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Safarnama-e-Urdu: Tracing the origins and journey of the language in Delhi

The sub-continent celebrates Urdu Day on November 9. It is time to clear the air around Urdu and give it its rightful place.

delhi Updated: Nov 09, 2017 14:16 IST
Etti Bali
Etti Bali
Hindustan Times
Urdu Day,Urdu,Language
View of Old Delhi from Jama Masjid(Shivam Saxena/HT)

“Ye ‘nanak’ ki ye ‘Khusraw’ ki ‘daya-shankar’ ki boli hai
ye diwali ye baisakhi ye id-ul-fitr holi hai
magar ye dil ki dhadkan aaj-kal dil ki jalan kyun hai
watan mein be-watan kyun hai”

This is the language of Nanak, Khusrao and Daya Shankar
This is Diwali, Baisakhi, Eid-ul-Fitr and Holi
Why has this heartbeat become a cause of heart burn?
Why is it in exile in its own country?

These lines by poet Manzar Bhopali encapsulate the uncertainty Urdu, a part of the Hindostani language spoken in north India, is going through. Urdu, which literally translates to Lashkar (army) took birth in Hindostan under the influence of Persian and Arabic languages brought in by various invaders. It was also influenced by the dialects and regional languages spoken in areas bordering Delhi. As the sub-continent observes Urdu Day today, we trace its history, journey and its current status in our society.

“Till the end of the 18th century, all official documents were in Persian. But with the downfall of the Mughal empire, Urdu became more common. The British made Urdu the official language around 1830s, and till 1947, Urdu was the medium of instruction in schools,” says Abdul Aziz, former Urdu professor at Zakir Hussain Delhi College.

Historian and author Rana Safvi, who translated Zahir Dehlvi’s Dastan-e-Ghadar, says that Urdu had become a representative of the fight for independence. “Urdu was closely involved with the struggle for freedom. The Progressive Writers’ Movement (1936) relied heavily on the language. An awakening spread that Urdu needs to be taken beyond gham-e-jaana (lamenting for the beloved) and used as a unifying tool for the reformation of society,” she says.

It is interesting to note that “Dilli was called the Urdū-yi Muʿallā —exalted camp, and the language was referred to as Zabān-i Urdū-yi Muʿallā — the language of the exalted camp,” she adds.

The sprawling Urdu Bazar, as seen from the minaret of Jama Masjid. (Shivam Saxena/HT)

What happened with the Partition? With mass displacement and division of land and assets, language also had to pay a price. “The fight between languages began around 1830. Then, in the 1920s, came the dividing forces of All India Muslim League and Indian National Congress. The final nail in the coffin was when Pakistan declared Urdu its national language. This pushed people in India to completely do away with Urdu. It became a victim of communal politics,” explains Aziz.

Even colleges in the city were major centres for Indo-Aryan languages, but it changed after 1947. “Before Partition, St Stephen’s, Hindu and Sri Ram College for Commerce were the biggest centres of Urdu, Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit. Now, the departments remain only in registers. Even if students opt for these courses, colleges have to invite ad hoc faculty members, as there are not enough professors,” says Aziz, who has authored three books.

What would Bollywood dialogues sound like if not for Urdu? (Facebook/IshqUrdu)

Here, the question of viability of Urdu arises. How to preserve the language? “The need to preserve history and culture seems to fall on deaf ears because the way we have been told stories is really boring and conventional,” says artist Nasheet Shadani. Through his initiative Ishq Urdu, he strives to modernise the language so that it reaches the younger generation in a way they relate with. “It is time to re-invent storytelling. Social media platforms give us the opportunity to tell stories in new and interesting ways,” he says. His page on Facebook has over 250K followers, 75% of whom belong to the age group of 13-24 years. “The purpose of this page is to talk to this younger crowd,” he says.

Ishq Urdu, a social media platform, helps contemporise the language. (Facebook/IshqUrdu)

Language and literature fests are also aiding the cause. “Festivals like Jashn-e-Rekhta and Jashn-e-Adab are helping in reviving the language. People are speaking it, and also reading it in Devanagari and Roman scripts. There’s also a rising interest among people to learn the script,” says Safvi.

The quest to trace the origin of the language takes us right inside the heart of Old Delhi, Urdu Bazar. Once a flourishing hub for publishers, now, only a handful of them remain. At Maktaba Jamia, a publishing unit established in the 1920s, AK Zaidi sits next to a bookshelf lined with Urdu titles. He takes care of the administrative work at the publishing house, and says that the demand for Urdu language books has gone up in the recent years. “Many youngsters, including non-Muslim readers, are asking for authors and poets like Munawwar Rana, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Makhdoom, Majaz Lakhnawi and Ismat Chughtai. They are learning the Urdu script so that they can read better,” he says. Like culture, language, he feels, cannot be claimed by anyone in particular. “Zubaan kisi ki jaageer nahi hoti; Urdu toh paida hi Hindustan mein hui thi. (No one has ownership over Urdu; it was born in Hindostan),” he says.

The shelves at Maktaba Jamia are lined with Urdu titles. (Shivam Saxena/HT)

Moving on to one of the oldest publishing house in the area, Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu (established in 1939), we discover that only seven such shops remain in the area — out of the original 64. “A business sense crept in and when people started thinking in terms of profits and losses, it made them move on to better avenues,” says Nizamuddin, sitting cosily in the 100-year-old building that houses his shop. At the height of its popularity, the bazar used to be lit with mushairas and mehfils, and poets of the likes of Rahat Indori would visit. “They still do, but it’s not like it used to be. There was a time when Munshi Premchand visited our shop. Those people have moved on,” he says.

At Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, Nizamuddin reads out a firmaan (order) issued by emperor Aurangzeb. (Shivam Saxena/HT)

A man walks up to him, asking for a copy of Panj Surah, a religious book. Nizamuddin enquires, in chaste Urdu, what language and size does he want the book in — “Urdu, Arabi, Hindi? Chota, darmiyana, bada?” It is very difficult, almost unperceivable, to imagine what the language of the city would have been if not for Urdu. We have heard these words before, and probably used them, never realising that the lines are blurred when it comes to Hindi and Urdu. No one can ever say where one ends and the other begins.

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First Published: Nov 09, 2017 14:15 IST