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Urdu: a shared legacy

Anthropologists have written about how language isn’t merely a mode of communication but actually the repository of so much more; centuries of wisdom, culture, mores, history, literature and art, writes Ali Khan Mahmudabad.

india Updated: Sep 13, 2010 22:50 IST

The decline of Urdu is not a recent phenomenon. In 1900, Anthony MacDonnell, Governor of the United Provinces, sounded the death knell of Urdu. He passed an order that it should not be used as the official bureaucratic language. Since then, and arguably even before that, Urdu and the culture associated with it has slowly eroded. As a language, Urdu is in the unique position of having been originally created as a bridge between people who spoke different languages in India. Muslims who came to India between the 11th century right up to Mughal times may have come as conquerors. But, unlike the British, they stayed and made India their home.

All these people spoke languages which were not native to India; Persian, Turkic languages like Chaghatai and Dari. However, in order to communicate and interact, Urdu was created. It drew in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hindi and, therefore, was spoken by people regardless of caste or creed. However, in 1901, in a census by the British, the language fell prey to communalisation. Urdu was listed as a Muslim language and Hindi as a Hindu one. These distinctions had never been made before and the poetry of people like Brij Narayan ‘Chakbast’, Gopi Chand ‘Aman’ and Pandit Harichand ‘Akhtar’ testifies to this.

Even in my lifetime, I have seen Awadhi culture get eroded. Young people have no incentive to learn Urdu because in today’s world there is no value added by Urdu. People make a mockery of history by talking about Lucknow’s ganga-jamani tehzeeb. The tehzeeb was derived from a nuanced history and a vibrant intellectual tradition, which itself was dependent on Urdu. If the language cannot survive how can the tehzeeb? Many anthropologists have written about how language is not merely a mode of communication but actually the repository of so much more; centuries of wisdom, culture, mores, history, literature and art. Wajid Ali Shah, the last ruler of Awadh was a prolific poet, and his eulogies in memory of the Prophet’s family are still recited today in Lucknow and Mahmudabad. However, he is not remembered for his contribution to Urdu. His image as an ‘oriental hedonistic king’, which was originally perpetuated by the British, persists today.

Today many States like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka have encouraged people to preserve their local traditions and culture and, indeed, India has become a leading tourist destination. Unfortunately, Awadh has not benefitted at all from this interest in heritage, preservation and conservation. Conversely, buildings and monuments are neglected, arts and craft are dying out and traditional forms of music have very limited patronage. The World Monument Fund has listed the Qila or fort of the Raja of Mahmudabad as a crucial historical site. The Qila is still the epicentre for various religious and cultural traditions and, therefore, remains a ‘living’ and organic entity and not just an old architectural ruin.

Every year on Moharram, while commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain 1,400 years go in Karbala, Hindus and Muslims participate in processions in Mahmudabad. This is not proof of ‘democratic India’ or ‘secular India’ but actually shows that India, at a far deeper and more visceral level, has been — and is — a rich tapestry, which has absorbed multiple influences over centuries and woven them to create a layered and textured society. This is not to say that there aren’t differences between the various peoples who live in India but if one strives to find commonalities, the distinctions become superfluous.

Just like Urdu acted as a bridge for people who didn’t understand each other, we should look to our common history to better understand each other today. It is this legacy that we must preserve as Indians.

Ali Khan Mahmudabad is reading for a PhD in Indian History at the University of Cambridge

The views expressed by the author are personal