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Urdu: The revival of the language of romance and poetry

A few centuries ago, a language known as Hindavi/Hindi flourished in the plains of North India. It was the zabaan-e Urdu-e mualla-e-Shahjahanabad, the language of the exalted city/court of Shahjahanabad, which corresponds to modern-day Old Delhi. This language was also known as Dihlavi, Hindi/Hindvi, Gujri, Dakani and Rekhta in various stages of its life till the late 19th century.

Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II (.1759-1806), who was proficient in many languages, including Sanskrit, was a poet who wrote in Hindi and popularised it in Shahr-e-Urdu-e-Mualla (Shahjahanabad) by speaking it informally in his royal court.

The journey of Hindi to Urdu is fascinating and must be seen in the context of the rise of the British East India Company (EIC) in India, their policies of divide and rule to gain control and the events leading up to the First War of Indian Independence in 1857 and its fallout.

Very soon, Hindavi/Hindustani, written in Perso-Arabic script, came to be called Urdu, and when written in Devnagari, it became Hindi. But, more importantly, both were also burdened with religious affiliations – Urdu was seen as the Muslim tongue, while Hindi was identified with Hindus.

Urdu is one of India’s 22 official languages but still carries the tag of being the language of Muslims. More so since Pakistan – with only eight percent Urdu speakers – adopted it as their national language.

Over the years, linguists and fans of the language – which has spawned some of the most classical poems and songs in the subcontinent – have lamented a decline in the prestige and standing of Urdu.

But is there any truth in the fear that Urdu is on the decline?

At the annual Jashn-e Rekhta – an annual Urdu literary festival held in New Delhi by the non-profit Rekhta Foundation in the first week of December – the crowds have been so large every year that the gates had to be closed for fear of a stampede.

I talked to Huma Mirza, writer, translator, trustee and advisor of Rekhta Foundation and editor of Rekhta Rauzan. She said, “Two-and-a-half days of Jashn-e-Rekhta and an audience of three lakhs this year speak volumes for the love of Urdu and its tehzeeb in our Hindustan.

“It’s the incredible richness of Urdu and the depth of its distinct forms of literary expressions that draws stadium crowds in a country like India where it is not even taught in schools.”

She gushes about the increasing number of daily hits, running into millions, on as a testimony to the fact that most of the young generation still find their heart throbbing with the most profound human emotions and that they want to be in such a pluralistic culture and intellectual space.

Entrepreneur S. Amir Bashir, who put up stalls at the event, talks of the wonderful response he got. “We have seen a lot of demand for Urdu merchandise (essentially revolving around Urdu poetry). In fact, at this year’s Rekhta festival, we ran out of most of our stock by the end of each day.”

He adds a pertinent point, “The demand is more for merchandise in Roman script (or where both the scripts (English and Urdu are present) as people can read it easily.”

Many buyers buy Urdu merchandise and get it written on a piece of paper in Roman for their reference.

Tayyab Rizvi, the owner of A.H. Clothing that sells shawls, stoles and kurtas with verses in Perso-Arabic script, is also doing great business and even has international orders.

But does this translate to Urdu becoming universal with a growing demand for learning the script? Purists decry the number of people reading Urdu in its own script as a loss of the language since Urdu has specific pronunciations of many words which can only be written in the Perso-Arabic script. It also means that the rich treasure trove of Urdu manuscripts and books can’t be read unless they are translated, and a translation also has its limitations.

However, of late, there has been an increase in the number of online classes teaching the language.

Dharmendra Saha, general manager of Rekhta Foundation, who himself learnt Urdu during the pandemic, says that over the last 3-4 years, more than 1.4 lakh people registered on their website to learn Urdu. The various Urdu academies in each state also run certificate courses. Delhi Academy has nine such centres.

Are we, then, seeing an Urdu revival?

Nasheet Shadani, Founder of the portal ‘Ishq Urdu’, calls his 650k followers his online family of Urdu lovers.

“We have seen great engagements and a tremendous response to our online Urdu course. People from different backgrounds are eager to learn the script for various reasons,” he says. “Some learn to be able to write lyrics and songs, some for reviving their family legacy through old letters and books, and others for the aesthetics of it. People are taking time out of their busy schedule and spending money to learn the language.”

In the past few years, there has been a proliferation of online resources for learning Urdu and social media accounts teaching the nuances of the language and reciting poetry, awakening an interest in it.

While many learn the script to enjoy poetry, many scholars are learning Urdu as it gives them access to the rich archives.

Sarthak Malhotra, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, says that he had learnt Urdu as a college student at Delhi University “from a friend mostly because I was keen to learn the script that my grandfather had grown up with in Lahore”. It also gives him an edge in his ethnographic research on Tajganj, Agra, as many histories of the city are written only in Urdu.

Paul Abraham of Sarmaya Arts Foundation, a digital museum and art foundation, says, “I started learning Urdu with the intention of improving my capability to decipher coins and other documents which I would come across in my journey of collecting.”

But is Urdu only preserved as a language of poetry and the elite of North India?

“India has a vibrant Urdu press, and these newspapers are published from almost all the regions.” We must also keep in mind that Urdu is the medium of instruction in various schools and madrasas in the country, which means that for many Indians, Urdu is their first language in which they communicate and consume Urdu newspapers, magazines and books.

In terms of circulation, the annual report of Registrar Of Newspaper For India for 2020-21shows that Hindi publications lead with 18,93,96,236 copies (49.01 percent ), while Urdu comes fourth with 2,61,14,412 copies per publishing day with a 6.76 percent share of the market.

Amongst dailies, Urdu newspapers claimed the second position with a circulation of 2,18,06,994 copies per publishing day (9.65 percent), second only to Hindi.

As I write this, in a delicious coincidence, I get a message from Aurangabad from a group called Urdu Miraas, promoting Urdu, who want to send me an Urdu calendar they have made. So my day is also made.

Let us not be in a hurry to write its obituary.