The brainchild of Dr Muhammad Shahidullah, Bangla Academy was established in 1955 in Burdwan House to promote, develop, and assist in the preservation of the Bangla language.
With the passage of time, the academy grew bigger with several acts and rules being made to direct it. The latest act has made the academy the custodian of languages, meaning that it will become responsible for the promotion of not only Bangla in and outside Bangladesh, but also for other ethnic languages in the country.
The Bangla Academy website projects that its objective is the preservation of national culture, the spirit of the Liberation War, local history and culture, and the development of the nation through research.
The academy has several success stories, according to its current director general Shamsuzzaman.
One of these is its publication Ancholik Bhashar Obhidhan (Dictionary of Local Bengali Dialects). First published in 1965, it is a phenomenal work by Dr Shahidullah himself that retains its importance even today.
The Evolutionary Dictionary of Bangla is another featured work, consisting of three volumes of about a thousand pages each.
The academy also publishes a highly praised folklore collection.
Lastly, it has also begun providing translated works for readers.
Bangla Academy also played an important role in Unesco’s inclusion of the traditional art of Jamdani weaving and Pohela Boishakh’s Mangal Shobhajatra in its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Published works and future plans
The academy has published numerous studies, books, and translations, established rules of languages, and organized literary and folklore conferences.
Academy sources said the academy has so far published some 6,000 books, averaging around a hundred publications a year.
According to employees, most of their books were research-based, with some of the rest promoting upcoming writers and some meant for children. Currently, around 1,500 books are available at the academy.
The academy’s activities involve research, publishing books, giving awards, and organizing a month long book fair every February known as the Amar Ekushey Boi Mela, its most popular initiative.
The original idea for the fair came from Chittaranjan Saha, owner of Muktadhara publications, and was intended to honour the language martyrs.
Although the academy has huge resources, in 62 years of activity it has not taken adequate initiatives to promote its publications in the remote areas of the country.
Sayeed Hossain, a banker and former Dhaka University student, said that until graduation he did not know that Bangla Academy had so many publications. He had only been there to buy dictionaries.
However this year, “Karagarer Rojnamcha” got his attention. He went to buy the book and to his utter surprise, he learned there was a good number of other books he could buy from there.
“Promotions of its publications and library resources are very poor,” Sayeed added.
Moreover, upon visiting the store, it was found that indigenous communities and languages receive very little attention.
Upon visiting Bangla Academy Library, it was found that it did not have any automated search tools for users, was very messy, and only 16 readers could use the library simultaneously even though it houses more than 100,000 books.
The academy has also been criticized by some quarters for failing to express enough support for imperilled writers and publishers. It shut down the stalls of Ba-Dwip Prakashani and banned it on the grounds of hurting religious sentiments, with another stall being shut down after criticizing its treatment of Ba-Dwip.
When contacted, Director of Sales and Reprints Jalal Ahmed said their work is not only to preserve languages but to help promote them as well.
The academy’s DG Shamsuzzaman said with support from the government, the academy has earned several achievements over the last 5 years. It has plenty of upcoming promotions planned, including the organizing of the Ekushey Boi Mela at district levels, international book fairs, conferences, and so on.
Shamsuzzaman said: “If readers say that our promotional activities are subpar despite the fact that we conduct such a large variety of them, we have nothing to say. The problem is that most of the media do not take any interest in the activities of the academy and readers do not care about our resources. However as soon as February comes around, everyone becomes conscious about them all of a sudden.”
He requested everyone to be more connected with the academy throughout the year.
When asked about indigenous languages and promotional activities to support them, he confessed that the academy had done very little to address the issue.
“We have spoken to the government about the issue. The International Mother Language Institute has been established, and we will do everything we can for their promotion,” he added.
Bangla Academy to enter digital era
The academy has been slow to digitize itself. No initiatives have been taken to launch apps for smartphones yet.
The library has more than 100,000 books and publications, but they remain unknown to the vast majority of readers. DG Shamsuzzaman said they have already taken initiatives to automate the library and provide PDF forms of the books.
“About 100 PDF format books including the academy’s first ever publication ‘Laili Mojnu’ will be put on the website for readers. We cannot remain behind in this digital era,” he added.
Shamsuzzaman said they plan to launch the new project on March 1.