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Tracing the Journey of Urdu in India

Written by Mehar Bahl

October 9th, 2020

The mellifluous charm of poetics never ceases to please – a lyrical, ringing quality that serves to alleviate the soul itself. This inherent beauty is accentuated when expressed in a language that always seems to flow. Urdu, in present day, is seen through a coloured lens: One that not only views it as the language of ghazal and shayari, but also adopts sociolinguistic features in branding it as an Islamic tongue Such a religious understanding of the origins of Urdu, places it as the tongue of Mughal Conquerors. But digging deeper reveals nuance in its origins that may be uncomfortable for many to digest.

In a pre medieval India, once filled with a rich, diverse population of khariboli speakers, the invasion of the would be Delhi Sultanate shifted this dynamic, establishing Persian as the official language. However the linguistic incursion was never complete. In a long tradition of establishing control and kingship, ideological imperialism – the act of promoting a ‘superior’ culture, over an ‘inferior’ one – has been rooted in the uprooting of a culture, encoded symbolically in language. As far as speculation goes, this would have been the intent of the conquerors who set foot in India. But while Persian managed to establish itself as the language of the courts through Mughal rule, something very peculiar was happening. An overwhelming majority of the population spoke Old Hindi. A curious intermingling of Hindu and Islamic cultures, brought on by the interactions of natives and the Mughals gave rise to Hindustani, a composite of the Ganga-Jamuna Tehzeeb. This language acquired words from both Persian and Old Hindi, meshing them together in such an intricately woven pattern that it became hard to distinguish where the two tongues linked together. There were no breaks in connectivity and the masses found themselves communicating in this new dialect. Slowly, it came to be called Hindi. Far from being the Hindi we know in the present day, this language that dominated the cultural landscape from the 13th century to the end of the 18th century is what we today call Urdu. It was only near the end of Aurangzeb’s reign, in 1780 that the term Urdu was first coined, deriving its name from the Turkic word for army for it emerged as ‘a language of the camps’.

Retaining the core grammar structure of the Indo-Aryan languages, Urdu rejected the Devanagari script to adopt the Nastaleeq writing system – a style of Persian calligraphy. In the circles of the elite and learned, both Hindus and Muslims wrote the language in the Perso-Arabic style while the majority of Hindu masses chose to write in the Devanagari that they were familiar with in literary and religious contexts. The consequent invasion by the British was to bring another linguistic upheaval. To erode the dominance of the prevalent official language, Persian, they encouraged the learning of Urdu – what they chose to call Hindustani. Urdu, along with English soon replaced Persian as the co-official languages of India. The Islamic colonial schools, in a bid to attract the Muslim population to seek government education, taught Urdu in the Perso-Arabic script. This, in time, led to the Indian Muslims identifying with Urdu and owning it up as their language. The Hindus rebelled, insisting that the language should also be written in the Devanagari script and eventually the rift broadened enough to delineate ‘Urdu’ in the Perso-Arabic script as the Muslim language and ‘Hindi’ in the Devanagari script as the Hindu language. What had been once been a single language spoken collectively by the masses broke down through sectarian conflicts, eventually splitting into two separate ones.

With time there was an attempt to Persianise Urdu and Sanskritse Hindi, giving rise to two near artificial languages. The new vocabulary added draw from Sanskrit for Hindi and from Persian/Arabic for Urdu to facilitate the ‘purifying’ of the tongues. Till date they are seen in scholarly circles as the same language, Hindi-Urdu, existing on a continuum of dichotomous dialects based on Persian or Sanskrit. The differences in script emerge in present day Standard Hindi and Standard Urdu while the vocabulary remains an unintelligible mix of Sanskrit, Prakrit, Arabic and Persian.

In literary circles, Urdu emerged as a language with scope for exploration, providing a space for the testing of various writing styles and forms. While the afsana is the most popular prose form, the dominant forms in poetry are ghazals and nazms. Hindi storytellers have increasingly expoerimented with the Urdu short story and the music industry has borrowed heavily from the language in its compositions. The wide sprawl of Indian cinema has taken Urdu to the masses while allowing Hindi to travel across borders. In an interaction with some Afghani peers a couple of years ago, I found that while some of them could converse in Hindi with ease, all of them could certainly understand the language. Considering the global nature of the gathering, automatically rendering English as the dominant language of parlance, we took a special pleasure in using Hindi while talking to the Afghans.

It is hard to deny the poetic power of Urdu as a language. As it amalgamated four existing tongues into one whole, it shed the harsh contours of syntax, form and pronunciation, the complex syllables and the formulaic quality of Sanskrit to result in a pleasant, ringing, sweet language, bubbling with the aesthetics that continue to charm. With sweeping force of emotion and strength of structure, Urdu poetry holds the imagination captive and has established its undeniable authority in the world of literature and music.

With the passage of time, and the toning down of rivalries and hostilities, Urdu has found its way back into India. A great role has been played by translators of Ghalib and others, by those such as Gulzar who choose to write in the language, retaining it’s original flavour. Literary and cultural festivals such as Jashn-e-Rekhta and Jashn-e-adab are dedicated to the cause of reviving it for the masses and brining to the fore, a lost literary tradition. But I believe that the strength of the language is latent in its sheer beauty and will keep it from drowning in the chasms of oblivion.

Anita Desai’s In Custody, chronicles the struggle of a university professor to preserve the language and gives us a keen insight into the politics of linguistics that brought me to erase arc he and write this piece. The recognition of Urdu as one of the four official languages of the country can only do so much in keeping it alive. It is perhaps incumbent upon us to seek to learn it, if we wish for it to survive and stand the test of an increasing global world that preferred English above all other tongues for a long time. The present day emphasis on the importance of multilingualism can serve as the sounding board for the recognition of this language. But it is equally necessary to shatter the illusions of any tongue as belonging to a religion. While I can’t see India being religiously tolerant in the near future, perhaps we can rescue Urdu from the politics shrouding it. Language is permeable, it crosses across boundaries, across skins and nationalities and ethnicities to find its home in emotion. 

Experience Further: Sectarian and religious conflicts run rife in our world and create unmeaningful boundaries that only seek to divide. The walls that have come up due to such differences have politicized the use and to some extent, the ideas about origins of languages. This ghazal by Ghalib accurately captures the essence of these superfluous divisions, and calls out the world for being a ‘tamasha’ or a child’s play. In this the poet laments the loss of all that matters and critiques the world for what it has become. Jagjit Singh’s mellifluous voice adds depth and emotion to the words, brining alive the very pain of the poet.

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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