Meghna Chaudhuri (New York University)

Nagari Pracharini Sabha (NPS)

The ubiquitous place that “the economy” has in contemporary understandings of social life is reflected in part, by the diversity of sources through which contemporary historiography seeks out economic life. Conversations in the last few years give one the sense that as historians we are interested once again in the rhythms of the agrarian world, in the thrum of marketplaces and the formation of economic subjectivities. This return to the economic is closer in tenor to the expansive ambition and scope of the old classic The Economic Bases of Indian Nationalism than the more single-minded approach embodied, for example, by price-series analyses that mark the economic histories of the 1970s. In common with both types of historiographical engagements is this new moment’s attentiveness to the material bases of social life. The intellectual history of economic ideas, of how the economic came to be naturalized in political discourse and constructed as the prism through which the world is viewed, is of renewed interest to historians of South Asia.

The Nagari Pracharini Sabha (NPS) was set up in 1896 in Benares by three young men who were then at Queens’ College. The brief history of the institution is included in a daily planner they have published each year to the present. The planner documents the way in which the founding members competed with the Asiatic Society of Bengal to dominate a shared project project of collecting and publishing Hindi language works from all over India. The aim was simple: to promote and preserve the nagari script.

I travelled to Benares to consult the books published and collected by the NPS on topics to do with political economy, commerce, business acumen, money and financial services between 1896 and the late 1930s. Hindi equivalents of political economic concepts and ideas were perceived as significant and urgently required at a time when political economic critiques of the modern world, of the British empire and the changing socio-economic texture of colonial India formed the meat of public discourse. Armed with a glossary of Hindi words for scientific terms and concepts produced and published by the NPS in 1906 that a friend and colleague kindly told me about, I set about searching their catalogue based on the terms for political economic concepts that I found in this glossary. As it turned out, once I had identified which cupboards contained books on agrarian improvement, capitalism and commerce I had to roll up my sleeves and just move books en masse out of their shelves onto a table and go through them individually to discern which pertained to my topics of interest.

Dusty from decades of neglect, the NPS catalogue barely corresponds anymore with the physical location of materials. The governing body has been mired in disputes for years and salaries for the staff have been frozen to rates from the 1990s. Care for the materials is neither a reality nor even a distant dream for the myriad caretakers who man the desk and guard the key. There are stacks and stacks of newspapers up to the ceiling rafters that will likely never seeing the light of day again other than as dust. Despite all of these apparently discouraging signs, the NPS holds a wealth of materials in the Hindi language. Since the NPS was invested in building a Hindi language library on all aspects of modern society in India, and in producing original works, translations and equivalents for books and concepts from Western knowledge traditions, their collection is useful for any type of social history, social science and intellectual-history enquiries. I noticed that the newly independent government of India also seemed to have funded a large number of translations, compendia, abridged Hindi versions of English and French texts especially in the areas of science and political economy.

The hulking red brick building has dusty green shutters, through which stream in shafts of sunlight into the dim interior of the reading room. Several graduate students from JNU and institutions across the world have made their way to the NPS in recent years, even as local students continue to use it as a reference library and place of quiet work. With some time in hand and a certain serendipity so essential to archival discovery, a visit to the Nagari Pracharini Sabha would at best be productive and at the very least, atmospheric.

May 2017