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An Urdu Renaissance?

Harish Trivedi

By Gail Minault
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2009, pp. 314, Rs. 695.00


In a chapter not quite characteristic of her general scholarly procedure as a historian, Gail Minault in the middle of this book cuts loose to attempt a sustained comparison between what she calls ‘the Delhi Renaissance’ and the far more lauded ‘Bengal Renaissance’—which should perhaps be similarly and more accurately called the Calcutta Renaissance. Beginning by seeming to acquiesce in the received wisdom that the Delhi Renaissance was ‘a poor up-country version of [the] dynamic example of cultural interaction’ represented by the Bengal Renaissance, Minault proceeds to highlight the differences between the two and thus the distinctiveness of the cultural situation in Delhi through that transitional and transformative age. While the Bengal Renaissance was launched with the Bengalis learning the English language and other subjects also through the medium of English, the teaching in Delhi College on the other hand was all in Urdu, through translation. The project of translating, and thus mediating, western knowledge flourished through the efforts of teachers such as the legendary Master Yesudas Ramachandra. Delhi College had white principals such as Boutros and Sprenger, with the latter infamously failing to recruit Mirza Ghalib on the faculty by not leaving his chair and going to the gate to ceremoniously receive the candidate, who thereupon promptly and indignantly went back home in his palanquin: Ulte phir aaye dar-e-Kaba agar vaa na hua. (I’d come back even from the door of Kaba if I find it not flung open.) But the teaching was based solidly on our own indigenous tradition and languages, and it is through the medium of Urdu that the renaissance in Delhi, such as it was, is seen to be happening in this book. Another major difference that Minault points out is that while the bhadralok in Calcutta were a recently formed and socially variegated class, the asharaf (gentlemen; plural of sharif) of Delhi were nothing if not khandani, i.e., an elite that had been entrenched in their privileges for several generations and even centuries. In other words (than Minault’s), if the bhadralok sought to climb the ladder of English and western education in order to become upwardly mobile, the ashraf of Delhi were already so high up in terms of education, culture and privilege that they looked down upon western ways—until they themselves began to slide downwards with some rapidity especially after the cataclysmic events of 1857. The newly aspiring bhadralok ...

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