National Professor Atwar Husain Memorial Lecture 2023 held at Asiatic Society of Bangladesh

Addressing the fascinating history of the Habshi dynasty in Bengal (from 1487 AD to 1493 AD), prolific international researcher, archivist and curator Dr Kenneth X Robbins on Thursday said that proper archiving of the particular period in South Asia is necessary.

"There are remarkable and important chapters in the Afro-South Asian diaspora including the activities of the African rulers in Bengal and elsewhere in South Asia. There are fascinating stories regarding religion, racism, music and so on. All this history has to be put together by historians," Dr Robbins said as the honorary speaker at the National Professor Atwar Husain Memorial Lecture 2023, delivered at the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh on Thursday.

He said, "There are stories regarding Habshi rulers and their activities, such as Malik Andil (Sultan Saifuddin Firuz Shah) who was very generous to the people but we don't actually know what he did. His son succeeded him who was a federal ruler, and the final ruler (Shamsuddin Muzaffar Shah) was also known as a charitable person. We know other stories regarding Africans building mosques in Bengal, bringing their culture here. This is all very interesting...these are important to the history of Bengal."

He mentioned a book project on the documentation of Bengalis and Africans from the Indian Ocean world - co-edited by Nahar Khan, Executive Director of Cosmos Foundation; Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones MBE, a well-known British scholar with expertise on Lucknow and its culture; and himself. The book would contain several chapters on African elites in Bengal, important characters in Bengal, Bengalis abroad, and music featuring names such as American musician Bardu Ali with a Bengali Muslim origin.

Chairperson of National Professor Atwar Husain Trust Fund and Liberation War Museum founder-trustee Mofidul Hoque chaired the seminar.

During his keynote presentation, Dr Robbins showcased and described some of the significant images from his collection and prolific work as an acclaimed researcher. His presentation included informative chapters such as the African rulers in Bengal and South Asia, paintings such as 'Zangis defeated by Alexander' commissioned by Sultan Nusrat Shah whose father deposed the Habshi dynasty of Bengal, images documenting the Habshi Sultans of Bengal and their reign such as the Firoz Minar, Hasan Ali Mirza (the first Nawab of Murshidabad), The Sound Universe of Inayat Khan (on the seminal works titled 'The Mysticism of Sound and Music: The Sufi Teaching of Hazrat Inayat Khan') - just to name a few.

A traveling exhibition was also held at ASB showcasing a selection of items from the Kenneth and Joyce Robbins collection on South Asian history, described as the largest collection outside of India. Their collection comprises more than 100,000 items including books, manuscripts, medals and fine artworks - speaking to the diverse cultures and traditions that find expression in India, and it was recently exhibited as part of the Cosmos Foundation's Distinguished Speaker Series titled "Afro-South Asia Connectivity and the Habshi Kingdoms of Bengal and Beyond" on January 3 at the Garden Gallery, Baridhara in Dhaka.

Conveying gratitude, Mofidul Hoque said, "I want to thank the Cosmos Foundation and Nahar Khan who have facilitated the visit of Dr Kenneth Robbins to Bangladesh and cooperated with the ASB for arranging this lecture and display."

The event was also joined by nominees of the trust fund and their family members, members of the Trust Management Committee, distinguished Fellows, the President of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh Professor Khondoker Bazlul Hoque, council members, prominent members of the Society, journalists, guests, and also virtually connected members.

Professor Rahmat Ara Hussin established the trust fund at the Society in 1988 in honour of her late spouse, Professor Atwar Husain. Born in 1918, Prof Atwar graduated in economics from the University of Dhaka in 1939 with a first-class degree, and later he obtained an MSS degree with distinction from the London School of Economics and joined that school as a teacher. In 1948, he joined the Planning Commission of Pakistan as a member and served there until 1971. He had a good number of publications to his credit and enjoyed an international reputation as a development economist. He was honoured as a National Professor in 1987, just a week before his death.

His wife, Professor Rahmat Ara Husain, then founded the trust with the hope that the academic mind and spirit that Professor Husain had shown in his life ought to be transmitted to future generations. The objective of the trust fund is to promote research within the broad area of "Economic Problems in Developing Countries of Asia and Planning Strategy for Development".

So far, five gold medals have been awarded, and twenty-two lectures have been delivered under the auspices of the trust fund.

Dr Kenneth X Robbins is a psychiatrist and collector-archivist specializing in maharajas and other local and regional Indian rulers as well as Sufis and Indian minority groups, specifically Jews and African Muslims. Images of three hundred items from his Indian Princely States collections have been available from the American Committee for Southern Asian Art. He is co-editor, with John McLeod, of the book "African Elites in India: Habshi Amarat" (Mapin, 2006) and co-curator, with Sylviane Diouf, of a New York Public Library Schomburg Center traveling exhibition "Africans in India", which has been shown across five continents at dozens of venues, including the United Nations and UNESCO.

Robbins has published many articles, organized scholarly conferences, and curated exhibits on India dealing with history, maharajas and nawabs, art, medicine, gender and women, Jews, philately, numismatics, and movies.

In October, it was revealed that the Robbins family has designated the Penn Libraries - the library system of the University of Pennsylvania, an IVY League school in the US, as the recipient of their entire collection in their estate planning. Their collection comprises more than 100,000 items including books, manuscripts, medals and fine artworks.

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