Guwahati July 4; 2011: Less than a week of the Asam Sahitya Sabha resolved to send a proposal to the Unicode Consortium in New York demanding the renaming of the Unicode Bengali writing system, under which Assamese is currently listed, a number of scholars and researchers have opposed the Sabha’s contention that the Assamese script group be renamed Pub Nagari. While Assamese language experts seem unanimous in their view that Assamese should be given a place of its own by Unicode, renaming the script Pub Nagari would be a distortion of history setting back the creation of the Assamese script by several hundred years, experts feel. The Sabha had at a workshop in Jorhat had decided to send the proposal to Unicode.
The Unicode Consortium, founded in 1991, develops and maintains ‘a wide spectrum of globalization standards and data repositories that are deployed as the foundation for internationalization and localization of software on every platform around the world’. The Unicode Standard provides the universal character encoding for all text. Currently, Assamese is located under Bengali.
“I have never heard of Pub Nagari,” said Jatin Goswami, a prominent scholar and writer of Asomiya Lipir Itihax (History of the Assamese script), believed to be an authorative work on the Assamese script. “I do not know who has coined this term,” said Goswami. Said Satyakam Phukan, writer and researcher: “The Assamese script was developed in ancient Kamrupa, which, as historians such as Kanaklal Barua have shown, at one time extended up to the Kosi river in Bihar and included areas such as Bengal in its fold. As a result, the script is used also by languages such as Bengali and Maithili. Maithili, while now adopting Devanagiri, still uses the Kamrupi script in its religious functions. Given its origins in Kamrup, the script should be called Kamrupi or the AMBM—Assamese, Maithili, Bengali, Manipuri—script.” “I agree with Phukan,” says Pastor Azizul Haque who has over the years written widely on the Assamese language and the contribution of Christian missionaries in the 19 th century to its development.
According to Haque, calling the script Pub Nagari will defeat the very purpose of missionaries such as Nathan Brown who along with people such as Anandaram Dhekial Phukan fought hard to establish Assamese as a language independent of Bengali, along with the entire effort of developing the language with all its orthographic simplicity. “That was long before the Sanskritisation of the Assamese language under scholars such as Hemchandra Barua, whose Hemkosh , the first Assamese dictionary, was published in 1900,” says Haque. “The Kamrupi script has nothing to do with the Nagari (of the Nagar Brahmins of Gujarat) which later became Devanagiri in Varanasi,” says Phukan. “Kamrupi, given the structure of its fonts can be clubbed with the script of languages such as Tibetan but not any form of Nagari.”
Phukan’s Ecossais the Khasi Saga dwells on the similarities between Khasi and various other languages including Persian and English, while his book Tonkori discusses the “affinities of the Ainu language of Japan with Assamese and some other languages”.
It is essential to see both the Assamese language and its script in perspective, says Phukan. The earliest recorded Kamrup writer in Assamese and whose book has been recovered is Hem Saraswati in the 12 th – 13 th century. The earliest recorded Maithili writer Vidyapati Thakur came much after Saraswati. The earliest recorded Bengali writing in this script comes much later and it uses the Assamese ‘wabbo’ and ‘ro’; while the first letter was later dropped in Bengali, ‘ro’ was modified with a dot. “Maithili continues to use the same ‘ro’ as Assamese,” Phukan said. “The use of this script ends with the borders of ancient Kamrup and the regions it dominated at various points in time. This is why, for example, the script isn’t seen in western Bihar as this area was never under Kamrup. It is essential to call this script Kamrupi as it is the mother of these four scripts and it originated here in Kamrup.”
Advocates of the Pub Nagari proposal, meanwhile, say that their decision to send the proposal to Unicode is based on Assamese being a derivative of the Brahmi script. “I support the Sahitya Sabha’s resolution because the Assamese script comes from the Brahmi script,” says Debabrat Sarma, chief editor of the Asomiya Jatiya Abhidhan . “But don’t get me wrong as I am against the Sanskritisation of Assamese.” Sarma’s Abhidhan , of which two parts have so far been published, in its collection of Assamese words often, within brackets, indicates the older spellings of the words, before the “Sanskritisation” of the Assamese language. “What I want to say is that just because we are against the Sanskritisation does not mean that we will deny the fact that the Assamese script comes from Brahmi.”
Here too, though, there are differences between the contention of the Sabha and that of others. “Brahmi was used till the Kamrupi script was developed and it was dropped once our script came into existence; it’s like what the Manipuris are doing with their Mayek script—once that is fully adopted they will drop Kamrupi which they now use ,” says Phukan. “But the Kamrupi script is distinct from Brahmi in that its characters comprise triangular and angular forms, comparable only to say Tibetan. Brahmi comprises rounded characters distinct from Kamrupi.” A scholar, Mitali Chatterjee from Calcutta, has proved with multiple photographic evidence that the same “ro” which is being used in Assamese was used in Bengali till 1772. The inscription on Siva Temple in Badanagar Azimganj and slab found in Astabhuja Ganesha Temple in Badanagar is among the evidence she provides, said Phukan. “And even if the Kamrupi has contributions of Brahmi, it is in no way connected to Nagari.”
The Unicode issue has thrown up other comments as well. Says Banajit Pathak who has written widely on Unicode and the position of Assamese in it: “While people go ahead and discuss what the Kamrupi nomenclature should be, we should also fix areas where there is no disagreement. For example, the Unicode does not include the letter “khyo”. That is something we need to add to our list.”
For now, though, as the debate hots up, the Sabha, says Sarma, is keeping its doors open to discussion: “We are willing to listen to all other scholars and researchers and will sit and discuss all issues with them. If we think they are right, we will have no problem adopting what they say,” he says.
Shikhar Sharma, who put forward the renaming proposal, meanwhile says that there was a script called “Purba” in eastern India which was also known as Pub Nagari. “The details of why the term has been selected would be available soon,” he said. Sarma is developing Open Office, a software for Assamese computation under a project of the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, Pune.
–with inputs from Rajiv Konwar