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History of Bengali Language

Bengali, or Bangla, as the locals like to call it, is a language with one of the richest and most diversified literary tradition. It is extremely sweet in its tone, and is one of the most widespread languages of India, second only to Hindi. There are roughly 100 million speakers (as per 2011 census) in India itself, and another 160 million speakers in Bangladesh (as per 2015 census). Bengali ranks 6th in terms of the highest number of native speakers and 7th in terms of the total number of speakers across the globe. 

Linguistic Classification and Origin of Bengali – 

Bengali is an off-shoot of the Indo-Aryan language belonging to the Indo-European family of languages. It has developed over a period of about 1300 years.

Since the 1st millennium BCE, Sanskrit was the language of ancient Bengal and was mostly spoken by the existing priests. Bengal was considered to be the nerve center of Sanskrit literature, especially during the reign of the Gupta Empire.

Indo-Aryan, or Vedic Sanskrit, was degenerated by locals pan India, giving rise to several Prakrits (Middle Indo-Aryan languages). The Prakrit spoken in the Eastern zone came to be known as Magadhi Prakrit, created under the Kingdom of Magadha. This belt mostly came under the present-day Bihar region. An interesting fact is that, Magadhi is also said to be the language of Gautam Buddha.

Magadhi has its roots in Ardha-Magadhi, a dramatic Prakrit that was used in today’s Uttar Pradesh region by Jain scholars’. Later around the 6th century, Magadhi Prakrit developed into Purbi Abhatta (or Eastern Apabhramsa), further splitting into three main language groups – Bengali-Assamese, Odia, and Bihari. 

However, some linguistic scholars suggest that the three groups of languages were Bengali, Assamese, and Odia, with the addition of Manipuri, and Maithili. This happened sometime during the 9th century; though some argue that the split dates as far back as the 7th century. 

Further Emergence of Bengali Literature and Language

To understand the growth and transformation of the Bengali language and literature, we have divided its history into Old Bengali, Middle Bengali, and Modern Bengali. 

  • Old Bengali (950 CE – 1350 CE): As stated above, Old Bengali became a stable language only in the 9th
  • century under the Pala and Sena dynasties. This language was closely related to Pali and Magadhi Prakrit. During this period, not much literature existed. 

The main literary work found during the reign of the Palas, is the ‘Charyapadas’, which was a compilation of 48 spiritual poems and ‘songs of realization’ pertaining to the Vajrayana (trantric) tradition of Buddhism. 

The Pala Empire spanned across the present-day states of Assam, Bengal, Telugu typing online, Bihar, and Orissa. Some linguistic experts argue that the Charyapadas belong to Assamese and Odia language. However, the Siddhacharyas who wrote it, hailed from Bengal. Moreover, the text is grammatically closer to Bengali compared to the other languages. 

  • Middle Bengali (1350 CE – 1800 CE): The period post Charyapadas, until the 13th century, is considered as a Dark Age in Bengali literature. This was largely due to the Turkish invasion. That said, several poems were written, surrounding the life of the Muslim Fakir Shaikh Jalaluddin Tabrizi, in the 12th
  • century. These were collectively called ‘Shekh Subhodaya’ and were uncovered in Bangladesh.

Between the 15th and the 17th century, the Mughals came into power and Bengali literature began to flourish. The Mughal Era resulted in a huge influence of Arabic and Persian languages on Bengali, especially with regards to compound verbs. Bengali became the official court language of the Bengal Sultanate and many Muslim rulers supported the development of Bengali language. 

A massive treasure of Bengali literary works written during this period are ‘Dhormo Puja Bidhan’ by Ramai Pandit and ‘Sri Ram Panchali’ (aka, Krittivasi Ramayan) by Krittivas Ojha. Boru Chandidas’ ‘Shreekrishna Kirtana’ was the major work written sometime in the 2nd half of the 14th century. These poems were all very religious in nature. 

The Medieval Era is also marked by translations of literature (Anubaad Shahittyo). Some of the translated works include ‘Sri Krishna Vijay’ by Maladhar Basu, ‘Chaitanyamangal’ by Brindavan Das, ‘Onadimangal’ by Rupram Chakrabasti, ‘Nobibonsho’ and ‘Podaboli’ by Syed Sultan, and ‘Mongolchondir Geet’ by Dwijo Madhav. 

Some of these were written in the 16th century, which focused on narrative poems, devoted to the local Goddesses, ‘Chandi’ and ‘Manasa’. This form of literature was known as Mangal-Kavya. By the end of the 16th century, a blend of music and poetry evolved by virtue of Vaishnavism. In the 17th century, many Muslim writers such as the Muslims of Arrakan wrote romantic verse tales which were secular in nature. These include Daulat Kazi’s ‘Sati Mayana’. 

The 18th century witnessed a shift of themes in Bengali poetry from Spiritualism to worldly things and themes revolving around social issues. Two new forms of literature during this period are ‘Kavi’ and ‘Panchali’ (narrative folk). This was mainly an aftereffect of the Bengali Renaissance. 

The Bengali Renaissance began in the late 18th century, lasting up the first half of the 20th century during the British rule. It was a movement that revolutionized several aspects, from culture to intellect to social issues to art. This Renaissance can be compared to the Renaissance in Europe, except that they faced an additional obstacle of colonialism. Bengali literature blossomed the most post the Bengali Renaissance.

Some of the notable works in the beginning of the Renaissance period include ‘Chondi Natok’ by Bharat Chandra Ray, ‘Kali Keertan’ and ‘Shyama Sangeet’ by Ramprasad Sen, and ‘Gyanoday’ by Ram Ram Basu.

  • Modern Bengali (1800 CE – Present): Modern Bengali is heavily based on the dialect prevalent in the Nadia region. Its vocabulary contains many foreign words from Perso-Arabic, Sanskrit, and Pali. As a result, it suffers from ‘Diglossia’. Basically, literary Bengali differs from the vernacular speech and text in Bengali speaking regions. 

Two styles of writing Bengali are – Shadhu-Bhasha and Cholito-Bhasha. The former is the original form of Bengali which uses Pali and Tatsama (derived from Sanskrit) words while the latter is the ‘running language’, also known as Standard Colloquial Bengali. 

The 19th and the 20th century period is regarded as the Golden Era of Bengali literature. The revival of Bengali literature was largely due to the efforts of Michael Madhusudan Dutta and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. This development was furthered by the introduction of ‘print’ in Kolkata. 

The various forms of literature that evolved during this period are short stories, poetry, novels, dramas, and historical accounts. 

The first book on social realism was ‘Alaler Gharer Dulal’, authored by Peary Chand Mitra in 1858. Michael Madhusudhan Dutta wrote poetry in unrhymed verses with western elements. One of his most popular works is ‘Meghanadvadhkavya’. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee is a renowned novelist who wrote the first Bengali historical romantic novel, ‘Durgeshnandini’ in 1865. He also wrote our National song ‘Vande Mataram’, which was originally part of his novel ‘Anandmath’.

Other significant works include ‘Prabodh Prabhakar’ and ‘Bangalar Itihas’ by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. He was another important force in the Bengali Renaissance. 

Many dramatists like Girishchandra Ghosh, D L Ray, and Amritlal Bose also gained a lot of momentum with their plays. Then there were the great prose writers like Debendranath Tagore, who was also the the founder of the Brahmo Samaj. 

Poets like Sadhar Asan, Biharilal Chakravarti, and Saradamangla, wrote their poems with refined lyrics. 

Then there was Rabindranath Tagore, a great poet and novelist who also preferred the refined style of writing and transfigured the landscape of Bengali literature. He is often referred to as the ‘Bard of Bengal’ and was the first Indian to have received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his collection of poems ‘Gitanjali’. He is the man behind two national anthems – ‘Jana Gana Mana’ for India, and ‘Amar Shonar Bangla’ for Bangladesh. Some of his other famous works include ‘Manusher Dhormo’, ‘Dak Ghar’, ‘Kabuliwala’, and ‘Ghare Baire’. 

Modern Bengali is characterized by shortening of verbs and pronouns. Its grammatical structure is quite similar to that of English. Until 1800, it wasn’t categorized in terms of Grammar standardization or vocabulary. However, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, another founder of the Brahmo Samaj, wrote ‘Grammar of the Bengali Language’, in 1832. 

In the last two centuries, Bengali literature has hit it bigger than any other Indian languages. In fact, it has been said to have the richest literature compared to other languages. An interesting fact is that 21st February is celebrated as International Mother Language Day (declared by UNESCO), thanks to the Bengali language movement that had started in erstwhile East Pakistan. This movement was a protest to make Bengali, an official language of Pakistan. 

Today, Bengali is the official language of West Bengal, Tripura, and Barak Valley (in Assam), and Bangladesh. It is also spoken widely in Arunachal Pradesh, Delhi, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Chhattisgarh. 

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