ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Emerging Scholarship on Vernacular Languages in Early Modern North India: A Conversation with Imre Bangha

For historians and scholars of Indian languages, literature, and culture, the period between 1500 and 1800 CE has emerged as an exciting field. Approached from the theoretical perspectives of early modernity, this period offers spectacular insights and narratives of unprecedented changes in social, political, and intellectual life. The rise of regional and vernacular languages, the formation of their distinct identities, and their transformation into languages of literary production remains an exceptional feature of this period. Scholars working with the archives of regional languages have come up with interesting and thought-provoking observations on the relations between language and political culture. Facilitated by discoveries of wide-ranging archives of literary and other forms of cultural production, scholars of early modern India highlight the fluidity in identity formation and absorbent culture that mark the social and political life of this period. New insights emerging from these fields have also persuasively helped revise the established understanding of medieval India based on the historical constructions in the 19th and 20th centuries. The historians working with vernacular language archives employ methods of intellectual history and philology to make significant contributions to the field. They offer tangible textual evidence on changes in languages and literary cultures vis-à-vis social and political life. Imre Bangha, a scholar of early modern vernacular literary culture in northern India, has been instrumental in bringing back questions of language and identity formation in early modern vernacular languages, while also throwing new light on these issues. Currently, Bangha teaches Hindi at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford, combines rigorous philological analysis of texts (based on a close reading of extant manuscripts and their variations) and a nuanced approach to the social history of languages and scripts. His work has contributed to pushing the boundaries of early modern studies of languages and literature of northern India. In the process, he has sought to revise widely held views on Hindi literary historiography. He has published critical editions and translations of the works of some of the little-known yet important literary figures from the early modern period, such as Ānandghan (It’s a City-Showman’s Show! Transcendental Songs of Ānandghan with R C C Fynes, Penguin India, 2013) and Ṭhākur (Scorpion in the Hand: Brajbhāṣā Court Poetry from Central India around 1800: A critical edition of Ṭhākur’s Kabittas, Manohar, New Delhi, 2014). He has also authored several important articles on these topics and writers. He is currently working towards publishing similar editions of the works of Bājīd, a 16th-century poet and theologian of Rajasthan; the Awadhi poet Tulsidās best known for Rāmćarit-mānas; and Viṣṇudās, a 15th-century court poet and among the earliest Brajbhasha poets from Gwalior. He is also working on two monographs: one, a history of the emergence of the Hindi literary tradition; and two, an account of Hindustani before modern Hindi and Urdu.

Breaking the Chaturvarna System of Languages

The Indian language policy is informed by a pull towards unilingual identity, inspired by the European model of nation state that is predicated on the homogeneity of its people. Language hegemony works at two tiers in India—at the state and the centre. The Constitution fails to pay more than lip service to the linguistic plurality and multilingual ethos of the peoples of India and has created a chaturvarna (four-tier order) of languages, with Sanskrit, Hindi, the scheduled, and the non-scheduled languages occupying various rungs of the ladder. English—the language of the conquerors—being outside the chaturvarna system has emancipatory potential.
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