Review: Urdu Adab’s special issue called Shahjahanabad
The journal’s special issue is essential reading for those interested in the history of Delhi for academic, cultural and linguistic reasons
Recorded history, the kind that has increasingly become unpopular these days, states the city that we know today as Delhi is actually not one but seven cities in one. Seasoned historians widely acknowledge the number could be even higher. The reason is pretty simple. Delhi has been the seat of power and the preferred capital of several famous and infamous emperors, kings, queens and despots since time immemorial. Due to its strategic location, it has, over the centuries, acquired many avatars and monikers — from Indraprastha to Qila Rai Pithora, Lal Kot, Firozabad, Tughlaqabad, Shahjanabad, Dilli, Dehli and finally, Delhi. Interestingly, a significant corpus of this phenomenal city’s history was written down in Urdu, the language that dominated the discourse in northern India before the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947.
In independent India after Partition, this language was targeted by those sections of society that sought to divide the populace along religious, linguistic and ethnic lines and destroy the country’s composite culture and secular ethos. These divisive forces privileged linguistic chauvinism and pegged Urdu as the language of one community alone. In Pakistan, Urdu was adopted as the national language, but at the cost of other regional and ethnic modes of expression. In both cases, Urdu was weaponized for the narrow political gains of a select few.
The result was the rich and informative records and works of history transcribed in Urdu and Persian came under threat of being lost. This happened because Urdu was no longer taught in the state-sanctioned or private school system, and synchronously, its importance declined, and official patronage was withdrawn. Government sanction and official patronage are the only ways to ensure archives and records survive the ravages of time.
To understand this, a similar parallel can be drawn in the case of Turkey. On 1 November 1928, when Ataturk Mustafa Kamal Pasha, as part of his reforms and in keeping with the Kemalist ideology, enforced the new Latin-based alphabet replacing the erstwhile Ottoman-Turkish script, he closed a significant chapter of Turkey’s long and rich linguistic history. Previously, the Turkish language was also an integral part of Islamic history, with the Turkish Caliphate serving as the symbolic leader of the Islamic world. With this move, that history was unceremoniously severed.
Urdu has survived despite official neglect and the concerted efforts of groups with vested interests. Excellent English translations of some Urdu and Farsi books, especially historical texts, have ensured their survival. There are certain voluntary organizations doing yeoman’s service for the cause of Urdu. Primary among them is the Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu (Hind), or ATUH, which is the most respected Urdu organization in independent India. ATUH enjoys the same status in Urdu as Académie Française (French Academy) does in terms of the canonization of French. ATUH, established in 1882 by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, was, until 1990, the sole advisor to GOI on all matters related to Urdu. It has been primarily responsible for all constructive movements in Urdu post-Independence, including setting up state Urdu Academies and departments of Urdu in various universities and granting official-language status to Urdu in various states, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. ATUH has maintained a dignified distance from political parties and changing governments to ensure the non-interference of the establishment in its independent functioning. It is the only grassroots-level Urdu organization with 650 branches across India — one in almost every city in the country with a substantial Urdu-speaking populace. Since Liberalization though, the Urdu-speaking population has fallen victim to the same fallacy as the speakers of other Indian languages and has moved towards English for better employability and upward social mobility. As a result, ATUH’s mass base has weakened, but its survival is not under threat, unlike other voluntary Urdu organizations, such as the state Urdu academies, who survive solely on the government dole. Such officially-sanctioned funds and the resultant complacency have decisively harmed Urdu culture’s long and distinguished tradition of voluntary efforts. Nevertheless, the rich tradition of Urdu literature has survived owing to the academic rigour and independent zeal of scholars and the painstaking efforts of voluntary organizations such as ATUH, and not due to the role played by the state.
The organization has ensured the beacon of Urdu continues to shine by publishing a quarterly journal for the past 100 years that has successfully maintained high scholarly standards. Urdu Adab’s special issue called Shahjahanabad is essential reading for those interested in the history of Delhi for academic, cultural and linguistic reasons. Notably, most articles in this special issue were in Urdu. The article by Irfan Habib, a rare work of history written originally in Urdu, is an updated version of his keynote address at a literary festival organized by ATUH in March 2022.
This special issue is a collector’s item and a must-read for Delhi aficionados. Among other noteworthy academic writings on Urdu, the issue also includes articles on the three most important historical books on Delhi from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — Aasar us-Sanadeed, Sair ul-Manazil and Waqiaat-i Dar ul-Hukumat Delhi.
Aasar us-Sanadeed shot to fame primarily due to the author Sir Syed’s status at the time of the book’s publication. Sir Syed founded the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College and was a colossal figure in the Muslim imagination. He could best be described as the epitome of the Muslim Renaissance man. The college he founded was upgraded in 1920, 22 years after his death, to the present-day Aligarh Muslim University, which boasts a very distinguished department of history. Aasar us-Sanadeed is an excellent text but the fame and reach it enjoyed were indebted to the author’s importance rather than to its merits as a book.
Sair ul-Manazil, originally written in Farsi and considered a definitive nineteenth-century account of Delhi’s sociology, geography and architecture, was simultaneously translated by two eminent historians — Swapna Liddle and Shama Mitra Chenoy. An early draft of Liddle’s translation was prepared by Nausheen Jaffrey, a promising young research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia who suffered a premature and tragic death. Post her demise, Liddle had to finalize the manuscript, almost writing it afresh. Interestingly, both translations were based on the 1982 Urdu translation by Sharif Husain Qasemi, who, after a gap of many decades, has translated the text afresh with copious footnoting and annotations. This revised text was published by ATUH. Although the aforementioned books are outstanding translations, it could be useful if both translators updated their works in view of Professor Qasemi’s revised text. Nonetheless, this text received way less attention than Aasar us-Sanadeed.
Waqiaat-i Dar ul-Hukumat Delhi too, although no less important than Aasar us-Sanadeed, has received far less attention. Incidentally, Ather Farouqui, the General Secretary of the Anjuman and editor of the special Urdu Adab issue, is currently translating the massive three-volume Waqiaat-i Dar ul-Hukumat. If his translation of The Last Gathering is any indication, historians interested in Delhi will benefit from a treasure trove of information in this new work that contains lesser-known and fascinating facets of the city’s rich history.
Farouqui’s Urdu translation from English of the title Mansions at Dusk: The Havelis of Old Delhi by Pavan K Varma — a labour of love no longer in print — is another gem featured in Shahjahanabad, the special Urdu Adab issue. Incidentally, the cover photo of the special issue is courtesy Sondeep Shankar, a fellow Stephanian. The iconic photograph symbolized the gradual downfall of the Delhi of havelis. However, every sunset is inevitably followed by sunrise, and so Delhi lived to rise again.
Hopefully, the articles in this issue will soon be translated into English. They will reach a wider audience while making a valuable academic contribution to the corpus of works on Delhi. Alas, this subject is in danger now of being hijacked by social-media enthusiasts with limited knowledge of the city but with a reach in the thousands and millions. Delhi is inextricably linked to Urdu, and their development has been synchronous. Urdu is vital to understanding the Indian cultural milieu.
Very few people know it was the first Indian language to serve as a medium of higher education, even for medical sciences and engineering, which were first taught in India in Jamia Osmania. Established in 1918 in Hyderabad, this great institution was destroyed in the aftermath of the Partition, which is why we know very little about it nowadays. So there is a long and rich history of Urdu, and Shahjahanabad, the special Urdu Adab issue, is an excellent illustration of the fact that Urdu is not the language of poetry alone, nor should it be exoticized or made the subject of caricature by those with limited knowledge and no academic credentials. I am certain this special issue will be translated soon into English and included in the discourse on the history of Delhi across academic fora in the Indian subcontinent and beyond.
This special issue had been edited by the General Secretary of ATUH, Ather Farouqui, a scholar with varied interests, who is one of the most reasonable voices working relentlessly to recognise Indian languages. He is opposed to the hegemony of any language, including Urdu. An alumnus of JNU, Farouqui’s most important works are Redefining Urdu Politics in India (OUP 2006) and Muslims and Media Images (OUP 2009). He brought the 1964 original work on Bahadur Shah Zafar by Aslam Parvez into sharp focus by translating it into English. Farouqui also translated a first-hand account of the Red Fort before 1857 called The Last Gathering and recently published the translation of a rare book by Mirza Ahmad Akhtar Gorgani, the grandson of Bahadur Shah Zafar, as Sawaneh Delhi, The Biography of Delhi (Roli Books 2023). The Last Gathering is a gold mine of information about the food cooked in the royal kitchens in the nineteenth century. An interesting factoid that the book has highlighted, alongside other valuable information, is that “Mughlai food” is an anachronistic and incorrect moniker. None of the emperors from Babur to Zafar hailed themselves as Mughals.
To conclude, there is much more than meets the eye when it comes to understanding the rich and variegated history of Delhi and the equally layered but fraught history of the Urdu language. Rather than looking at these categories superficially, readers and enthusiasts of history would greatly benefit from a deeper scrutiny of the texts and literary pieces that have exhaustively explored these subjects. Shahjahanabad, the special issue of Urdu Adab on Delhi, is definitely a superb point from which to begin this incredible journey of exploration.
A former lecturer of Law and Jurisprudence at Trinity College, Oxford, Salman Khurshid was an Indian minister of external affairs. The author of many books, his play Sons of Babur on the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, has been translated into many languages.