Delving into the roots of Bangla | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 10, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, July 10, 2010

Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah

Delving into the roots of Bangla


Popularly known as 'Gyantaposh,' or one ardently desirous of attaining knowledge, Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah was an internationally renowned educationist, writer and philologist. Today marks his 125th birth anniversary.
He was born at Peyara village of 24 Pargana in West Bengal on July 10, 1885. His father, Mafizuddin Ahmad, was a warden at the local shrine. Shahidullah was able to forsake this hereditary profession and devote himself to the study of language. He learnt Urdu, Persian and Arabic at home and Sanskrit at school.
After a temporary break of study because of illness, he passed BA with Honours in Sanskrit (1910) from City College, Calcutta, and MA (1912) in comparative philology from the University of Calcutta. He also obtained his BL degree two years later.
After working as headmaster of Sitakunda High School for some time, he started to practise law at Bashirhat in 24 Pargana. Later, he worked as Sharatchandra Lahiri Research Fellow (1919-21) under Dinesh Chandra Sen at the University of Calcutta and joined the University of Dhaka (DU) as a lecturer (1921) in Sanskrit and Bangla.
His years at DU constituted the most important period of his life. While teaching there, he researched on the origins of the Bangla language. In 1925 he was able to prove that Bangla originated from Gaudi or Magadhi Prakrit.
Muhammad Shahidullah went to Europe for higher studies in 1926, and learnt Vedic Sanskrit, Buddhist Sanskrit, comparative philology, Tibetan and ancient Persian language at University of Paris. He studied ancient 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 “Charjapad,” the earliest existing specimens of Bangla language. He was the first Indian Muslim to receive a doctorate degree. He also received a diploma for his fundamental research in phonetics from the University of Paris the same year. After completing his doctorate, he returned home and started teaching at DU. He became head of the Bangla Department in 1937 and retired in 1944.
Dr. Shahidullah rejoined the Bangla Department, DU, as a supernumerary teacher and taught there for six yeas as departmental head and dean of the faculty of arts.
He also served as the chairman of the Bangla Academy Bangla Almanac Arrangement Committee. He was made permanent chairman of the Adamjee Literature Award and Daud Literature Award committees.
Muhammad Shahidullah played an important role in the Language Movement. He was the first to establish the reasons why Bangla, instead of Urdu, should be the state language of the then East Pakistan.
His writings on language, literature and culture were published in many magazines and newspapers; and he himself edited many such publications. He worked as an associate editor of Al Eslam and was joint editor of Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika.
Dr. Shahidullah delved deep into the history of Old and Middle Age Bangla literature, wrote books on these subjects, and gave pointers to solve many specificities 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,” “Padmaboti” (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 “Charjapad.”
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 a pious Muslim, and his books on religion reflect his deep faith in Islam. 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.

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