Urdu And The City
July 10, 2008 ·
When spoken, a language is
mainly practical. To transcend into art, it must be written, its words shaped
into poems, stories, and plays. So can written Urdu, once the medium of Delhi’s
literary artists, still be found in the city?
GILLIAN WRIGHT (Outlook)
My favourite bookshop in Urdu
Bazaar is Maktaba Jamia, a branch of Jamia Millia University’s book depot. This
unassuming shop is devoted entirely to Urdu literature, and nowhere in Delhi
are books cheaper and therefore so accessible. Since 1922, Maktaba Jamia has
produced only low-cost, standard literary texts.
The shop also stocks some Urdu
literature in Hindi script, the latest books from other Urdu publishers, and a
variety of Urdu primers for those who understand the spoken language but have
yet to learn the Persian script. And it has booklets in simple Urdu, like the
one on poet Ali Sardar Jafri, which make excellent reading material for new
A roadside stall in Urdu Bazaar
When I asked him to name the
bestsellers, he said with a smile, “People here are murda-parast. They worship
the dead. So since they died, anything by Qurut-ul-ain Haider or Kamleshwar is
selling like hot cakes.”
“And poetry?” I asked.
Before you could say the great
poet’s name, “Asadullah Khan Ghalib,” he piled before me a mountain of the
newest poetry books. Many were ghazal selections in inexpensive paperbacks
containing classic verses and those by the latest stars of modern mushairas. My
late ustaad, Ghulam Ahmad Ilmi Sahib— who taught Persian and Arabic for 40
years at the nearby Fatehpuri Masjid School—felt standards at literary
functions had fallen so low he would never attend them. But the pile of books
in front of me showed that a younger generation didn’t share that opinion.
“Munavvar Rana is everyone’s
favourite at mushairas lately,” Nizamuddin added. “And of course, the big names
sell well. Javed Akhtar is there, and this is the latest book from Nida Fazli.”
He handed me the book, and I
flicked through its pages. My eye caught a line suggesting that poetry had
flowed easily before modern life turned crossroads into major intersections and
filled everywhere with concrete.
Urdu was always a language of the
people of Delhi, created by and for them. Growing from the camps of troops and
their hangers on, its foundation was wholly Indian. Those who developed the
language pragmatically filled it with useful vocabulary from Turkish, Arabic,
Sanskrit, and Persian. Forcing its way upwards in society, Urdu became the
pre-eminent literary language of Delhi at a time when literature was part of
the city’s organic life.
Its poetic power then made it a
vehicle for revolution and freedom from the colonial power. But politics is a
double-edged sword. Urdu’s identification with Muslims and Pakistan dealt such
a blow that its existence is sometimes denied today, even in the old city, and
Urdu-speaking Hindus call their mother tongue ‘Hindi.’ There is, of course, a
close connection between Hindi and simple Urdu, which used to be called
Anees Azmi—a leading Urdu
playwright of Delhi, whose 36 children’s plays are regularly produced in
theatre workshops in the capital— believes Urdu is still widely spoken in the
old city. But in his estimate, well under half of those who speak the language
can read the script.
Azmi’s expressive readings of the
19th century poet Ghalib’s letters, in a clear and musical Urdu, draw audiences
and prove to many would-be Urdu fans that even classical Urdu need not be over
their heads. But it has to be said—many people in Delhi fear Urdu’s high-flown
vocabulary and take for granted they will not understand it. For this reason,
Azmi called the language Hindustani, not Urdu, when he co-coordinated a major
Urdu production on Bhagat Singh.
Mahmoud Farooqui’s dastan-goi
For this same reason, Mahmoud
Farooqui’s dastan-goi performances are often advertised as being in Hindustani.
Farooqui is recreating the lost art of Urdu storytelling. Many forms of
storytelling exist in India, such as in Marathi, but dastans—tales within tales
of love, magic, and adventure—exist only in written form. Having collaborated
with the country’s foremost authority on dastans, Farooqui has brought at least
one kind of dastan-goi back from the dead.
And audiences prove there is
scope for much more Urdu theatre in Delhi. Recently, there wasn’t room for a
sesame seed in the packed India International Centre auditorium when Jamia
Millia staged a re-creation of the last great mushaira held at the court of
Bahadur Shah Zafar in the Red Fort. A market likewise exists for one-man Urdu
plays about characters from modern history as Syed Alam, another modern Urdu
playright of Delhi, has shown with his productions on Maulana Azad and K.L.
Mohan Chiraghi, editor of Qaumi
Avaaz, ensures that his reporters are even-handed, not just presenting a
Congress point of view, and in the 1980s, he set a trend by starting an
editorial page on the lines of the English language press. Chiraghi doesn’t
deny that his paper has seen better days, but he believes it could be
revitalized if the management wanted.
Mohan Chiragi, editor
A Kashmiri pandit who grew up in
the composite culture of Kashmir before the pandits left, Chiraghi is depressed
about Urdu journalism because he feels that Urdu papers have succumbed to “vote
bank politics,” catering to narrow Muslim issues and, on occasion, playing a
reactionary role. Neither does the Urdu press pay well. He finds many good Urdu
journalists migrating to Hindi journalism, especially television channels,
where the pay is better. Why? Urdu papers just don’t attract advertisements.
“Even if only Muslims read them,
don’t Muslims buy televisions or washing machines?” Chiraghi asks in
exasperation, before saying, “In the end, a language can only really do well if
it is connected to employment.”
Urdu on the Upswing
Ghalib Academy, run by the
Hamdard group, hasn’t changed much in the past 30 years. It has a well-run
library, its own publications, and a small museum crying out for modernization.
The academy’s secretary, Dr Aqil Ahmad, believes the state of Urdu in Delhi is
badtar (bad) because even though Delhi has outstanding Urdu scholars in
universities, the language is virtually invisible at the primary and secondary
Some premier schools are offering
Urdu as a subject, though not very seriously. But determined people can find
places in the city to learn. The Urdu Academy, housed in a fire-blackened
bungalow opposite the Kashmiri Gate Metro station, runs basic courses in ten
centers, while Delhi University holds some day classes. Jamia Millia’s
department of Distance Learning even has a correspondence course.
Ghalib Academy also hosts several
literary events a year. I attended one on the short story, where authors read
out works that focused on contemporary issues including communal tension, dowry,
and globalisation. Perhaps the evening’s most passionate speech came from Dr
Ali Javed, who heads the government’s Urdu Promotion Council. He said there was
a conspiracy to label Urdu as a language of the madrassa and the Muslim. He
viewed Urdu as the symbol of Indian culture—the syncretic culture that India,
alone of all countries of the world, possessed. Urdu was, he argued, part of a
heritage that stands against oppression by religion or any section of society.
He called on every wise, thinking person to cherish it.
I was reminded of something Anees
Azmi had told me. “Many real Urdu wallahs,” he said, “love the good things of
life, like food, and don’t come to my performances. I find the Hindi wallahs
are the ones really taking up Urdu.” This is in a way a sign of hope.
Indira belongs to a Sikh family
originally from Peshawar. Her father loved Urdu and Persian poetry, and after
migrating to India in 1947, Indira began to write poetry. She finds it
impossible to consider verse apart from music. Her latest book, Shafaq Ke Rang,
even comes with a CD of her ghazals sung by Sudeep Banerjee and Rekha
Bharadwaj, two of a new wave of singers attracted to this condensed, elliptical
English publishers reflect the
growing interest in Urdu as they move into Indian language publishing. The
historical novel, Ka’i Chand The Sar-e Aasman, by eminent critic and author
Shamsur Rehman Faruqi, recently published in Urdu by Penguin, has developed a
cult following.It can even be found in some top English bookstores in South
A page of history has turned. The
old world of Delhi’s Urdu is gone for good. But the language is great enough to
have found a place in the city’s current cultural renaissance.
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