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The people’s poets

  • Published at 08:28 pm August 28th, 2015

Perhaps it would seem, to some, a little ironic, that the two poets, both born in the lands that are now Bangladesh, who are credited with being the first to write verse on secular subjects in these lands, were both Muslim, and both worked in, and under the patronage of, the rulers of the neighbouring Buddhist kingdom of Arakan.

Both were born in the first decade of the 17th century. The elder, Daulat Qazi, was born in the village of Sultanpur in Rauzan, near Chittagong, in 1600.

Since the middle of the 16th century, Chittagong had been under the control of the notorious Arakanese kingdom. A kingdom, which, at the time, based on an unholy alliance between Portuguese renegades, and the Mrauk U dynasty of Arakanese rulers, which had earned for itself a highly dubious reputation for piracy, on land as well as waters.

It is unsurprising that, with what little we know of this early writer, we can assume that, after his upbringing as a Muslim in the rather raffish Buddhist regime, where, probably, madrassa education equipped him with literacy skills, he is believed to have become a scribe for a Bengali military commander, Ashraf Khan, in the forces of the Arakanese King Thithudhamma, who ruled from 1622 to 1638.

From Daulat’s writings, it seems safe to assume that both patron and poet were Muslims from the strong Sufi tradition that had arrived with the Sufi missionaries of the 14th century in these lands around the delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra.

His most enduring work was probably the translation of lyrical work in the Hindi language of Awadhi into Bengali; work, the most important of which, after he died at the young age of 38, was finished by the second poet, Syed Alaol.

The work of both of them is said to have been amongst the earliest to create a fusion of both Hindu and Islamic tradition. And the native Hindu tradition, of course, was rich in what might be described as romance, with a foundation of religious devotion.

The Islamic Sufi tradition, with a foundation in the great Islamic peoples of the Middle East, of course, and doubtless very familiar to devotees of Sufism in the ancient lands of culture around the Ganges delta, included such outstanding exemplars as the ageless Omar Khayyam. Even outside Iran and other predominantly Persian speaking countries, such giants of medieval literature as Omar Khayyam, in particular, had already had enormous impact on their literary traditions.

It was, of course, the mid 16th century arrival of the Mughals that entrenched Persian in the culture of these lands. But the very fact that Alaol certainly had Persian amongst his literary skills might suggest that the influence was already well established, and was slowly flowering, at least in aristocratic quarters at the time of both Daulat and Alaol.

There is dispute about the birthplace of Alaol. One school of scholars believe he had been born, in 1607, in the Arakanese ruled district of Chittagong.

However, there is a far wider consensus for the belief that he came from the Faridpur district, at the time under the rule of Majlis Qutb. It is possible that his claim to have been born into a significant family could well be justified by the evident excellence of his education -- he was said to be fluent in Bangla, Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian, as well as being trained, as was any well born youth of the time, in the art of both war and drama.

These were, of course, turbulent times in the lands, then Bengal and now Bangladesh. The resistance to the Mughals was in its last stages, as the new regime fought to secure these, potentially the most valuable of the regions of the sub-continent. And, of course, this struggle was, in part, also that between the Muslim rulers of Afghan origin, and those of Persian.

Perhaps those personal skills of Alaol’s lay at the foundation of, probably, his most celebrated work, Poddobhoti, “celebrating” the romance of Jauhar, in which royal ladies, their consorts, and family, facing defeat, burned to death to avoid capture, enslavement, or dishonour. The work concerned the Sihala Princess,, and the Queen of Chittor, who suffered what was regarded, in what we might remember was an age of Sati, as a noble death.

This work with a local Islamic poetic tradition based much on expounding and explaining Islam, moving, rather, into the realms of “romance.” This, more Persian, tradition, was to characterise so much subsequent Bengali poetry, art, writing, and drama over the ensuing centuries.

Alaol arrived in Arakan, probably around 1630, as a result of being taken captive by Portuguese pirates, whilst travelling from Faridpur to Chittagong with his father. Alaol always claimed his father, who had been killed in the encounter with pirates, to have been a “minister” in the court of Majlis Qutb. We cannot, however, be certain of this, since he never shared the name of his father after his capture.

Clearly, his military training was immediately apparent to whoever hired him, or perhaps even, bought him at a slave market, where he was said to have been placed by his captors, since he became a “bodyguard,” possibly even a member of the Royal protection. We also know, however, that he became a teacher of music and drama -- clearly a very versatile young man!

His first poetic work to achieve recognition: Padmavati, published about 1645, a free translation of an ancient Awadhi poem, Padmavat, “a rare combination of romantic and spiritual elements,” written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, had certainly already widened his circle of admirers at the Arakan court. It had, it is said, displayed the depth of his great knowledge of Hindu mythology, Sanskrit literature, and Buddhist writing. However, it was probably his completion of the unfinished work by Daulat, “Shoti Mayana o Lor -- Chandrani,” that consolidated his reputation in 1659.

His completion of Daulat’s unfinished masterpiece acquired him the important patronage of the nephew of the notorious King Sanda Thudhamma, who was also First Minister in the King’s administration.

But Arakan was about to enter a disastrously dangerous time -- the beginning of the end of the kingdom was precipitated, at least to some degree, by the recklessness of the king and his adherents.

The war of succession was erupting in the Mughal family, and spread rapidly into Bengal and finally Arakan.

The flight of Shah Suja to Arakan in 1660, fleeing his brother Aurangzeb, already a fratricide, as well as imprisoner of his father, was followed by the hot pursuit of the Prince by Mir Jumla, Auranbgzeb’s military chief.

The pursuit brought Jumla to Chittagong, which he reconquered, driving the Arakanese probably as far south as the Naf river, today’s southern border between Bangladesh and Myanmar. But his aim to destroy Shah Suja’s possibility to continue conflict between the brothers was already done for him in Arakan.

There, instead of refuge, Shah Suja found envy of the treasure he carried with him, and desire for the daughter who was a part of his entourage. Whether Shah Suja lost his life there, as his family did, or survived to vanish in Meghalaya, remains unknown. But the consequences of the Arakan King’s cupidity so weakened the Arakan kingdom that it fell easy prey to the Burmese invasion just over a century later.

Inevitably, the revival of Bengali interests and successes against Arakan saw a rise in anti-Bengali emotion, and the recognition of both Bengali born poets, and use of the Bengali language waned. Alaol fell out of favour, and died in relative obscurity in 1680. His name lives on, not least in Chittagong University and in the Bangladeshi Literary Prize, Alaol Puroshkar, marking recognition of his unique role in the rich literary traditions of Bangladesh.