Primer to Press: Celebrating the evolution of Bangla alphabets

Today's children, unfortunately, hardly speak Bangla, let alone write, and parents let them go by emphasising that the alphabet and the language are difficult.


A recently held exhibition along with the book launch of Bornomala: Bangla Alphabet Book Collection by Sabyasachi Hazra promoted Bangla fonts, typography, and calligraphy. PHOTO: KAMRUL HASAN MITHON/THE DAILY STAR

May 21, 2024

DHAKA – The recently held exhibition along with the book launch event of Bornomala: Bangla Alphabet Book Collection by Sabyasachi Hazra was profoundly insightful. As an artist, researcher, and prolific book cover designer, Hajra needs little introduction. He has been working to promote Bangla fonts, typography and calligraphy for a while and his efforts went into showing the evolution of Bangla alphabets at the show, Primer to Press.

Visitors were seen raving in appreciation for his attempt to bring to the fore eight Bangla primers published between 1849 and 1948. Primers are books that introduce a language to preschool students and interestingly Bangla primers were all done by progressive-minded, socially conscious people of their time like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Madanmohan Tarkalankar, and others.

“The inception and flourishing of Bangla primers are deeply intertwined with the context of the Bengal Renaissance. It is regrettable though that this significant chapter of history is not adequately archived or considered as a valuable historical document,” said the artist.

He was thrilled to see people of all walks of life, particularly faculty members of different institutions like schools, colleges, and universities taking an active part in promoting the show to their students. They came in groups of 40 or so and Hajra happily explained the evolution of Bangla primers, calligraphy, and typography to them.

Dr Shisir Bhattacharja, professor, Institute of Modern Languages, is an academic who has taken the exhibition to heart.

“Languages,” Dr Bhattacharja said, “have four types of recognition — social, political, economic, and international. Social recognition of Bangla and the Bangla alphabet was achieved in the Middle Ages, political recognition was achieved in 1948-52. Economic recognition of the language has not been fully achieved, because economics and politics are two inseparable pages of the same sheet of paper. Bangla is still not the language of justice in Bangladesh. Bangla is not the language of instruction, even in Dhaka University, which vainly boasts of being the cradle of the language movement.

“I don’t think Sabyasachi has any aim other than to attract children to Bangla and promote the effectiveness of the Bangla alphabet in their lives. Our Bangla language is falling behind with the widespread use of English and Hindi… Might I remind you that whenever we lose our alphabet, we lose much in the language competition.”

Today’s children hardly speak Bangla, let alone write, and parents let them go by emphasising that the alphabet and the language are difficult. Some even take to a sense of false pride as to how their children can only speak in English.

Theatre activist Reetu Sattar said, “Time has changed and many of our children are distant from their mother language. As a primer, they might think of the English alphabet. When I learned that Sabyasachi Hazra’s long-honed research is coming as an exhibition, I felt the emergency need to expose the exhibition to as many children as possible.”

Aziza Ahmed was seen visiting the exhibition with her teenage son and nephew.

“Seeing all the Bangla language primers framed in one place gave me goosebumps, bringing my childhood rushing back,” said Ahmed. “The letterpress machine was incredibly nostalgic as well.”

Ahmed fondly recalled that growing up in Old Dhaka, she had the opportunity to see many presses and while the one at the exhibition was a bit older, it was quite familiar. To her, the whole experience was like taking the children to a museum, introducing them to our heritage and history.

And people Bhattacharja, Sattar and Ahmed hopes that the entire exhibition can be converted into an alphabet and printing museum, and that it can travel all over Bangladesh for all to enjoy.

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