India’s Urdu Press: A Bitter-Sweet Bicentenary


Last year, Urdu institutions in India celebrated a landmark in the history of that language—the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jam-i Jahan-Numa, the first modern newspaper in Urdu. It debuted on 27 March 1822, carrying a name that was clever and most befitting. It referred to the fabled “world-revealing goblet” of the legendary Iranian monarch, Jamshed, into whose depths the regal eyes could peer and see all that was happening in the world.

A big surprise about the new journal was its place of publication, Calcutta (now Kolkata), not known as a major centre of Urdu language and literature. Surprising also was the identity of its publisher, Harihar Dutta, a feisty upper-class Bengali young man with no ties to the north Indian regions more closely identified with Urdu. His grandfather had been the Dewan at the East India Company’s Custom House for 50 years, a position of some status, later held by his father Tarachand Dutta.

Tarachand is better known in records as the co-founder, with Raja Ram Mohan Roy, of the progressive Bangla weekly Sambad Kaumudi in 1821, and the publisher of Roy’s Persian weekly, Mirat-al-Akhbar, arguably the first newspaper in that language, which came out a month after Jam-i Jahan-Numa. Thus, the father and son can rightly be described as the founders of modern journalism in both Urdu and Persian. My account of the Duttas and their journal is based chiefly on Gurbachan Chandan’s Jam-i Jahan-Numa: Urdu Sahafat ki Ibtida (New Delhi: Maktaba Jami’a, 1992), and Nadir Ali Khan’s Urdu Sahafat ki Tarikh (Aligarh: Educational Book House, 1987).

The editor, Munshi Sadasukh Lal, was an equally remarkable man. Hailing from Agra, which had come under British control in 1803, he had travelled to Calcutta to make his fortune, either as a tutor to some foreign employee of the Company, or as a munshi at some business house, handling their formal correspondence. Besides an expertise in Sanskrit, Hindi, Persian, and Urdu, he had some knowledge of Arabic. He also knew English well enough to read and understand official publications, and later translated many professional texts into Urdu and Hindi…..