This project seeks to locate and archive texts written in the Sylhet Nagri script, a script once widely used in north-eastern Bengal. This script evolved between the fourteenth and the seventeenth century as a simple alternative (only 32 letters; no conjuncts) to the standard Bengali script. Printed texts appeared in the 1870s and became immensely popular. By the early 20 th century there were at least three presses, one in Kolkata and two in Sylhet. The script became a vehicle of popular culture in Sylhet, Cachar, Karimganj, Tripura, Mymensingh and Dhaka. For reasons that are not immediately evident, use of this script declined and it has become almost extinct during the last 50-60 years. Consequently, few people can read it today and the texts, both hand-written and printed, are rapidly disappearing.
In addition to circulating stories, plays, and other aspects of popular culture, there are also many manuscript texts, predominantly religious. Copying manuscripts often became part of the ritual. A preliminary survey located many texts, both printed and manuscript, lying in remote rural masjids, mokams, madrasas and other shrines and also in district libraries and private collections.
The texts are in verse, and were commonly disseminated through group reading. It is believed that women were the primary consumers. In affluent households, women read out the texts to domestic hands and other women after the day's chores.
The texts can be broadly split into five subject categories: Metaphysical and spiritual; Islamic rituals and code of conduct, including lives of the Prophet and saints; Love songs and love stories; Social issues within Muslim society; and Commentaries on natural disasters and social calamities.
Reasons for urgency of archiving: because the script is obsolete, there is no contemporary interest in preserving these texts; the physical quality of the material is very poor; the texts are kept in locations without attention to preservation. Moisture and insects have already damaged some material. The objectives of the project are to locate printed texts and manuscripts in the Sylhet Nagri script and to make and preserve copies in a digitised form.
The project will retrieve not only a unique script and a period-specific literature, but also a new source of information about the region, documenting a complex period of regional history (fourteenth to seventeenth century) when Islam emerged as a social force. It can shed light on the acculturation resulting from the encounter of indigenous culture with Perso-Arabic tradition. The stages in the Muslim identity formation can be studied through sociological insights into different texts. Since some of the texts of the nineteenth century are directed at women, it will also document women's history in the region. Further, this project of retrieving the rich source material will enable in a big way to study the tradition of high Islam as expressed in a regional popular culture, language and religion. Finally, the project is expected to yield rich dividends for researchers on comparative and diachronic Bengali linguistics. Rarely does one come across a stage in the development of a language or dialect with a recently developed writing system, allowing ready access to its phonological and morphological identity.
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|Scope and Content:||Hālatunnabi is a popular text in the Muslim community of the region of Āssām. According to the poet, the text in manuscript form was completed in 1262 Bengali Era (1853 CE). It narrates, in 'Payār' and Tripodi' verse, the story of Creation and writes in detail the life of the Prophet Muhammad and his ascension to heaven. It also gives a vivid description of hell.The text reflects an expert handling of Islamic genealogical accounts. Significantly, the poet shows his concern for accuracy and refers to the Arabic and Persian texts on which he has based his narration. The original volume is undated. It was printed and measures 119mm x 222mm. The title page and pages 216 and 217 are missing from the original volume. The main text appears on pages 19-264 and this is all that has been copied, along with the front and back covers of the book.|
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