This paper surveys three historical phases in the journey of Islamic Bangla literature from manuscript to print. The first phase, from roughly 1550 to 1800, saw the emergence and efflorescence of this literature produced by East Bengali Muslim intellectuals in Bangla. The key regions where this literature flourished were Śrīhaṭṭa (or Sylhet) in northeast Bengal, and the Chittagong-Arakan region under the Theravāda Buddhist rulers of Arakan. Whether in courtly circles or in rural Chittagong and Sylhet, Islamic Bangla texts participated in an oral-literate culture: these texts were transmitted to literate and unlettered audiences alike via oral recitation and song; and in tandem with oral transmission, these texts harnessed multiple scripts and the technologies of the early modern book (puthi, ketāb) for their circulation and preservation.
The second phase, from 1800 onwards, is marked by the emergence of print and its concomitant material culture in Bengal, the first region in India to develop a robust publishing industry that was constituted by and constitutive of the colonial public sphere. I examine the transition of Islamic Bangla literature from the first phase into the second, from manuscript into print, exploring the reasons for the breakdown of the old literature's transmission and the success of the new in the competitive, communalized worlds of language, print culture, and the poetics of translation.
The third phase in the history of Islamic Bangla literature is characterized by the formulation of the Bangla literary canon through the efforts of literary critics, anthologists, translators, editors, historiographers, publishers, and, last but not least, manuscript collectors, all of whom were sustained through the medium of print and the cultural marketplace it generated. This paper will trace the initial exclusion, and eventual recognition, of the contributions of Muslim authors to Bangla, in the context of nationalist literary historiography and the communalization of the archive.