Garcin de Tassy: the great French scholar of Urdu
Among the orientalists who loved Urdu and strived to promote it, French scholar Josheph Garcin de Tassy stands head and shoulders above the rest. He devoted his life to the service of Urdu and spent 50 years of his life reading and writing about the language and its literature. At that time even some of the basic works, such as dictionaries, grammar, literary history and criticism, were either in their rudimentary stages or missing altogether.
Another European scholar who deserves special praise for promoting and serving Urdu is John Borthwick Gilchrist (1759-1841). While Gilchrist stayed in India for over 20 years and Garcin de Tassy never came here, it was de Tassy’s work which proved to be monumental for future researchers.
Whatever de Tassy learnt and wrote about Urdu he did while living in France, besides a journey to England that he undertook to learn the language. He was born in Marseilles, on January 25, 1794. In 1817 he went to Paris and became a student of the renowned orientalist and linguist, Silvestre de’ Sacy (1758-1838), to learn Arabic, Persian and Turkish.
He became a professor at the School for Living Oriental Languages in 1828 and ten years later was elected to Academie des Inscriptions et’ Belles-Lettres, a society devoted to humanities.
De Tassy was one of the founding members, and later on the president, of Societe Asiatique (Asiatic Society). Though initially interested in the study of Islam and Arabic, he later became interested in Urdu/Hindi, back then known as ‘Hindustani’. He spent the rest of his life teaching Urdu and researching and writing about it till he died in 1878.
In her book, Dr Surayya Hussain, gave a list of de Tassy’s works which span over 155 books. His work can be divided into three categories: Writings about the Urdu literature in French; editing and compilations of Urdu’s literary works (including the editing of Wali Dakani’s poetic works); translations from Urdu to French (including the translation of Mir Amman’s famous Bagh-o-Bahar).
For his research and critical work, de Tassy largely depended on books, magazines and newspapers published in India. Some of his sources even came from English magazines and newspapers.
He also used to deliver an annual lecture on Urdu literature, surveying the important works published during the year.
But his most significant work is ‘History of Hindustani Literature’. The book is in French and has three volumes which appeared in 1839, 1847 and 1871. A new edition appeared from New York in 1968. As for its translations, one translation into English and another one into Urdu are known of, but both remained incomplete and unpublished. According to an article by Prof Dr Moinuddin Aqeel, published in Karachi University’s journal ‘Jareeda’ (2004, No29), a translation of the book’s preface and a few pages from it were published in May-June 1984 issue of ‘Indian Literature’ (Delhi).
Earlier, someone rendered its first volume into English and sent it to Nawab Naseer Hussain Khayal, a scholar, who passed it on to another scholar who in turn got its foreward translated into Urdu and published it, with an intro to de Tassy’s works in 1922, in August and September issues of ‘Muaarif’.
However, Lillian Nazzaro, a French student, rendered this work into Urdu for her PhD. She annotated the translation and added new information as well and got her doctorate in 1960 from Karachi University’s Urdu department under the supervision of Dr Abul Lais Siddiqi. However, she abridged the work and her translation excluded the details about the Hindi language and Hindi literature, which were part of the original work along with the history of Urdu language and literature. In 1966, Karachi University’s journal ‘Karachi University Studies’ published the intro to the work written by Nazzaro. Otherwise, this abridged translation of Garcin de Tassy’s landmark work still remains unpublished.
Fortunately for de Tassy and also for Urdu language, some of his works were translated into Urdu during his lifetime. Moulvi Zakaullah translated his work on Urdu writers and published it in 1855 from Dehli (It was also translated by Dr Riaz-ul-Hasan).
F. Fallon, in collaboration with Kareemuddin, translated a portion of de Tassy’s work on the history of Urdu/Hindustani literature dealing with Urdu poets. The translation became known as Tabqaat-e-shuarae-e-Hind. Translations of de Tassy’s work continued even after his death, adding invaluable information and views to the body of Urdu research and criticism. When Sir Ross Masood went to Paris, he found his annual addresses and arranged for the translation and publication of some of them. These and some other translations of de Tassy’s works were published initially in Anjuman Taraqqi-e-Urdu’s quarterly journal, Urdu, and were later compiled in the form of a book under the titles Khutbaat-e-Garcin de Tassy and Maqalaat-e-Garcin de Tassy. Dr Hameedullah reviewed these translations.
De Tassy’s work was of great significance because he did it in the age when even the natives were not bothered about recording the history of Urdu literature and the means of communication had not been developed. Though a few misconceptions and errors had to be sorted out from de Tassy’s works, by translators and scholars who rendered his works into Urdu later on, but his contribution to Urdu literature cannot be taken for granted.