‘Speak, for thy tongue is free’

Published: December 19, 2014 - 18:31

The language that ignited Ghalib’s tongue and fired Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry is finding new takers in the country

Shazia Nigar Delhi 

In 1954 the Central Working Committee of the Bharatiya Janta Sangh, a precursor to the Bhartiya Janta Party(BJP) declared Urdu to be “The language of no region in India, it being only a foreign and unacceptable style of Hindi with a foreign script and foreign vocabulary imposed on India during a period of foreign domination.” Given that over the years the BJP’s emphasis on homogenisation of  national culture, which involves giving primacy to Hindi over other languages, has only hardened one would imagine Urdu lovers have reason to worry. Yet, the language has seen a gradual resurgence in recent times. So much so that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi felt the need to launch an Urdu website in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year.

The common perception that Urdu is a language spoken only by Muslims is unravelling itself to be a myth. Urdu is alive and has been a part of our common vocabulary all these years.“Inquilab Zindabad” is a living testament to that fact. “Bol ke lab azad hain tere” an Urdu poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz resonates across generations when they are protesting against a clamp down in a university campus or censorship exercised by the government. Every time a student, an activist or a concerned citizen resorts to it they are participants in keeping Urdu alive.

However, Urdu occupies a place that goes beyond being only a language of protest. India’s emerging middle class is professing a newfound love for the language. Dastangoi performances, shayari gatherings and online blogs like Rekhta, which has an inexhaustible collection of translations, are all providing a platform for those interested in engaging with Urdu. Hindi Prakashini, a publication house, has also converted the works of Urdu writers into Devanagiri, making it accessible to a newer readership. With Faiz’s centenary in 2011 and Sadat Hasan Manto’s in 2012, publication houses like Penguin also came out with fresh translations of their work for a burgeoning audience.

This resurgence in the of interest in Urdu has happened despite several attempts by politically motivated leaders since Independence to portray Urdu as a language that belongs only to one community. On June 15, 1948, Puroshottamdas Tandon, a senior leader of the Congress Party, sounded a warning in his speech, “Muslims must stop talking about a culture and civilisation foreign to our country and genius. They should accept Indian culture. One culture and one language will pave the way for real unity. Urdu symbolises a foreign culture. Hindi alone can be the unifying factor for all the diverse forces in the country.” 

Politically motivated attempts since Independence have made a dent in the popularity of the language and statistics attest to the fact. An article in a mainstream weekly says, “Between 1991 and 2001, the Urdu-speaking population declined from 5.2 to 5.0 per cent while Hindi speakers increased from 39.3 to 41.0 per cent. Urdu’s ratio of growth is lower than that of the national population or even the Muslim population”. As per the National Council for promotion of Urdu language, there are around 44 million Urdu speakers in India, with the largest numbers in “the state of Uttar Pradesh, followed by Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka, which together account for 85 per cent of the national Urdu-speaking population.” Urdu has survived in India, not because of the government’s efforts, but despite its lack of interest in the language. There have been token gestures by the government in recent years to keep the language alive, but the results are yet to be seen. In 2003, former President Abdul Kalam gave his assent to the Delhi Official Language Bill, making Urdu a second language in the capital. In September this year, the Supreme Court declared Urdu as the second official language of Uttar Pradesh. Historian Rakshanda Jalil, who has translated eight books from Urdu to English and runs Hindustani Awaaz, a platform for the promotion of Hindi and Urdu, says, “Bad times are sometimes good times. We don’t expect the government to step in. Eventually, people must keep language and literature alive.”

Jalil says that in the last five years, there has been a perceptible change in audience profile. A grey-haired audience has been replaced with younger enthusiasts at the events organised for the promotion of Urdu by Hindustani Awaaz. Jalil, however, remains dissatisfied with readers resorting to translations. “People should learn the script,” she says. Jalil asserts that Urdu has nothing to do with religion. “That myth has been consciously propagated,” she believes.

While Delhi University, Jamia Millia Islamia, and Jawaharlal Nehru University have had Urdu departments for full-time students, smaller academies are also springing up to enable readers to devour their favorite nazms and ghazals in their original script. These universities have also restructured their syllabi to include writers from the Progressive Writers Association, a Left-leaning literary movement dating back to pre-Partition. Students are now exposed to Ismat Chugtai’s radical feminism in stories such as “Lihaf (The Quilt),” which is based on a lesbian relationship, or to Sadat Hassan Manto’s gritty retelling of stories from Partition. Jalil sums this shift up best when she says, “There is an understanding that Urdu is relevant as its modernity is
being understood.”

Mohammed Shamim, who teaches at Urdu Academy, says, “Non-Muslims and Muslims take admission in our courses for love of the language. Once exposed to ghazals, nazms and shayari, they want to read these texts in the original language. Hardly anyone enrols for occupational reasons.” The Indira Gandhi National Open University has approximately 5,000 students enrolled in the various Urdu programmes. Launched in 2011, it has centres in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh and Goa, amongst
other states.

History proves that Urdu has refused to cower before the demands of increasingly communal politics. Several non-Muslims have been patrons of Urdu. Jawaharlal Nehru’s wedding card was printed in Urdu. Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian in space, when asked to describe what India looked like from there, chose the words of Urdu poet Allama Iqbal: Saare jahan se accha Hindustan hamara. What is not popularly known is that several non-Muslims have contributed to keeping the language alive. Rajendra Singh Bedi, Ratan Nath Prasad and Harshvardhan Chawla are some popular writers. Rekhta.org, an initiative of businessman Sanjiv Saraf, was launched in 2013. It aims to take a collection of over 7,000 ghazals and nazms of more than 650 Urdu poets to an audience not conversant with Urdu. It has approximately 2,500 visitors on a daily basis from over 150 countries. Anjum Siddiqui, representative of Rekhta, says, “Language doesn’t discriminate on the basis of religion, caste and creed. A lot of non-Muslims visit our site regularly and interact with us on social media.” The collection of poems is available in Urdu, Devanagari and Roman scripts, with a drop-down feature explaining the meaning of each word.

Popular culture has also played a role in keeping the language alive. The Hindi film industry has been a space where Urdu lyricists and scriptwriters have thrived. From Manto’s misadventures as a scriptwriter to Sahir Ludhianvi’s heart-wrenching lyrics in Pyaasa, and to Gulzar’s versatility today as a lyricist, they have dotted the collective consciousness of the nation with Urdu for generations. The launch of Zee Zindagi in June this year is taking Urdu, through Pakistani serials, straight to Indian drawing rooms. Serials such as Aun Zara and Zindagi Gulzar had gathered a massive fan following. The channel also runs a ticker that acts as a thesaurus and dictionary, explaining an Urdu word or phrase a day in Roman. Urdu has resisted the onslaught visited upon it post-partition and is emerging resurgent. It is reassuring to hear Jalil say, “A language rises above time and circumstances. It becomes universal. The secular ethos of Urdu is being recognised. Events around the city are opening up the language to people who didn’t read these things. The quaintness is lessening.”

The language that ignited Ghalib’s tongue and fired Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry is finding new takers in the country
Shazia Nigar Delhi 

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