Read time: 9 mins

The Capital of Literary Bengal

by Mozid Mahmud
15 June 2021

Translated from Bangla to English by Rafee Shaams 

Translator’s note

Mozid Mahmud’s essay is a reminder of a tendency in Bengali literature to identify with one of the two competing centres of literary production—Dhaka and Kolkata—in post-partition Bengal. However, these declarations regarding ‘literary capitals’ appear silly, because in these arguments the merits of the literary works are obscured. In this essay, Mahmud writes clearly and precisely, with an old-fashioned innocence. He takes us on a historical journey through different eras full of realist imagery and insightful information—something that ought to interest a broader audience.


The Capital of Literary Bengal


At the beginning of the 80s, a clamouring began in the literary halls of Dhaka: the desire to see the city as a future citadel of Bengali literature. As far as I remember, the poet Al Mahmud was among the first to make the call. Sunil Gangopadhyay, a celebrated novelist from Kolkata, would concur too, whenever he visited this side of Bengal. We were quite young then, yet it was nice to hear such things. With age, though, I realized it wasn’t quite an innocent remark to make, for crowning Dhaka would also signal the end of some other bastion’s reign over Bengali literature. We Bengalis, irrespective of race and religion, have experienced the joy of living together as much as its misery. And this misery didn’t just prevail in the two larger communities of Hindus and Muslims but also took root in all aspects of our society.

Kingdoms and their capitals change more than geography forces them to. When the capital moves, it is not only the generals and the treasury that accompany the king to his new home, but the poets and littérateurs, for whom the reward and reputation of the royal court bring solace to their pocket and spirit. No matter how strident the poet is in his independence, it is the court that decides on his greatness. The medieval Bengali poet Chandidas had to face the Gauda Kingdom even with all his worship of Lord Krishna. It’s been apparent, then, to see the capital of literary Bengal change with its kings.

Bengal has seen quite a number of capital cities in the course of history. The Palas, the Senas and the Turks all had different seats of government. Though literature wasn’t valued as much by the Nawabs of Mughal Bengal, it continued to flourish in the living rooms of various zamindars, bhuiyas and small kings. With the arrival of the British, a new literary capital began to take root around Kolkata. Here they may have got the patronage of the king, but they didn’t spend all their lives speaking of their heroism.

The Charyapadya, the earliest known Bangla text (composed during the Pala period), was considered a Buddhist text because of the sect’s willingness to foray into the public consciousness, something the nobility was still wont to do.

In the Sena court, Sanskrit was prioritized over Bengali. Jayadeva wrote his Gita-Govinda in Sanskrit. Dhoyin, another poet of the Sena court, also practised his craft in Sanskrit. They did not have the privilege to write poetry in their own tongue. It was, in a way, understandable. The Sena kings weren’t Bengalis. They had arrived from down south in Karnataka. The King Vijaya Sen conquered the Pala capital from King Madan Pal, whose reign over Bengal was soon eclipsed by the Sena Army.

Before a hundred years could pass, the Turks under Bakhtiyar Khalji would bring an end to Lakshmana Sena’s capital, Nadiya. Of course, that was only a temporary fix, for the Senas had their permanent seat of power in the old Pala capital, which they renamed Lakhnauti. The clan still had a stronghold in Dhaka’s Bikrampur after the destruction of Nadiya. Laksmana himself was a poet. He had completed two works left incomplete by his father. But Bengali literature was neglected in his capital. It could be that they still saw it as the language of the commoners. And the kings themselves weren’t Bengali either. Before, the Buddhist sovereigns weren’t as attached to the culture and took refuge in Pali and Apabhramsa. In that sense, one can say the Palas felt the first pulse of Bengali literature, even as the Senas in the later years failed to notice it.

In the next hundred and fifty years, little progress was made in the sphere under Turkish rule. Historians of Bengali literature have tried to label this time as a Dark Age, putting the blame squarely on the first Muslim rulers for the supposed decline, when their Hindu predecessors were just as guilty. Yet, it is important to note that Bengali literature had reached its maturity without much patronage from the kings and their capitals. Poets have always been active throughout the generations. If this wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t have a literary epic such as the fourteenth century Shreehrishna Kirtana. It is obvious how the discourse of literary capitals is enmeshed with power and hegemony.

Since the establishment of the independent sultanate at the end of the fourteenth century, there has been a flurry of various kinds of Bengali literatures coming to the fore –romance epics, verses on Radha and Krishna and Mangal Kavyas, religious texts that notably narrated stories of indigenous deities of rural Bengal. Under the patronage of the ruling Sultans and their nobles, many important works of literature were translated from Arabic, Hindi and Persian. Kasiram Das’s popular retelling of the Mahabharata, for example, was possible due to this patronage. Around this time, poets such as the fifteenth century poet Vijay Gupta (of Mansa Mangal fame, an epic eulogizing the snake goddess Mansa) wrote their Mangal Kavyas. If anything, the romanticism of the Muslim poets was certainly a contribution of the Sultanate capital.

Perhaps the Sultans, unable to speak the tongue, encouraged the Bengali poets as a way of being near their subjects or the culture, for until then the nobility wasn’t yet ready to consider Bangla as a medium of literature. For a thousand years, the capital of Bengali literature has shifted from Gauda, to Lakhnauti, Nadia, Sonargaon, Bikrampur  and even to Arakan.

Poets did not receive as much favour during the Mughal years as they did under the sultans, for the Nawabs always looked toward the center at Delhi, where Arabic and Persian poetry was preferred.

Company rule in Bengal increasingly transformed Kolkata into a literary capital. A new age was ushered in after Fort William College was established, bringing with it the fashionably modern prose. The nascent Kolkata literary scene goes as far as to deny the legacy of Bengali literature prior to the nineteenth century, terming it ‘medieval.’ Even today, Bengali literature is for the most part represented as centred around the nineteenth and early twentieth century capital of Kolkata. The trend, however, is in decline. The partition of ’47 broke apart Bengal, birthing a parallel capital in Dhaka to attract the littérateurs. Poets and novelists found themselves gathering around Dhaka from various ends of the country. Doubtless, Dhaka has achieved over the years its own literary individuality. But one doesn’t need to separately proclaim the city as the capital of Bengali literature.

Perhaps we should return to Al Mahmud and Sunil Gangopadhyay. There is a difference between the two stalwarts’ visions of Dhaka as the future of literature in Bengal. Mr. Gangopadhyay probably only wanted to please his Bengali readers this side of the border and increase his market. For Al Mahmud, this position came from a place of Muslim nationalism. He had written the poem Bakhtiyar’s Horse in this regard, dreaming of Muslim rule from outside to emancipate the lower classes from so-called Brahmanism. Sadly, his literary capital Dhaka couldn’t save him from his utopia. When he had been side-stepped by Dhaka’s literary coteries for his specific religion-based politics, it was friends from Kolkata who extended their hand of friendship. His admirers had to compare him to writers in Kolkata to drive up his importance in Dhaka. One hears these arguments and realizes that perhaps Dhaka hasn’t developed the neutrality and maturity of its competitive other. Dhaka’s literary culture has devolved into assessment based on politics and sectarian loyalties. It has become impossible to find recognition through well written literature alone. Before any appraisal is made, a certain political consideration is mulled over. Kolkata, even as it presides over an age of literary decline, still musters an independent spirit. It is perhaps possible to become a literary capital only when a writer does not become a minority even outside the mainstream of religion and race.

But there is a sense of mistrust between the literature of Dhaka and Kolkata. A reason for this is the little knowledge one has of the other nowadays. There are also the differences of religious practice. Another is the lack of Muslim writers visible in the canon prior to the nineteenth century and the indifference toward this period by the ‘historians.’ One can see for themselves in Sukumar Sen’s four volumes of The History of Bengali Literature, where he fails to mention the poets Alaol, Daulat Qazi, Shah Muhammad Saghir and Syed Sultan. Perhaps there hasn’t been a stronger work of poetry than Alaol’s Padmavati in the Middle Ages, yet he remains underappreciated. Of course, Sukumar Sen later realized his limitations and followed it by writing Islamic Bengali Literature. But one wonders how appropriate it was to prefix and separate such poets with the word ‘Islamic,’ for these literatures weren’t particularly written to convey any Islamic teachings or tradition.

The romantic stories were often a monopoly of writers who happened to be Muslim. Yet in terms of writing they weren’t loyal to the Persian texts. I happen to think that these eminent historians were completely wrong in this instance. It wasn’t true at all that they arrived at their work from the Persian tradition. Alaol’s Padmavati was grounded in the myths of the subcontinent, a ballad of the Sinhalese princess Padmavati of Chittor.

These considerations brought about the differences between Kolkata’s Jal and Dhaka’s Paani. Both mean water to us, but their sources have diverged to a point where even as we die of thirst, we won’t mistake one for the other.

The ‘historians’ have committed a similar error here. I had the experience of attending a seminar organized by the Bangla Academy in the 90s. The principal discussion revolved around discovering the literature of Bangladesh through the ‘narrow’ perspective of literary historians from Kolkata. The chief discussant was an author of histories of the subject–Dr. Khetrogupto. He tried to pin the talk down to the fact that it wasn’t only writers from West Bengal who were perpetrators of this, but many literary figures from Dhaka dabbled in it as well. As an example, he mentioned Muhammad Abdul Hye and Syed Ali Ahsan’s History of Bengali Literature, used as a text in Dhaka University’s Bangla department. In the book, the authors spent twenty-one pages discussing Tagore but allotted forty-seven pages for Mir Musharraf Hossain. In response, a professor of the university, Dr. Rafiqul Islam, said that this was only one of ten books a student had to read. The other books had no discussion on Mir Musharraf Hossain’s works. There were separate books listed to cover Tagore. He commented that the book was written after the establishment of the university in 1920, when there was a need to inform students of the neglected authors of the region.

The literature of Dhaka and Kolkata may be inheritors of the same language, yet there was never any ambiguity in the differences of their respective cultures. It’s these differences that give birth to petty projects that proclaim Dhaka as the capital of literary Bengal. Communications between poets of the two Bengals have only increased after partition. Yet this communication has led to less exchange of literature and more personal vanities. There are poets from Kolkata arriving here and poets going over there from Dhaka. A few books are being exchanged. But the two sides have very little to discuss about their shared language and literature. A crisis of unfamiliarity remains between the two.

Return to the collection

Illustration by Usman Ibrahim

About the Author

Mozid Mahmud

Mozid Mahmud is a poet, novelist and essayist based in Bangladesh. Some of his notable works include In Praise of Mahfuza (1989), Nazrul–Spokesman of the Third World (1996) and Rabindranath’s Travelogues (2010). He has been awarded the Rabindra-Nazrul Literary Prize, Bangladesh Writers Club Prize and the country’s National Press Club Award, among others.