While some attempts to ‘impose’ Hindi have generated controversy, the fact remains that today, thanks to the Hindi film industry and a plethora of entertainment channels, more people in India can speak and understand Hindi, than any time in history. What is even more incredible is that just 150 years ago, what we know as ‘Hindi’ today was the ‘Khari Boli’, a local dialect of Braj Bhasha spoken in the region around Delhi and Meerut. The rise of Hindi, has not been an easy journey – but it was fast. It grew to national prominence in just 50 years between 1880 to 1930.
The earliest reference to a language called ‘Hindawi’ or ‘Hindi’ goes back to the 13th-century. The noted poet Amir Khusrau (1253-1325 CE) wrote in ‘Hindawi / Hindi’, a dialect of Braj Bhasha, spoken around Delhi and Western Uttar Pradesh. Right till the 19th century, while Persian was the ‘court language’ of the Mughal empire and princely states such as Awadh, Jaipur and Gwalior, a variety of Braj Bhasha’s dialects such as – Haryanvi (in Haryana), Awadhi (in Awadh) , Bundelkhandi (in Bundelkhand) and many more, thrived across North India. Hindi was not a well-defined language with its own set of grammar.
It was the British East India Company, who would open a new chapter in the story of the Hindi language in the 19th century. The man behind it was a Scottish surgeon and linguist named John Borthwick Gilchrist (1759 –1841). He had joined the East India company’s medical service in 1784 and during his travels noticed a language which he called ‘Hindoostanee’, which could be understood in large parts of North India. He soon began work on a dictionary which he published in 1786 as ‘A Dictionary: English and Hindoostanee’. To this he prefixed a ‘Grammar of the Hindoostanee Language’. Interestingly, it was one of the earliest books printed in the Devanagari type font, developed by another Indologist Charles Wilkins (1750-1836).
On Gilchrist’s suggestion, in 1800 CE, the Governor General of British East India Company, Lord Wellesley established the Fort William College in Calcutta, to train company officials in Indian administrative affairs. Gilchrist was the first principal of this college and played an important role in the codification of Hindi in the Devanagari script and Urdu language in Arabic script. It was the advent of modern printing around the late 18th century that led to the use of the ‘Devanagari’ script in languages such as Hindi and Marathi – simply because it was the easiest thing to do. The Serampore Mission Press in Bengal and Raja Serfoji of Tanjore (who established the Mahratta Printing Press in 1807) were pioneers of printing in the Devanagari script in India.
From the 1820s onwards, Hindi began reaching new heights. On 30th May 1826, the first Hindi language newspaper ‘Udant Martand’ (Tidings of the Sun) began its publication in Calcutta. While the newspaper shut down the following year due to lack of subscription, even today 30th May is celebrated as ‘Hindi Patrakarita Diwas’ or ‘Hindi Journalism Day’. The year 1827, also saw the publication of ‘Hindi Bhasha ka Vyakrana’ (Grammar of Hindi language) by linguist Rev Adam. It is considered by Hindi language historians like RK Chaudhary to be the most influential Hindi grammar books of the 19th century. The reason was that it was used as a grammar textbook for school and college learners of Hindi as a first language, leaving a tremendous mark on how Hindi was formally learnt and written. Two years later, in 1829, Rev Adam published ‘Hindi Shabda Kosha’ the first monolingual dictionary in the Hindi language. This was the ‘early’ phase of modern Hindi.
While it was the press, and the spread of Hindi through it, that spurred the development of Hindi language in the early days, the next phase of Hindi’s development was marked by competitive politics.
From 1830s, the British East India Company began replacing Persian with local languages in different regions of India. In areas that are today referred to as the Hindi belt (UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh), Persian was replaced by Urdu. From the 1860s onwards, several organisations began agitating to get Urdu replaced by Hindi. This was the beginning of what is known as the ‘Urdu-Hindi’ controversy, where it was argued that Sanskritised Hindi was the language of Hindus while Persianised Urdu was the language of the Muslims. Others argued that both were the same language that had been artificially bifurcated. The controversy continues to this day.
The Hindi-Urdu controversy has its origins in 1830s, when the British replaced Persian with local languages, in lower levels of administration
The Hindi agitation reached a fever pitch in 1882 when the ‘Indian Education Commission’ began touring UP and Punjab to ‘review the progress of education in India’. Hindi activists flooded the commission with thousands of petitions to replace Urdu with Hindi, only to have their demand rejected in the commission’s report that came out in 1883. This defeat only spurred Hindi activists further.
It was the city of Benaras that would emerge as a fountainhead of the modern Hindi language. There were two factors involved. The presence of a large Hindi speaking educated middle class and thriving publishing industry. The Hindi language activists would lobby local educational boards and school textbook publishers to push for Hindi language in the curriculum. In fact, many of these activists were local schoolteachers.
One of the earliest icons of the modern Hindi language was Bharatendu Harishchandra (1850-1885) considered to be the ‘Father’ of modern Hindi literature and Hindi theatre. In his iconic speech ‘Hindi ki Unnati pe Vyakhyan’ (1877), Bharatendu would argue to make Hindi a national language. Bharatendu passed away in 1885 at a young age of 35, but his ideas lived on. Given his contribution, the early age of Hindi literature is known as ‘Bharatendu Yug’. Even today, his ‘Doha’ or couplet that he dedicated to the Hindi language, finds resonance in the Hindi heartland –
निज भाषा उन्नति अहै, सब उन्नति को मूल। बिन निज भाषा-ज्ञान के, मिटत न हिय को सूल।
Translated in English as –
Progress in one’s language is the source of all progress;
Without knowledge of your own language, the troubles of your heart cannot be resolved
The 1880s also saw the emergence of Hindi novels, the most iconic of which was Devaki Nandan Khatri’s Chandrakanta. A fantasy novel about brave warriors, princesses and spies, Chandrakanta became so popular that it is said people learnt Devanagari script, just to read the book.
The year 1893 saw the establishment of the ‘Nagari Pracharini Sabha’ in Benaras, which would go on to become the most influential organisation for the promotion of the Hindi language in the 20th century. It produced Hindi textbooks and published many Hindi classics. It built up one of the finest Hindi libraries in India and established a vast network of distinguished scholars. It also acted as a lobby group by putting pressure on local government for the use of Hindi, in administration.
By the turn of the century, Hindi was going from strength to strength. The ‘Hindi Sahitya Sammelan’ was established in Allahabad in 1910. It acted as a powerful lobby group and most importantly as a bridge, between Hindi activists and national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. World War I in Europe and the freedom movement created a huge readership for Hindi publications beyond the large cities in India.
From the 1920s, women’s voices could be heard in Hindi press and literature, which till then had been a male domain. Historian Francesca Orsini in her book ‘Hindi Public Domain 1920-1940’ (2009) writes about how as more and more women began to be educated, Hindi came to be considered an ideal language for women’s education, due to its association with Indian culture and ‘Sanskriti’. While the boys were educated in English and Urdu for seeking employment, girls were generally taught Hindi.
The emergence of highly educated women also led to the emergence of several Hindi publications exclusively for them. These included ‘Grhalakshmi’ (1909), ’Sri Darpan’(1909), Arya Mahila (1917), Chand (1922) and Madhuri (1922). Prof Sobhna Nijhawan from York University in her book ‘Women and Girls in the Hindi Public Sphere’ writes about how it marked a shift in women’s literature. Unlike earlier literature, they no longer contained just practical or moral advice for middle-class women, but they carried political news from India and the world as well as opinion pieces on social reforms. In its advertisements ‘Stri Darpan’ claimed it is ‘the only journal which teaches women their rights along with their dharma because husbands, brothers and fathers cannot promote the welfare of the country while treating women like animals.’
The 1920s and 30s are considered as the ‘Golden Age of Hindi Literature’ . This was the age of writers and poets like Munshi Premchand, Maithili Sharan Gupta, Jaishankar Prasad, Mahadevi Verma, Subhadra Kumari Chauhan and many more. Standing apart from his peers, Munshi Premchand was the only major Hindi writer of his time who argued against Sanskritised Hindi in favour of a language that masses could understand.
Politically too, Hindi had ‘arrived’ by now, with widespread support from a vast section of influential leaders. Congress leaders flocked to the Sahitya Sammelans ( Literary conferences) across India to woo the Hindi intelligentsia. In 1947, the partition of India would finally settle the Hindi-Urdu debate decisively in favour of Hindi.
In 1949, the Constituent Assembly of newly independent India adopted Hindi as an ‘Official Language’ despite vehement opposition from non-Hindi speaking regions. While the controversy over what was seen in parts of India as the ‘imposition’ of Hindi continues to this day, almost 70 years later, what cannot be missed, is that the Hindi language has come a long way. It is an amazing story of how a local dialect became one of the most spoken languages in India, thanks to the efforts of some very dedicated and determined people, who caught the pulse of a nation, being born.
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