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Geneologies of a Tradition

Alok Rai

By Frances W. Pritchett
Katha, Delhi, 2005, pp. 234, Rs. 250.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 9 September 2005

At the beginning of her book Nets of Awareness, Frances Pritchett makes a generous acknowledgement of her debt to her guru, Ralph Russell. Anyone who seeks to study Urdu in a modern context is similarly indebted to Russell. Russell wrote a famous essay—‘How Not to Write the History of Urdu Literature’—in 1987. It would not be unfair to suggest that Pritchett’s impressive and necessary work is one demonstration of ‘How to Write a History of Urdu Literature’.   In his essay, Russell drew attention to the peculiar contradiction in which historians of Urdu literature had become trapped since the time of Azad and Hali—and indeed, it was argued, because of Azad and Hali. For those who might not be familiar with these now unfortunately arcane matters, Azad and Hali are far and away the first and most important modern historians of Urdu literature—Urdu’s equivalent of the great and formative late-19th century figures who can be found in so many of the languages of modern India. Azad was the slightly elder figure of the two, and his life was intimately bound up with the founding catastrophe of modern India, the Great Rebellion of 1857 and, much more crucial, the savage and brutal repression that continued, for years, in the wake of the defeat of the Rebellion. Azad was born in 1830. His father was a teacher at the Delhi College, and also brought out a newspaper for some time, the Dilli Akhbar. Azad himself was educated in the traditional “Oriental” manner, in Arabo-Persian learning.   Legend has it that, at his father’s insistence, Azad maintained a deliberate distance from any contamination with the western or English part of the Delhi College curriculum. This is a measure of the cultural confidence of the pre-1857 elite, despite the farcical shrinking of the range and sovereignty of the Mughal Emperor—in the time of Shah Alam, as a contemporary couplet had it, his writ extended all the way from Dilli to Palam. In the time of Bahadur Shah Zafar, it had become a sort of Dead Emperor’s Society, albeit populated by the likes of Ghalib—if indeed one can imagine such “likes”. But, wondrous to behold, this elite still believed that it was the centre of the cultural world. This confidence was to be rudely, and forever, shattered by the cataclysm of 1857. Ghalib is, in a sense, the great hinge ...

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