A man of Many Hues: Syed Mujtaba Ali's 116th birth anniversary


Dr. Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974) was a Bengali author, academician, scholar and linguist.

Mujtaba Ali was born in a prominent family in Sylhet. His father, Syed Sikandar Ali, was a sub-registrar. Ali studied at various educational institutions on account of his father's frequent transfers. As a school student, Ali wrote a letter to Rabindranath Tagore, who promptly sent an inspiring reply and invited him to study at Shantiniketan. He had the honour to be taught directly by Tagore.

September 13 marked the 116th birth anniversary of the versatile litterateur.

From 1929 to 1932, Ali studied at universities in Berlin, London and Paris. He earned a PhD in comparative religious studies from Bonn. In 1934-1935, he studied at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Subsequently, he taught at colleges in Baroda (1936-1944) and Bogra (1949). After a brief period at Kolkata University (1950), Ali became secretary of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and editor of its Arabic journal "Thaqafatul Hind". From 1952 to 1956 he worked for All India Radio at New Delhi and Patna. He then joined the faculty of Visva-Bharati University (1956-1964).

Ali was a brilliant conversationalist and storyteller. When Ali was in his mid-40s, the Desh editor encouraged him to write "Deshe-Bideshe" and it instantly catapulted him to fame.

The multilingual Ali knew 15 languages: French, German, Italian, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Hindi, Sanskrit, Marathi, Gujarati, Pashtu, English and several dialects of Bengali.

After Partition in 1947, Ali went from India to then East Pakistan, his motherland. He was a language activist and a supporter of Bengali as the national language of East Pakistan. In 1948, as principal of Azizul Huq College, Bogra, he wrote an essay, "The State Language of East Pakistan", which was printed in "Chaturanga" of Kolkata. At the time, the West Pakistani rulers were trying to impose Urdu as the only state language of East Pakistan while Bangla was spoken by most of the people. The government of Pakistan sought an explanation from Ali, who promptly resigned and moved to India.

The great scholar breathed his last in Dhaka on February 11, 1974. He was an outspoken critic of the British rulers. His writings are profuse in sarcastic comments about the colonial rulers. He published 25 immensely popular volumes of novels, stories, essays and columns. He smoothly mixed Arabic, Farsi and Sylheti words in his works. Then he dipped it in his great wit, brilliant satire and incomparable scholarship. He was always interesting and never dull. He researched extensively on religion but was secular and progressive. He was cosmopolitan as well as deeply rooted in the Bengali ethos.

  • Bengali author, academician, scholar and linguist
  • 1904-1974
  • birth anniversary
  • Syed Mujtaba Ali

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