Saturday, July 17, 2010

Gulshan-i-Hind and the Musi flood


In the era of internet and e-books, losing a precious book forever does not even crosses the mind. We take it for granted that whatever be the book we are sure to get a copy from somewhere. Even if it is lying in someone's private collection, there is still a possibility that a book aficionado can reach him through the net.

I would like to share the fate of a book written by one of the scholars employed at the Fort William College. The book in question contained short biographies of poets. Before I write about the book let me first introduce you to its author and the circumstances under which it was written.


Mirza Ali Lutf was one of the scholars employed by the Britishers at Fort William College to write and compile books in Urdu. Fort William College, established in Calcutta in 1800, aimed at producing materials in the native languages. The other important objective of Fort William was to acquaint the newly-appointed British officers with the local languages of India.


Since most of the Urdu scholars did not have a good grip on English, they were asked to translate books in Urdu from Persian. The college produced a remarkable body of work and gave a new meaning to Urdu prose writing.

Scholars and writers like Mir Amman Dehlvi, Syed Haider Baksh Haideri, Hafizuddin Ahmad and many others were taken on board to produce a body of work in Urdu that would help the future civil servants understand the law and custom of the country in its own language.


The Urdu prose as such had no real identity of its own and the translation in Urdu had to include elements of English prose writing. I believe Fort William set the trend for the future Urdu prose before Sir Sayyed Ahmad arrived on the scene. Anyway, coming back to Mirza Ali Lutf. Lutf was not a great poet himself but he undertook the translation of the Persian book Gulzar-i-Hind. Gulzar-i-Hind was written by Ali Ibrahim Khan and had names of the famous and not-so-famous Persian/Urdu poets.


Mirza Ali Lutf translated Gulzar-i-Hind as Gulshan-i-Hind in Urdu and very well captured the persona of poets in short biographical sketches. Gulzar-i-Hind came out in 1801 and in the preface Lutf admits he wrote the book on the suggestion of John Gilchrist, the head of Fort Williams College. The book was written when Lutf was in Hyderabad and many scholars believed the book had Dakhni influence.


The book was published much before Muhammad Husain Azad's Ab-e-Hayat. I am sure Lutf's work would pale in comparison to Azad's, but was nevertheless an important piece of work. However, with the passage of time there were not many copies left. In one of the Musi floods of Hyderabad (it was very frequent) a copy was found washed away.


Fortunately, it was found its way to the Asifia State Library, now known as the State Central Library. The library was formed to collect and conserve Arabic and Persian books and manuscripts. Allama Shibli Nomani revised the book and it was brought back to life. Baba-i-Urdu Maulvi Abdul Haq wrote an introduction to the book which was published from Lahore in 1906.


Abdul Haq wrote in his introduction that the book would have been lost forever had it not been recovered from the floods. Gulshan-i-Hind is now available to buy through the internet and fortunately it won't be lost or rediscovered in any flood now!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

How MacDonnell led to the decline of Urdu

For years now the decline of Urdu in India has been a subject of discussion and debates. While there are several instances that caused severe blow to the interest of Urdu, I believe it was Sir Antony MacDonnell's (pic above) stint as the Lieutenant Governor of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh that caused major irreparable damage.

Soon after he gained charge of the provinces, several deputations met him pressing for the use of Hindi as the official language of courts. Finally in April 1900, MacDonnell issued orders that allowed the optional use of Devanagari script in courts. While the orders did not completely displace Urdu from the position it had enjoyed for decades, it infuriated the votaries of Urdu as the decision took them by surprise.

In his earlier posting in Bihar, MacDonnell had lent his support to Nagari script, and this time Urdu intelligentsia lost no time in coming together to oppose him. As a response, Urdu Defence Association was formed and protest meetings were held in Aligarh, Allahabad and Lucknow.

Mohsin-ul-Mulk who was the secretary of the Aligarh College Committee took the lead. He had filled the void created after the death of Sir Syed Ahmad and he took command of the Urdu Defence Association. A huge support base to the Association came from Urdu-knowing lawyers based in Allahabad.

MacDonnell started feeling the heat and made his disapproval clear to the members of the Association. As he openly criticised the organisation and spoke against it on several occasions, many Muslim notables fearing a backlash from the government backed out from it. As a result, a large number of landlords and Nawabs stayed away from the Association thus robbing it of valuable intellectual and monetary benefits. Prominent among them being Nawab Lutf Ali of Chhatari.

Mohsin-ul-Mulk's involvement meant that the entire might of the Mohammedan Anglo Institute was behind the Urdu Defence Association. The British government was giving financial aid to the Aligarh Institute and MacDonnell decided to use it for his advantage. He made it clear that if Mohsin-ul-Mulk continued to stand behind the Urdu Defence Association the aids and grants would be in jeopardy and he would have to resign as secretary of the College Committee.

Mohsin-ul-Mulk had a tough decision to make. He decided to resign from the honorary secretaryship of the College. However, he had to change his decision under mounting public pressure including letters from prominent Urdu writers and personalities. The Urdu movement thus lost a towering leader and guide.

Till the period MacDonnell was in the province, Mohsin-ul-Mulk could not do much for the cause of Urdu. Losing financial and administrative support would have spelled doom for the Aligarh Institute, and it was only after MacDonell's exit from the province that Mohsin-ul-Mulk organised the Anjumman-i-Taraqqi-i-Urdu.

However, much steam had been lost and Urdu had lost ground. What were the reasons that made some people think that Hindi should replace Urdu? A question of language acquired religious dimension. Much of it stemmed from the fact that exponents of both the languages did their best to create as wide a gulf as possible. The charge from both the sides was that the respective scripts were not in sync with the thinking and aspirations of the common man.

As a result words drawn heavily from Sanskrit and Arabic/Persian found their way in what was earlier seen as identical languages with different scripts. I am reminded of the great Altaf Hussain Hali who is known for his Musaddas. Hali wrote the Musaddas - on the rise and fall of Muslims - at the insistence of Sir Syed Ahmad.

However, his masterpiece which was appreciated by the common readers had to face a barrage of criticisms from several quarters. He was widely criticised for the use of Hindi words in his writings. He used to write in simple Urdu and was a staunch believer in bridging the Hindi-Urdu divide.

Hali criticised Muslims for not making efforts to learn Hindi and Sanskrit and using difficult Arabic and Persian words. At the same time he advised that Hindus should use and learn Urdu. If there were more people like Hali on the scene I am sure the situation would have been much different.

But it was not to be. In 1891, around 24 Hindi newspapers had an estimated circulation of about 8,000 while 68 Urdu newspapers had a combined circulation of over 16000. In 1911, 116 Urdu newspapers had a circulation of about 76000 whereas 86 Hindi newspapers had circulation close to 78,000.