The Banglapedia and its Making
ZAMAN and SHAMIM AHSAN
first Encyclopedia aptly named-- the Banglapedia is
out. Scholars and lay people alike, have been eagerly
waiting for its arrival. SWM unfolds the behind the
scenes story of this massive ten volume undertaking
and evaluate it through its critics.
a living body of knowledge”, says Sirajul Islam, the
key-figure behind the project of Banglapedia -- the
first venture that in its breadth and scope has accomplished
the feat of remaining all-inclusive.
“It will be periodically updated”
stresses Sirajul Islam, who feels that as a comprehensive
project it has its weaknesses, and a Banglapedia trust
has already been formed to take up the task of bringing
out updated additions.
The Banglapedia Trust is a permanent
institution that is all set to receive feedback from
the users and include what Sirajul Islam, Banglapedia's
chief editor, refers to as “contemporary knowledge”
or “newly generated knowledge” in successive editions
that would follow the present one.
The ten volumes encompassing
six thousand entry-heads from twelve hundred scholars
exploring thirty branches of knowledge, it is a feat
that Bangalis had never before thought would be materialised.
This “mega project” as it is
referred to by Sirajul Islam, the man who conceived
of the idea of such an endeavour and who also steered
the project from its idea to the physical form of ten
hard-bound volumes, is a set of books of reference.
In fact it is what the word encyclopedia stands for.
Islam, the man behind the Banglapedia
As do all encyclopedias, the
Banglapedia too provides an easy access to knowledge.
“It is a time saver,” Sirajul Islam contends. As a desk
reference, this set of books relieves one of the exertion
of gleaning information. Thanks to Sirajul Islam and
his team and also to the Asiatic Society that people
of Bangladesh and other Bangla-speaking folks can now
boast of having in possession a vast source of knowledge
of culture, politics, arts and religion of this region.
In the preface Sirajul Islam
writes, “the board tried to consciously include at least
all those topics which would be normally looked up by
users”. When asked to clarify the term “normally”, he
said, the board tried to cover areas commonly sought
and widely read, the events that shaped this nation
and its culture, the people who affected the course
of history were given priority.
The Banglapedia is all-encompassing
only in the sense that it has incorporated subjects
deemed important in the context of Bangladesh as a nation,
how it came about and in what political, cultural and
geographical context this land and it people is seen
today. Many specialist subjects are not there. “If you
look for Algebra you would not find it there” says Islam.
His contention is that it is a standard desk reference
for Bangladeshis, a book that would equally come in
handy for someone eager to know about Bangladesh and
the Bangla speaking people.
So what's exactly in this large
ten-volume-strong huge encyclopedia? There are subjects
that have been given full throat. Not only the 64 districts,
but each of the 451 upazilas has been described in details:
from the topographical account of the areas to the number
of hatchery and dairy farms, from the main crops of
the area to the communication facilities, little has
been left out. In fact one might complain against or
at least, wonder if such exhausting details of upazilas
were at all essential. Abdul Momen Chowdhury, one of
the five subject editors, explains the rationale: “When
the government or NGOs or any development agency take
up projects they can consult such detailed information
and accordingly choose their project area or the kind
of projects they should undertake in a particular area”.
Besides the fact that around 400 local intellectuals
were given the charge to write about their respective
zillas and upazillas is definitely a unique approach
to information gathering.
The project's ambition combined manifold aspirations
of its planners and executives, one is that of its being
a unique volume of indigenous knowledge. It is certainly
a precedent-setting work in this respect. The ones that
preceded this were either for a specific readership
or explored a specific domain of knowledge. Here the
Banglapedia stands apart. Its chief editor sheds some
light on it in the preface. He and his team of five
subject editors rested their beliefs on the fact that
it would cater to a wide spectrum of readers, from students
to specialists. The challenge was that of creating it,
through meritorious selection and preparation of entries,
that would be useful to students, general readers, specialists
as well as those who are unfamiliar with Bangladesh
and facts that went into making of it.
The enterprise, which the chief
architect lovingly calls 'the compendium of Banglapedia',
a name that combines the Latin pedia meaning all-round
knowledge and Bangla--the ancient name that asserts
most adequately the territorial and linguistic identity
of our nation. Bangla in cognate with Vanga, Bangalah,
Bengal, Vangadesh and many of the words that were in
use in the successive periods that preceded.
But to clarify the concept, Banglapedia
has a subtitle: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh.
The entries of Banglapedia, since
1947, were restricted to this geographical region only.
However, for biographical entries, the linguistic identity
was considered and those outstanding figures who contributed
to the whole spectrum of culture, politics and among
other branches of knowledge were given their proper
The idea of the Banglapedia project
originated when the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh was
working on the three-volume study: History of Bangladesh,
1704-1971. It was back in 1991, while this project was
in progress that the editors faced the dire consequence
of not having any standard desk reference to go to.
In absence of such a useful tool the process of checking
and verifying and linking facts and features culled
from the library resources became as laborious as it
was time consuming. Sirajul Islam remembers how in such
special circumstances the idea of compiling a national
encyclopedia of Bangladesh had been given serious thought.
The idea finally led to a concept
paper that was prepared by Islam and his colleagues,
which was submitted to the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh
in early 1994. However, the Banglapedia project was
adopted for implantation on 19 February 1997. It was
at this stage that Sirajul Islam was put behind the
steering wheel, appointed by the council as the project
director and chief editor.
“Scores of intellectuals joined
in as planners, organisers, contributors, reviewers,
editors, translators, researchers, designers, technicians,
fund raisers and so on,” says Islam.
The Project Implementation
Committee that Islam headed, were given the task of
planning and managing various aspects of funding. They
also had to arrange training for the project personnel.
It was a ten-crore-Taka project that saw its launching
without any ready capital. However, finding encyclopedic
contributors and workers seemed to have been more difficult
than mobilising the funds required for it.
The project officially took off
in 1998. According to the project plan, the compilation
process was expected to be completed by the end of 2001.
Islam and his colleagues achieved their target. In fund
raising too, the project saw an unprecedented enthusiasm
from its donors. Twenty six percent of the total fund
came from some of the universities and banks. The rest
the government provided. The project that took off as
a private venture with one man's intellect and passion
as its driving force, later became a national venture
with the institutional and financial support of the
government of Bangladesh.
This publication is entirely
based on latest technology. Its entries were received
in floppies and then they were passed on from one computer
to the other. Before it was published, the desktop version
was the guide for the editors and the chief editor regarding
the chronology. “Two hundred and seventy full-time personnel
were involved in its making while 35 to 40 people worked
at a time,” informs Islam. Entry identification was
a major undertaking, and as many as 30-article-identification
groups were made. Their duty was to select articles
and to forward them to the editorial boards.
As for the Banglapedia management
structure and the personnel who were part of it, most
of them were academics. Prof. Sirajul Islam, the erstwhile
teacher of the Department of History, University of
Dhaka, says that, this work will disprove the prevailing
notion of the local intelligentsia being high thinking
but inactive. “The Banglapedia is certainly a product
of the intellectuals who believes in deeds rather than
There were sixty members, and
they worked in six different sub-committees headed by
six subject editors. Each sub-committee was constituted
according to a particular discipline of knowledge. There
were six consulting editors, four language editors,
and three translation editors. Every subject editor
received assistance from six assistant and associate
To make things easier for them
a good number of corresponding editors were there, and
research supporting staff along with technical support
staff constantly provided their expertise. A work of
this nature calls for involvement of a lot of experts
from various fields. Since cartographic work, sketches
and photographs were needed, expertise in these areas
was also sought.
One big challenge facing the
project and its planners was the desire to have it printed
in two different languages at the same time. “We wanted
it in two languages. We could have opted for English
only; that would have saved a lot of extra work that
we had to do in order to translate the entries. But
we wanted a body of knowledge accessible to the Bangla-speaking
people as well,” asserts Islam. “We don't give lectures
on Bangla, but we thought if these volumes did not come
out in Banlga we will be depriving a vast majority of
the people of having access to a comprehensive source
of knowledge,” contends Islam.
Entries were received from home
and abroad, and many were written in one language only.
Although there was a lot that was written in both languages,
the committee could not rely on the translation received
from outside. It was after cross-verification that they
determined whether to change and edit the original content.
Matching, cross-checking and editing were done both
to “maintain the linguistic standard and the correctness
of facts and figures in the entry heads,” as Islam puts
One strong point about the Banglapedia
is certainly its list of contributors which boasts of
distinguished foreign experts along with the local intellectuals.
Chowdhury thanks the project committee as it didn't
shy away from coughing up extra money to rope in foreign
experts. “Foreign experts and Bangladeshi or Bangali
experts working abroad constitute about 20% of the writers'
list,” he points out. Again the Board of Editors have
done themselves credit by showing a lot of conviction
in their judgement, sometimes even at the risk of being
criticised for their extraordinary courage. The entries
titled Boishnob literature, Boishnobism and Chaitonnyadev
are a few cases in point. One would naturally expect
a Bangali writing on this topic, but it has been done
by an American called Tony Stuart who, Chowdhury informs,
has been doing research on these areas for about 40
years and has got some invaluable publications to his
However, given the enormity of
the project that includes a lot of “re” factors like
re-writing, re-editing and re-typing it is perhaps only
natural that the Banglapedia contains some typing mistakes
and perhaps a few errors. One particular weakness, according
to Chowdhury, has been the statistics provided in many
of the entries. “In some cases we had to depend on different
government offices, each of which couldn't be re-checked
or verified for practical reasons. Sometimes we had
to depend on available information which are not updated,”
Chowdhury explains. He however hastens to add that some
of the mistakes are being rectified in the CD (compact
disk) version which is in the making process.
team involved in the making of the electronic version
of the Banglapedia.
It's not difficult
to imagine the kind of hard work put together to accomplish
a work of the scale of Banglapedia. It involved a lot
of different types of jobs : “It was not just editing,
re-editing but also contacting and reminding contributors,
not to mention the unpleasant task of refusing someone's
contribution or to ask someone to re-write his piece.”
Chowdhury then recalls the excruciating hours: “Very
often we worked from 8am to 8pm. The space constraint
in the press forced us to do the binding (there were
100,000 copies) on the floor of the Asiatic Society's
auditorium and we sweated day and night to meet the
deadline.” It was the team spirit, passionate involvement
of the team members to the project and above all what
Chowdhury terms as 'the inspiring leadership' of the
project director and chief editor Sirajul Islam that
kept them going. Islam says that they were merciless
in cancelling entries, two major criteria were to meet
the standard and the deadline.
So far the Banglapedia has received
fairly positive responses from academics and general
readers alike. And, if sales are any indications of
appreciation, the Banglapedia has certainly done wonders.
“Out of 10,000 sets 4,500 sets of the Bangla version
and 2,500 of English version have already been sold
out,” Chowdhury reveals. The figure, he frankly admits,
has been far beyond their hopes. Neither was there any
dearth in enthusiasm among the buyers coming from very
different backgrounds. He recalls the huge rush of people
at the Society premises who didn't mind waiting for
hours in the queue. “ It was just unbelievable. We had
to keep sales on until 9.30 pm to clear up the rush,”
Banglapedia had its fare share
of controversy even when it was only at its initial
stage. The Inquilab group sparked it off when they got
hold of a few entries on religion and related issues.
Sirajul Islam says, “it is best not to remember the
past, they must have considered the Banglapedia a rival
of the Islami Bhishwa Kosh. They did not voice it, but
it was apparent in their behavior.”
One of the subject editors, S
M Mahfuzur Rahman relates that the unedited version
of some entries went into the hands of few journalists,
which resulted in the debate regarding “sensitive issues.”
To address “sensitive issues,”
a committee of experts was formed. Politically and theologically
controversial issues were thus avoided. But, in doing
so the Banglapedia has compromised its stance as a comprehensive
body of knowledge. At least many users who were eagerly
waiting for the volumes feels that it failed to fulfil
the expectations it raised.
A student of BUET, who is something
of a bookworm among his classmates, opines, “the project
shows signs of being influenced by the present government's
political tilt. The entry on Jamaat-e-Islami is a classic
example: their activities during the liberation war
has completely been omitted”.
Shibli, a student of architecture,
believes that the price of the volumes is too high.
And he is also unhappy about the inadequate information
on certain subjects like architecture and art. He thinks
these entries carry sub-standard photos.
When asked what his reaction
was to the complaints about omission, Sirajul Islam
says their aim was to avoid the polemical contents.
But he emphatically says that he is ready to consider
any “productive feedback.” He sums up the project's
aim by saying, “Writers were not allowed to make judgment,
value-judgement is not really a prerogative of the encyclopedist.”
Yet in the Asiatic Society's
booklet on the project the goal was stated as to “describe,
interpret and integrate the lived historical experiences
and achievement of Bangladeshi people.” If this is so,
the Banglapedia with all its brownie points that it
deserved for all the good reasons, fails in one account:
the history of liberation war and its ramification in
our national life.
The Banglapedia is an outstanding
achievement, its making was a colossal task. And its
makers are still hoping to improve upon what they have
in their hand. “Academically and linguistically the
existing entries can be improved,” stresses Sirajul
Enamul Haq, one of the translation
editors and contributors, also echoes the chief editor
in stressing the kind of time consuming studies and
effort they had to put in. “Often we needed to consult
three books to write an entry of about just 200 or 300
words,” Haq says. As far as controversy regarding some
entries is concerned, he believes that the chance is
always there to rectify them in future editions. He
points out that this shouldn't in any way lessen the
importance of such a unique endeavour as the Banglapedia
Encyclopedic literature was not
there before, the Banglapedia is a precedent setting
work. It is a new genre, and the team involved with
this maiden project has inspired others in envisaging
other encyclopedias. Islam cites a proposal that would
exclusively be on flora and fauna of the region.
The quest for knowledge is unending,
and if Banglapedia has “galvanised others”, as Prof
Sirajul Islam puts it, in putting forward plans for
encyclopedias exploring other exclusive subjects, we,
as a nation have a lot to look forward to. If the Banglapedia
had triggered a quest for knowledge in the backwater
that this country still remains, then it would incite
its detractors to see it in a totally different light.
Electronic version of Banglapedia
The Banglapedia multimedia CD
is nearing its completion. It may hit the market in
the first month of 2004, or, if work is completed before
that, it may see its release as early as the end of
this year. It all depends on a lot of variables -- ranging
from uninterrupted electricity supply to successfully
completing the cross-links and the visually pleasing
The hard form of the volume is
going through a complete overhaul. Alongside correcting
the mistakes, feedback from the users and scholars are
being considered. Although no substantial changes in
the original text is being introduced, the project implementation
committee, with the help of editors are trying their
best to make the CD flawless.
Mahfuzul Alam is looking over the CD version.
The subject editor Pof S M Mahfuzur
Rahman is in charge of the project and he proclaims
to have employed the most efficient bunch of experts
to produce the electronic version. The conversion is
not an easy task. To materialise the desire to have
it all in one CD and to make it interactive and user-friendly,
Rahman and his team including the programmers and graphic
designers, are working diligently.
The CD's work is at its final
stage. The graphic images developed by Zahirul Islam,
Jahir Uddin and Asaduzzaman Sohel are being reexamined.
Once given the green light by the committee, CD's visual
configuration would be completed.
One who has shouldered with the
complexities of programming is Mahfuzul Alam. His crucial
task is to make sure that this auto-run CD performs
as per its database, upon which the programme is based.
The search engine is standardised and all the links
and cross-links are to be accessed using this programme.
Alam says, “It is a huge text, and we are trying to
make sure that the 60-70 thousand links that we have
created are working.” The links are not the only feature
of this interactive CD. The access to sub-headings of
the bigger entries too were made available through a
provision which they named “Vontline.” “There is also
option for the user to make his or her own “favourite
list, which makes it all the more easier to gain entry
to the desired subjects,” points out Alam.
The CD contains a lot of bonus,
sound tracks Nazrul's and Rabindranath's songs, video
footage on the 7 March address by Bangabandhu to sceneries
exploring the flora and fauna, is encased in this one-CD
edition of the electronic Banglapedia. Many pictures
that were printed in black and white in the hard volumes
will appear in colour.
The CD had to wade through a
lot of difficulty in its initial stage. The lack of
software made the transformation of images and diagrammes
a difficult task.
cover design of the Multimedia CD.
The CD version will only be in
English. “It is a pity that a work of this magnitude
will not be available in Bangla. The lack of software
impeded our plan to have one,” says Sirajul Islam, who
laments the fact that successive governments did not
pay due attention to development of the computer industry
in this country.
While working on the CD of the
Banglapedia, the foremost deterrent seems to be power
failure. “We have not only lost time, while working
on the CD, because of constant fluctuation of electricity
supply, but also a few hard-disks full of information,
which is making the venture even more costlier,” explains
Rahman. At present to avoid risk of losing data, back
up is being kept in three different computers.
While many impediments have been
overpowered and many still are gnawing at them, braving
all these, experts and graphic artists at the Asiatic
Society's computer section are labouring away to complete
their work. Most of the computer experts are graduates
from the Graphic Art Institute of Dhaka. Before embarking
on this project they all received training in multimedia
from the society.
Sajjad Sharif is well known as
a poet. But, he has long been a cultural and political
voice who first won over the alternative scene of Dhaka
in the eighties and later moved on to the mainstream.
He sees the Banglapedia in a totally different light,
and points out to Star Weekend Magazine a few gritty
truths about encyclopedias and their function in the
SWM: Why do we need an encyclopedia?
How would you define it yourself?
Sajjad Sharif (SS): For ready
reference, to be able have a vast body of information
handy, we do need an encyclopedia. But, it too has a
history. It was during the enlightenment, that people
like Diderot, who we know as an encyclopedist philosopher,
realised the need for a series of volumes encapsulating
vast knowledge. It has a link with colonisation, both
expansion of knowledge and branching out of it resulted
from it. The end of feudalism and the belief that world
has come to the grip of human race through new knowledge
and science has a strong bearing on Diderot's Encyclopedia.
In short, its aim was to accommodate newly acquired
knowledge with an eye for the future. But the motive
behind this kind of work has drastically changed over
the last one and a half-century. Now the world is divided
into clearly defined blocks -- one generates knowledge
and the other receives it. Current encyclopedias are
a means to maintain the status quo of the world order.
It all boils down to attainment of power by manipulating
SWM: Are you referring to Encyclopedia
SS: Yes. It reflects a world
divided into two, with the colonist at one side and
the colonised at the other. In this sense knowledge,
especially encyclopedic knowledge is a weapon to enforce
the victim's point of view.
SWM: In the context of Encyclopedia
of Diderot, and also the one that is called the encyclopedia
Britannica, how would you evaluate the one that we have
in our hand: The Banglapedia?
SS: The problem is that in Bangladesh
the practice of knowledge is never free of fetters.
Here, we have a two-fold problem, one is that we are
a colonised nation and two we have a power structure
which is not fully developed. In a country which is
annexed with a bigger power for both economic and political
reasons and where institutions of knowledge have not
matured at all, and all the institutions are fully controlled
by the government, the direct intervention of the government
impedes every venture, and Banglapedia was no exception.
It is the first national Encyclopedia in this country.
In this regard it has a historical value. For this alone
we must acknowledge it. And the mistakes and misinformation
that it has, we may hope, will be looked after in future
editions. But the problem lies elsewhere. It is not
possible to produce a volume of free knowledge in the
present circumstances. We have seen during Banglapedia's
making that the government and its pets, the section
of the media and other institutions were active in influencing
the encyclopedia to make it more of a product that represented
their point of view. The body that worked away to make
it a successful project has been subjected to force
and maneuvering. In short, the integrity of the project
was dented, as people in power was constantly manipulating
SWM: Will you site a few examples
of mistakes and also tell us how it was manipulated?
SS: Even if I consider it a trove
of information, I personally think that it has major
weaknesses. Many important entries were given small
space, and less important ones were overemphasised.
And there are silly mistakes that swarm these volumes.
The most important area in which Banglapedia has failed
us, is in setting of priorities for the entries. It
seems to give the impression that its editors did not
really understand the importance of one entry over another.
Setting the priorities could have given it the focus
SWM: Sirajul Islam believes that
they did not go for value judgement, the Banglapedia
strove to furnish the facts only. What is your opinion
in this regard?
SS: I must say we all live in
a fiction as we think, often erroneously, that there
is such a thing as objective truth. It is a very narrow-minded
view to assert: these are impartial truths and those
are not. In the name of objectivity and impartiality
we often produce knowledge and information very much
in the line with the people in power. The existing power
structure and its culture of disseminating knowledge
and information can only be negated or avoided when
knowledge is presented with its cultural, political
context. I think we can accumulate many different even
conflicting point of views at once, this could be a
way of being neutral. Other than this, the idea of neutrality
in itself is fiction.
SWM: One of the complaints of
users is that the prevailing mainstream outlook of how
Bangladesh came into being and how we look at our immediate
past has been overlooked. What do you have to say to
SS: It proves my point. The way
in the entry of Jamaat E Islami, its role in '71 was
omited, and how in many other occasions, more omissions
were done, it spurs me to say that omission means adulteration
of facts. The most pressing question is, do we change
our history whenever we have a change of government?
If a common knowledge like Jamaat's involvement in favour
of the Pakistan government cannot be mentioned, then
why do we need Encyclopedias? When the academics involved
in Banglapedia were being pressurised by the government
and a certain quarter of the media, they could have
resigned or brought it to the knowledge of the public,
which they did not. By not doing so they have given
us a body of knowledge bereft of reality, of vision,
and most of all of any risk of conflict with people
in power. It is manufactured knowledge.