This book straddles several anomalies that are rather obvious once stated but are rarely formulated as such. How is it that the world of Urdu literature becomes so dominated by people from the Punjab in a span of fifty years, beginning circa 1900s, and in a sense, continues to remain so? Iqbal, Faiz, Meeraji, Rashid, Bedi, Manto, Krishan Chander and down to our times, Mushtaq Ahmed and Zafar Iqbal, a top twenty or top fifty list of modern Urdu litterateurs would likely contain fifty percent Pubjabis. And how is it that Punjabi, which produced such a brilliant and varied repertoire of stories, epics and poems until the late medieval era by such extraordinary luminaries as Baba Farid, Bulle Shah, Waris Shah, Haridas Haria seem to drop out of our horizon in the modern era where all we know of is an Amrita Pritam or, less likely, a Surjit Patar? Why such poverty after such riches, why such preponderance from such invisibility? And yet, how is it that Punjabi still continues to enjoy immediate and even aural connotations that transcend nationality, religion and, even as it defines a community, a specific ethnicity.
What then is a Punjabi community and where and how has it existed specifically in the colonial era but, in many resilient ways, down to our times? Add to this another vignette. At his trial in Britain in 1940, the revolutionary nationalist Udham Singh, who assassinated Michael O’Dwyer, the Liutenant Governor of Punjab who had presided over the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, asked to take oath not on any religious text but on ‘Hir Waris’, the Hir-Ranjha poem penned by Waris Shah in the eighteenth century. ‘What authority,’ asks the writer of the book under review, ‘was vested in the romance of Hir and Ranjha for this political revolutionary?’
The book examines the notion of a Punjabi identity by investigating the formation of a Pubjabi literary community which centred on the composition, narration, performance and circulation of a set of stories, in verse and often set to music, called qissas. Mir’s thesis is an attempt to define and narrate the formation of a Punjabi literary community woven around the qissas, especially the love stories that were composed, recited and listened to by people of all faiths and backgrounds. That this happened at a time when the colonial government in the Punjab was actively propagating Urdu as an official language and consciously downgrading Punjabi shows the resilience of this literary community and the chief practice around which this sociotextual community was formed, qisse. As a genre of literary creation qissas in North India were first composed in Indo-Persian by Amir Khusraw who retold the love stories of Laila Majnun and Shirin Farhad in the masnawi form. These were then translated into several vernacular languages and these and other stories began to be composed in Punjabi which used the Persian masnawi form but relied on indigenous metres. From the eighteenth century onwards Punjabi qissa writers began to acknowledge a literary lineage, even a historicist consciousness, of the genre they were operating in. They began to pay homage to past masters of the genre in their compositions. Beginning in the seventeenth century these love stories of Pubjabi, especially the story of Hir Ranjha (but also Sassi-Pannu, Sohni-Mahival and Shirin-Farhad) came to define a central element in the definition of a Punjabi identity. These stories were composed by many different kinds of people: Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, noblemen and humbler folk, Sufis and courtiers. They were performed, recited, sung and enacted at shrines, village chowks, weddings, fairs and as stage productions. As such they gathered, ‘in a sticky rather than a fuzzy’ way, a community around them which defined both an ethnicity as well as a regional identity. This continued in the colonial period even though the colonial state actively denied official patronage to Punjabi and sought to impose Urdu as an official language over Punjab. Qissas continued to thrive when print came to Punjab and provide a rare instance, in the nineteenth century, of a successful printing and publishing culture which did not depend on the colonial state for patronage.
Why was Pubjabi marginalized in favour of Urdu? After the annexation of Punjab in 1849, the colonial government, in sync with steps in the rest of the country, wanted to develop a vernacular through which to govern Punjab. Punjabi, especially in the Gurumukhi script, was identified, erroneously, exclusively with the Sikh community. Choosing Punjabi, feared some in the colonial administration, might bolster the simmering Sikh nationalist sentiments. Besides, the colonial officials looked down upon Punjabi and found it ‘crude’, ‘barbaric’, undeveloped, ‘merely a patois of Urdu’, which also lacked a standardized script and usage. Since Punjabi was unfit, the task fell upon Urdu. This was also convenient because a majority of the colonial administrators and their Indian collaborators (who were mainly drawn from Hindustan) were more familiar with Urdu than with Punjabi. The native chieftains in Punjab, it was argued, were also more familiar with Urdu. As elsewhere, in matters of linguistic, caste or religious purity, the colonial state often adopted, modified to its purposes of course, the prejudices of its chief native informers. Thus Urdu became the official language of Punjab from 1854 and in addition to administrative usage, it also became the chief language of education. A three tier school system village, tehsil and zilla schools, capped by the famous Government College of Lahore evolved with Urdu as the chief vehicle of instruction. As documented elsewhere, Punjab’s Department of Public Instruction under William Arnold also attempted a vigorous reform of Urdu literature by organizing theme Mushairas, giving prizes for reformist essays, commissioning text-books and subsidizing newspaper and book publishing. This facilitated a thriving public print culture in Urdu, across the religious divide, dominated by books, newspapers and journals. Thus it was that for a hundred years, until partition, Punjab became a fertile ground for Urdu language and literature. And it was this policy that allowed for a later efflorescence of Urdu literature in Punjab.
However, Punjabi could not be reduced either to a specific ethnic group or a script. Punjabi print data establish that Indo-Persian, Nagri and Gurumukhi scripts were all used to publish texts in Punjabi. Neither could any script be exclusively identified with a particular religion. Mir shows that in the second half of the nineteenth century, eighteen different editions of the Adi Granth were published in Punjabi in the Urdu script while five Punjabi translations of the Ramayana were also published in it. Moreover, while the colonial state misidentified the provenance of Punjabi and helped the spread of Urdu in Punjab it also grievously underrated the literary heritage of Punjab. Not only did Punjab have a thriving body of literature, going back a few centuries, but it was a literary heritage that straddled the entire region and across its religious communities. These chiefly consisted of qissas or love stories but also of other classical genres such as var, dole, kafi, doha, si harfi and baran mah. These had been composed, performed, recited and read by a whole miscellany of people living in Punjab. The writers and the literary community which patronized these compositions successfully harnessed print into the service of these genres and crucially, Punjabi print culture, resting on these indigenous and older genres thrived independent of colonial support. The most popular among these genres were qissas, tales of love, imbued often with the piety of saint veneration and composed sometimes by the leading Sufi-saints of Punjab. The most iconic of those was the qissa of Hir-Ranjha and its most outstanding version was composed by Waris Shah in the eighteenth century.
Mir is successful at teasing out the various strands for the popularity and resilience of this literary formation which in her view shows both the limits of the colonial power as also the resilience of indigenous tastes and practices. Instead of cultural rupture that characterizes colonial rule elsewhere in the subcontinent here was a cultural practice and a mode of identity that showed continuities from the pre-colonial period. The world of saint-veneration and shared notions of piety where the qissas were nestled allowed many different connotations to play out at once. Ranjha was a pastoralist, a Jat, a nomad, a Sufi-disciple, a form of Krishna as well as a Punjabi. His identity could be defined by his zat, his watan, his des, his suba, his passion, his poetry or his flute. The many different versions of the same story, composed by people of different religions and backgrounds, emphasize similar features, which characterized Punjabi society at large. People who narrated or composed these stories could be professional bards, singers, storytellers, qawwals, noblemen or saint-poets. They were performed at festivals, weddings, ritual celebrations, village chowks, Gurudwaras as well as at Sufi shrines. Their book versions were illustrated and often showed high quality production. The female heroine Hir appeared to enjoy a greater agency as a woman than we attribute to pre-colonial societies. She could challenge social norms, the Mulla and his Sharia, her mother, social dictates and notions of honor from different vantage points in different stories. Qissas were also simultaneously oral and written literature and this again shows continuities with the past as well as contemporary practices in other parts of India. It was as a kind of autonomous activity, independent of colonial institutions and policies, that the qissas made a successful transition to print. However, even as a printed form, their oral provenance and their aural texture remained alive. Fragments or episodes could be published independently because their readers and listeners were always-already familiar with the main contours of the story.
Mir ably covers almost the entire gamut of the different facets of colonial production of Oriental knowledge. The construction of the colonial archive following administrative imperatives, the colonial understanding that language provided the key to ruling a people, the ethnographic and taxonomic drive that characterized data collection in the late nineteenth century India, the role played by the socio-religious reformers of the nineteenth century in the construction of nationalities and in sectarian conflicts within and in between communities, the nature and place of women in this discourse, the nature of print production and the book trade in the Punjab in this period, the development and spread of Qawwali, the role of Sufis and religious shrines, there is hardly any strand of her topic that she leaves out. Alongside she shows us how the received wisdom about print nationality does not apply to Punjab where this relatively autonomous literary formation continued to thrive and to define itself not against or as an alternative but parallel to the sectarian conflicts between Hindus (the Arya Samaj), Sikhs (the Singh Sabhas) and Muslims (Deobandis, Ahmadiyyas and Barelvis). Even while the political battles raged there were other practices and pastimes which brought people together and this happened along several axes. Notions of piety which emanated from Punjab’s Sufi shrines and their ritual, cult practices animated people as strongly as ideas of religious exclusion or a print nationality. The role and conduct of women in these qissas were different from the reformed and subdued gender identities being purveyed by religious reformers even, or particularly by those who favoured education for women. Even while caste or tribe was the main trope for the colonial or official newspaper discourses in the province, there were other ways of mapping social groupings, viz. zaat, biradari, misl and qaum.
While Mir exhaustively covers all the related themes around her main thesis my slight cavil with it is that she does not do enough with its core. A book which is titled The Social Space of Language, is subtitled Vernacular Language of British Colonial Punjab, and it then narrows itself to a discussion of the formation of a literary community around qissas and then foreshortens that too specifically to the qissas of Hir Ranjha. But the discussion around Hir Ranjha is also embedded in a deep engagement with the cultural historiography of nineteenth century India so we get as much coverage of the existing literature on caste, gender, census, publishing, book trade, popular religiosity, Sufis and Qawwalis as on the qissas itself. Mir is fairly persuasive at recounting these strands and also in connecting it to her main thesis. However, often the background details overshadow the kernel which they are supposed to highlight. To resort to a simplified or perhaps even a simplistic formulation, it is written from the outside in rather than the inside out. We learn a great deal about the world around which the qissas were composed and performed but not as much about their consumption or their reception. Moreover, the popularity of qissas in the eighteenth century, or its resilience into the nineteenth, was not restricted to Punjab alone. All across Hindustan, that is North India, several such stories were composed and narrated in ways which were very similar to Punjab. Qissa-e Nal Damayanti, Rani Rupmati and Baz Bahadur, Betal Pachisi, Singhasan Battisi, Barahmasa, these stories and genres circulated from the vernacular to Persian and back to the vernacular in North India. Legions of Urdu masnawis in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries described similar love stories. Many of them, especially in Awadhi, were deployed by Sufi saint-poets, in what came to be known as Premakhyans, to discuss and propagate Sufism. Often these enjoyed enormous cache in both elite and popular circles. Daud’s Chandayan for instance was a highly prized book, was often lavishly illustrated and circulated in courtly circles and at one time, according to Badauni, was read aloud in a mosque in Delhi. These Hindustani tales were also meant to be recited aloud and were presumably set to music and performed too. There is then an elite-subaltern circularity that is similar to the Punjabi situation. Moreover, when print came to North India it was these qissas which formed the mainstay of popular consumption. It was for this reason that a majority of the publications brought out by Fort William consisted of these tales, which had already been in oral and written circulation for some centuries. Book advertisements in the early newspapers of North India as well as analyses of the print runs establish beyond doubt that qissas remained the most popular genre of readership and oral consumption in North India beyond Punjab. They also contain the same mixture of neeti or akhlaq, i.e., morals for good moral conduct, notions of piety that went beyond any particular religious community and they too recounted stories that were already familiar to people. Some of these stories were actively patronized by the colonial state. For instance the Qissa-e Chahar Darwesh also known as Bagh-o Bahar that was printed at Fort William by Mir Amman Dehlavi became highly popular thanks in part to the colonial patronage and because it was used to teach Urdu to the colonial recruits. But the colonial administrators had an ambivalent relation with the text and never ceased to harp on the need for a more morally charged literature compared to the ‘obscene and crude’ fables put out by the Hindustanis. Most of these stories, on production and on the consumption side, cut across denominational religious lines. Many of them later became a part of the staple repertoire of the commercial universe of Parsi theatre and thence into Hindi cinema, thus giving us a film version of Laila Majnun starring Rishi Kapur as late as 1976.
Did the uniqueness of Punjab lie in the lack of official patronage for printing or that the iconic saint-figures constituted a boundary of imagination which was multiplied by a specified set of qissas? Did this commonality of a shared interest in Punjabi literary formation exist precisely because Punjabi had not been elevated as an official language, it was too familiar, too everyday, to cause high political contestation? Is that freedom borne of accidental innocuousness, of a sort, the reason why it continues to survive as something of a labour of instantaneous love across the South Asian divides? Urdu poets from Punjab retained and continue to do so, their familiarity with Punjabi literary cultures, exactly in the same vein as Urdu poets from Awadh did with Awadhi or Braj or Bhojpuri, now and before. How deep this shared literary formation penetrate—writers apart, did the religious-communal warfare and pogroms of partition compel rethinks at the popular level from the vantage point of this shared cultural formation? Farina Mir’s book compels one to ask many questions about regions beyond her theme while leaving us with a groundbreaking work on Punjab and its many identities.
Mahmood Farooqui has published Besieged, Voices from Delhi, 1857