The matrix of ekushey, rural dimensions and adages

Muhammad Zamir   | Sunday, 20 February 2022

Adages and Bachans have left an indelible footprint on our rural cultural heritage and have a special significance for Ekushey and the month of February. This association between Bachans and Bangla as a language in Bengal has old roots. Historical records are not precise as to when people of Bengal started their agricultural profession, but more likely than not, it predates 400 BC. Different excavations carried out in 24 Parganas, Mednipore, Murshidabad and Birbhum in the present day Indian State of West Bengal have indicated clear evidence of a continuing civilisation rich with agricultural knowledge ('The Eastern Anthropologist', vol.31, no.4, 1978, pp. 543-555). Excavations carried out in Chandraketugarh in 24 Parganas in West Bengal have also provided terracotta samples of a flourishing agricultural pattern that included the presence of coconut, betel nut and 'tal' trees.

From such records it is evident that in the ancient times, religion in Bengal was mostly associated with agriculture. This in turn has been reflected in the evolving body of Bangla Bachans.

Another aspect that needs to be highlighted is the point raised by Mohammad Hanif Pathan in his publications "Bangla Probad Parichiti", published by the Bangla Academy, Dhaka in 1976 and 1985. He has realistically identified the difficulties associated in the collection and publication of proverbs. He also correctly explained the significant factor of adages being based on oral tradition. This creates its own dynamics and practical day-to-day interaction. It also moulds collective experience and helps in the evolution of terminology and idioms.

Consequently, I believe that the genius and spirit of a nation, particularly of a country like Bangladesh, can be discovered by its proverbs. The importance of this sociological factor has been further underlined by the view that adages like religious rituals tend to have a significant influence on the ethnic moral structure in our rural societies. A historical appreciation of Bangla Bachans and their relevance for rural Bengal would however be incomplete without reference to our ancient seer-- Khana. Sayings of Khana form part of this country's traditional agricultural norms. They also constitute in a manner of speaking, a body of suggestions regarding public health. For many centuries it has contributed towards understanding of this country's evolution of civilisation and culture. It has also been involved in facilitating this process.

A careful analysis of early economic history of Bengal indicates that farming and being associated with agriculture was considered very honourable. Numerous references exist in Khana to the important role farmers played in the economic life of Bengal. This was also evident in the poetry of the famous medieval poet Mukondoram, particularly in his work-- 'Chandimongal'. Khana particularly noted more than once--

* Jar ghore nei Dheki moshal, shei boujhir nei koshol';

* Goru, Joru, Dhan, e tine rakhe man';

* Jar golai nai dhan, tar abar kothar tan'; and

* Jar nai goru, shey shobar horu'.

In all these sayings Khana underlines the importance of having healthy farming animals and farm implements-- for essentially, these are the factors for creating wealth in a household.

It would be interesting to note here that surveys conducted in the near past in different districts of Bangladesh have revealed that though the inhabitants have not formally read about Dak or Khana, the two seers, yet their adages, practised locally, continue to have impact on their daily lives. This was found to be particularly true in the districts of Mymensingh (Trishal Upazila), Comilla (Brahmanpara Upazila) and Dinajpur (Setabganj Upazila). In these places only nine per cent of inhabitants appear to be familiar with Khana or Dak by having read their Bachans. Yet, ninety seven per cent stated that they know of Khana and her association with agriculture. It was also discovered that Khana was still influencing nearly eighty-nine per cent of the population, especially on matters having social significance.

Bachans and adages are found all over the world and they provide an insight into the effects of cultural conditions, language and local variations on expression. Thus the biblical "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," has an equivalent among the Nandi of East Africa- "A goat's hide buys a goat's hide and a gourd a gourd." Both form part of codes of behaviour, and exemplify the use of each saying in the transmission of tribal and rural wisdom and rules of conduct. The only aspect that needs to be understood is that the same adage can be found in many variants.

The month of February and our commitment and struggle for Bangla as our mother language has a distinct osmotic aspect. Bengali as a language has a significant role not only within Bangladesh and neighbouring Indian State of West Bengal but also in the adjoining Indian States of Orissa, Assam, Bihar and Tamil Nadu and in the countries of Nepal and Bhutan.

One also has to understand why we all give great importance to adages in Bangladesh. However short the proverbs, they have a singular characteristic, they usually have a philosophical content and connote a special meaning. It also needs to be understood that such expressions are usually formulated on the basis of broad experience and not on emotion. It is this aspect that generates respect for their use when a person wants to underline a particular point of view through an adage. From this point of view one needs to realise that they are really signposts and in a manner of speaking fragments of "an elder wisdom". It is this aspect which has been underlined by W.C. Hazlitt, an American author who has described adages and proverbs as "an expression or combination of words conveying a truth" figuratively, as antithetical or as a hyperbole.

Bangla proverbs and adages normally consist of a descriptive element that contains a topic and a comment. Based on common sense, they have over the years assumed the unwritten status of morality in the villages of Bangladesh. They also usually reflect the ethos and in more ways than one, the cultural identity of the community or people living in that region.

Bangla proverbs usually have a theme and a distinct meaning. Some of them rely on the contradictory nature of the construction while others are complementary in nature. There are proverbs and Bachans which deal with principles of social science, politics or economics. There are also Bachans which deal with the weather, weather patterns, the supernatural, flora and fauna and also the importance of astrology in daily life.

Bangabandhu was fond of Khana and quite often referred to the observations that she had made pertaining to the matrix of agriculture and how farming could be improved in helping food recovery and economic livelihood in war devastated Bangladesh. In this context, reference was drawn to particular types of livestock and poultry-- cows, bullocks, goats, ducks and pigeons. He also drew attention to how Khana referred to the significance of vegetables, particularly gourds and how they could help a farmer. In this context, he underlined the importance that Khana had attached to farmers also cultivating and growing fruit items like mango and jackfruit, in addition to banana.

In this regard, Bangabandhu also drew attention to Khana when at different times farmers pointed out to him during his visits outside Dhaka that they were having problems finding necessary assistance with regard to fertilisers for their crops. He did not hesitate to refer to how Khana had discussed the importance of organic fertilisers (not only of cow-dung, which was easily available, but also of ash, rotten leaves and grass) in farming and had also advised farmers about breeding of livestock and of creating proper embankments.

On another occasion he drew the attention of farmers to an interesting feature that had been also focused upon by Khana. This related to her observation on insects and frogs in determining weather patterns. It may be noted here that Khana appears to have made a similar comment as had become prevalent in China and in many other parts of South-East Asia. This related to the fact that if the frog calls quite often, it is a sign of impending rain.

Such advice could be conveyed to the famers by Bangabandhu because of his close association with rural needs and how to overcome existing challenges in this sphere. Khana and her Bachans were there to help him after seven centuries.


Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. 

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