August 31, 2013 4:23:10 am
McGregor chronicled the emergence of Hindi as the great popular language of north India.
Ronald Stuart MCGREGOR taught Hindi at the University of Cambridge from 1964 to 1997,and was a fellow of Wolfson College there until he passed away on August 19. He had earlier taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. A philologist,grammarian,literary historian,translator and lexicographer of the front rank,he probably did more for Hindi studies in the West than any other scholar of his generation.
McGregor was born of Scottish parents in New Zealand,where he took his BA in English. On a scholarship to Oxford,he studied early English philology but then turned to learning Hindi,a language to which he dedicated the rest of his life. He had,as a teenager in New Zealand,been given a copy of a Hindi grammar book published in neighbouring Fiji,where migrant Indians formed a large part of the population. That wind-blown seed grew into a mighty tree.
McGregor first visited India in 1959-60 to study Hindi at the University of Allahabad. He had already met in London a student of Indian history,Elaine,who was now researching at Calcutta; they got married there in 1960.
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McGregors PhD thesis was published as The Language of Indrajit of Orchha (1968). No one had heard of this Indrajit,a minor prince who was a patron of the major poet Keshav Das (1555-1617) but also himself a pioneering writer of prose in Braj bhasha. This early discovery was characteristic of McGregors scholarly method: not to lose sight of the minor in the glare of the canonical,and to see the text in its wider context,including its vital social and cultural affiliations.
As a pioneering language teacher,McGregor produced next An Outline of Hindi Grammar (1972,revised ed. 1995),which remains a standard work of reference. He then contributed to a multi-volume History of Indian Literature not one,but two volumes on Hindi literature,the first on the 19th and the early 20th centuries (1974),and the second,from the beginning to the 19th century (1984). Together,they constitute probably the most authoritative history of Hindi literature yet available in English.
In these volumes,McGregor sought to modify the periodisation of Hindi literature which Ramchandra Shukla had put in place in his foundational and still canonical history (1929). He gave more space to the early period and paid the same kind of nuanced attention to some minor poets such as Nand Das (whose major works he translated),Vishnu Das and Bhikhari Das as he did to Kabir,Meera or Tulsi.
The work that McGregor is most widely identified with began modestly enough,when the Oxford University Press asked him to update the classic Dictionary of Urdu,Classical Hindi,and English (1884) by John T. Platts. Like many famous sequels,it soon assumed a divergent life of its own. As McGregor noted,the priority and ascendancy of Urdu had long since vanished,there had meanwhile appeared a huge new dictionary,the Hindi Shabd Sagar (1922-29),and altogether,Hindi had developed dramatically in scope,status and literary versatility. McGregors Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary (1993),which was 20 years in the making,now stands supreme as the ultimate go-to resource of its kind. Whenever any Hindi-English bilingual is in doubt or distress,she can do no better than look up McGregor.
His last significant work,a 45-page essay on the Progress of Hindi from the 14th to the 19th century (in Literary Cultures in History,edited by Sheldon Pollock,2003),is in a sense a fine distillation of McGregors lifes work,his gaagar mein saagar (the ocean in an earthen pot). He highlighted here the abiding vitality of Hindi in small but culturally confident centres such as Dalmau,Gwalior,the Braj district,Orchha and Banaras (in implicit contrast with the metropolitan Persian-Urdu centres of Delhi,Lucknow and Lahore),and the emergence of Hindi finally as the great popular language of north India.
In his dictionary too,McGregor had weaned colonial Hindustani lexicography away from its Perso-Arabic genealogy,to ground Hindi meticulously in its etymological basis in Sanskrit and in its vast tadbhava resources of indigenous dialects. Instead of a composite culture,he spoke,acutely and perhaps more accurately,of a cultural rapprochement and of a bipartite culture.
Stuart McGregor was a gentle and modest man,always quietly dedicated to his work. At the end of a lecture I once gave in Cambridge,he took me aside to diffidently ask of me a favour: to find in Delhi and send him a particular Hindi-to-Hindi dictionary that he needed. He graciously acknowledged the receipt of the book in the form of a self-composed doha in Braj bhasha,to express a feeling we could not have shared in English. He was more deeply steeped in Hindi sensibility and literature than many of its contemporary native speakers are,and he did as much to propagate and promote Hindi as anyone.
The writer is a former professor of English,University of Delhi
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