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STATE OF REGIONAL LITERATURE: URDU – Finding favour with the youth

By June 21, 2018No Comments

Source : The Tribune  –  Rakhshanda Jalil

The meaningful bits and pieces of poetry on social media reveal that the young are accessing and owning Urdu. Can this change bring back its glory?

Urdu hai jiska naam hamiin jaantein hain Daagh

Saare jahan mein dhoom hamari zaban ki hai

— Hazrat Daagh Dehelvi

(O Daagh, I know this language that is called Urdu 

The world is reverberating with the sounds of our language)

Urdu belongs to neither a single state nor a single community — it is a language of the people, for the people, by the people. It is ready to belong to whoever is willing to step forward and claim it. For far too long, the doomsayers have been predicting the end of Urdu and a whole way of life that accompanied it. The Urdu-Hindi debate has divided Urdu-wallahs and Hindi-wallahs into warring champions occupying opposite ends of a Great Divide, a bit like wrestlers in a wrestling pit (akhada). Yet, despite the formidable odds stacked against it, Urdu has not merely survived but also flourished. Yes, fewer people read it in its own script. Yes, its propagation is not tied to employment generation. Yes, the government has paid mere lip service to safeguarding its interests. Yes, many of those who nod their heads in appreciation when they hear Urdu poetry being read or recited possibly do so because it sounds pretty rather than because they fully understand the real meaning of those mellifluous words. But that is not to say that Urdu is dead, or dying. Despite the odds, Urdu has not merely survived but remained relevant. It is still the language of the heart and soul of India.

The Urdu poet has, more so than the prose writer, never failed to hoist the petard of Urdu’s popularity. Shahryar, for one, had gone on record to say that more people appreciate Urdu poetry in India than ever before. “Jaise jaise shehri tehzeeb badh rahi hai, Urdu zubaan bhi badh rahi hai”, he never tired to point out the essential cosmopolitanism of Urdu and its inescapable link with the increasing urbanisation of India. Scoffing those who decry the state of Urdu in India, he believed he was optimistic about India and about Urdu. He felt the government had done what it could; it was now up to the Urdu-wallahs to do the rest! Till we as a people are not proud of our language, no government can ever do enough he would say — a sentiment I endorse most enthusiastically, a sentiment I see being echoed in different ways by the many stakeholders.

The Indian publishing industry, with one eye on people’s interests and aspirations and another on profit margins, has been quick to gauge the popular sentiment in favour of Urdu. Publishing giants such as Penguin and Harper Collins have started Urdu publishing; smaller players such as Blaft have brought out translations of a Jasoosi Duniya, a cult detective series in Urdu. While some Urdu fiction is being made available either in Devnagari or in English translations (great amounts of Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Qurratulain Hyder are to be found in Hindi translation), it is Urdu poetry that holds sway over the popular imagination. The Hindi book publishing industry has done much to popularise Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi, not to mention the greats such as Ghalib and Mir. Like the Urdu language itself, it is private initiative rather than public-funded intervention that has helped the cause of Urdu. State Akademies and the centrally funded National Council for the Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL) no doubt do their bit but sloppy marketing and sparse distribution networks contribute to the lackadaisical approach towards any and all state-sponsored Urdu outreach programmes. A recent exception was the generously funded and imaginatively conceived Urdu festival organised by the Delhi Urdu Akademi in a centrally located public park.

Having said no literature, no matter how extensive its vocabulary or how sophisticated its literary heritage can thrive on poetry alone. And it must be said no new philosophical or intellectual discourse is taking place in Urdu prose. Even in poetry, no new Iqbal or Ghalib is writing of the human predicament; certainly few scientific and technical works are being written in Urdu. There are translations aplenty but few original writings in core subjects because of dwindling readership. The men of letters are flickering lamps, about to be snuffed out by time with no new crop waiting to sprout like new seeds from fertile ground. The breadth of vision, the exposure to other literatures (both from the bhashas in India and world literatures) and their literary cultures that the men of letters had in such abundance till the previous generation has regrettably dwindled to a narrow provincialism and a tunnel vision. An indecent scramble for awards and recognition from government-run bodies makes many contemporary writers seem puny compared to the tall poppies of the recent past. There seems no one today to compare with, say, Hasrat Mohani. This journalist and nationalist, freedom fighter and free thinker, who wrote some of the most sweetly romantic ghazals such as “Chupke Chupke Raat Din Aansu Bahana Yaad Hai”, stood up against the might of the powerful progressive writers when they sought to move a motion banning obscenity in literature. He is also credited with giving all freedom-loving Indians the most enduring cry of Inquilab Zindabad. He was a great admirer of Marxism as well as a practising Musalman and a devout Krishna bhakt, who went to Mathura often to celebrate Janamashtmi and wrote the most lyrical ballads devoted to Lord Krishna. I am hard-pressed to find anyone who comes close this incredible combination of contraries among contemporary writers.

The Hindi film industry has done a yeoman’s service in keeping Urdu alive in the popular domain as have a spate of literary festivals with designated sessions set aside for discussing new Urdu books — either in translation or, increasingly, critical writings about Urdu works in English. It is heartening to see people across the Indian subcontinent delve into the vast treasure house that is Urdu literature to pluck something or the other that gives expression to their deepest, most acutely felt emotions. Blogs and websites feed this interest in innovative and accessible ways. I find Facebook and Twitter awash with good and meaningful bits and pieces of Urdu poetry, showing how younger people are ‘accessing’ Urdu and in the best meaning of the word, ‘owning’ it, thus keeping it not merely alive but also healthy and current. A snatch of Urdu poetry, a fragment of lost memory from a syncretic past holds promise for the future of Urdu. I, for one, would be happier if new and powerful writings, vigorous debate, intellectual discourse in Urdu would replenish its existing stock.

— The writer is an author, critic, translator and literary historian

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