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Puthi Literature


Puthi Literature a special genre of literature written in a mixed vocabulary drawn from Bangla, Arabic, Urdu, Persian and Hindi. It was current during the 18th and the 19th centuries and its composers as well as readers were Muslims. The word puthi (or punthi) is derived from pustika or book. However, only a particular type of writing dating from the 18th-19th centuries is known as puthi.

This genre was initiated by fakir garibullah (c 1680-1770) with amir hamza, an epic on warfare combining both Arabian history and legends. Its language differs from the traditional Bangla which have been developed for the last five hundred years. It is written in mixed vocabulary consisting' of Bangla, Arabic, Persian etc. The poet presumably based his language on the spoken dialect of the common Muslims of Hughli, Howrah, Kolkata, and 24-Parganas. Garibullah and his disciple syed hamza wrote several other poems. Many other Muslim poets emulated them in composing similar poems. These were read by the Muslims of all strata of society but were most popular among the low-paid employees, traders, boatmen and workers.

Because of its vocabulary and syntax, puthi literature has been variously named. james long has described its language as 'Muslim Bengali' and the literature as 'Muslim Bengali literature'. It is also known as bat-talar puthi as the books were printed at the presses of Kolkata's bat-tala and also sold there. Researchers first categorized the puthis as dobhasi because of the hybrid qualities of their language and the construction of their sentences but later termed them as 'verses in mixed language'.

The puthi composer was generally known as a shaer, an Arabic word which means a 'poet'. In the prefatory verses of Amir Hamza, Syed Hamza describes the work as shaeri puthi or poetic puthi. Although read from left to right like other Bangla books, puthi text was printed from right to left as in Arabic and Persian. It is composed in the payar and tripadi metres, in very simple language shorn of ornamentation.

Many Muslim poets of the period wrote in both sadhu or chaste Bangla as well as in dobhasi Bangla. Thus Garibullah's first book in verse, yusuf-zulekha, was written in chaste Bangla. He wrote Sonabhan, Satyapirer Puthi, janganama and Amir Hamza in the mixed language. Garibullah left Amir Hamza unfinished and the poem was later completed by Syed Hamza in 1795. Like Garibullah, Hamza's first work, Madhumalati, was written in chaste Bangla. His two later works - jaiguner puthi (1798) and Hatem Tai (1804) - were written in dobhasi.

It should be noted, however, that dobhasi was not completely novel. A similar mixture of Bangla and Arabic-Persian words were used in some narrative verses composed at least two centuries earlier. For example, Arabic-Persian words and Hindi-Urdu syntax are used in dealing with Muslim issues in Manasavijay (1495) by bipradas pipilai, in Chandimabgal (1598) by mukundaram chakravarti, in Raimavgal (1686) by Krishnaram Das and Annadamavgal (1752) by Bharatchandra Ray. As their names reveal, these poets were all Hindu. After the Turkish conquest of Bengal in the 13th century, Persian became the official language and both Hindu and Muslim communities started learning the language for personal advancement. In addition to Persian, Muslims also learnt Arabic. This led to the influx of a large stock of Arabic-Persian words into Bangla. Following the establishment of administrative, commercial and cultural links of Bengal with the Mughal capital, Delhi, during the 16th century, a large number of Muslims started visiting Bengal. Urdu-speaking Muslims engaged in state, religious and educational activities, and their families started settling in Murshidabad, Hughli, Howrah etc. Urdu-Hindi words now began to have a significant influence on Bangla.

Persian was so important at the time that, apart from Muslims and Hindus, the employees of the European trading companies too started learning it. Before coming to India the employees of the East India Company used to learn Persian at seminaries in Britain. After observing the state of bangla language in the 18th century, nathaniel brassey halhed in A Grammar of the Bengal Language (1778) said that those who spoke Bangla using the largest number of Arabic and Persian adjectives with Bangla verbs were regarded as knowing Bangla well. The documents and legal papers of the 18th century largely used this kind of language. Sukumar Sen termed it as a 'working language' or the 'language of usage'. Bharatchandra called it yabani mishal (Muslim mixture). He himself learned this language and claimed that although it did not possess high literary qualities it was understood by all. Bharatchandra and Garibullah came from the same region of Bhurshut Pargana at about the same time. The spoken language of the common people, irrespective of whether they were Hindu or Muslim, was the language of puthi literature and thus cannot be termed as an artificial literary language. The ordinary educated Muslim liked it because of the mixture of Arabic and Persian vocabulary.

With some exceptions, most puthi literature was derivative with poets using Persian, Urdu and Hindi works as their sources. While borrowing from these works, they not only adopted the subjects but also many words, parts of sentences and even their syntax. In terms of subjects and themes, puthi literature can be divided into six categories: (1) romantic love stories, (2) poems on warfare, (3) biographies of prophets and other holy men, (4) folktales about pirs, (5) poems about Islamic history and religious rites, and (6) contemporary events. To the first category belongs Yusuf-Zulekha, laily-majnu, Shiri-Farhad, Saifulmuluk Badiuzzamal, gule bakawali and Benazir-Badre Munir. These are love stories of men and women based on legends and folktales of Arabia, Iran and India. Amir Hamza, Sonabhan, Jaiguner Puthi and Hatem Tai belong to the second category. These poems give colourful descriptions of the wars fought and the kingdoms conquered by heroes of the pre-Islamic days and describe how Islam was propagated. The third category of poems speaks of the life, character and religious work of well-known prophets, pirs and holy men of Islam. To this category belong Kasasul Ambia, Tajkiratul Awlia, and Hazar Masla. The fourth category contains stories about conflicts, wars and finally the friendship of imaginary Muslim pirs and fakirs with Hindu gods and goddesses. Among these are satyapirer panchali, gazi kalu-champavati, banabibir zahurnama and Lalmoner Kechchha. The fifth category contains poems like Nasihatnama and Fazilate Darood which elucidate Islamic rites and religious rituals. The sixth category of poems, though fewer in number, were written about Islamic personalities such as haji shariatullah and historic events like the Wahabi-Faraezi movement. Jalalatul Fokre has a description of the hostility of the orhtodox Muslims towards the baul community. But puthis that describe such contemporary events are rare. Most contain imaginary stories based on a mixture of ancient history, anecdotes and traditions. Poems depicting the lives of such heroes as Hanifa, Hamza, Hatem Tai, Sohrab-Rustam and Joigun Bibi were very popular, as were poems based on supernatural actions performed by historical or imaginary pir-awlias and other holy men.

The reason was that the subjugated Muslims under the company rule found solace in the glorious past of Islam, especially the heroism of Muslim conquerors, the spread of Islam and the destruction of non-believers. The puthi poets created for the Muslims a world of fantasy and heroism away from the world of realities and the revolutionary changes brought about in Bangla language and literature in the 19th century by raja rammohun roy, iswar chandra vidyasagar, michael madhusudan dutt, bankimchandra chattopadhyay etc. The Hindu writers discarded dobhasi Bangla as soon as the pundits of fort william college introduced chaste Bangla and modern prose. Even the Muslims receiving modern education discarded dobhasi Bangla. The change was hastened by the language policies of the British towards English, Persian and Bangla. It is likely that had there been no change in the political scenario, dobhasi Bangla, the Bangla of puthi literature, would have become the language of the common people. The language and literature nurtured by a section of Muslims up to the 19th century in defiance of the changes of the age are no longer popular today, but they continue to hold some value for the literary and social historian.

There have been a number of surveys of how many poets belonged to this tradition and the number of poems written by them. In his A Descriptive Catalogue of Bengali Works (1885), James Long gave a list of 41 dobhasi puthis. muhammad mansuruddin listed 270 such puthis in his Bangla Sahitye Muslim Sadhana (1964) without giving the names of their authors. A list of about 200 puthis by over a hundred poets appears in Puthi-Parichiti (1958) edited by ahmed sharif. Ali Ahmed's book Mudrita Kalami Puthi contains a list of 569 puthis with their authors. [Wakil Ahmed]

Bibliography Sukumar Sen, Islami Bangla Sahitye, 2nd ed, Kolkata, 1973; Muhammad Mansuruddin, Bangla Sahitye Muslim Sadhana, Dhaka; KA Mannan, Emergence and Development of Dobhasi Literature in Bengal, Dhaka, 1966; Anisuzzaman, Muslim-Manas O Bangla Sahitye, Dhaka, 1964.