The Social Space of Language: Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab

The Social Space of Language: Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab

by Farina Mir

Hardcover(First Edition)

View All Available Formats & Editions


This rich cultural history set in Punjab examines a little-studied body of popular literature to illustrate both the durability of a vernacular literary tradition and the limits of colonial dominance in British Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|India. Farina Mir asks how qisse, a vibrant genre of epics and romances, flourished in colonial Punjab despite British efforts to marginalize the Punjabi language. She explores topics including Punjabi linguistic practices, print and performance, and the symbolic content of qisse. She finds that although the British denied Punjabi language and literature almost all forms of state patronage, the resilience of this popular genre came from its old but dynamic corpus of stories, their representations of place, and the moral sensibility that suffused them. Her multidisciplinary study reframes inquiry into cultural formations in late-colonial north Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|India away from a focus on religious communal identities and nationalist politics and toward a widespread, ecumenical, and place-centered poetics of belonging in the region.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520262690
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/04/2010
Series: South Asia Across the Disciplines , #2
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 294
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Social Space of Language

Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab

By Farina Mir


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94764-1


Forging a Language Policy

The East India Company's half-century of vigorous territorial expansion in India began with the marquess of Wellesley's governor-generalship in 1798 and culminated in the annexation of the Punjab in 1849. The Punjab's Sikh kingdom of Lahore (map 3), established by Ranjit Singh in 1799, had proved a particularly capable adversary, and the Company conquered the region only through a combination of political intrigue and military might. The new colonial administrative unit that resulted from this conquest—Punjab province—encompassed all or parts of what had been the Mughal subas (provinces) of Lahore, Multan, and Kabul before they had been wrested by the Sikhs. Colonial Punjab as established in 1849 was thus composed of the area's five doabs, or inter-riverine tracts, the territory immediately to their east and west (the trans-Indus and the cis-Sutlej territories), and the frontier areas of Peshawar, Leia, and Hazara. In 1858 Delhi and its environs were added to the province, and in 1901, the frontier areas were separated to form the Northwest Frontier Province (map 4). As these transformations suggest, the Punjab has been variously constituted throughout the modern period. The waxing and waning of its administrative borders notwithstanding, the Punjab has a geographic-cultural core, as this book demonstrates, whether conceived as an axis connecting the region's major cities, Amritsar, Lahore, and Multan, or more broadly as the five doabs and the cis-Sutlej territory.

The annexation of the Punjab in 1849 has for historians of modern South Asia always marked an important moment in India's colonization, for with Punjab's inclusion Company territories spanned the length and breadth of the subcontinent, albeit with Indian-administered states interspersed. With the transition to Crown Rule in 1858, the map of India (or the political realities it represented) did not change dramatically, though the subcontinent was now refigured as British India and Native States. Whether focusing on the Company period or that of Crown Rule, generations of scholars have documented the impact of British colonialism on Indian political, economic, legal, social, and cultural life. Indeed, the Punjab provides especially fertile ground for such study. One can plausibly argue, for instance, that the effects of colonialism were more pronounced in the Punjab than elsewhere, since by the time of its annexation the Company was already well practiced in administering Indian territories to its own advantage. Additionally, the Company instituted a more authoritarian administrative structure in the Punjab, one that was largely retained after 1858. Historians have dubbed this the "Punjab school" of administration and have singled it out for its marked authoritarianism, paternalism, and Christian evangelism. The administrators of this Punjab school were primarily responsible for the province's vigorous incorporation into the greater British enterprise during the late nineteenth-century "high noon" of colonialism, when Indian state and society were unabashedly manipulated to Britain's economic and political ends. Together, these factors contributed to colonialism's tangible, indelible impact on Punjabi society.

Language is undoubtedly a critical arena for the operation of colonial power, and this was as true in colonial India as in other colonial contexts. C.A. Bayly has argued further that language is central to establishing colonial power. In his Empire and Information, a study of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century India, Bayly eloquently argues that the colonial state's ability to access indigenous networks of information and adapt them to its own ends was critical to its success. This access rested on colonial officials' linguistic abilities in Persian, Sanskrit, and local vernacular languages. These were linguistic skills they did not by and large possess, however, forcing them to rely on native intermediaries and interpreters, a situation most administrators found disconcerting. Given the obvious advantages of their own linguistic competence over their reliance on intermediaries, Company officials took pains to learn, codify, and ultimately teach Indian classical and vernacular languages in colonial institutions, in both England and India. Bernard Cohn has persuasively argued that such institutions helped officials gain the "command of language" that was crucial to the consolidation of colonial power in India. If language (competency) was critical to the colonial enterprise, as Bayly and Cohn contend, then so was language policy—that is, which language(s) to adopt for administration. The history of language policy in colonial Punjab, where the language of administration was carefully considered for its ability to integrate the province into broader structures of colonial authority, bears out this important relationship between language and empire.

The policy established by the colonial state in Punjab designated Urdu as the language of provincial administration. This had a number of consequences, the most evident of which is that this designation—which initially applied only to the administration of revenue collection and justice—led to the adoption of Urdu in other branches of government. Less evident is the impact of colonial language policy beyond state arenas to influence Indian society in new and important ways. Most significantly, language policy had a decisive influence on literary production in the Punjab, on its print public sphere, and its print culture more broadly. That the state's language policy impacted print culture is perhaps not surprising given the role of colonial actors in promoting print in nineteenth-century India. As in many other parts of India, it was Christian missionaries who first introduced print in the Punjab (in the early nineteenth century). At first, Indians had exhibited little enthusiasm for the technology, and Indian publishing ventures were few and far between. However, once the region was annexed, its colonial administrators saw potential benefit in an active "native" press and helped to spur Indian publishing enterprises by promoting the establishment of presses and purchasing much of what they produced. This publishing industry would in twenty years become the foundation of an incipient indigenous public sphere, though this was surely an unintended effect of colonial policy and patronage. By the 1870s, newspapers were increasing in number and circulation, and book publishing was thriving, with thousands of volumes produced each year, representing together an array of Indian opinion.

Almost all of these newspapers, and certainly all the commercially viable ones, were published in the Urdu language, as were a majority of the books published in Punjab. Given India's robust indigenous literary traditions and colonial efforts to cultivate and modernize vernacular languages across India, it is no surprise that the principal language of publishing in Punjab was an Indian vernacular. But the dominance of Urdu requires explanation. Elsewhere in India, vernacular publishing reflected the principal vernacular language(s) of each province, but Urdu was not prominent in the Punjab. Most of the region's inhabitants spoke Punjabi, the main colloquial language of people from different class, caste, and religious backgrounds, and a language with a rich literary tradition. Urdu, by contrast, had no significant spoken or literary history in the Punjab prior to the establishment of the colonial state. In colonial Punjab, then, the almost complete dominance of Urdu in certain genres of literary production and in the print public sphere, and its preponderance in print culture more generally was an outcome of the state's language policy. Marking this considerable impact of colonialism on indigenous practice is not my chief aim, however.

The more significant aspect of the history of language, literary production, and print culture in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Punjab is not that of colonialism's impact, but rather of its limits. The "success" of the colonial state's language policy, documented in this chapter through Punjabis' adoption of Urdu as the language of certain literary genres and the print public sphere, was only partial. Thus, for example, at no point during its rule in Punjab could the colonial state govern without recourse to Punjabi, colloquially at least. This resilience of the Punjabi language, despite a colonial policy clearly aimed at replacing it with Urdu, marks an important limit to colonialism, as does Punjabi literary production, and Punjabi print and performance cultures. Indeed, this resilience—recovered in this chapter from the margins of the colonial archive—presents a first indication of the vitality of the Punjabi literary formation during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Before turning to language policy, it is helpful to examine the state of publishing in early and mid-nineteenth-century Punjab, since colonial policy had a decided impact in this arena. Print technology had been available in India as early as the sixteenth century, but it was not until the nineteenth century that printed texts were widely disseminated. Across India, Christian missionaries were among the first groups to use printing presses, since they saw publishing as an effective evangelizing tool. This was true in the Punjab as well, where the American Presbyterian Mission established the first printing press, in 1836 in Ludhiana. The press initially had only two type fonts: roman font, used primarily for Romance languages, and Indo-Persian, with which texts could be produced in Arabic and Persian, as well as in a number of Indian vernacular languages, including Urdu, Kashmiri, and Punjabi. With these two fonts, the mission published Christian scripture in English, Urdu, Persian, and "Indo-Roman" (Urdu in roman characters). Subsequently the mission designed two more fonts: Gurmukhi, used principally for Punjabi, and Devnagari, used for Sanskrit and Hindi, which it used beginning in 1838 to produce publications in Punjabi and Hindi. Choices about what languages the press should publish in, and what scripts to use, appear to have been grounded in missionary (and colonial) conceptions about the links between languages, scripts, and religious communities, discussed below. Be that as it may, the Ludhiana Mission Press is significant to the history of publishing in the Punjab because it was the region's first printing press and, perhaps more importantly, because of the sheer volume of materials it produced and distributed. Despite numerous setbacks, in its third year (1838) the Mission Press published seventy thousand volumes of twenty-four titles, comprising well over a million pages. In 1840 the press printed fewer volumes (just over thirty thousand), but these accounted for a total output of some two million pages. These were in English, Urdu (in Indo-Persian script), Hindi (in Devnagari script), Punjabi (in Gurmukhi script), and also Kashmiri (in Indo-Persian; due to a sizable migrant Kashmiri community in the Punjab).

The American Presbyterian Mission may have brought a new technology to the Punjab, but this did not spark a revolution in indigenous publishing there. It took almost fifteen years before an Indian-owned press was established, and then only in response to the provincial administration's invitation to do so. Hursookh Rai, an experienced printer from the Northwest Provinces (NWP), accepted the government's invitation and in early 1850 established the Kohinoor Press in Lahore. Rai then launched Kohinoor, an Urdu-language newspaper whose editorial slant was, not surprisingly, decidedly sympathetic to government concerns. The Kohinoor Press was not the first press the Company government had helped establish in the Punjab, however. As early as the 1840s the British Resident at Lahore facilitated and financed the city's first English-language press, the Chronicle Press. For the Chronicle Press, too, the Company had turned to an experienced printer, in this case Muhammad Azim, who had been associated with the Delhi Gazette. Once established, the press published The Lahore Chronicle, a journal meant explicitly to further British policy. Although its exact date of inception is unknown, the reminiscences of Lahore resident H.R. Goulding reveal that The Lahore Chronicle was available in the late 1840s.

Through such Company initiatives, an Indian-owned-and-operated press was slowly established in the Punjab, and after 1850 presses were launched with increasing frequency. Through the latter half of the nineteenth century, presses were founded in Lahore and Amritsar, and also in smaller cities such as Multan, Sialkot, Jhelum, and Rawalpindi. These engaged in two kinds of publishing: newspapers and periodicals, and books, both in a variety of languages.

Urdu publications dominated, however. According to a survey of late nineteenth-century Punjab newspapers, while periodicals were published in Urdu, English, Punjabi, Hindi, Persian, Arabic, and Sindhi, and some newspapers were composed in more than one language, Urdu was the predominant language of the press. In 1876, for example, of the thirteen most important newspapers and periodicals, seven were in Urdu, four in English, and two in Arabic. In 1883 Urdu was the language of eleven of the thirteen vernacular newspapers published in Lahore. By 1901, 186 vernacular newspapers and periodicals were being published in the province, of which 137 were in Urdu. Taking an aggregate view, of the 413 periodicals published in the Punjab between 1880 and 1905, 343, or about 82 percent, were in Urdu. While some of these Urdu newspapers were short-lived or had limited circulations (sometimes only a few hundred), others were among the Punjab's most important commercial newspapers. The most significant were the Akhbar-i Am, started in 1870, and the Paisa Akhbar, started in 1887. Both were published in the capital city of Lahore and both had healthy circulations; in 1903 the Paisa Akhbar's weekly edition reached 13,500, an astonishing number for the time, given that the 1901 census documented the literacy rate for Lahore district (with a population of approximately 1.162 million) as a mere 4.4 percent.

Alongside newspaper publishing in the Punjab, book publishing, which remained overwhelmingly lithographic rather than typographic until well into the twentieth century, also commenced in the late nineteenth century. Government records indicate that books published there were even more linguistically diverse than the newspapers. Between 1867 and 1896, publishers produced books in Arabic, Hindi, Kashmiri, Marwari, Pahari, Pashto, Persian, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, and Urdu, with Urdu publications again outnumbering the others. Numbers give some indication of Urdu's dominance vis-à-vis other publication languages (table 1). Although precise information about titles and content is unavailable, anecdotal evidence based on surviving texts suggests that Urdu publishing encompassed a range of genres and subjects, from poetry and fiction, to history, religion, and science.

The preponderance of the Urdu language in late nineteenth-century Punjab's newspaper and book trades is an anomaly given that Urdu was not widely spoken in the province. Few indigenous sources detail the Punjab's spoken languages, whether in precolonial or colonial times, but those few that do show that people there did not by and large speak Urdu. Colonial records for the late nineteenth century concur. Similarly, the Punjab does not appear to have been a prominent site of Urdu literary production. This begs two questions: what were the norms of spoken and literary language in precolonial Punjab? And why did Urdu come to dominate the latter arena, at least, in the late nineteenth century?


A sketch of precolonial language use and literary production in the Punjab provides an important context for understanding the changes wrought by colonialism in these arenas. While charting the latter is possible through the survival of manuscripts, charting the former is challenging since few sources of the kind later available for this purpose—ethnographic surveys and censuses, for example—exist for the Sikh period, or the Mughal and Sultanate periods before it. These difficulties notwithstanding, a composite picture suggests that there were a "diverse collection of languages, different languages for different people on different occasions," in David Lelyveld's words. Lelyveld was writing of the Mughal court, but his words resonate here as in precolonial Punjab, like in much of India historically, there were colloquial, liturgical, sacred, court, and literary languages, some of which overlapped and some of which did not.


Excerpted from The Social Space of Language by Farina Mir. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Customer Reviews