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A great benefactor of Urdu and Islam

February 15, 2010

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ALTHOUGH it would seem odd today, it is a fact that many non-Muslims have played a very significant role in the promotion of Urdu. Before Pakistan came into being, a large number of non-Muslim writers, poets, journalists and scholars, especially Hindus, had been contributing to the promotion of Urdu language and literature. Munshi Naval Kishore was one such person.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that although he was a printer, publisher and writer, services rendered by him for the promotion of Urdu are unmatched and hardly any other individual can claim to have played such a great role. He published some 3,000 titles in Urdu, Arabic, Persian and Hindi of which most were in Urdu. Another aspect of this great man's personality that seems even odder is that despite being a Hindu, Munshi Naval Kishore took special interest and special care in the printing and publishing of the Holy Quran and Hadith.

There is a slight difference of opinion about Naval Kishore's date of birth. Some scholars have mentioned that he was born in Bistoi, Aligarh district, in December 1836. While some others believe that he was born on January 3, 1836, in a village named Rerha in Mathura district. But all agree that he was truly a great benefactor of eastern learning. His 'Naval Kishore Press' was not merely a press or a publishing house. It was rather a great institution that was instrumental in preserving the endangered cultural heritage of 19th century India. Ghalib, while paying tributes to Naval Kishore Press, said “Divan of whosoever Naval Kishore published, his name and fame reached the sky.” Ameer Hasan Noorani in his book 'Munshi Naval Kishore Haalaat aur Khidmaat' (1982) wrote that “As soon as one mentions the words 'Naval Kishore Press', the pleasing and awe-inspiring thought of thousands of books fills one's heart.” Aziz Ahmed, Urdu's well-known fiction writer-turned-scholar once remarked “Had it not been for Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Munshi Naval Kishore after the failed 1857 War of Independence, the general awakening of India to a different environ and the preservation of our cultural heritage would not have been possible. ... If Naval Kishore had not rediscovered our invaluable cultural treasure through printing and publishing, it would have been lost forever after the calamity of 1857. It would have been a kind of cultural loss repair to which would have not been impossible.”

Munshi Naval Kishore got early education in his ancestral village where he studied Arabic and Persian. Later, he took admission to Agra College. Reading was his obsession and soon he began writing articles that were published in 'Safeer', a prestigious Urdu newspaper published from Agra back then. At the age of 17, he was a known writer. Soon he developed efficiency in English, Sanskrit and Hindi, too. After a brief stint with 'Safeer', an Urdu newspaper of Lahore named 'Kohinoor' offered him a job which he accepted and soon proved his mettle both in editing and printing. All hell broke loose after four years. It was 1857. Naval Kishore went back to Agra and waited for the riots to subside. He had big plans.

In 1858, he reached Lucknow. He felt that the environment at Lucknow, once a jewel in the Indian crown and a centre of oriental learning, was conducive to his ambitious plans. Here he bought some litho hand presses and began business in a small rented house. He had but a small capital and could not afford any whimsical ideas so he began with printing some textbooks and some religious volumes as they, just like these days, would not take long to sell. Soon the press was doing a roaring business and printing orders from government were pouring in. Naval Kishore was quick to switch over to bigger and better printing machines. But his real aim was to launch a newspaper and publish academic and literary works. On November 1858, he launched 'Avadh Akhbar', a newspaper considered among the milestones of Urdu journalism in the subcontinent. Although 'Oudh Punch', a satirical weekly launched from Lucknow in 1877, soon became a tough competition and accused 'Avadh Akhbar' of allying with the colonial British government and enjoying their patronage, 'Avadh Akhbar' remained an influential publication. Its popularity caused the death of many of its contemporary publications. One of its great contributions was 'Fasana-i-Azad' a daastaan written by Ratan Naath Sarshar.

For Naval Kishore, the success of printing and publishing meant he was free to implement his long-cherished dreams. He knew that thousands of rare Indian manuscripts had been taken hold of by the British and many of them ended up at the European libraries but still hundreds of them were there and he feared that if not taken care of they would be ruined. He began buying the manuscripts and asked scholars to edit them. It not only preserved hundreds of rare texts, but also opened opportunities for the scholars who had been rendered jobless after the fall of Oudh (Avadh).

Through his sole efforts, hundreds of such rare books and manuscripts could see light of the day that eventually played a role in joining the dots of literary history. He procured some extremely rare manuscripts of Sanskrit and published them. His contribution for the promotion of Hindi literature and language is unforgettable as he not only got hundreds of Hindi books published, but also got a large number of scientific and academic books translated into Hindi and published them at a time when there was not much Hindi could boast of.

His services for Urdu and Islam are unprecedented. His unprejudiced disposition ensured that alongside Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavad-Gita, the Quran and Hadith as well are published. For the purpose he especially hired some Muslim scholars and workers. The Quran, Hadith and other religious publications for Muslims were well received and in fact satisfied the needs of a huge segment of the society. Naval Kishore published many editions of Pentateuch and Gospels. Not to be neglected were 'Guru Granth Sahib' and 'Janam Sakhi', the religious books of Sikhs that he got published in 'Gurmukhi' script.There can be no denying the fact that of all his interests, Urdu received the most of Naval Kishore's attention. He published virtually every Urdu manuscript he could lay his hands on. He asked translators to get books of scientific and technical disciplines rendered into Urdu. His other contribution was the publication of Urdu 'daastaans', such as 'Ameer Hamza', 'Tilism-i-Hoshruba', 'Bostan-i-Khayal' and many little known ones that had been either in manuscript forms or were only orally narrated by daastaangos (someone whose profession was to narrate long and highly imaginative tales full of supernatural elements). These tales are a virtual treasure of Urdu vocabulary and cultural nuances. A large number of Arabic and Persian books, many of them rare, were brought back to life. He himself wrote at least four books three of which were on history.

And all that happened in just a span of 47 years on February 19, 1895, at the age of 59, Munshi Naval Kishore died all of a sudden. But the legacy that he left behind is simply unforgettable and cannot be squandered.

In late 1970s and early 1980s some Urdu journals published special issues on Munshi Naval Kishore. Among them, 'Naya Daur' (Lucknow) and 'Taameer' (Haryana) deserve a mention.

drraufparekh@yahoo.com