SWAPNANIL BARUA writes about the need for an Assamese literature museum.
The Assamese have a poor sense of history and even the giants of literature never felt the need for a museum to document and display the long journey of the Assamese language and its efforts to stay afloat. The language in its spoken form can be dated back to the second century CE and has progressed, with its regional variations of accent and usage, over the years in an area spreading from the present-day Rongpur in Bangladesh to Sadiya in the East and beyond. The alphabet of the Assamese language, as we know now, dates back to the seventh century, as seen in the Nidhanpur inscriptions of Bhaskar Varman, located in the Sylhet district of Bangladesh. The antiquity of the language and the script has not yet been established conclusively and may even be of more age, as some research indicates.
Ram Saraswati was the first recorded poet in Assamese, having translated the Mahabharata into Assamese in the 16th century. Bhattadeb composed the first works in prose. Madhab Kandali's Saptakanda Ramayan is the first translation of the epic into a regional language. Then came the age of Srimanta Sankaradeva and Sri Sri Madhabdev, who revolutionised Assamese literature and culture in the 16th century by contributing to all genres of literature and the arts. Their successors introduced biography writing in Assamese through the Charit Puthis. The corpus of folk songs and literature was always available, which was handed over from one generation to another by word of mouth. The Ahom Buranjis, written in the Tai language, continued to be written in this period. The writings were in copper plates, rock inscriptions or in Sanchi barks, as paper had not entered Assam till the coming of the British in 1826 CE.
With the coming of the British, the language took a different turn. The first modern school — the Gauhati Seminary, was started in 1834, which is now the Cotton Collegiate School. Schools needed textbooks and we find the entrance of Maniram Dewan, Holiram Dhekial Phookan, his illustrious son Ananda Ram Dhekial Phookan, Gunabhiram Barooah, lexicographer Hem Chandra Barua, Dinanath Bezbarua and others taking on the responsibility of writing and producing them.
Disaster struck the language when it was removed from being used in the courts and schools in 1836, a practice which continued till 1874, a full 40 odd years when generations of young Assamese children learnt their 3Rs in the Bengali language. This decision was reversed by the efforts of Ananda Ram Dhekial Phookan and the Christian missionaries located at Sivasagar, who established that Assamese was a language of its own. The Christian missionaries had introduced the printed word in Assamese through their magazine Orunodoi; as also Dhekial Phookan and Gunabhiram Barooah, who purchased a printing press in Kolkata to print Assamese books. The Bible in Assamese, translated by Atma Ram Sarma, was perhaps the first Assamese printed book. Haribilas Agarwala (grandfather of Jyotiprasad Agarwala) got the Kirtan by Srimanta Sankaradeva printed in Assamese in 1876.
The ignominy of having to study in Bengali prompted the Assamese students studying in the colleges of Kolkata to form a literary body to produce modern Assamese literature in the 1880s. They formed the Assam Socio Literary Club, the Asomiya Bhasha Unnati Sadhini Sabha and the Asom Chatra Sanmilon, which gave birth to Jonaki — the first Assamese literary magazine, in 1889. The Kohima Sahitya Sabha was set up way back in 1895 by Padmanath Gohain Baruah, while serving as a teacher there. All these paved the way for the formation of the Asam Sahitya Sabha in 1917, with the first session held in Sivasagar. The Sabha got its permanent home at the Chandrakanta Handique Bhavan in Jorhat in 1926.
This long history of the language from the seventh century to the 21st cannot be seen in one place, as there is no museum of Assamese literature in the State. Today's young generation has no way of seeing the first editions of the first books printed in Assamese, the sanchi bark Puthis, the proceedings of the Asam Sahitya Sabha, the photographs of the Sabhas sessions over the last 100-plus years, handwritten manuscripts of the literatures, memorabilia of famous authors. It's about time that the Chandrakanta Handique Bhavan is converted into a museum of Assamese literature as it touches a century in 2026.