Sunday, February 25, 2024

Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah: Exploring the roots of Language

Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah was an internationally renowned educationist, writer and philologist. He was born in the village Peyara, Chobbish Pargana, West Bengal (now in India).
Yesterday (July 10) marked the 126th birth anniversary of the linguist.
Shaidullah passed his school finals (known as Entrance examination at that time) in 1904 from Howrah Zila School. In 1906 he passed the FA examination (equivalent to HSC) from Presidency College, Calcutta (now Kolkata). He received the Bachelor of Arts degree with Honours in Sanskrit in 1910 from City College, Calcutta, and Master of Arts in 1912 in Comparative Philology from the same institution.
Shahidullah’s teaching career started in Jessore District School where he taught between 1908 and 1909. He also worked as the headmaster of Sitakunda High School, Chittagong between 1914 and 1915. He practised law for some time and was elected vice-chairman of the Bashirhat municipality.
He joined the University of Dhaka as a lecturer of Sanskrit and Bangla in 1921. His years at the university constituted the most important period of his life. During his teaching and research career there, he explored the origins of the Bangla language. In 1925, he was able to show that Bangla originated from Gaudi or Magadhi Prakrit.
To pursue his doctoral studies, Shahidullah went to France and Germany in 1926. He studied Vedic Sanskrit, Buddhist Sanskrit, Comparative Philology, Tibetan and ancient Persian at University of Paris, and Khotni, ancient Vedic Sanskrit and Prakrit at Freiburg University in Germany. He received his doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris in 1928 for his research on the distiches of the “Charyapada”, the earliest extant specimens of Bangla language.
Dr. Shahidullah became principal of Bogra Azizul Huq College after retirement. He then rejoined the Bangla Department of the University of Dhaka as a supernumerary teacher and taught there for six years as departmental head and dean of the Faculty of Arts. Also, he taught part-time at the Law Department (1922-25) and the International Relations Department, as a teacher of French (1953-55). He also worked as head of the Bangla and Sanskrit Department of the University of Rajshahi (1955-58).
Dr. Shahidullah was a devout Muslim, and his books on religion reflect his deep faith. He addressed public gatherings to uphold the importance of Islam. He was liberal and progressive. Eminent artist Murtaja Baseer (son of Dr. Shahidullah) goes down memory lane and recalls his relationship with his father, his reaction to Baseer’s decision of pursuing art and more:
“People think that Dr. Shahidullah was against my decision of becoming a painter, but that is not true. My father disagreed with my decision but never stood in the way. He simply tried to explain his views to me: ‘When I was living in Paris, I witnessed the life of a painter, haunted by poverty and pursued by inhumane treatment from his fellow countrymen. The life of an artist is never easy. You are my son. I don’t want you to embrace this troubled fate. First, you should complete your BA and MA, and then you can go for art. In fact, I would rather favour you going to Aligarh,” said Baseer.
“I had drawn lots of portraits of my father. When my father was admitted to the hospital, we didn’t realise he would be dying after fifteen days. Before leaving for the hospital, he suddenly put on an achkan and a fez cap and asked me to do his portrait,” Baseer added.
Portraits are supposed to be forbidden in orthodox Islam. Baseer wanted to know his father’s opinion in this regard. Dr. Shahidullah said, “There is nothing in this regard in our holy book. If the painting puts you in a foul mood or places any wicked impression on your mind, then it is certainly wrong. Such paintings are not even aesthetic in any way.”
Dr. Shahidullah delved deep into the history of Old and Middle Age Bangla literature, wrote books on these subjects, and gave pointers to solve much specificity of Bangla language and literature. He also took active interest in folk literature of Bengal. Noteworthy among his books are “Sindabad Saodagarer Galpo,” “Bhasha O Shahitya,” “Bangala Byakaran,” “Diwan-i-Hafiz,” “Padmabati” (Volume I), “Bangla Shahityer Kotha” (Volumes I and II) and more. His “Buddhist Mystic Songs” (1960) is a translation and an edited version of the “Charyapada”.
Dr. Shahidullah was a polyglot and an expert in philology. He knew many languages and thus had access to the treasures of many different literatures. He was made Professor Emeritus by the University of Dhaka (1967) and awarded ‘Knight of the Orders of Art and Letters’ by the French government (1967) for his lifetime achievement in research on language and literature.
Dr. Shahidullah passed away in Dhaka on July 3, 1969.

-With The Daily Star input

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