Puthi-poṛa (or puthi-paṭh) is the name given to the performance of the puthi literature. A puthi is a 'book or manuscript' and poṛa simply means 'to read' or 'to recite'. Puthi-poṛa literally, therefore, just means 'book or manuscript reading'. This in and of itself does not sound that remarkable - for what do people do with books if not read them?! But it is how these puthis are read, and the contexts in which such readings take place, that tell us that puthi-poṛa is more than just a scanning or verbalisation of ancient texts for private, or even public interest and enjoyment. Puthi-poṛa is, in fact, a tradition of musical performance, captured by the phrase coined by David Kane (2008) in his PhD on the subject as 'melodic reading'.
It's important to clarify that puthi-poṛa is not an exclusively Sylheti tradition, just as the puthis themselves were never exclusively written in Siloṭi Nagri. The Siloṭi Nagri puthis - manuscript and printed - and their performance find themselves as regional expressions of a wider Bengali tradition. This does not minimise the Sylheti contribution, nor indeed the uniqueness of the texts written in the Siloṭi Nagri script; rather, when the historical context is properly understood, one could argue that the Siloṭi Nagri puthi tradition is an example par excellence of the efforts of their authors to bridge the linguistic and religious divide in communicating Islam to the masses in their vernacular.
But there is another point to consider, raised by the above, which is particularly significant when considering the historical context and function of the wider puthi tradition and its performance, and that is that there are both Hindu and Islamic puthi traditions and Hindu and Islamic expressions of puthi-poṛa, the former pre-dating the latter. The connection between these two religious traditions is outlined below, but it is important to note here that the Siloṭi Nagri puthi tradition is almost exclusively Islamic. Indeed, some have argued that Siloṭi Nagri was developed specifically for the purpose of disseminating Islamic ideals - one free from the taint of Hinduism, which Bengali (along with Devanagari and Oriya) was not, reserved as it had been historically for writing sacred (i.e. Hindu) texts in Sanskrit.
The function of the Siloṭi Nagri tradition of puthi-poṛa has to be understood in the context of the wider historical processes of Islamisation in the Bengal deltaic region. Approximately 135 million Bengali Muslims living in Bangladesh and the Indian State of Bengal today testify to such processes of Islamisation, but Islamists and historians alike have long been baffled by how and why Islam spread so effectively in this region from the sixteenth century when it did not flourish in other parts of the Indian Subcontinent - especially when we learn that the majority of the local population embraced the religion of their Mughal rulers who did not, as a matter of policy, promote the conversion of Bengalis to Islam.
Of course, there were numerous factors involved in the Islamisation of Bengal which occurred over two main historical phases and which are clearly reflected in the Muslim Bengali literature: the development of a syncretistic tradition from the sixteenth century, followed by a pan-Islamic reaction in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Syncretistic Tradition: 16th to 19th Centuries
The first phase, from the sixteenth century, was gradual and contextualised. Building on the foundation of the west-east shift of political and agrarian frontiers, Richard Eaton, in The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760 (1993), suggests that there was a 'seepage' of Islamic ideals into the local culture and it was their inclusion and interaction one with the other over a period of three centuries which resulted in the development of an acculturated and syncretistic Islamic tradition. But this 'seepage' was not passive or incidental; it was led by a Muslim religious gentry - composed of Mullahs, preachers, pilgrims recently returned from Mecca, and holy men, or pīrs - who had received land grants for the agricultural development of previously impenetrable jungle forests and the construction of mosques and shrines.
It was Muslim pioneers such as these who took it upon themselves to introduce Islam to their dependent clients who were rooted on the land, but in such ways that they could engage with and understand. Asim Roy, in his seminal work The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal (1983), refers to such men as 'cultural mediators', who not only saw the need to communicate Islam in the vernacular (as much as it genuinely troubled them to write in Bengali - which was understood to be the 'Hindu script' and a 'coarse' and 'vulgar' local language), they also adopted idioms and symbols consistent with the pre-Islamic worldview in order to 'mediate' the message to the Bengali masses in a culturally contextualised way. As a result, the peasant communities came to venerate the Muslim pioneers as religious leaders.
But it didn't stop there - and here we get closer to seeing the connection between the Hindu and Islamic puthi traditions and their expressions in performance. Verse was the sole literary medium in Bengali from at least the tenth and right up to the nineteenth century (which then saw the emergence of prose). The 'cultural mediators' naturally adopted those literary forms which were available to them in order to compose their puthis: short lyrical songs of vaiṣnav origin and long narrative poems of the moṅgol-kabýo or pãcali traditions. Here, even though the message was exogenous, it was presented to the masses in a wholly familiar way; a powerful mix of the vernacular language expressed through pre-Islamic literary and linguistic forms - poetic, thematic, idiomatic and symbolic.
While this goes a long way to explain how Islamic ideals 'seeped' into Bengali culture and became acculturated, it's only half the story. A key question raised in Kane's thesis is 'How did the largely illiterate Bengali masses access this literature?' (2008:52) It is his contention that it was through the public performance of such puthis - that is, through the 'vehicle' of puthi-poṛa - that the message of Islam was able to spread so quickly and pervasively through the former Bengal region.
The Reformist Reaction: 19th to 20th Centuries
The second phase of Islamisation, from the nineteenth century, was abrupt and counter-cultural - inspired by great pan-Islamic ideals, this was a reaction by those who sought to rid Islam in Bengal of its pre-Islamic elements and attacked both the syncretistic beliefs which were, by that time, deeply held by the Bengali masses, as well as the institutions which supported them. And yet the pragmatism of the reformers led them not to use prose - the vehicle of the educated - but puthis, composed in verse, for they could see that this was the chief vehicle of communication to the people.
The puthis of the reformers, however, were significantly different from the puthis of the syncretistic tradition. The vernacular was adopted, but every effort was made to 'Islamize' and 'Urdu-ize' it through a proliferation of Perso-Arabic vocabulary. Some of the puthis even order pages from right to left following Arabic and Persian books! In similar measure, and in stark contrast to the efforts of the 'cultural mediators', these new puthis were saturated with pan-Islamic symbolism located in the Arabic, Persian, and Turkish tales of romance and heroism. The result was not only the substitution of Hindu religious symbols for Islamic ones, but the purging of just about every aspect of local culture from them.
The 'cultural mediators' did not sit back and allow such attacks without a response. Both sides fought a polemic battle to maintain their own positions and to win over the hearts and minds of the peasant masses - through the writing of puthis, but, of course, altered in language, idiom, and, particularly, content. This was the state of things until the latter part of the twentieth century, writes Rafiuddin Ahmed in The Bengal Muslims 1871-1906: A Quest for Identity (1988), when the gradual spread of education to the rural areas meant that puthis began to be replaced by more 'authoritative works' on Islam written in modern Bengali prose. And, yet, the fact that puthi-poṛa continues as a performance tradition today is evidence that this 'replacement' was not absolute.
Siloṭi Nagri puthi-poṛa
The Siloṭi Nagri puthi tradition contains both manuscript and printed puthis. Puthi genre will be elaborated more under the Literature section of this website, but here, at the risk of over-simplification, it is generally the case that the manuscript puthis find their place, historically and/or ideologically, within the esoteric-mystic literature of the syncretistic tradition, whereas the printed puthis fall naturally, both in spirit and content, into a more mainstream category defined by the reformist movement.
The argument posited earlier - that the Siloṭi Nagri puthi tradition is an example par excellence of the efforts of their authors to bridge the linguistic and religious divide in communicating Islam to the masses in their vernacular - applies equally to the 'cultural mediators' and to the reformers. For Siloṭi Nagri was used by both, not just as substitute 'Muslim' script that was perceived to be ideologically more compatible with Islam, but also because its orthography was used for the Sylheti language. Because of Sylheti's fewer phonemes, the script has fewer characters and is consequently less complex than the Devanagari or Bengali scripts and easier to learn.
The existence of the Siloṭi Nagri puthi tradition, then, is testament to the efforts of such men to communicate Islam far and wide - men who were clearly alert to the differences between the regional languages and their scripts, and who were both sensitive enough and pragmatic enough to use them. It is this regional corpus of literature composed in the Siloṭi Nagri script that defines the repertoire of Siloṭi Nagri puthi-poṛa.
Sylheti Translation And Research is currently working with Dr. David Kane to develop the Performance section of this website. We will be adding more information about the contexts, poetic metres and melodies used in puthi-poṛa performance soon. As a future and larger project, we also hope to expand this section to include audio and video examples of the tradition as performed in Sylhet, Bangladesh, along with corresponding analyses.