The Myth Of Monolith

Bangla : Only a Language?

Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri

The West Bengal government's proposal to introduce Bangla as one of the three languages to be read in school has been badly received by linguistic minorities. There are three distinct, major languages in the state, apart from numerous dialects. Some 100 million Indians speak Bangla, a non-Vedic Indo-European language, with almost 50%, however, of its words modified from Vedic Sanskrit, 30% being unmodified; 6.2 million speak Santali, Mundari, related to the Munda family(of the AustroAsiatic group of languages), and over 2.9 million speak Nepali (a daughter of Sanskrit displaying Tibeto-Burman influences).

On the surface it seems that Bangla speakers overwhelmingly outnumber the linguistic minorities. However, the policy of eviction from home and hearth, dispersal over meadow land, and re/organisation into coolie lines, led, in defence, to the gelling of distinct, localised cultures, distinct cosmogonies, myths and mythology. The Santals had an epic dream of a golden age, the Mundas had theirs. And Justice would come in future, an idea which forms a basis of their restlessness and militancy. For a large number of Austric speakers, the forests of central India were both a sanctuary and a prison. Mountains (The Himalayas, the Sumeru legend) were important in Gorkhali culture, but too close a contact of the people (through tourism, for example) with their earthly overlords, rich and powerful, perhaps scrambled their legends, and lent melancholy to their songs without grandeur. As the major cultures were concentrated geographically, each within just a few sets of districts, with their languages and dialects, their collective vision was bound to acquire political (national) overtones. The local party leaders have the most to gain from a numerical expansion of the government and its hangers on, so the demand crystalises around statehood.

Then, there are caste-based sub-cultures which do not see themselves as belonging to the standard colloquial linguistic monolith, Bangla, or any cultural construct based on it. Do the Matua, the Dom, the Bagdie, the Dule and the Bauri think of themselves as Bangalis? The Rajbanshi and the Koch have already declared that their languages are distinct from Bangla.

Even urban and suburban Bangla speakers can be sub-divided culturally. Readers and writers, teachers and students, thespians and the media still reproduce the colloquial 'chalit' style and the proto-classical 'shuddha bhasha', although the ambit of the latter is contracting. But, the general public neither reads any thing beyond the sports pages and "page 3" of the most highly circulated newspaper, nor does it strain the thinking apparatus beyond Tollywood serials and copies of Tamil blockbusters. Modern Bangla song, dance and jatra, Durga puja, Eid and Moharam, even converted into carnivals, could not fight off the challenge of Bollywood and Ramoji City. Rather, folk songs, including Baul and Sahajia, Krishna-kirtana and Shyamasangeet, Tusu and Vadu, rhythmic dancing, folklore: broto parbon panchali, readings from the epics and puranas have retained much of their popularity.

There is no unitary Bangla culture, at the moment, and no national dream to fight for. Rather, rash attempts to strengthen the standard colloquial monolith officially may ignite local bush fires. It is good that the government has clarified that there will be no compulsory learning of Bangla. In the mean-time, Rabindra Sangeet, Uttam Kumar, Ananda Patrika, and Ganguly are all the cards the Bengali dreamer actually holds. Not enough, and not unless a Bengali culture emerges from the hutments of the labouring peasantry—unifying and not divisive.

Autumn Number
Vol. 50, No.12-15, Sep 24 - Oct 21, 2017