1Assamese literatureAn overview and historical perspective Linking into broader Indian canvasPrologueAssam, the eastern most part of India was differently called in different historicalperiods. The name Assam is comparatively a new one. In the epic age it was known asPragiyotishpura and Kamarupa. References of Pragiyotishpura are found in manyplaces of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, Harivamsa, Visnupurana, Brahmand-apurana, Raghuvasma, etc. In the Allahabad Inscription of Samudragupta of the 5thcentury A.D. the name Kamrupa is found. These references indicate that this countryhad a link with the rest of the sub-continent. The names found in some earlyinscriptions also indicate that the Mahakavyas and Puranas made their way into thispart very early. Moreover the language and the script of the inscriptions are vey strongevidents to prove the existence and use of the Sanskrit language and of the localvariation of the Brahmi script. The Nagajari-khanikar gaon inscription and sameinscriptions recently found in the Dhansiri valley tract clearly date back the use of theabove mentioned language and script to second century A.D. Kanaklal Barua comesto a logical conclusion that the Alpines, an Aryan language-speaking race entered thisregion approximately 400 B.C., and they were responsible to bring with them the pre-vedic Aryan language which was rich in vocabulary to give the benefit to the earlierinhabitants who were supposed to be the speakers of different small branches of thedialects of Tibeto-Burmese origin or the Chino-Tibetan origin, or Kuki-chin or Bhot-chin origin and were quite not being able to follow the tonal distinctions of thedialects other than that of their own, to create a lingua-franca for their common use. Inthis way a common language, based on the syntax-system of certain Tibeto-Burmesedialects and with the rich vocabulary of the pre-vedic Aryan language, came intobeing. Most of the original inhabitants of this region were of the Indo-Mongoloidorigin from the ethnic point of identity. The description of the soldiers of Ghatokosha,the king of Pragjyotishpura, who fought for the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra war, asfound in the Mahabharata, is itself an indicator of this ethnic identity.All these data prove that though a large number of the population of Assam are not ofNordic or Alpine origin, yet their language is a branch of the Indo-Aryan speech andthe script is of the Brahmi origin. The first reference of the language of Kamarupa isfound in the note of the Chinese pilgrim Hicuen Tsang who in the 7th century A.D.came to Kamarupa at the invitation of the king Kumar Bhaskara Varman. He notedthat the language of Kamarupa slightly differed from that of the language of middleIndia. This note points out that in the 7th century A.D. this language came into beingwith its primary distinctivenesses. In the map of the Indo-Aryan language, theAssamese language forms and occupies its eastern-most part. So, from the points ofview of the language and script, Assamese is a strong branch of the Indo-Aryanlanguage.In the Kalika Purana of 10th century and in the Yogini Tantra of 16th century, theterritorial jurisdiction of Kamarupa is clearly demarcated by saying that "From themountain of Kancana in Nepal up to the confluence of the Brahmaputra, from theKaratoya to Dikkaravasini, in the north the mount Kanja, in the west the Karotoya, inthe east the Diksu, in the south the confluence of Laksa with the Brahmaputra". It
2indicates that a great portion of north Bengal and Bihar was also included in theancient kingdom of Kamarupa. But later on it broken into different kingdoms.The name Assam came to its existence and use after the Ahoms in 1228 invaded andruled the country for long six hundred years. Till 16th century there were threeprincipal kingdoms in this region, namely, Assam, Kamarupa and Kamata with Behar(Cooch Behar); but the language spoken by the people of these three kingdoms wasone. After the Ahom kings expanded their kingdom up to Manah the whole regioncame to be known as Assam, and the people and their speech to be known asAsamiya. It was the Britishers who had transformed these words to Assam andAssamese as such.Part-IThough the emergence of the Assamese language is traced back in the 7th centuryA.D., no literary evidence till the time of the ‘Charyyapadas’, the Buddhist songs,supposed to be composed within a time-frame of four hundred years, i.e. from 8thcentury A.D. to 12th century A.D., could be traced till date. Therefore theCharyyapadas are taken to be the first literary evidence of the Assamese language. Ofcourse, the Bengali, Oriya and the Maithili languages also claim these songs to be theearliest specimens of their own languages. Because these four languages including theAssamese, originated from the Purva-Magadhi Apravramsa, therefore it is verynatural that there would be some common identical characteristics. But from thephonological and morphological traits registered in these songs, it is clearly evidentthat the language of the Charyya are much more close to Assamese than the otherlanguages. Some significant phonological and morphological traits found in thesesongs have come down in unbroken continuity to modern Assamese.However, from the days of the Charyyapadas, for about last one thousand years tillthe modern time, the whole gamut of literature created in Assamese, can be dividedinto three broad periods, namely, the early period, Medieval period and the modernperiod. In the early period, besides these Charyyapadas, the Krishna-kirtana of BaruChandidas and Sunya Purana of Ramai Pandit, these two works are included. Thetitles themselves speak that the themes are knitted with the Pan Indian background,while the treatment has its local characteristics. Of course these works are alsoclaimed to be specimens of Bengali literature. But gramatical rules and the culturalbackdrops as drawn in the works support the claim of the Assamese languagestrongly. Whatever it may be, the main point to look at is that the themes and spirit ofthe Sanskrit literature made their way into Assamese during this early period till 12thcentury A.D. The names Keshava, Janardana, Mudhava, Samkarsana, Madhusudanaand such other names found in the inscriptions are also strong indicators in thisconnection. Of course, in the works mentioned, the influence of the borderinglanguages can also be traced easily.The Assamese literature found its strong footing in the 13th century A.D. under thepatronage of the king Durlabhnarayana of Kamata. During this period Hem Saraswatiauthored a little book Prahlad charit. He took the story, as he has stated, from theVamana purana but took much liberty with the original Sanskrit work. Another workhe authored is Hara-Gauri sambada, the story of which was also taken from onepurana and also from folk lore. Other two poets Kaviratna saraswati and Rudra
3kandali also received the patronage of Durlabhnarayana and they wrote Jayadratha-vadha and Satyaki-pravesa respectively. Both these plots were taken from theMahabharata.During this period another king Mahamanikya of the Barahi kingdom patronisedMadhava Kandali to translate the whole of the Sanskrit Ramayana into Assamese, andMadhava kandali did a splendid work without deviating from the original and alsoadding local flavour with commendable ability. Later on Sankaradeva the great saintpoet-artist-philosopher, praised him as a flawless poet of high order.These works of 13th and 14th centuries make it clear that, (i) Sanskrit language andliterature were very much known to the educated people (even from the names of thewriters Hem Saraswati, Madhava Kandali, Rudra Kandali and Kaviratna Saraswati itis very much evident). (ii) The Assamese language reached its full grown stage beforethis period, otherwise it would not have been possible to translate and recreate theseworks, (iii) The Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas became familiar to thegeneral masses through the translations and (iv) the people of this whole language-region started sharing the spiritual, moral, social and cultural values that were sharedby the people of the other language-regions of present India. It is also to be noted thatthese poets did not make literal translations; rather either they adopted the stories totell in their own language and idioms or recreated those stories keeping the generalreaders and listeners before their mind. Another important point to be noted is thatking Durlabhanarayan was a Koch king and king Mahamanikya was a Barahi, i.e. aKachari king. Both these kings, from the ethnic point of view, were of non-Aryanorigin. The Koches and the Kacharis were the offsprings of the Bodo tribe. It signifieshow in the early period the non-Aryan language-speaking tribes turned to be Indo-Aryan and Indo-Aryan originated language speakers in this region. The then form ofthe present Assamese was their mother tongue. Even the Ahoms who entered thisregion in the 13th century A.D., adopted the language of the land, and it was theirname after which the name of the land, the people and the language of the people hadbeen identified.The golden period of medieval Assamese literature began with the emergence ofSankaradeva (1449 A.D. - 1569 A.D.), the great saint-poet, artist-philosopher, a socialreformer and preacher of the neo-Vaishnavite order in the whole region of threestates. He, in his youth studied the Vedas, Upanishadas, Puranas, Philosophy, Poetics,Yoga, etc. in the Sanskrit ‘Tol’ of Mahendra Kandali and he travelled the North andthe Eastern parts of present day India extensively. His sojourn to the centres ofVaishnava culture, his profound knowledge of Sanskrit and Indian philosophy, hisdeep realisation of the ultimate truth of the life and the universe, his strong faith onthe path of ‘Bhakti’ made his creative genius ignified. He had started sometimesadopting, sometimes recreating and sometimes translating the stories from theBhagavata Purana, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. He had written theHarichandra Upakhyan Kavya, Rukminitarana Kavya, Kurukshetra Kavya,Balichalan Kavya. Amrit Manthan Kavya, the stories of Ajamil and Gajendra in theKavya form: he had translated with liberty, the Uttara-kanda of the Ramayana andthe 1, 2, 10, 11 and 12 books of the Bhagavata Purana; he had authored books on‘Bhakti’ like Bhakti Pradip, Anadi Patan, Nimi-Navasiddha Sambad, in poeticalform, authored the most popular book the Kirtana-Ghosha, the principal book, meantfor ‘Prasanga’, a significant order of prayer, composed the Borgits based on Raga and
4the songs of the drama, composed the Gunamala i.e. the theme of the BhagavataPurana in brief in poetical form, and he wrote five dramas, the first of its kind in theNorthern Indian languages. He adopted the themes and the stories from theMahakavyas and the Bhagavata Purana, but with his creative genius he made hiscreations original in character. He was a poet par excellence, he was a composer ofmusic and dance of Indian system, he was a reliable translator, he was a scholar ofhigh order, and above all the pioneer of the Bhakti movement in Assam, Kamarupaand Cooch-Behar.Sankaradeva in a very big way brought India into Assam and strongly associatedAssam with India. He was followed by his great disciple Madhavadeva (1489-1596).Besides his other works, the unique contribution of Madhavadeva is the Namghoshain which the most sweet, powerful and melodious confluence of Philosophy and Rasacan be found. Sankaradeva emerged and stood as the guiding and inspiring spirit tosee a band of poets and dramatists and composers of songs, making their powerfulentrance into the arena of literature, culture and religion. Ramsaraswati translated andre-created five books of the Mahabharata with liberty and he on the basis of theMahabharata authored a series of kavyas under the name Badha-Kavya. AnantaKandali, Sridhar Kandali, Kamsari, Gopalcharan Dwija, Kalapchandra Dwija,Haridev, Gopal Dev, Narayan Das Thakur, Gopal Misra, Ramcharan Thakur, GovindaMisra, Purusottam Thakur, Aniruddha Dev, Daiyari Thakur and about not less thanfour hundred writers emerged during the period of four hundred years since theemergence of Sankaradeva till the end of the 18th century. Moreover, Assamese proseliterature also grew up during this period. Bhattadeva wrote the Bhagavata Puranaand the Srimad Bhagavata Geeta in prose in the early 17th century, RaghunathMahanta wrote the Ramayana in prose in 17th century and Chakrapani Bairagi toldthe biographies of Sankaradeva, Madhavadeva and other Gurus in prose in 17thcentury. It may be noted that no prose literature in other Indian languages was createdtill then.It is not that all the writers were of the Vaishnava faith and fold. There were somewriters, though less in number, who wrote for enjoyment and entertainment and alsofor imparting knowledge, but not for any religious aim or object. Their writings wereof secular character and some of them were of technical nature. But they were more orless very close to the great Vaishnava literature in form.Under the patronage of the Ahom kings the literature of secular and technical naturemade a healthy progress. Moreover, though the Buranji literature, i.e. the chornicleswritten in Assamese under the patronage of the Ahom kings and nobles, had nothingto do with the Indian tradition as such, yet in the narration it is very much evident thatthe chronicles as well as the then society were governed by the spiritual, moral, socialand cultural values imbibed from the Indian tradition.In the sattras, the centres of the Vaishnava religion and culture, reading of thereligious books and to listen are compulsory for the devotees. Moreover, to be aSatradhikara one had to prove ones ability in writing poetry, songs and plays andones command over music, dance and drama. Besides the Ankiyas Nats ofSankaradeva and the Jhumuas of Madhavadeva, the plays written by the Saradhikarsare to be staged. Moreover, in the villages also the tradition of writing drama to stagein the Namghars, is being followed even now. The playwrights adopt the themes from
5the Ramayana,the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata Purana and other Puranas. Besidesthe dramatic literature, Kavyas, based on the stories of these Maha Kavyas andPuranas, were composed. As a result, during the period of last four hundred yearsafter the death of Sankaradeva, Assamese literature has been enriched in a very bigway. It may be also noted that even some Kavyas and plays were written by followersof other folds too.Since the days of Sankaradeva till the Nineteenth century, during this span of fourhundred years, Assamese literature of the old school had a speedy and healthy growth.Kavyas, Mahakavyas, dramas songs, biographies, chronicles, books on technicalsubjects had been written in numbers. Even today no survey has been made to have acomplete list of the books lying still in the form of manuscripts. Only a part of thewhole has been collected by the Kamrup Anusandhan Samiti, Department ofHistorical and Antiquarian Studies. Assam Museum, the Gauhati University,Dibrugarh University and Assam Sahitya Sabha. These vast works of letters and otherart forms grew and developed during this period, moulded the individual mind and thecollective mind of the people of Assam to the tune of the Indian spirit and valuesgenerated by the great Sanskrit literature of our past.Part-IIModern Assamese literature found its growth and the first phase of development inthe 19th century. The quick and sudden changes and the birth of a new class ofintelligentsia in the 19th century had prepared the background and played significantroles in this regard. The Assamese intelligentsia came into contact with the westernculture and civilisation during the second half of the century. During the mid 19thcentury, Bengal, i.e. Calcutta, was on the crest of the ‘Renaissance’, and the people ofBengal tried their best from their own points of view for an all round development ofthe language, literature and culture and the general conditions of society. The fight ofthe Brahmos against the Hindu orthodoxy and for the establishment of a neo-Hinduism, the attack of the young Bengal group on traditional values, the attempts ofthe rising writers in poetry, fiction, drama and in other genres of literature with newoutlook, the infiltration of the western romanticism with a humanistic approach, andthe emergence of the spirit of patriotism, are the most remarkable events in the social,literary and cultural history of Calcutta during this period. The spirit that wasgenerated by the Bengal Renaissance made its way to the other parts of India to wakeup the country for a modern era. The western culture, literature and civilisation madethe people aware of the modern life; but at the same time, the strong feeling ofpatriotism also started occupying their mind. A spirit of language-based nationalismgrew up in every province of British India. It inspired them to see the past of theircountry in glorification. Moreover, in the modern literatures of India since 19thcentury till the early part of the 20th century, the co-existence of sub-nationalism andIndian nationalism made its room without clash or conflict. Therefore a spirit ofIndianness was equally responsible to inspire the writers.The first half of the 19th century was a painful time for Assam. However, towards theend of the first half Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, Gunabhiram Barua and HemchandraBarua emerged as the pioneering writers. They fought with pen for the rehabilitationof the Assamese language and for the development of modern Assamese literature.Patriotism was the guiding spirit for them to work. But they were not cut off from the
6Indian heritage and values that they imbibed from their own social, cultural andliterary heritage. The new humanistic approach was there; but at the same time, theirtraditional values were also equally active in them.During the ninth decade, the most remarkable band of the Assamese students went toCalcutta for higher studies and played the most significant role towards thedevelopment of modern Assamese literature. Lakshminath Bezbarua, ChandrakumarAgarwala, Hemchandra Goswami, Kenaklal Barua, Padmanath Gohain Barua.Rajanikanta Bordoloi headed the list of those who formed the galaxy of the modernwriters in Assamese. They enriched their minds with new ideas and ideals andprepared themselves to take their individual and collective programmes for thedevelopment of Assamese language and literature. All through the period,Lakshminath Bezbaroa (1864-1938), with a towering personality and with commandover all aspects of Assamese literature, old and new, stood as the uncrowned kingover the domain of Assamese language and literature. He was a short-story writer,dramatist, poet, humourist, belle-letter writer, critic, novelist, biographer, writer ofchildren literature, folk-lorist and a great patriot. He also studied the Vedas,Upanishadas and other scriptures and made comparative analysis with that of thephilosophical trait of the religion and literature of Sankaradeva. He also establishedhimself as the exponent of the religion and philosophy of Sankaradeva. On the otherhand his relationship with the famous Tagore family brought him near the Brahmoreligion. The philosophy of Brahmo religion, excepting its rituals, was identified to agreat extent with the philosophy and religion of Sankaradeva. Western humanism wastempered with Vaishnavite philosophy in Bezboroa; and this synthesization gave adistinctive direction to the intellectual life of Assam. He was out and out a preacher ofAssamese nationalism; but at the same time, he did not lose the sight of broaderhumanism; and for this, modern Assamese literature cannot be called to carry thespirit of narrow parochialism. Moreover, Bezboroa and his other colleagues were notindifferent about the Indian nationalism and the Indianness of the values that theysubscribed.The romantic ideas and ideals mixed with Assamese nationalism and with Indian viewof life and values upheld a new world of thoughts and imagination before the writers.Therefore till the World War II, Assamese literature carried this essence in it. Duringthis period poets of high order like Chandra Kumar Agarwala, Mafizuddin AhmedHazarika, Hiteswar Barbarua, Raghunath Choudhary, Ambikagiri, Durgeswar Sarma,Jatindranath Duara, Nalinibala Devi, Ratnakanta Borkakoti, Suryyakumar Bhuyan,Sailadhar Rajkhowa and others came out. In the secondphase we find importantpoets like Binandrachandra Barua, Parvatiprasad Barua, Ananda Chandra Barua,Ganesh Gogoi, Devakanta Barua and others. In the field of short story Bezbarua led aband of followers later on. Padmanath Gohain Baruaand Rajanikanta Bordoloiand later on Daivachandra Talukdar and Dandinath Kalita established themselves asnovelists.The spirit of the age that was generated through the Jonaki, Bijuli and Banhi, was theguiding force of Assamese literature till the 4th decade of the twentieth century.
7The World War II created a watershed in the socio-cultural and literary life of Assam.Realism, modernism and socialism started flowing through thin streams to make thembigger within a period of two decades. Birinchi Kumar Barua, Syed Abdul Malik,Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya, Jogesh Das and others in the field of novel, HemBarua, Navakanta Barua and their colleagues in the field of poetry, Jyotiprasad in thefield of drama and music, Lakshmidhar Sarma, Rama Das, Syed Abdul Malik,Saurabh Chaliha, Mahim Bora. Bhabendranath Saikia and others in the field of shortstory have annexed new areas. Of course their works are not alienated from the PanIndian background. After independence we find new movements taking place in allthe Indian literatures and these movements are identical in spirit and form to a greatextent.In the present days Assamese literature has imbibed different views and thoughts,spirit and forms from the literatures of far away countries too; still it is not cut offfrom the Indian scene. The translation projects taken by NBT and Sahitya Akademiand other non-government farms have made the literatures of Indian languageaccessible Assam. In spite of so many divergencies of geography, climate, language,culture and ethnicity, an Indianness is dominant from within in the life of the peopleof India, sometimes despite unawareness of it. In regard to the commonness of Indianliterature Dr. S. Radhakrishnan observes, "There is a unity of outlook as the writers indifferent languages derive their inspiration from a common source and face more orless the same kind of experience, emotional and intellectual". His another observationthat "Indian literature is one written in many languages" can also be citedsimultaneously. Through the Assamese literature of last one thousand years also thatIndian spirit has been flowing without break. From Sankaradeva onward the poets ofdifferent ages have been singing the glory of India. Madhavadevas sings.