Improvised Permanence: Urdu Epigraphy in Deccan Princely States
Timeslot:07/28 | 18:30-18:50 UTC+2/CEST
Urdu was just one among the many languages that emerged in the medieval period from the long shadows cast by Sanskrit and Persian. So-called languages of the land (deśya or desī) would eventually become symbols of and the media through which regional identities consolidated into ideologies of nationalism. But Urdu, despite the efforts of its many notable regional chauvinists, never belonged to any single place. Though texts on paper and inscriptions on stone are preserved across the Indian subcontinent, some of the earliest examples of Urdu epigraphy in the Arabic script are preserved in Gujarat and the Deccan—far away from the atavistic “home” of spoken Urdu in Delhi and the Ganges-Yamuna doab. Beyond the Persianate courts of central and western India, Urdu also functioned as a language of skilled trades, education, and commerce. Most histories of Urdu, however, have focussed on its literature to the exclusion of all other linguistic forms. This paper examines the use of Urdu for what Irene Bierman calls “public texts,” i.e., writing that appears in spaces that are “accessible to the whole membership of society.” The princely states of central India were especially rich sites for the production of “naïve” or “primitive” inscriptions prepared by non-elites or those with less exposure to normative regimes of vernacular writing. Examples, including vernacular curses, early examples of English terms in Urdu poetry, and telegrams inscribed in stone, permit a reconsideration of the political implications of the shift in production and reception of public texts away from Persian toward Urdu.