Bachans in Bengali, known as proverbs and adages in English, have been defined as short pithy sayings that are in common use. They belong, in origin, to the same stage of ethnic and racial history as ballad and folk-song and are sometimes related to the fable and the riddle. Their literary counterparts are the aphorism, maxim and the epigram.
Bachans and proverbs are found all over the world in every ethnic community in different languages. They provide an insight into the effects of cultural conditions, language and local variations on expression. They form part of the codes of behaviour, and exemplify the use of the sayings in the transmission of tribal wisdom and rules of conduct. The same adage can sometimes be found in many variants. This is true to Bengali adages also.
In Bengal, Bachans or popular sayings in Bengali have transcended boundaries and found expression with comparative similar meanings in other languages and dialects spoken in the Indian States of Orissa, Assam, Bihar and Tamil Nadu and also in Nepal. These sayings refer not only to economic activities, weather and astrology but also to various aspects of social behaviour.
One common element in the proverbs and adages of Europe and that of Bengal is their fondness for homely imagery. This is so because in both instances they originated from rural sources. In Europe they refer to pot and kettle, sheep, horse, cock and hen, cow and bull, dog and the events of everyday life. In the case of Bengal, the adages and Bachans refer to domestic animals and economic activities involving daily life. While doing so, the emphasis is on the rural rather than the urban.
However, unlike in Europe, the Bachans in Bengal rarely refer to historical occasions. In the Bengali Bachans, collated and published by various authors in the 19th century in Calcutta, a special effort was made to try to establish historical associations. However, due to the absence of written records that could be interfaced, nothing substantial could be established. As a result, even today, there are sometimes controversies about historical dates and authorship of some of the Bachans. This has been further complicated because many new Bachans have been created based on the older versions.
Nevertheless, all Bachans and adages have a singular characteristic– they generally have a philosophical content and connote a special meaning. Such expressions are usually formulated on the basis of broad experience and not on emotion. They are mental in character and social in nature. As a result, some Bangla linguists refer to adages as being ‘crystallised forms of human experience’.
Bangla adages normally have dual meanings– one literal, and the other, an inner meaning. Normally, the importance of the Bachan lies in the significance of the symbolical meaning. As a consequence, sayings with metaphorical quality are more easily recognised as proverbial. This is what distinguishes it from an idiom. From that point of view they are really signposts and in a manner of speaking ‘fragments of an elder wisdom’. Francis Bacon, the famous English author had noticed this characteristic. As such he commented, ‘ the genius, wit and spirit of a nation are discovered by their proverbs’.
Bengali proverbs and Bachans normally consist of a descriptive element that contains a topic and a comment. Based on common sense, they have in the villages of Bengal over the years, assumed the unwritten status of morality. They also reflect the ethos and in more ways than one, the cultural identity of the people of this region. It would however be important to note here that over the years, Bengali adages have evolved. In this context, I agree with Sushilkumar Dey that as most proverbs are rural in origin and based on oral traditions, sometimes it is most difficult to trace their roots.
Bangla adages usually have a theme and a distinct meaning. Some of them rely on the contradictory nature of the construction while others are comparative or complementary in nature. There are proverbs and Bachans that deal with principles of social science, politics or economics. There are also Bachans, which deal with the weather, weather patterns, the supernatural, flora and fauna and also the importance of astrology in daily life.
Another aspect that needs to be highlighted is the point raised by Mohammad Hanif Pathan in his publications “Bangla Probad Parichiti”, published by the Bangla Academy, Dhaka in 1976 and 1985. He has realistically identified the difficulties associated in the collection and publication of proverbs. He also correctly explained the significant factor of adages being based on oral tradition. This creates its own dynamics and practical day-to-day interaction. It also moulds collective experience and helps in the evolution of terminology and idioms. Consequently, I believe that the genius and spirit of a nation, particularly of a country like Bangladesh, can be discovered by its proverbs. The importance of this sociological factor has been further underlined by the view that adages like religious rituals tend to have a significant influence on the ethnic moral structure in our rural societies. A historical appreciation of Bangla Bachans and their relevance for rural Bengal would however be incomplete without reference to our ancient seer– Khana. Sayings of Khana form part of this country’s traditional agricultural norms. They also constitute in a manner of speaking, a body of suggestions regarding public health. For many centuries it has contributed towards understanding of this country’s evolution of civilisation and culture. It has also been involved in facilitating this process.
In Khana’s Bachans, most of the references are to paddy, bananas, and different types of vegetables. Betel nut, cocoanut, cotton and mores of daily life also figure. They are sometimes also philosophical in content. In her rhythm and prosody Khana appears to be mostly under the influence of a particular period of medieval Bengali grammar. Another distinct feature is the great similarity between Khana’s sayings and proverbs in Uriya, in Kanara, Telegu and Nepali.
This association between Bachans and Bangla as a language in Bengal has old roots. Historical records are not precise as to when people of Bengal started their agricultural profession, but more likely than not, it predates 400 BC. Different excavations carried out in 24 Parganas, Mednipore, Murshidabad and Birbhum in the present day Indian State of West Bengal have indicated clear evidence of a continuing civilisation rich with agricultural knowledge (‘The Eastern Anthropologist’, vol.31, no.4, 1978, pp. 543-555). Excavations carried out in Chandraketugarh in 24 Parganas in West Bengal have also provided terracotta samples of a flourishing agricultural pattern that included the presence of coconut, betel nut and ‘tal’ trees.
From such records it is evident that in the ancient times, religion in Bengal was mostly associated with agriculture. This in turn has been reflected in the evolving body of Bangla Bachans.
A careful analysis of early economic history of Bengal indicates that farming and being associated with agriculture was considered very honourable. Numerous references exist in Khana to the important role that farmers played in the economic life of Bengal. This was also evident in the poetry of the famous medieval poet Mukondoram, particularly in his work– ‘Chandimongal’. Khana particularly noted more than once–
‘Jar ghore nei Dheki moshal, shei boujhir nei koshol’;
‘Goru, Joru, Dhan, e tine rakhe man’;
‘Jar golai nai dhan, tar abar kothar tan’; and
‘Jar nai goru, shey shobar horu’.
In all these sayings Khana underlines the importance of having healthy farming animals and farm implements– for essentially, these are the factors for creating wealth in a household.
It would be interesting to note here that surveys conducted in the near past in different districts of Bangladesh have revealed that though the inhabitants have not formally read about Dak or Khana, the two seers, yet their adages, practised locally, continue to have impact on their daily lives. This was found to be particularly true in the districts of Mymensingh (Trishal Thana), Comilla (Brahmanpara Upazila) and Dinajpur (Setabganj Upazila). In these places only nine per cent of inhabitants appear to be familiar with Khana or Dak by having read their Bachans. Yet, ninety seven per cent stated that they know of Khana and her association with agriculture. It was also discovered that Khana was still influencing nearly eighty-nine per cent of the population, especially on matters having social significance.
I have written on Bachans because this is the month of Ekushey and adages have an indelible footprint on our cultural heritage.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.