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The Social Space of Language: Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab
University of California Press
Place of Publication
Book Review Citation
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews
May 3rd, 2012
Farina Mir. The Social Space of Language: Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 294 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN.
Reviewed by Lisa Mitchell
Published on H-Asia (May, 2012)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha
Vernacular Culture in Punjab
Farina Mir’s history of the vibrant Punjabi qissa genre of oral and later printed literary production contributes to an important growing body of work that explores colonial-era domains that existed beyond the direct interest and intervention of the British colonial state. Utilizing late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century primary sources that have not featured prominently within histories of the colonial era, Mir’s careful attention to the Punjabi language and its role within what she calls the “Punjabi literary formation” offers an important complement to the histories of literary production in Indian languages that received direct colonial administrative patronage, such as Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, and Urdu. Her focus on the Punjabi language and its literary formations also provides an extremely effective intervention within the many histories of the Punjab that primarily examine the emergence of religious communal divisions.
Mir frames her arguments in relation to the question of why Punjabi neither died a quiet death in the face of the lack of state patronage during the colonial period (as some colonial administrators predicted), nor became the foundation for an ethno-linguistic political assertion (as happened elsewhere). Not only did Punjabi not quietly disappear, but it also carried out what Mir shows to be a vibrant parallel life to the official language of state patronage in the Punjab, Urdu. She traces this historical process by focusing on Punjabi’s literary and linguistic resilience rather than framing her analysis in terms of resistance, and argues that “Punjabi’s survival and continuous vitality through the colonial period signals a discernible limit to colonial dominance in British India” (p. 4). In the process of mapping these limits, she illuminates a wide range of significant cultural and literary practices that cannot easily be assimilated into a nationalist, religious communal, or state formation framework, but that nonetheless have helped to shape the life-worlds, affective experiences, and perspectives of those who participate within the Punjabi literary formation.
In critiquing a deterministic narrative of colonial state intervention and influence on language, and suggesting that the history of Punjabi literary production “defies the narrow definition of politics routinely associated with language,” her approach raises a new set of questions and framework for analysis that scholars working in other regions would do well to consider in their respective contexts of research (p. 194). In asking why affective ties to the Punjabi language did not translate into a viable “ground for ethno-linguistic claims in Pakistan and India,” she argues more generally that “affective attachments to language and state-centric politics need not be linked” (pp. 183, 185-186).
The centerpiece of her archival sources is a corpus of seventy-five late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century editions of the Hir-Ranjha narrative, the story of the lovers Ranjha and Hir, easily the oldest and most popular staple of the Punjabi qissa genre and a flexible narrative that can be seen to reflect a wide range of “ways of being” crucial to understanding colonial Punjab. In reading these narratives with the goal of identifying the historical imagination they reveal, Mir is able to illustrate key themes, such as the importance of zat (caste, kinship group, essence, or nature) as the “critical determinant of self and community” rather than religion; representations of women “that defied the conservative reformist discourse of the day”; the role of the local (as opposed to the nation or region) in constituting the “relationship between individual, community, and territory”; and “notions of religious identity that could accommodate multiplicity” (p. 25). Her portrait of the Hir-Ranjha narratives shows them to be rich sites for expressing and managing conflicts, structuring and modeling gender relations and other forms of sociality, articulating norms and shared values across religious traditions, and navigating and contesting other important paths of everyday practice.
Chapter 1 explains how the colonial state came to deny Punjabi the formal patronage it extended to Urdu (and to many other regional South Asian languages endowed with literary traditions similar to Punjabi). She argues that the Punjabi literary formation’s distance from colonial institutions and venues enabled greater continuity with precolonial practices and structures of meaning in the Punjab. Chapter 2 explores the development of the world of Punjabi print culture from the mid-nineteenth century onward, highlighting the instability of Punjabi as a linguistic category and, at the same time, arguing that Punjabi literary production reflects remarkable continuity between the precolonial and colonial eras “despite the radical changes being wrought on Punjab society.” The instability reflected “the colonial state’s absence of will to codify or standardize the language,” while the continuity similarly “points to the relative independence of Punjabi literary culture and to the resilience of its practices” (p. 64).
In chapter 3, a chapter that would stand well on its own for use in teaching, Mir elaborates her key concept, the “Punjabi literary formation”--or “those individuals who shared the practices of producing, circulating, performing, and consuming Punjabi literary texts” (p. 6). Here she draws from Sheldon Pollock’s “sociotextual community,” Mary Poovey’s notion of “cultural formation,” and Michael Warner’s distinction between “publics” and “counterpublics,” but also introduces a set of alternative notions of “politics” and alternative relationships between literary production and forms of power (particularly state power). Most provocatively, in emphasizing Punjabi’s independence from the state, she illustrates a series of alternative explanations for the Punjabi literary formation’s resilience that include pleasure and entertainment, as well as devotional practices, social relationships, occupations, and forms of commerce. In part because many of these factors have been more difficult to locate in the historical record, her argument forces us to confront the role of the state in preserving the particular types of sources that historians have found most comfortable to use, and interrogate the ways in which this has in turn shaped the kinds of historical explanations historians have been able to provide. “This is perhaps the Punjabi literary formation’s most unique feature,” she writes. “While it had amazing traction in Punjabi society, incorporated a diverse range of people around the practices of literature, and represented shared social and cultural values, these values did not translate into political action in state arenas” (p. 99, emphasis in original). In effect, her attention to literary production in a language that was actively neglected by the state presents us with a methodology that could (and should) be applied even to literary production in languages that have fallen within the patronage of the state. What roles have pleasure, devotion, social relations, commerce, and employment played in contexts where literary publics have engaged in action directed toward the state? Chapters 4 and 5 elaborate on this historical use of literary sources by taking up questions of “place and personhood” and “piety and devotion” respectively, further illustrating her methodological approach.
Despite framing her intervention as an attention to the continuities within Punjabi literary production during a time of rapid transformation, Mir ends up also attending to the many domains and practices that have been, in fact, transformed during the colonial period, including new patterns of patronage; the emergence of new types of institutions; and the impact of new technologies and forms of circulation (such as print); and their relationships to the public sphere. Although a longer historical genealogy was not her goal, her focus exclusively on Punjabi texts in the context of a multilingual world in transition does not always provide us with the larger linguistic context that might help us make sense of the Punjabi qissa genre’s relationship to earlier Perso-Arabic traditions or to the other colonial-era languages with which it coexisted and interacted. Although beyond the scope of her close readings of the Hir-Ranjha qissa texts themselves, her rich portraits of the “ways of being” reflected in the narratives makes us want to know more of the lives and contexts of the readers and writers of these texts and their relationships not only to Punjabi, but also to Persian, Urdu, Hindi, and even English. We get a glimpse of this in Mir’s conclusion, in which she addresses some of the postcolonial implications of the affective relationship to Punjabi, with particular attention to the Punjabi Suba (Punjabi state) movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Mir’s work will be of interest not only to those with an interest in Punjabi or in literary production in South Asia, but also to those seeking to understand cultural formations and the production of life-worlds more generally, and to those looking for new ways of approaching historical questions using literary sources. The book would work well in both graduate and advanced undergraduate courses on South Asian culture, history, language, or literary production, or graduate courses on the public sphere, colonialism, language and affect, or historical methodology.
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