AIIS 2015 Book Prizes Awarded to Walter Hakala and Bhrigupati Singh

The Edward Cameron Dimock, Jr. Prize in the Indian Humanities was awarded to Walter Hakala for Negotiating Terms: Urdu Dictionaries and the Definition of Modern South Asia

The Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences” was awarded to Bhrigupati Singh for Poverty and the Quest for Life: Spiritual and Material Striving in Rural India

HakalaNegotiating Terms: Urdu Dictionaries and the Definition of Modern South Asia documents the role played by lexicographers from the late 17th century to the present in shaping the Urdu language from just one of many dialects of northern India to the national language of Pakistan. Prior to the 19th century, South Asian lexicographers arranged their texts in ways that reflected widely shared beliefs about the hierarchical organization of nature and human society. These works supplemented literature, assisting authors and connoisseurs in the composition and appreciation of poetry. Dictionaries, glossaries, and vocabularies functioned as guides to the acquisition of a courtly culture: as portable objects, these texts could offer those on geographical and social peripheries of the Mughal Empire a glimpse into the linguistic and literary habits of the residents of its cultural center. By the turn of the 20th century, however, this generic diversity gives way to a single dominant genre, the modern comprehensive dictionary. Its arrangement of terms by orthographic form signaled both a flattening of the lexical universe and an expansion of the social domains of language to be defined. In this period reformers began to use dictionaries to shape language into a central marker capable of motivating political movements. New nations were thought to require their own language, and various competing South Asian political movements of the period regarded the “modern” comprehensive dictionary, compiled “scientifically” on “historical principles,” as a concrete expression of a nation’s arrival on the world stage.

Each of the three sections of Negotiating Terms focuses on a key work and author by uncovering the sources of that lexicographical work, the relation of its author to contemporary political, economic, and social developments, and its critical reception and reformulation in subsequent lexicographical projects. The first reconstructs the career of the 17th-century schoolteacher ʿAbdul Waseʿ Hansawi, whose Gharaʾib al-Lughat has been called the first dictionary of Urdu. The second examines the Shams al-Bayan fi Mustalihat al-Hindustan, a dictionary compiled in the last decade of the 18th century by the poet Mirza Jan Tapish. A Mughal nobleman exiled from Delhi, Tapish sought refuge in Bengal and would later be arrested for conspiring to overthrow East India Company rule. The final section charts the very different legacies of two Indian lexicographers, Sayyid Ahmad Dihlawi (a Muslim) and Chiranji Lal (a Hindu), both former assistants to S.W. Fallon, a 19th-century colonial official and scholar whose monumental dictionaries are important studies of northern Indian folk culture. The life of Sayyid Ahmad illustrates how the Muslim elite of Delhi adapted in the aftermath of 1857 to changing forms of patronage and commercial publishing. Chiranji Lal’s Makhzan al-Muhawarat, in contrast, is largely forgotten today, despite anticipating the rise of a national language by addressing itself to fellow Indians for whom Urdu was not a “mother tongue.” By privileging texts produced by less celebrated—and even widely denigrated—authors whose work straddles such modern disciplinary divides as literature, linguistics, history, and ethnography, Negotiating Terms provides insights into the historical development of broader South Asian society. Although previously little studied, these texts were not mere lists of words and definitions but powerful political tools with fateful political consequences for one fifth of the world’s population.

Walter Hakala is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. He teaches courses on South Asian literature and culture, translation studies, and linguistic approaches to literature in conjunction with the Asian Studies Program. He completed his Ph.D. in South Asian Regional Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in Urdu literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a B.A. in Asian Studies from the University of Virginia. He grew up New Delhi, Peshawar, and Rabat, Morocco, before settling in the United States. He has published work on Afghan sociolinguistics, 18h-century coffee connoisseurs in Delhi, medieval and early modern children’s vocabularies, and the First Anglo-Afghan War (1837-42).


Bhrigupati SinghPoverty and the Quest for Life: Spiritual and Material Striving in Rural India asks how we conceive of the quality of life not only in an economic sense, but in terms of a more encompassing sense of vitality and loss, in ways that includes human and non-human forces, as well as forms of spiritual striving. Through an ethnographic exploration of the Sahariyas, former bonded laborers, officially classified as Rajasthan’s only “primitive tribe,” this book asks how aspiration and the quality of life is imagined in spiritual and material terms by a lower status group in a resource-scarce environment at a time of widening global inequalities.

The answers this book offers are organized around two themes, power and ethics, through which we enter a diverse terrain of forces that compose this milieu: authority remains contested, whether in divine or human forms; the state is both despised and desired; high and low castes negotiate new ways of living together, in conflict but also cooperation; new gods move across rival social groups; animals and plants leave their tracks on human subjectivity and religiosity; and the potential for vitality persists even as natural resources steadily disappear. Inhabiting this milieu, Poverty and the Quest for Life offers new ways of thinking beyond the religion-secularism and nature-culture dichotomies, juxtaposing questions about quality of life with political theologies of sovereignty, neighborliness, and ethics, in the process painting a rich portrait of perseverance and fragility in contemporary rural India.

Excerpt from the Prologue […] “A theologico-political aim of this book is that it can be summarized in entirely secular terms, as a study of power, inequality, the state, environmental crisis, aspiration, and relations of conflict and cohabitation between neighboring groups, and at the same time in entirely religious terms, as a study of popular religion, and of saints, shrines, erotic songs, warrior gods, ascetic ideals, sacred epics, and spirit possession.”

Bhrigupati Singh is an assistant professor in the Anthropology Department at Brown University. He grew up in Delhi and studied at Delhi University, SOAS (London), and at Johns Hopkins University, where he received his PhD in Anthropology in 2010. He has also worked at Sarai-CSDS (Delhi), where he helped start a research project titled ‘Publics and Practices in the History of the Present’, and taught at the King’s India Institute (King’s College, London). His articles on religion, politics, media and popular culture have appeared in journals such as Cultural AnthropologyAmerican Ethnologist,  Contributions to Indian Sociology, and Critical Asian Studies. In 2014 he published an edited volume titled The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy (Duke University Press). He is currently beginning a new research project on urban poverty and mental health in north India, focusing on religious and secular forms of healing, and the historical emergence of the category of “common mental health disorders”, including depression and anxiety as a window into contemporary India. He is also working on a book of essays tentatively titled What Comes After Postcolonial Theory?