I first encountered George Grierson (1851–1941) in the town of Madhubani in north Bihar—not literally, but there is a market, Gileshan Bazaar, named after him. I was learning the Maithili language at the time and carried a photocopy of Grierson's An Introduction to the Maithili Language (1882), which had been gifted to me by my thesis advisor, Walter Hauser. I knew Grierson as a colonial officer in Bihar who had written about Bihari peasants in addition to Maithili.
So it was a connection to Grierson in Bihar that brought me to Javed Majeed's major undertaking—two companion volumes about Grierson's 21-volume Linguistic Survey of India (LSI). In these two meticulously researched and intellectually engaging books—Colonialism and Knowledge and Nation and Region—Majeed shows a critical engagement with the published volumes of the LSI as well as correspondence and other manuscripts related to it. Most interestingly, in reading these volumes, you come across moments of surprise—an inventive analysis or an unusual juxtaposition—that make you pause or spark some new consideration. It is hard to do justice to that here, but I will discuss each volume, separately, and draw out some of the themes they address.
Colonialism and Knowledge (CK) focuses on how Grierson's work could not be easily categorized within the colonizing project. Grierson's relationship to the colonial state, at least in the context of the LSI, was often tense because of disagreements over how the Linguistic Survey would be carried out and even over the process of publication. Therefore, the LSI is particularly suited to an analysis of the complicated and conflicting processes within colonial government.
Strikingly, Colonialism and Knowledge shows how the LSI was a fundamentally dialogical process—Grierson always in conversation with various other parties. The following examples illustrate how that influenced his work. First of all, Grierson was necessarily engaged with the colonial archive—both the one that produced the LSI and the one it produced—and wrote about it thoughtfully. Second, he carried out ongoing epistolary relationships with linguists and scholars in India and abroad, much of which shaped his understanding of languages and their relationships. And third, producing the LSI required Grierson repeatedly to negotiate one thing or another with the state itself.
As Majeed describes it, Grierson understood a bibliography not as a resource but “as a process” (CK, p. 176). He became one of the people “to whom works of Archaeological or linguistic interest [were] supplied under the orders of the Government of India” (CK, p. 178). As a result, he built an enormous library directly tied to the LSI, and he heavily cited those sources—gazetteers, regional-language grammars, and the census—to create composite pictures of the languages he was studying. Most interesting, though, as Majeed points out, because of Grierson's emphasis on vernacular languages, which by their nature change and evolve, his understanding of the LSI was both as a substantive work itself and as a contingent archive of modern Indian languages. Therefore, “the LSI represented a shift [in colonial knowledge production] toward the study of contemporary Indian languages and dialects and a move away from the Sanskrit dominant position of philology” (CK, p. 6).
Seeing this project as an ongoing process led Grierson to worry about how to organize, preserve, and promote for the future the archive of materials that he had collected in writing the LSI. This was complicated by the reality that even after the volumes were finished, material continued to flow into Grierson's hands. For example, there were ongoing efforts to collect spoken samples of regional languages on gramophone records (CK, p. 151) According to Majeed, “Thus, rather than being an archive as an accomplished feat, Grierson presents the LSI as an archive always in the process of making” (CK, p. 185). And yet the work was lauded almost immediately as “monumental.” Of all this, Majeed observes, “The LSI's monumentalisation testifies to the intimate connection between its solidity and its fragility, and its archival unruliness is consonant with its epistemological style and mode of knowledge production” (CK, p. 189).
That epistemological style depended on Grierson's dialogue with other linguists and scholars. Majeed reports that Grierson once referred to himself as a “friendly post office” (CK, p. 186), since he was the recipient of correspondence and linguistic texts from around India and beyond. Throughout Colonialism and Knowledge, therefore, footnotes reveal the influence of Indian scholars on Grierson's work, from Professor Bani Kanta Kankati at Cotton College in Assam to L. V. Ramaswami Aiyar, a Dravidian linguist. Chapter 8, “Archived Reflexivity,” specifically focuses on this dialogue—and complicates it. One example appears in this lengthy title of a work published in 1923: A Grammar of the Chhatisgarhi Dialect of Eastern Hindi, Originally Written in Hindi by Hira Lal Karyopadhyaya, Headmaster of the Anglo-Vernacular School, Dhamtari and translated by Sir George A. Grierson, of the Bengal Civil Service. Revised and Enlarged by Pandit Lochan Prasad Kavy-Vinod under the Supervision of Rai Bahadur Hira Lal of the Provincial Civil Service, Central Provinces and Berar. Majeed takes us through the story behind it—a letter received by Grierson from someone named L. P. Pandey, who had read Grierson's translation of the Karyapadhyaya's Grammar and wondered whether an enlarged, edited version might be reproduced. The resulting book passed through “four pairs of hands,” and its process is made explicit on the title page. As Majeed suggests, “the inscription of these proper names within the title, instead of being separated from [it], points to how collaborative authorship is interwoven as part of the very fabric of the text” (CK, p. 228).
But perhaps the stickiest dialogue at the heart of Grierson's project is the third one, which took place between Grierson and the colonial state. This is a major theme that Majeed comes back to throughout the book, showing, for example “how the LSI had a semi-official status. It was not straightforwardly tethered to the colonial state and its projects, and its connection with the colonial state was loose and flexible” (CK, p. 78). The government hesitated to give Grierson enough time to work on the Survey, since he was needed for administrative duties. So he was often working on the project—on the side—and solicited help from a diffuse scholarly community. And yet—though perhaps in response to the British Government of India's semi-enthusiasm—Grierson articulated how the Survey benefited the colonial state. He argued that colonial officers needed to learn local vernaculars to improve their abilities in their postings; for example, court proceedings in Hindi might not make sense to either the accused or the witnesses if their own regional language was sufficiently different. Or colonial officers might want to know what people are saying on the streets when they walk by. Or, defending the gramophone project, district magistrates should improve their pronunciation in order to prevent ridicule from the local community. All of this demonstrates the contradictions that Majeed skillfully unfolds, showing Grierson was certainly part of the colonial project even as he also reshaped it. So where Grierson resisted some colonial norms by collaborating with Indian scholars and emphasizing modern, living languages over philology, he reinforced others such as state authority, surveillance, and legal structures.
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While Colonialism and Knowledge demonstrates the dialogic nature of Grierson's work, Nation and Region (NR) focuses, more squarely, on the narrative qualities of the Linguistic Survey itself. As Majeed describes it, “The Survey was a complex and multi-stranded project. On the one hand, it articulated a narrative of the regionalisation of language in India but on the other hand it also contained countervailing narratives which were at odds with the regionalisation”; among these seemed to be a quiet sympathy for Indian nationalism (NR, p. 202). The stories embedded in the Survey can be used to understand a range of related issues, such as patterns of migration, the growth and development of trade, the rise and fall of dynasties, and most recently, the official languages of India. Therefore, Majeed claims, they often had political consequences. This last section will address two of those narratives; first, stories of migration, and then the narrative of Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani and its political implications.
Grierson used language and language mixing, often to tell the story of migration. Majeed points out that he often uses terms such as “foreign” and “invasion” in this context, establishing certain languages as “pure” and “local” and others as “interlopers.” Here is one such passage. In discussing the languages of the Malda region of Bengal, Grierson notes that living side-by-side are Bihari, Santali, and Bengali speakers. However, he then turns to what happened when “emigrants” arrived into such Bengali-speaking areas from the highlands of Chota Nagpur. “The result in this case and in Malda is a dialect of Bihari ‘with curious Bengali coloring’” (NR, p. 110) This prompts Majeed to embark on an interesting discussion of purity, dialect, language, and foreignness, interjected with how Grierson interpreted these contexts in light of his protective attitude toward Biharis versus Bengalis.
A particularly interesting chapter, “Aryanism and Semitism,” examines the relationship that Grierson draws among Hindu and Aryan, on the one hand, and Semitic-Islamic invaders, on the other. The chapter puts this contrast in the context of Grierson's writings about Aryan civilization in India. While the LSI intrinsically challenged the census records—for privileging categories of caste, race, and religion—by revealing another set of categories, that is, language and dialect, Grierson did not always separate these forms of organizing himself. This plays out in Grierson's understanding of Hindi and Urdu. In one instance, “Grierson argues Western Hindi has three main varieties of which one, Urdu, is used by Muslims and by Hindus who have ‘adopted the Musalman system of education’” (NR, p. 167) He contrasts this with “a modern development called Hindi, employed only by Hindus who have been educated on a Hindu system” (NR, p. 167) As Majeed explains, in doing so, Grierson distinguishes Hindu Hindi and a Muslim Urdu as separate “systems” (NR, p. 167). This has policy implications, as when Grierson advocates for Hindi in the Nagari script (a position shared by Hindu nationalists of the time), both in India and outside, and “stressed the importance of ICS candidates knowing the Devanagari script” (NR, p. 179). Majeed also acknowledges where Grierson differs from Hindu nationalists of his time—for example, the fact that he is not interested in territorial claims for Hindus or Hindi and even shows the ambiguity of territorial lines between languages.
The nuanced analysis that Majeed employs throughout both Nation and Region and Colonialism and Knowledge provides much material for further scholarship. Indeed, the books are deeply engaged in conversation with other scholars—such as Farina Mir, Thomas Trautman, and Francesca Orsini, for example—in showing the complicated impact of Grierson. Both Colonialism and Knowledge and Nation and Region give us opportunities to historicize the idea of India as a multilingual state and to rethink contemporary debates about language policy.
Majeed suggests that Grierson was, in a way, “Saleem Sinai's ancestor in Rushdie's Midnight's Children, in whose head ‘voices babbled in everything from Malayalam to Naga dialects, from the purity of Lucknow Urdu to the Southern slurring of Tamil’” (CK, p. 231). Just as Saleem merged into India, Grierson became absorbed by the languages he studied and the LSI. Finally, this takes us back to Madhubani in north Bihar. Majeed refers to the way in which Grierson's name attached to a market that he, in fact, established in Madhubani when he was subdivisional officer (CK, p. 232; NR, p. 15). At the time, the market was Griersonganj. It is perhaps fitting, in the tradition of the living languages, that now “Griersonganj” has evolved to Gileshan Bazaar—and that it lives on.