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Dhaka Book Fair: A Mansion and a Movement

Ratnottama Sengupta writes of a time when a language freed itself and a palace called Bardhaman House became the centre of a unique tryst against cultural hegemony. The Language Movement of 1952 that started in Dhaka led to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In 1999, UNESCO recognised February 21 as the Mother Language Day.

The window at Bardhaman House. Courtesy: Kamrul Mithon

All through the day Kamrul Mithon was standing in front of this window, waiting. He was waiting to be allotted a stall in Ekushey Book Fair 2022. This year the annual book fair in Dhaka is being hosted by the Bangla Academy from February 15 to 28. 

This window is a part of the Bardhaman House. The first boimela or book fair had started under the banyan tree facing this very window. Kamrul Mithon, who earns his bread and butter by the click of his camera, is a book publisher by passion. The freelancer for National Crafts Council of Bangladesh is the Associate Visual Editor at Nymphea Publication who have just published titles like Cannes Diary and When the Mango Tree Blossomed, in the ongoing book fair. The day he spent facing the window was the day the lottery was held – so the best way to while his time was by clicking away, capturing all that captivated his fancy. 

Later it occurred to him that he could post the pictures on Facebook to announce the forthcoming boimela. And when he did so, he captured my attention. “Is this a painting? A poster? A book cover?” My curiosity was piqued. “Neither,” Kamrul replied. He went on to give me a brief history of ‘Burdwan House’ – the architecture from the British Raj when Dhaka, the second biggest city of Bengal Presidency, housed estates of many erstwhile royalties including the Raja of Burdwan.

Maharajadhiraj Bahadur Sir Bijay Chand Mahtab (1881-1941) was the first in the Burdwan family to obtain formal education qualification, tour England and Europe, write his memoirs. Adopted at the age of six, he was bestowed the title of Rajadhiraj at the coronation in the Delhi Durbar. Though only eighteen then, he had the savvy to build a Gothic style gate to welcome Lord Curzon when the Governor General visited Bardhaman. That gate continues to be a historical landmark in the Indian state of West Bengal. 

In 1908, when Bijoy Chand Mahtab risked his life to save that of Sir Andrew Fraser from a Nationalist bullet, Lord Minto elevated him to the title of Maharajadhiraj. He represented the Bengal zamindars in the Bengal Legislative Council and in the Imperial legislative Council for years. President of the British Indian Association, this philanthropist in education and health welfare was part of the committee that recommended replacement of Zamindari by the Ryotdari or tenancy system. After all this, though, he extended hospitality to Gandhi in 1925 and to Subhash Chandra Bose in 1928. Did he sense that the sun was soon to set on the British Empire?

The mansion in Dhaka was one of the many palaces of His Highness of Burdwan: the one in Darjeeling was his Summer Palace. Through the year he resided in the Burdwan House in Kolkata’s Alipore area. That stately home is now rented out for weddings and other occasions. So, I was especially happy to learn that Dhaka has transformed the classical architecture into a centre for research and preservation of Bangla. “Indeed this was where the Bangla Bhasha Andolan spread out from,” Mithon cues me in, “since this was where the instruction went out on the evening of February 21, to fire on the students of Dhaka University.”

Mithon further leads me through the various chapters of the Movement. “In 1952, being the residence of Nurul Amin, the Chief Minister of East Pakistan, Bardhaman House witnessed the escalation in our demand that Bengali be accorded equal status with Urdu as State Language of Pakistan.”

I remember hearing the backstory of the movement from my father, writer Nabendu Ghosh: he was forced to leave Kolkata, the home ground of Bengali literature, theatre, cinema, art – indeed, of Bengali culture – and live in Bombay after the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. Because? The readership of Bangla literature had been halved as had the viewership of Bengali films. Keen to build upon its Islamic genes, the government of the newly formed Pakistan decided that Urdu would be the state language. And to impose that decision even in East Pakistan, its eastern wing separated by 2000 miles of land and rivers, language and culture, it decreed that even Bengali, its lingua franca, must be written in the Arabic script!

Mithon encapsulates the story of rebellion against the firman – the decree — that took the masses unaware. 

“1947, December 5. The working Committee of the Muslim League was meeting in Bardhaman House. The students and teachers of Dhaka University were stunned by the unfair decision that would impact the lives of the 44 million Bangla-speaking citizens who formed roughly 2/3rd of the 69 million population. They took out a procession to demand that Bengali be made the language of education and administration in the state — and at the Centre, it should be accorded the same dignity as Urdu, adopted by the Western wing of the divided India that encompassed large part of Punjab and Sindh, where the lingua franca was Pubjabi and Sindhi.

“1948, January 8. Evening at Bardhaman House. Leaders of the Language Movement met Prime Minister Najimuddin. The purpose? To protest the arrest and torture of the Bhasha Andolan (language revolution) activists — under section 144 — for demanding that they be allowed to freely read write and speak Bangla.

“1948, March 15. On the eve of signing the State Language Agreement, the then Governor Khwaja Najimuddin met the students involved in the Andolan. The next day a procession set out for Bardhaman House to demand the cancelation of the draft agreement. The police were let loose on them, for disobeying the orders under section 144, and the students and teachers were severely wounded. 

“February 21, 1952, was Phalgun 8, 1358 on the Bengali calendar. Governor General Nurul Amin sent out the order that took the lives of Rafiq, Salam, Barkat, Abdul Jabbar, Shafiur Rahman, teenaged Aliullah, 17 other students, teachers, progressive intelligentsia and non-communal individuals, rickshawallahs and labourers… The tower that came up overnight in the University campus was not the only direct fallout of the inhuman firing: The symbol of Power, Bardhaman House became the target of people’s anger. 

“After the heinous bloodbath, the demand to turn it into a Centre for Language Studies gathered momentum. And four years later, in 1954 it gained formal sanction prior to the elections. The 21-point Charter of Demands put forth by the Jukta (United) Front spelled out that the Prime Minister move into a less luxurious residence, leaving the mansion to be used as a Student’s Hostel and, subsequently, to be turned into a Research Centre for the language.

“Eventually the Pakistan government had to bow to the unrest: On May 7, 1954, Bengali was adopted as one of the state languages in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. And on December 3, 1954, the Chief Minister of East Pakistan, Abu Hosain, inaugurated the Bangla Academy in the Burdwan House.” 

Quite naturally, along with research and nurturing of the language, Bangla Academy has taken care to perpetuate the memory of the Amar Ekush (eternal 21st) martyrs. The first floor of the Bardhaman House is home to the Bhasha Andolan Museum. Inaugurated on February 1, 2010, it preserves historical photographs, newspapers, memorial documents, cartoon, letters, publicity leaflets, manuscripts, book covers and memorabilia of the language martyrs. And in the ongoing Boimela, Nymphea has brought to the reading public volumes like Ekush: A Photographic History of the Language Movement (1947-1956) and Kaaler Kheya (The Boat of Time) about passing on Bangla from generation to generation. 

The events of February 21, 1952, shed a long shadow that culminated in the emergence of the sovereign nation of Bangladesh which sings, Moder garab moder asha – Aa mori Bangla bhasha (Our pride, our inspiration, O sonorous Bangla!)… The love for its language has seen the nation adopt Tagore’s creation as its national anthem, Aamar Sonar Bangla. And even before that, Renaissance personality Satyajit Ray saluted the language by penning Moder nijer bhasha bhinna aar bhasha jaana nai … O maharaja, we speak no language other than our own, and we celebrate through that very language, Mora sei bhashatei kori gaan

Indeed, the world salutes the struggle and sacrifices of the people of Bangladesh to be able to sing their songs. In November 1999, UNESCO paid tribute to Amar Ekush, the movement for safeguarding Bangla – with all its proverbs and poetry, myths and songs — by declaring February 21 as the International Mother Language Day.

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Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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