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Scholars@Hallwalls Series

Two Dictionaries, One Poet, and a Mughal Prince's Struggle Against British Colonialism

Walter Hakala
Presenter Affiliation:
UB English/Asian Studies
Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, 341 Delaware Avenue
Off Campus
4:00 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.
Humanities Institute
645-2592 (
Web site:
In 1799, the Urdu poet Mirza Jan 'Tapish' was apprehended by the Murshidabad District Collector and charged with conspiring to overthrow East India Company rule in Bengal and Bihar, a plot that was alleged to have involved Shah Zaman of Afghanistan, the Viceroy of Muscat, and dozens of disaffected feudal landlords. Having left his home in the Mughal capital Delhi some fifteen years earlier, 'Tapish' had entered the service of the Naib Nazim of Dhaka (the capital of present-day Bangladesh), Nawab Shams al-Daulah. In 1792 'Tapish' completed the earliest manuscript version of the Shams al-Bayan fi Mustilahat al-Hindustan ('The Sun of Speech on the Idioms of Hindustan'), named for his patron and written "in explanation of the idioms of the houses of Delhi, for which are arranged many verses and the understanding of distant ones." This paper presents evidence of 'Tapish' having continued his lexicographic activities both while in custody in Calcutta and later in collaboration with British philologists. The particular generic form of the Shams al-Bayan, it is argued, was the product of the increasing professionalization and geographic dispersal of Delhi's poets. One result of this professionalized literary economy was the incorporation of new social groups into an elite literary culture and, eventually, the promotion of a language, Urdu, as an ethnic marker of political identity.