By Intizar Husain

WHILE tracing modernism back in time, we concentrate on the developments in the post-1857 era leading to the induction of English education, modern literary trends and the movement for social reforms. In this respect, we often forget to take into account developments prior to 1857 which paved the way for later developments. Perhaps the most significant of these was the establishment of Delhi College, about which not much has been written.

Mohammad Ikram Chughtai’s research work, published by the Truth Society under the title Qadeem Delhi College, comprises a large number of letters written by Delhi College’s students and teachers to their principal Dr Aloys Sprenger, an Austrian Orientalist. These letters are from the treasure of manuscripts housed at a library in Berlin and provide much information about the college.

In 1824, a non-religious educational madressah under the name of Delhi College was founded in Delhi. It was the first secular educational institution in India where all subjects, eastern as well as western, scientific and non-scientific, were taught in Urdu. This required collaboration among the European administrators, local teachers  and students to translate and publish texts on scientific,

social and literary subjects. For this purpose the college established its own publishing house and a printing press that published not only textbooks but also periodicals which introduced new ideas and new styles of writing. These contained articles about developments in science and technology and international events and serialised translations of popular works of literature.

The college came to be known for promoting encounters between eastern and western knowledge. It aimed at promoting liberal thought and the rational spirit. In the words of Prof Aley Ahmad Suroor, “DelhiCollege is a golden page in the history of Urdu language and literature”. According to C.F. Andrews, DelhiCollege brought to the city an age of renaissance. However, it did not last long. The college came to a sad end during the tumultuous days of 1857.

Dr Sprenger took charge of the college in 1845 as its principal and acted in this capacity for two and a half years. He, according to Chughtai, was a great Arabic scholar and had also studied Islam. Because of his reputation, he was selected as the principal of the college. During his tenure he did much for the promotion of Islamic learning and for strengthening the cultural relationship between East and West. He had vast knowledge of eastern languages and also took an interest in the translation of scholarly works of Oriental and western languages into Urdu. He has to his credit a large collection of rare manuscripts and books.

Chughtai tells us that the library in Berlin has a rich treasure of books and manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu. The index of Arabic manuscripts housed there runs in 10 volumes. It is here that seven boxes containing Sprenger’s personal letters, documents and manuscripts have been housed. During his research tour to Berlin, Chughtai was lucky to have access to them and succeeded in finding letters sent to Dr Sprenger from his pupils at Delhi College.

These letters are mostly in Urdu except for a few written in Persian. They were posted to him between 1846 and 1856. In between he had been entrusted with the task of preparing a catalogue of books and manuscripts belonging to the rulers of Oudh.

These letters, as pointed out by Chughtai, serve as the most authentic source about the cultural, academic and literary affairs in times prior to 1857. They also provide valuable information about DelhiCollege. Chughtai has rightly pointed out that DelhiCollege played an important role in the evolution of Urdu prose through the original prose writings and translations of scientific and non-scientific scholarly works. But those works are no longer available because of the widespread destruction during 1857.

Chughtai has presented the texts of the letters along with an introductory note about each letter writer. He has taken pains to collect information about these writers.

The book is divided into two parts, the first of which consists of the letters, which have been appended with copious notes and annotations. The second part consists of photographs of Delhi College and photomechanical reproductions of the Urdu letters and such other material. The volume runs into 712 pages.

Updated Jan 27, 2013 03:42am

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