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Urdu: The Fallen Language|Sumaira Nawaz

Sumaira Nawaz

Urdu thrives in a milieu as varied and accessible as daily conversations, revolutionary calls, poetic gatherings and Hindi cinema and music. But its erasure from the public perception is one that alienates it by painting it as a ‘foreign’ language or exoticises it as part of an elite culture of Begams and Ghazals. It is being uprooted from the societal fabric as an ‘aam zaban’ representing a texture of life that extends much beyond muslim households of Old Delhi or Lucknow. Urdu’s rigid categorization makes it different from Hindi, especially as the Perso-Arabic script’s ‘foreignness’ is applied to Urdu language. Moreover, it’s a complex relationship of de-recognition with Hindi-Urdu; where once ‘Urdu’ supplanted ‘Hindi’ as the historically used term for Persianised Hindustani, today ‘indigenous’ Hindi is peppered with Persianised Urdu words. We are taught Hindi in a way that it appears distinctly different from Urdu despite being conversationally and grammatically the same, increasingly so as politics continues to make the languages entirely divergent.

In India, despite living on in the language continuum, Urdu’s contribution goes un-credited and the suffering is borne especially by the script leading to loss of a literary culture. The “one and the same” criteria will not adequately reveal that the ‘Muslimness’ of Nastaliq has led to a consistent decline of readers, literary critics and publishers of the language in post-partition India. And even if many aficionadas use Devnagiri script to read Urdu, it’s absence from core Hindi syllabus at primary level is palpable. Lack of scope of a formal education outside of Muslim minority schools has pigeonholed the language in a way that there is absence of an economic backbone necessary to sustain Urdu writers, and in turn popular culture is deprived of Urdu literature of considerable merit (mayaar) or mass appeal. Urdu lives on vibrantly as stalwarts like Mir Ghalib, Faiz, Chughtai, Premchand, Manto continue to be circulated. And even as Maktaba Jamia brings out new titles, being a University Press it lacks the accessibility of a Penguin or Rupa. But it is noteworthy that contemporary Urdu authors and poetry is absent from Literature syllabus in universities even as papers of translated Modern Indian texts are being offered. Similar scenario is repeated in the many book fairs that dot the literary scene today, where contemporary Urdu is either monopolized by religious texts or is simply sustained but not improved by newer talent.

This creates a ‘museum’ effect over Urdu making one believe that the era is ling gone. Even translation work represents this ‘lost culture’ as classical texts are often translated out of Urdu but not into it. Rekhta is indeed a positively successful attempt at increasing accessibility of Urdu especially for people who lack ability to read the script but it does not forge a readership, and orality is privileged over literacy. Urdu is being packaged as a ‘poetic’ language but one lacks the tools to analyze and fully appreciate texts, because the dictionary definitions don’t do justice to mazamin (images like Gul, Beloved, Wine), ma’ni aafrini (multivalency). This is not to restrict ghazals and nazms to classrooms, but to decolonize the perception that surrounds them, seeing only the surface value of the text as the tools of criticism are increasingly lost.

      Ghalib jise Kahte hain Urdu ka hi shair tha   Urdu pe sitam kar ke Ghalib pe karam kyon ho Sahir Ludhianvi

On the other hand, performance of Urdu continues to capture public interest in the form of qawwali and mushairas, YouTube has certainly made wide circulation possible. These poetry gatherings, held in metropolitan cities as well as small towns like Amroha, Bareilly, Aligarh feature local shayars and the themes too are deeply embedded in the collective memory and life experiences of the audience. But mushairas are often only aired on the Muslim channels like ETV Urdu and Zee Salam, even as they thrive on local appeal. Performances lying outside of the ‘secular’ sphere include Marsiya; lamentations about death of Hussain in the battle of Karbala, a very Muslim (particularly Shia) cultural marker. Hindus and Muslims have sung them alike as part of the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb and also the metaphors were used by Progressive Writers to mark the battle against societal injustices and imperialism. Urdu and the culture it stems from should not be denied their place within indigenous folk-culture that is consistently happening as we paint it increasingly as foreign. There is a shared collective memory that such Urdu poetic traditions invoke.

A similar composite literary culture can be seen in Urdu women’s writing- a language that was earthy, highly colloquial, colourful and easily understood within the zenana. This ‘Muslim’ language embodied the spirit of daughters of reform, raising questions about who could write and about what. Most recently, Dastaan-go performances are embodying revival of a lost art of entertainment by adapting it to contemporary tastes and themes such as Dastan-e-Sedition and Dastan-e-Alice. Even if many of the words escape the audience because the language has not been compromised upon, the effect and the familiarity of the metre is such that it invites a string response. Same is with plays like Karbala Katha that creates an Islamic play around martyrdom of Hussain by placing it in the setting of a modern society.

By only focusing on a particular poetic ideal of the language we are removing it from the everyday. And by not emphasizing the importance of formal education in Urdu and its tools of critique that exist within the language we are undermining its literary merit.

It cannot be denied that the strong communal coloring portrays Urdu, when placed exclusively (albeit falsely) in the domain of Madaris and Minority Institutions, as being for “us Muslims” and not “you uninformed Others.” The frustration of a linguistic minority can be seen here, textbooks are published and patrons are replaced by students but they find it difficult to find sustenance in a world that values their language but doesn’t address their appeal for jibs. In this regard, middle class ‘modern’ Muslims are also accused of only appropriating the ‘poetic’ part of Urdu, not suffering the economic barriers associated with studying it formally.

The intention is not to demean those who do not know the script or are weak. But to highlight how undervaluing of an education in Urdu restricts its literary prowess and despite putting it on a pedestal, distance it even further from the fabric of common life. Often ‘fluent’ speakers of Urdu, who have inherited it as part of a ‘Muslim culture’ (not religion) no longer value the effort of learning Urdu, just admire the ‘beauty’ from a safe distance. Urdu is indeed a ‘poetic language’, but it is and has been so much more. It is Inqalabi Zaban (Revolution), Begamati Zaban (Uncouth Women’s language), Islami Zaban (in lots of contexts) but unfortunately, and most importantly it needs to be addressed as Aam Zaban  (language of common people).

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