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Tarafdar, Momtazur Rahman


Tarafdar, Momtazur Rahman (1928-1997) historian and writer. Born on 1st August 1928 in Meghagacha, a village under Bogra district, Momtazur Rahman Tarafdar's early and secondary schooling was in his home district. In 1947 he left for Dhaka did his Bachelor's (1949), Master's (1951), and Doctoral degrees (1961) in Islamic History and Culture in Dhaka University. Appointed as a lecturer in 1952 in Haraganga College, Munshiganj, he left it a year later to join his old department in Dhaka University.

He spent the rest of his life in teaching and research there until his expiry on 31 July 1997. In the course of this long and distinguished career he won fellowships at the Nuffield Foundation, Britain (1972-74), Duke University, Durham, USA (1996), the bangla academy, Dhaka (1977), and the International Centre for the Study of Bengal Art, Dhaka (1997). The Bangla Academy of Dhaka also gave him a literary award in 1977.

Tarafdar’s Husain Shahi Bengal, written as his PhD dissertation, is acknowledged as the most definitive book on a period of Bengal’s history identified as crucial in the formation of the Bengali nation. It deals extensively with the administration, economy, literature, art, architecture and religions of the time, and holds in embryonic form all the concerns that occupied the writer for the rest of his life.

Momtazur Rahman Tarafdar

Believing that the purpose of history was to furnish information about the past so that the present could be understood, and driven by a concern for the unhappy condition of contemporary society, he tried to place the contemporary Bengali person in his proper historical perspective and investigate the nature and roots of Bengali nationalism. He chose the Husain Shahi period for investigation because he believed that it played a very important role in the process of nation building. His secular approach in exploring the dynamic relationship between religions, particularly at the folk and unorthodox levels, was armed with the ability to handle a plethora of research material. Tarafdar explored literature, archaeology, architecture, painting, and sculpture to understand the material culture of Bengalis.

The essays included in Trade, Technology and Society in Medieval Bengal (Dhaka, 1995) deal with various aspects of the economic history of medieval Bengal. His other studies on literature, religion, and other issues deal with culture and nationalism, socio-economic history, and problems related to the study of history.

Bangla Romantik Kabyer Hindi-Awadhi Patabhumi (Awadhi-Hindi Background of Bengali Romantic Poetry), is a comparative study of 14th to 16th century Hindi poetry and their Bengali imitations in the 17th and 18th centuries by both Hindu and Muslim poets. The human quality of the poets engaged Tarafdar, who elevated them to the rank of forerunners of modern secular literature in Bengali. He provided examples from the Hindi poems with translations, and explained their relationship with the Bengali poems. For their origins he looked at literature from all over India and even outside it, comparing the Hindi poems to possible sources in Persian, Arabic, Greek, and Italian.

In his The Cultural Identity of Bengali Muslims as Reflected in Medieval Bengali Literature, he wrote about the formation of a Muslim elite after the Turkish conquest of 1204. For the first three centuries the Muslim elite classes were foreigners who lived in the urban centres, and used only Arabic and Persian. Their formal teaching thus did not reach the majority of the converted rural people, who knew no other language but Bengali. From the end of the 16th century one comes to know of an indigenous Muslim intellectual elite, when there was a flowering of sufi (mystical) poetry in Bengali, especially in the Chittagong-Noakhali-Comilla region, an area noted for interaction between different ethnic groups for several centuries. Poets like Saiyad Sultan, Muhammad Khan, Shaykh Chand, Shah Muhammad Sagir, Dawlat Wazir Bahram, and Shah Barid Khan, although belonging to immigrant groups, were equally conversant in Bengali, Arabic and Persian. Their poems presented the life of the Prophet (Sm) and Islamic legends and romances in a Bengali setting.

This played a vital role in the formulation of a Bengali nation based on language. Elements of a shared culture between both immigrant and local Muslims and the indigenous Buddhists and Hindus are evident in the literature (religious as well as secular) and architecture of the time. The sufi families became hereditary pirs, and a part of the landed gentry with power over the general masses. Tarafdar concluded that the identity building of Bengali Muslims suffered a serious setback when these sufi families were pushed to a subservient position firstly by the gradual influx of an ashraf (elite) of foreign origin, and secondly by reform movements of the 19th century.

The process of nation building was interrupted again in the 20th century by the rise of communalism. As a secular nationalist historian charting the growth of this nation, Tarafdar was disturbed by the cultural crisis generated by communalism even in Bangladesh. In a number of Bengali essays relating directly to nationalism, he tried to understand and come to terms with this problem. The earliest of these is Jatiya Chetana O Maddhyabitta Shrenir Bhumika (Nationalism and the Role of the Middle Class), written in 1971 just before the Bangladesh War of Independence. It laid out the socio-cultural and econo-political basis of the Bengali nation, and defined the character of the Bengali middle class.

Tarafdar's secular approach is also reflected in his periodisation of history. He preferred a division into Ancient, Medieval, and Modern based on changes in society brought about by economic activity, and rejected the communal Hindu/Buddhist, Muslim, and British categories of Indian history of early 20th century nationalist historians like rakhaldas bandyopadhyay, ramesh chandra majumdar and haraprasad shastri. He argued that a change in only the religious beliefs of the rulers did not imply transition from one condition to the next: there must be more significant differences in the economic and cultural fronts which qualify such a transition. [Perween Hasan]