It's a crisp winter evening and a tasteful sundowner party is underway in a posh New Delhi enclave. Among the guests are an assortment of young executives, artists and designers. As the sun begins to set, the host announces the highlight of the evening - an informal mushaira or reading of Urdu poetry.
For the next hour, the youngsters sit listening intently as verses in that lyrical language float out over the city, transporting the scene to another era.
Urdu, the lost language of the elite, is quietly making a comeback. It's not just the poetry. In June this year, a new TV channel called Zindagi - launched by Zee Entertainment Enterprises - began bringing conversational Urdu back into Indian drawing rooms, through Pakistani soap operas where the characters speak predominantly Hindustani, interspersed with phrases and words from that ancient language.
"The Pakistani shows are hugely popular and now everyone suddenly wants to know the meaning of words like musalsal [continuous] and akhrajat [expenses]," says Urdu poet and JNU professor Minu Bakshi. Zindagi has even begun running translations of Urdu words in English and Hindi as a result.
"The reason we chose Pakistani soaps was because of the ornate and beautiful softness in the language," says Priyanka Datta, business head for Zindagi. "It was so familiar to us that it needed no translation, and as we expected, the response has been phenomenal." Zindagi already has more than 310,000 likes on its Facebook page and 10,000 followers on Twitter.
Aijaz Ilmi, editor of Urdu daily, Siyasat Jadid (New Politics) and a national member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, says: "Apart from popularity on TV, the renewed interest of youngsters in Urdu on social media is an eye-opener."
From conversations to translations, there is a sudden spurt in online dialogue about Urdu which suggests that it is being viewed as a language waiting to be explored and adopted back in popular culture. "There are an increasing number of websites dedicated to Urdu, most of them set up not by Urdu activists or academicians but by individuals just interested in the language," Ilmi says.
"Urdu is an integral part of our culture; one cannot ignore it," adds artist and Urdu revivalist Saba Hasan. "The problem arose after Partition, when most of the Urdu-speaking population moved out and we started associating it with Pakistan. Urdu got lost in the game of borders and politics. The language was deliberately edged out and its promotion was suppressed. Slowly, the Urdu signboards vanished and all other remnants of its pervasive past were forgotten."
Rakshanda Jalil who runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation that seeks to popularise Urdu, adds: "If there is any language that has a religious significance in Islam, it's Arabic. It's wrong to bracket Urdu as the language of a certain community. Forget a religion, Urdu doesn't even have a geography."
"What we need is a realisation that Urdu is not just the language of the poetry of Mirza Ghalib and Faiz Ahmad Faiz but a language of contemporary knowledge, rational thinking, commerce and liberalism, as it was when Urdu publishing houses were run by literary historians of all faiths," adds Urdu-lover, lawyer and human rights activist Shehzad Poonawalla.
MAKING A COMEBACK
A key reason why Urdu may be experiencing a revival now, says poet and JNU professor Bakshi, is the growing interest in Sufism. "In this strife-torn world, suddenly Sufism is gaining more followers and it is closely associated with healing through Urdu music," she says. That Urdu is beyond boundaries and beliefs is the common notion of Sufi artists as well. Murad Ali, a sixth-generation sarangi player, says, "During our music performances, we get so many requests to recite Sufi kalams [devotional songs]."
Another genre, qawwali, which has a 750-year history and was once identified as Muslim devotional music, has been gaining increasingly widespread acceptance too. Qawwali parties are an urban trend and qawwals are now being invited to perform at wedding functions and get-togethers by Hindus and Muslims alike.
Saqlain Nizami of the Nizami Brothers, who sang the popular qawwali Kun Faya Kun in the Bollywood film Rockstar (pictured above) says they get more requests for qawwalis from non-Muslims than from Muslims. 'We recite everything from bhajans to Kabir Das dohas to the works of 18th-century Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh Shah,' he says.
"The fact is that there are qawwalis that mention Krishna and Radha too," says Murad Ali. "And 13th-century Amir Khusrow, whose writings we recite, wrote not just in Urdu but also in Brij Bhasha [a dialect of Hindi]." Saqlain Nizami of the Nizami Brothers, who sang the popular qawwali Kun Faya Kun in the Hindi film Rockstar (2012) says they get more requests for qawwalis from non-Muslims than from Muslims. "People organise qawwali sessions at home on festive occasions and we recite everything from bhajans to Kabir Das dohas to the works of 18th-century Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh Shah."
While Bollywood can be credited for single-handedly preserving Urdu through the medium of lyrics, according to Urdu lovers, there is much more to the language than ghazals, shayris and words such as ishq (love) and falak (heaven). Indian writer, critic and literary historian Rakshanda Jalil finds it heartening to see that the new realism of Urdu goes beyond associations with love, longing and shayris, with people becoming interested in the script too.
Bakshi laments that the growth of Urdu is stunted because it gets little to no support at the government level. "Urdu should be taught as a compulsory language in schools. It's sad that even in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where Urdu is in use, it's not compulsory in schools," she adds. Jalil, however, feels it is Urdu publishing that needs to improve, in order to promote the language and build on its growing popularity. "It is up to Urdu-speaking people to promote the language," she says. "We don't need the government taking our cause further. Many schools offer Urdu as a third language and if more and more schools do that, there will not only be more jobs for Urdu teachers but more youngsters who know Urdu too."
Ilmi would agree. "The government cannot be expected to support every language," he says. "Urdu is a language strong enough to survive on its own." They would seem to be in a minority, though. At a time when an ancient language such as Sanskrit is getting a push from the Centre, Urdu is being neglected. As activist Poonawalla puts it: "Urdu has no community or religion. It has lovers and it needs consumers, not just of its cultural expression but of its books, its science its commerce, its news. Urdu's survival lies not in the romanticism by the few but in it becoming the business of many."
FASHION WITH CROSS-BORDER APPEAL
If Urdu and Pakistani soaps are increasingly popular on TV, Pakistani fashion is increasingly visible on the streets. Young women are turning to the flattering silhouettes proffered by structured pants and breezy palazzos worn with long kameezes, as seen in the Pakistani serials. "I wouldn't even call it Pakistani influence. It is a hybrid of Mughal, Iranian and Persian influences," says Delhi-based fashion designer Anupama Dayal.
Earlier this year, when a Pakistani lifestyle exhibition called Aalishan Pakistan was held in the Capital, it was the 'Pakistani suits' that drew the largest crowds. "We ended up selling every piece we had brought to display," says Lahore-based Zeeshan Gaffar Khan, who was part of the exhibition. "The churidars, palazzos and cigarette pants were the hottest-selling items. We ran out of stock before the end of the second day, and many shoppers asked why we didn't have a shop or at least a delivery option in India."
Exhibitors added that while Pakistani designs had always been popular with Indians, the TV serials had likely made these style more accessible and aspirational.