A Script for the Masses? Pedagogic Practices and Didactic Traditions among Sylhetis

Research Project (to be discussed at the Winter Academy) by Debarati Bagchi.

Debarati Bagchi is as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Dehli, and a member of the Max Weber Foundation Transnational Research Group “Poverty and Education in Modern India”. She is currently working on Sylhet Nagri texts and pedagogic practices in colonial Northeast India.

This proposed project intends to track the circulation of printed and handwritten texts in Sylheti-Bengali, written in Sylhet Nāgarī script in late nineteenth-early twentieth century Sylhet and later among the London-based Sylheti diaspora. The Sylhet Nāgarī script was projected to have been devised as a ‘simplified alternative’ of the sanskritised version of Bengali and was chiefly attributed to the ‘illiterate masses of the Muslim population’ including peasants, fishermen, boatmen – people who were ‘not well versed in Bengali literature.’ Its entire pedagogic endeavour was to bridge the gap between the written (lekhya bhasha) and the spoken (kathya bhasha) and thereby meeting one of the preconditions of democratisation of education – the concern for reaching out to a larger mass. The primer of the script differed from the available forms and contents of primers in the school system not only in its lack of secular content but also in addressing the audience. The declared purpose of this primer was to address an adult audience who would be able to read the texts in Sylhet Nāgarī outside the school system. In content, these texts dealt with the ethics and values associated with the local form of Islam where it was not impossible to find the stories of Yusuf Zuleikha along with the stories Radha-Krishna and the nineteenth century concern for the pervasive threat of conversion to Christianity. Besides songs by Pirs and Fakirs, didactic manuals for the followers of Islam, popular stories viz. the war of Karbala, the life story of Hazrat Muhammad or the love story of Yusuf Zuleikha, the texts also occasionally dealt with chronicles of contemporary social events. It was quite a popular pastime among rural households, especially among women who gathered together from neighboring households to read and listen to these texts.

We do not yet have a comprehensive understanding of the social content of readership and the meaning of these texts in their everyday lives. Through the study of these didactic texts, this project aims to explore the nature of ‘alternative’ pedagogic practices prevalent among the poor masses of Sylhet. Instead of probing the origin of the script or analysing the religious-philosophical foundations of the texts, this project would track the circulation of the texts and the politics of standardisation of the script. It attempts to form an understanding of the public sphere that once consumed these texts and develop an understanding of the colonial modern in the formation of a regional identity. The project also seeks to add a postcolonial dimension to the question by trying to address the historical reasons leading to the revival of Sylhet Nāgarī script among the diasporic population in UK.


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