Abdul Halim Sharar (1860-1926) & Reading Publics

A review of Partitioning History: The Creation of an Islami Pablik in Late Colonial India, c.1880-1920, by Christopher Ryan Perkins.

‘Abdul Halim Sharar (1860-1926), a renowned essayist, historian and publisher of the north Indian city of Lucknow in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, has undoubtedly been given a new lease of life in Ryan Perkins’ excellent dissertation. Perkins conducts a close analysis of Sharar’s writings, readership and impact on public sphere debate in urban north India, through an exploration not just of his more famous writings and novels but, significantly, via a number of largely untapped sources, including a long run of Dil Gudaz, Sharar’s Urdu periodical. This is undoubtedly a major contribution to the growing field of study of Indian publishing and so-called “book history,” as well as to the notion of “publics” as they emerged in colonial India.

As Ryan Perkins argues, Sharar is a figure who has often been misconstrued in cultural and literary histories of north India. Often, he has been purely associated with a few key works, namely a couple of his novels and his highly influential Guzushta Lucknow, a historical rumination on his home city, rather than the realities of his wide and assorted output. Moreover, his works have usually been consulted in their better known format of republished compilations, and hence interpreted as “closed literary texts” or “finished products” (p. 21), which entirely belies the much more experimental and unregulated context of their original publication within serialized periodicals. Indeed, it is this focus on the free-flowing, negotiable, dialogic and ever-changing medium of the periodical that most clearly distinguishes Perkins’ study from most equivalent works on Indian print culture, which have for the most part focused upon the more static form of the printed book.

Perkins’ dissertation emphasizes Sharar’s difference from a number of north India’s most famous Muslim reformist writers, like Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) or Altaf Hussain Hali (1837-1914), since the latter were closely aligned with the specific modernizing agenda of the colonial state. The same associations, of course, applied to many of the other key publishers of the era, among them the towering Nawal Kishore Press, which again depended largely on government contracts. Sharar, in contrast to both of these groups, was notable for existing independently, managing to maintain his own publishing activities through non-state patrons and his growing command of an audience of print consumers. As such, he encapsulates the existence of an alternative career trajectory for public intellectuals, one that allowed the comparative freedoms of operating outside of the colonial milieu.

Linked to this assessment of Sharar’s own autonomy as thinker and writer is the role of his periodical publications in the creation of a “public,” one of the steering concepts of the thesis. The author argues that, while former notions of common (‘am) collectivity certainly did exist in Urdu literature and Lucknawi culture prior to Sharar’s period, the application from the 1880s in the vernacular of the term of pablik insinuated a “horizontal” (p. 31) construct of association, one able to transcend established boundaries of hierarchy and to facilitate the engagement of new voices and nascent social groups. Much work, of course, has been done on late-nineteenth century India’s urban public sphere, but Perkins takes a distinctive slant. Downplaying the emphasis of some historians on the status of this public sphere as an intermediary space in which “representative” figures arbitrated between the population and the state, he instead emphasizes how public debate took place outside of government control, often with considerable autonomy and creativity. Of particular interest in this regard is the idea of the pablik darbar, literally the court of public opinion, with communities of readers, bonded by shared reading habits and technologies, becoming both the patrons of public discussion and the determinants of its directions.

This argument is one that moves us yet further away from the established narrative of collective decline and humiliation (zillat) that has often acted as the backdrop to studies of Islamic society in post-1857 India. Instead, the atmosphere within the emerging “Islamic public” presented here through the interrogation of Sharar’s publications is one of vibrancy and vitality rather than stagnation. The opportunities presented by print, we are told, initiated an “aura of newness” and “excitement” (p. 25) within these new publics, with periodical printing in particular being the facilitator of major social changes, among them the creation of new audiences, the traversing of former geographical and social limitations on communication and social organization, and the reconceptualization of understandings of space and belonging.

Earlier chapters of the thesis, with a close focus on Sharar himself and the wider printed public in which he participated, focus on these intertwined narratives of new professionalisms, fresh associational publics and nascent forums of debate and discussion. Later chapters, though, begin to hint at the limits to Sharar’s professional strategy. As the boundaries between religious communities began to crystallize from the tail-end of the nineteenth century onwards, Sharar’s attempt to speak to the wider qaum (community or nation) of readers became susceptible both to challenge or to interpretation through particular communal prisms. In this context, Sharar’s attempts to look to Lucknow’s history to create an alternative “counter-public” immune to such new binds of partisanship were, of course, a failure, as well as being open to criticism for describing a mythologized world that even Sharar himself had never seen. Sharar’s “politics of nostalgia” (p. 30), while having deeply informed evocations of Lucknow in both academic scholarship and popular renderings ever since, ultimately failed as a compelling prescriptive vision, in no small part because of the fluidity and fluctuations of the fast-changing Urdu public sphere of which they were a part.

The manuscript is extremely erudite, focused, supremely well-researched, and attractively written, with no small hint of the fondness for its geographical center that is quite typical of many studies of Lucknow. It will also surely become a highly valuable monograph. A final, but important, point on which the author is to be congratulated is for his obvious innovation in locating an untapped body of source material, identifying enough stray issues of Dil Gudaz in various South Asian libraries to catalog something not distant from a full run. Such is a heavy lesson for the many scholars who have fallen back on reprinted compilations of articles, or indeed on the colonial archive of Native Newspaper Reports put before colonial provincial governors, as sources for a study of colonial India’s vernacular print culture. While others have aspired to capture the full and changing life of an influential periodical publication as a means of exploring the lives of both its publishers and its consuming public, few have been able to do so with such novelty or effectiveness. It is thus for its empirical riches, as well as its argument, that the thesis will be of value to scholars.

Justin Jones
Department of History
University of Exeter
J.R.Jones@exeter.ac.uk

Primary Sources

Numerous contemporaneous Urdu periodicals, e.g. Dil Gudaz, Urdu-i-Mu‘alla, Awadh Akhbar
‘Abdul Halim Sharar, Guzushta Lucknow and various other historical works and journalistic pieces.
Prose and poetry of numerous other Muslim intellectuals, writers and social reformists, e.g. Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Altaf Husain Hali, Sayyid Abdul Hayy, etc.

Dissertation Information

University of Pennsylvania. 2011. 404 pp. Primary Advisor: Daud Ali.

 

Image: Photograph taken by Ryan Perkins. University of Chicago Special Collections Research Center.

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