far different from the classical language of Nadia Shantipur, moreover, because of the uses of Sanskrit words, the classical language during the first part of nineteenth century appeared completely difficult to understand. Consequently, under compulsion they had decided to produce their own script and literature.
Sir George Grearson conducted the survey of Indian languages, in his opinion-‘Among the low Class Muhammedans to the east of this district (Sylhet) the use of Deva-nagari alphabet occurs. It is extremely Common for Muhammadans to sign their names in this Character and the only explanation they offer for its use is that it is so much easier to learn than Bengali. punthis in Bengali are printed in this Character but except for this purpose and for the writings of signatures by otherwise illiterate men the Script is hardly used, never at least in formal documents.’
According to Dr. Suneet Kumar Chatterjee-“In Sylhet a kind of modified Deva-nagari Called ‘Silet Nagari’ has a restricted use among the local Mussalmans and this use of Nagari in distant East Bengal and among Mohammedans too is explained as being the result of the influence of early colonies of proselytising Moslems from Upper India who wrote their Vernaculars (Eastern & Western, Hindi dialects) in yet in the field-and taught it to the local converts : a tradition in employing this alphabet was thus established and was continued down to our times. Recently this alphabet has been used in printing.”
Opinion of Nagendra Nath Basu Prachyabidyamoharnob is that-‘Though converted to Muhammadan religion thoso who resided in Sylhet & its neighbourhood and near Bishnupur (Bankura) retained to a certain extent the distinctive feature of their community. It is remarkable that the alphabet which they adopt while writing their books on subjects connected with the Muhammadan religion is Nagri though the language used is Bengali. This alphabet is known as Sylhet Nagari and Mussalmani Nagri. Mussalmani Kechchas are printed in Calcutta from types adopted from the characters of Sylhet Nagari. Fifty years ago Munshi Abdul Karim, an inhabitant of Sylhet, returning from Europe, constructed the Nagari types after having revised the alphbet on European model by rejecting many of its letters.
Regarding Nagri script, Jogendra Chandra Ghosh says-‘There is a Script Called Mussalmani Nagri in use amongest the Musalmans of Sylhet. It is on record that many Brahma families of Sylhet embraced Islam. It is in Contradistinction to Deva-nagri which Hindus used. It is for the experts to say if the Nagri Mussalmani Nagri are derived from a common Script.’
‘Sreehotter Iteebritto’, published in the year 1910 is considered as the source of the history of Sylhet. Achyutcharan Choudhury Tothyanidhi mentioned in his book that-“one kind of Nagrakkhor is in exercise among the Muslims of Sreehotto. Many Mohammedan books are printed in this script. This language (script) can be learnt very easily.”
B.C. Allan, editor of Sylhet District Gazetteer said, ‘The Devanagari Character is used amongest low caste Muhamadans especially in the east of the district. They find it easier to master than Bengali, and Bengali books are printed in this Character for that benefit.’
Podyanath Bhattacharja Bidyabinod in the year 1315 of Bengali era wrote an article on Sylheti Nagri in the Sahitya Porishod magazine. In his opinion-360 saints accompanied the holy saint Hazrat Shahjalal (peace be upon him). Majority of them were residents of North-West Province. It is said that during that time Urdu and Hindi used to be written in Dev Nagri script and in Arabic script respectively. Accordingly, Nagri script was spread all over Sreehotto. Later on, Hindi writing in Arabic script was altered in Urdu in the Western region using Arabic and Persian terminologies. This was practiced all over the Muslim-occupied India which also reached Sylhet. However, the Muslims did not completely give up practicing Nagri scripts that time. Very regrettably, it’s expansion was retarded to a great extent. As people were more focused on the local language along with Arabic, Persian and Urdu languages, Nagri script in this dilemma was lead towards extinction and distortion day by day as the uses of this script were very limited. In the mid nineteenth century, only the middle class Muslims who were unable to write in Bangla used this script only to write letters to each other.
In this respect the opinion of Dr. Sukumar Sen is that-‘The Muslim Settlement of Sylhet remained in more or less cultural isolation. The had never lost contact with their west Country co-religionists. They Cultivated Hindi poetry and had kept up the use of Kayathi script amongest themselves. In the last quarter of nineteenth century books were printed in this script which was known as Sylhet Nagri. The Muslim poets of Sylhet preferred writing purely romantic narratives as well as vaisnava lyrics and mystic songs.’
Sultan Ahmed Bhuiyan has elaborately discussed Sylheti Nagri in his book ‘Bideshi Horofey Prachin Bangla’. In his observation, inspiration of publicity of religious literature among the ignorant Muslim people had basically worked out for the Nagri script.
It the opinion of the scholar Kamal Uddin Ahmed, “After expansion of Turkish rule in Sylhet during fourteenth century, the Mohammedans of Sreehotto took initiative of culturing Bengali literature in Sylheti dialect. To achieve this goal they composed different stories related to Islam in local-bangla poems by inventing a script omitting combined alphabets. Some people termed these as ‘Islamic Literature’ title due to abundant selection of Arabic and Persian words in literature of this type. Actually this category literature did not get chance to become real literature through the simple expressions of feelings and civic sophistication of ancient Muslims. Therefore, it is appropriate to classify such literature as rural literature.”
Dr. Ahmad Hassan Daani says, ‘In simple logic of the relation of cause and effect, we may consider the origin of Sreehotto Nagri by relating the establishment of colony in this region by the Afghans during sixteenth and seventeenth century and their simple tendency of using this script on coins. It is not known whether this script was in practice during some other time in East Bengal, and we also don’t have any news whether this script has reached Sreehotto through some other route or means.”
According to Shibprosanno Lahiri, in no way it can’t be said that Sylheti Nagri was not introduced prior to sixteenth-seventeenth century just on the ground that no manuscript written in Sylheti Nagri earlier to this period has been found. It has not been possible to collect the huge numbers of manuscripts scattered all over Sylhet. Most of these manuscripts were written by spiritual leaders, saints and dervish; which are kept in the houses, mosques or shrines by the pious Muslims as sacred possessions. Where as they were not ready to happily hand over the scripts. Even it cannot be strongly argued that there was no manuscript prior to sixteenth-seventeenth century until these are recovered and discussed. At the same time it should be kept in mind that it’s very difficult to have long-lasting life of the manuscripts in high rainfall area like Sylhet due to it’s proximity to Cherapunjee. In Sylhet it is very hard and almost impossible to discover a manuscript aged four hundred years or more.
With the exception of some alphabets, Nagri is not a basic script rather it is a combination of Bangla, Dev-nagari, Kaithi and Arabic terminologies. Alphabet-names and their pronunciations are very similar to Bangla. Nagri is not a separate language but it is a separate script used as alternative to Bangla. However, foundation of the literature composed through this script is Sylheti dialect or regional language.