MALAYSIAN BENGALEE ASSOCIATION HISTORY
History of MBA
A number of persons have discussed about the legacy and tradition associated with MBA and Malaysian Bengalees. Please browse the following topics to know more about the culture, language and struggle of the Malaysian Bengalees.
Malaysian Bengalee Association : A Brief History
Beginning of 20th Century
The first generation of Malaysian Bengalees came from Bengal, British India in the early part of the 20th Century. Some of them came as Government officers, others as doctors in the medical service, engineers and clerical officers and some as conductors and dressers in the rubber plantations that were then springing up in the Peninsula. Most of them were settled in Negeri Sembilan, Selangor and Malacca.
One of the early pioneers was Dr. Sarojini Bardhan who came as a medical officer to Malacca. His name is commemorated in the "Bardhan Trophy" which was donated by his son, Late Major General P.N.Bardhan (I.M.S.) in memory of his father to be competed for in a Football Tournament among the various state Indian Associations of Malaya and which is still carried on annually in today's Malaysia.
In the late 20's it was felt that the Bengalee community that was scattered in Negeri Sembilan, Selangor, Perak and Malacca should get together at least once annually and so the first get together was at the Durga Pooja in 1928 at Seremban. It was then decided that since Durga Pooja is not a Public holiday that they should get together during Deepavali which is a Public holiday.
There was no registered body to organise these functions but it was on an ad hoc basis. At the annual get togethers one of the leaders of the community would take charge of the celebrations for the forthcoming year. The pioneer leaders were, Dr. P. N. Sen, Mr. A. B. Paul and Dr B. C. Majumdar who took turns to organise the Kali Poojas (Deepavali celebration) which were held in Seremban.
1930s and 40s
In the mid 30's it was felt that the Bengalee community should put up its own "Kali Temple" and ancillary buildings. A levy of a half month's salary was placed on every Bengalee and with that contribution a two and half acre plot of land was acquired in Rasah, Seremban. The second World War intervened and the temple was put on hold.
During the 40's the leadership was passed on to Dr. D. K. Majundar, Mr. A. K. Sen, Mr. B. B. Sen Gupta and Mr. U. C. Dass.
From 1939 it was decided that the Kali Poojas would be held in Port Dickson and these continued even during the Japanese Occupation. From 1946-1949, there was a hiatus as the Bengalee population had dwindled and there was no initiative to organise the Kali Poojas.
The Revival of 1950s
In 1950 there was a revival and it has continued ever since. In 1952 the Malayan Bengalee Association was registered at the initiative of the late Mr. H. K. Choudhury and the late Mr. B. B. Das Gupta. Mr.Choudhury was elected the first President of the registered Association and continued until, 1957 when he went on an assignment overseas.
In 1958, the 2 1/2 acre plot of land was exchanged for the present property in Port Dickson at 1 1/2 Mile Coast Road which consists of a bungalow situated on 3.4 acres of land. Since then all our get togethers have been on our property at Port Dickson.
Registration and Renaming
With the formation of Malaysia, the Malayan Bengalee Association was amended to "Malaysian Bengalee Association". In the late 70's there was a great concentration of Bengalees in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya. They decided that they would hold the Durga Pooja in Selangor and it was done on an ad hoc basis. It was then felt that it should be regularised and in 1984 it was organised under the auspices of the Malaysian Bengalee Association.
So two Major Pooja celebrations are held - Durga Pooja in Petaling Jaya and Kali Pooja at Port Dickson. The Bengalees also celebrate the Hindu New Year in Port Dickson. During these celebrations cultural events such as music, drama, dances and art exhibitions are organised so that the younger generation can get a feel of their vast cultural heritage.
Modern Times: 1990s
In 1990 it was felt that as there was a large concentration of Bengalees in Selangor, a branch of the MBA should be established in Petaling Jaya. As a result, we now have the MBA Pusat Petaling Jaya which caters for the large number of Bengalees in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. From its formation it has been headed by Dr. K. K. Mandal. The Pusat organises the Rabindra Jayanti annually, musical soirees, talks by distinguished scholars and a host of other activities.
The Malaysian Bengalees are proud of their cultural heritage having come from the land of Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Kaji Nuzrul and a whole host of other cultural and intellectual icons and try to inculcate their cultural, intellectual and moral heritage among their younger generation with all these activities in the Malaysian Bengalee Association.
The Malaysian-Bengalees: Their Language and History
Dr. Dipika (Molly) Mukherjee
The Malaysian-Bengalee community is a fairly new immigrant community, which, as a whole, is still searching for an individual identity in the larger Malaysian context. This community is constantly subject to many outside influences and the contact languages do not have strictly complementary functions. Bengalee usually dominates the domain of family and religious activities, but since almost all speakers of this community are competently trilingual, code-switching between Bengalee, English, and Malay is possible. For the younger generation especially, Malay and English are both more 'useful' languages, yet the ties to Bengalee, made stronger by the large Bengalee expatriate population, remain very strong.
The Bengalees who migrated to Malaysia were mainly from the Calcutta, Dacca, Chittagong and Midnapore areas of Bengal. As Bangladesh was a part of India until 1947, East Bengal (Bangladesh) shares a border with West Bengal in India. The few North Indians among the English speaking professional class in Malaya at that time were principally Bengalees from Calcutta or Dhaka (Kaur 1973; Sandhu 1969:119). The first Bengalees in Malaysia, because they were well educated, were also well positioned in Malaysia. Most took up jobs in plantations, either in supervisory positions, or as "estate dressers". The estate dresser was the medical assistant, popularly known among the laborers as doctor (Jain 1970:39).
As most of the North Indians had embarked for their voyage to Hong Kong or Malaya from the port of Calcutta, the term "Bengalee" became a misnomer in these two countries. The Chinese feared the stout Sikhs and Pathans recruited for the British security forces from India and named them "Munkali Kwai" or "Black Devils" (Sandhu 1969:73). A popular Chinese saying was that while "they could fight Europeans... no man could stand against the Black Devils...for whenever one of them lifted his rifle, a Chinamen fell and they did not know how to miss" (quoted in Kaur 1973:25). Kernail Singh Sandhu points out that although there were purportedly 5072 Bengalees in Malaysia in 1921 that figure is misleading, as many Sikhs, accustomed to being addressed as "Bengalees" when the census was taken, were included.
The number of Bengalees in Malaysia drops to 1827 in 1931, and 3834 in 1947 (Sandhu 1969:237). This mistaken notion about the Bengalees originating from a wider area in North India rather than only from East and West Bengal, persists until today.
The other factor that contributed to this sense of mistaken identity about the real Bengalees is that this community, perhaps due to its tiny population, has historically been very low-key in Malaysia. There is virtually no printed material on the Malaysian-Bengalees, and at best this community receives a mention in studies on other North Indian groups:
The non-Sikh North Indian groups, particularly the Gujeratis and Bengalees ... were mainly found in non-official employment (principally in commerce) and led a relatively isolated and quiet social life about which there is no record in either official or unofficial documents.
Secondly these groups were insignificant as minority groups and were not accorded any special rights by the British that served to distinguish them from the North Indian body (Kaur 1973:iv).
Some of the earliest Bengalee immigrants (who now have great-grandchildren within the community) are still alive and members of the Malaysian-Bengalee community form a multiplex dense network of relationships to one another including kinship and friendship. A large number of the Malaysian-Bengalees can trace their lineage to one of about ten interrelated family trees and there has been a great deal of intermarriage among the pioneering families as this is a very traditional community. Although arranged marriages are encouraged and Bengalee girls from India are also sought to marry the men, a growing number of interracial marriages are now bringing the influence of other races and other tongues into this fairly closed network.
There is also a large group of expatriate Bengalee families, many of whom have lived in Malaysia for a number of years and have become a part of this community, and this group significantly contributes to the continuity of the Bengalee language and culture within this community.
Most members of the Bengalee community try to meet everyone else in the community at least three times a year at the major Bengalee festivals: Durga Puja and Kali Puja (held between September-November) and Poila Boishakh, or Bengalee New Year (celebrated in April). The Bengalee community has its own property overlooking the sea in picturesque Port Dickson, and this is where a Prayer Hall has been erected. Bengalees congregate from all over Peninsular Malaysia as well as Singapore to celebrate Kali Puja and Poila Boishakh in Port Dickson. This property carries a sense of the community spirit and ethnic pride, as it was bought by a group of the original Bengalee immigrants who donated half a month's salary for the purpose. Thus their second and third generation descendants now see it as 'a shrine'.
Amarjit Kaur points out that the Bengalees appear to have close ties with the South Indians and generally worship at the South Indian Hindu temples (Kaur 1973:216). In fact, almost all Bengalee families in Malaysia have fairly elaborate private altars for their deities in their homes and thus most prayers are conducted within the home privately, or publicly by calling other community members and friends to "bhajans" within private homes. For other ritual worship, the Bengalees go to both South Indian and North Indian temples, and often the choice is determined by accessibility to the temple rather than any ethnic considerations, as Hindu deities differ very little in essence from one temple to another.
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Information Malaysia 1992-93 yearbook. 1992. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Berita Publishing.
Jain, Ravindra K. 1970. South Indians on the plantation frontier in Malaya. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: University of Malaya Press. Kaur, Amarjit. 1973. North Indians in Malaya: A study of their economic, social and political activities, with special reference to Selangor, 1870's-1940's. University of Malaya, Malaysia: M.A. Thesis.
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Milne R.S and Diane K. Mauzy. 1986. Malaysia: Tradition, modernity, and Islam. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
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Malaysian Bengalee's in a congenial soil : The happy disarray of Bengal House in Malaysia
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
Reproduced from "The Telegraph", Calcutta, India (Nov 09, 2002)
A character in Titash Ekti Nodir Naam is possessed by the ghost of Mahesh Bardhan of "Gutaura", the colloquial for Gautampara - Utpal Dutt's ancestral village and mine - two miles out of Brahmanbaria. He was much in my mind this past week as I walked with the ghosts of other Bardhans, as well as of pioneers from the old Tipperah, Sylhet, Mymensingh, Chittagong and Dacca districts, when the clans mustered by the Straits of Malacca for the Malaysian Bengalee Association's annual jamboree.
The devout had imported a priest from Calcutta to worship Kali all through the night. Others argued spiritedly for four hours at the MBA's 50th Annual General Meeting. But beyond such absorptions, this annual gathering in Port Dickson was yet another affirmation of tribal loyalty by a small community that, according to the academic, Dipika Mukherjee, who has married into it, "is still searching for an individual identity in the larger Malaysian context".
Perhaps the overarching framework does present a challenge since the Malaysian prime minister's Diwali message bemoaned the weakening of inter-racial ties. But the unaffectedly friendly people who made me so welcome betrayed few traces of the complexes that mark Indian life elsewhere. Exiles are frequently fanatically patriotic, but Dilip Kumar Dutt, a Malaysian-born veteran, laughed off an Indian's theory that nearby Seremban town was really "Sri Ram Bon". The fancy reminded me of another uninformed Hindu fantasy that the sea by which we had gathered was the Straits of Malacca.
I pondered, too, the difference between Malaysian and Singaporean Bengalis, the former generally much more in harmony with themselves and their surroundings. Dissonance in the Singapore community is probably explained by imported West Bengal wives from a simpler social level that the men have left behind. Most of the Port Dickson women had been born and brought up in the same milieu as their spouses and strode two worlds with casual confidence. So much so that I failed to recognize in the bou's bejeweled disguise one evening the woman in a trouser suit with whom I had chatted on the beach that morning. Anyone can change attire; here, style and idiom had undergone total transformation without the least trace of self-consciousness or even, perhaps, awareness.
Nor are Malaysian Bengalis crippled by that sense of insecurity that underlies the bristling bombast of so many non-resident Indians in America. Speech highlights the contrast. A contrived and uneven coating of American sits uneasily on the NRI's heavily Bengali English. But though Malaysian Bengalis still preserve the "Bangal" tones of East Bengal, they slip smoothly into a fluent idiomatic English that once prompted an Australian to remark that he did not think he would live to hear an Indian speak with a Chinese accent. It is not so much Chinese as Singaporean and Malaysian with overtones of the colourful regional dialect called Singlish.
Yet, South East Asian Bengalis also face a problem of definition, as I discovered when Singapore's Straits Times newspaper illustrated a report of a clash in London's East End between Cockneys and Bengalis (actually Bangladeshis) with the sketch of a bearded and turbaned Sikh. When a reader pro tested, the Tamil Singaporean sub-editor declared artlessly, "I did not know that Sikhs aren't Bengalis."
Some attribute confusion to Punjabi immigrants setting sail from Calcutta port. Others say that since Singapore was governed from Calcutta, all Indians other than Tamils were lumped with the capital. Whatever the reason, the MBA has not simplified problems. Every AGM, and this was no exception, grapples with the question of whether its keyword should be spelt with two e's or an i. The Young Turks urge every AGM, as they did this time too, not to restrict full membership to only Hindu Bengali Malaysian citizens.
But the argument rumbles on from year to year, pushed by young Bengali males with spouses from other communities. And that is a healthy sign, for it would have been so much simpler for these well-placed families to turn their backs on the MBA's puja, amateur dramatics and general provincialism to seek new cosmopolitan roots.
People migrate to better themselves, and there is no reason, beyond the call of cultural loyalty, for third generation immigrants to stand by an institution that commemorates the early concentration of Bengalis in the sultanate of Negeri Sembilan - Darul Khusus, the happy state, as it calls itself. Seremban is the capital. Bengalis found supervisory jobs on the rubber plantations there. They celebrated Durga puja in Seremban in 1928 but turned to Kali from 1939 because Diwali was a public holiday. They also exchanged the Seremban club house for the bigger property in Port Dickson where we gathered.
Numbers are a moot point. The MBA has about 150 members. Most estimates suggest 70 Malaysian families or around 400 people. The figure of 2,000 mentioned in one report is regarded as wildly optimistic.
The bonds among them go back to Sarojini Bardhan, a doctor who arrived in the Straits Settlements in 1908 and whose samadhi can still be seen in Malacca. Lee Kuan Yew, who takes great pride in Chinese networking (guanxi), would be green with envy at the web of connections that Bardhan and his three wives left behind.
Bengal House represents the sweat of these and other pioneers who each contributed half a month's wages. But at what cost can it be saved? Efficiency is needed but not efficiency that ousts last week's happy disarray. Malaysia will probably see to that. It is a nation on the march but a march that always finds time for a chat and a snooze. The Bengali genius has been transplanted in congenial soil …