by Professor Shahid Amin, University of Delhi

After the Great Uprising of 1857, the reestablishment and deeper penetration of the colonial state in India resulted in the systematic collection and codification of knowledge about things and people Indian. This period witnessed the planning and execution of several big surveys: the Archaeological Survey, the Geological Survey, the ethnographic survey (subsequently divided into smaller, Provincial series), and perhaps most ambitiously, a linguistic mapping of the Indian Empire. The Linguistic Survey of India (LSI) was very much the brainchild of George A. Grierson, a noted linguist belonging to the Bengal and Bihar cadre of the Indian Civil Service.(1) A resolution adopted at the third Oriental Congress in Vienna in 1886 at Grierson's behest urged the colonial Government to undertake ‘a deliberate systematic survey of the languages of India’.

The project got off the ground only in 1894 when district officers were asked to compile lists of languages and dialects current under their jurisdiction. Another four years elapsed before Grierson could cajole the Government into appointing him as an officer on special duty in charge of the survey.(2) In 1898, a small office where bilingual native scribes prepared press copies of the language specimens collected in the districts was set up in Simla . From late 1899 the work was supervised by a Bengali head clerk, as Grierson had been granted special permission to take the work of editing the volumes to England. From his cottage in Camberley, Surrey Grierson edited the mammoth nineteen folio volumes of the Linguistic Survey of India over the next thirty years.

The Survey was primarily to be a collection of specimens, ‘a standard passage was to be selected for purposes of comparison’. Its ‘foundation’ was comprised of three specimens for every language and dialect: the standard translation, the passage collected locally for the full idiomatic range, and a list of words and sentences originally devised by the Bengal Asiatic Society in 1866. The template passage was to be ‘a version of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, with slight verbal alterations to avoid Indian prejudices’.(3) The parable was chosen, Grierson coyly remarked in a footnote, because ‘it contains the three personal pronouns, most of the cases found in the declension of nouns, and the present, past, and future tenses of the verb’.(4) Specimens of this crucial first passage used for comparative analysis, were then not the writing down of how the ‘locals’ spontaneously told this biblical tale in their own tongues. ‘What was … aimed at was the acquisition of specimens in the home language of each translator’.(5) Those literate in English rendered it in their ‘native tongue’ from the English Bible. Others accessed it by locating a version which they could read in another Indian language from a volume containing all the known versions of the parable in Indian languages specially printed for this purpose. In a crucial sense, this monumental, authentic digest of Indian languages was a project of recurring translation by bi-lingual Indians.

From the specimens Grierson identified the grammatical and other peculiarities of the language or dialect. He also provided a brief Introduction for each of the languages, distinguishing its various dialects, noting down the number of speakers, the habitat of the language, its literature, and concluding with a sketch of the grammar . In all 179 languages and 544 dialects in the Indian Empire, excluding some portions (Burma, Hyderabad and Mysore states and the Presidency of Madras) were described in the LSI’s eleven volumes in nineteen parts, published between 1903 and 1928 the Introductory volume was published in 1927, followed the next year by a tabular Comparative Vocabulary. Grierson estimated that the survey covered 224 million out of the total population of nearly 300 million of the Indian empire.(6)

Halfway through the publications, in 1917, Grierson began lobbying the various Provincial governments in India to have specimens of local dialects recorded. This would serve as authentic specimens of variation in speech and dialect for the record, and for the training of Civil Servants destined to administer the Indian Empire. Due to the exigencies of World War I it was 1920 before the first gramophone records, finally totaling 242, illustrative of ninety-seven dialects and languages could begin to be cut. These covered the United Provinces, Central Provinces, Madras, Burma, Bengal and Delhi. No recordings took place for Panjab, North West Provinces, Baluchistan, Kashmir and the Dardic countries, Central India, and Rajasthan.(7)

The two dozen records on the several dialects of North India, all recorded at Allahabad and Delhi in 1920, that I have had access to, are a joy to hear, and not because of the inflections of the ‘fatted calf’ story that they provide! It is the second and third specimens: a folk song, a north Indian light classical dadra sung by an east-United Provinces landholder or by a small-town singer, the recitation of upright Hindi prose from Banaras, martial epic poetry from Kannauj, Urdu verse in the Lucknow diction, or the fast-paced story telling by Mir Baqar Ali, the celebrated dastango of Delhi, that offer us fantastic auditory and performative insights into ways of speaking and singing.(8) It is these gramophone records, cut after considerable expense and effort, that give voice, both literally and metaphorically to the textualized specimens of the printed volumes: here a variety of natives speak up, even though they must all begin with their specific rendition of the Prodigal Son’s tale. The availability alongside of English translations of these recordings greatly enhances their value.

The putting of all these records on the Web will democratize access to this valuable sound archive of 20th century India. Apart from making these available to a new generation of researchers worldwide, specimens of Chattisgarhi Hindi, Bagheli, Bundeli, or Kannauji, or Nagpuria Marathi, Berar Marathi, Sarwari Bhojpuri (of Basti), Mewati and Ahirawati (of Gurgaon) recorded in 1920 can be listened to by the post-colonial ‘locals’ of these linguistic regions with a barely-audible click of the proverbial mouse. I am not sure whether Grierson, who did not ask the Government of India to deposit a single set in an Indian library, or Risley, the senior functionary of the Raj, who in 1903 laid it down as official statement that ‘as the GoI is not aware that there is any newspaper which is competent to review the volumes of the Linguistic Survey, the Government have decided not to distribute copies in this country for this purpose’ (9) -- would have entirely approved. The massive Linguistic Survey of India was meant for the functionaries of the colonial state and scholars in England, Europe, and USA, not for Indians in India. For does the native really need to hear herself speak?

Cavalry Lines, Delhi
January 2008

(1) By the mid-1880s, Grierson had already published a multi-part grammar of the dialects of the Bihari language, Seven Grammars of the Dialects and Subdialects of the Bihari Language, and a comprehensive glossary of Bihar Peasant Life.

(2) Grierson, LSI, vol. I: pt. 1, p. 17, draft of a letter in Grierson’s hand to J.P. Hewett, Home Dept. Bankipore, 10/6/1896 and Hewett to Grierson 23/2/1896 [1898], MSS Eur. E. 223/272

(3) Grierson, LSI, vol. I: pt. 1: Introductory (first pub. 1927, reprint, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1967), pp. 17-18.

(4) Ibid, p. 18, note.

(5) Grierson, LSI, vol. I: pt. 1: Introductory, p. 20.

(6) LSI, I, p. 17.

(7) Grierson to Secretary, Government of India, National Archives of India file in the Department of Education, Health and Lands, 2/5/1928, MSS Eur. E223/249.

(8) These are ‘Tarsaila jiyara hamar naihar me’, a song in Bhojpur Hindi sung by Pandit Balram Prasad Misra, Rais of Basti (6965 A.K.);‘Ballam mero albelo pichware ku de-giyo helo’, a song in Mewati sung by Hussaina of Delhi (6838 A.K.); ‘Baksi lalkar kahi sunu Lakhan, kyo apne piya pran gamai hai’ a poem in Kanauji recited by Pirbhulal of Kanauj (6963 A.K.); ‘Kal hum aine me rukh ki jhurria dekha kiye’, a poem in Urdu recited by Lisanulqaum Maulana Safi of Lucknow (6975 A.K.); and ‘Ek rais zada hai diwana, barsat ka zamana hai’, a story in Urdu spoken by the Delhi dastango Mir Baqar Ali (6826 A.K.). Transcriptions and translations are to be found in Gramophone Records of Languages and Dialects Spoken in the Himalayan Tracts and the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh ... Transcriptions and Translations, Allahabad, 1921, p. 57-58; Gramophone Records of Languages and Dialects Spoken in the Delhi Province ... Transcriptions and Translations, Calcutta, 1921, p. 20; ... United Provinces ..., p 52-3, 83-5; ... Delhi Province ..., p. 6-10.

(9) H.H. Risley to Grierson, 25/1/1904, S/1/2/1.