Sunday, April 13, 2008

Urdu in Delhi

There is an interesting essay on the state of the Urdu language in Delhi titled "Urdu and the City" in this week's issue of Outlook India. There is some conflicting evidence presented about a mini-surge of interest in Urdu beyond the traditional Muslim readership (particularly those with the ability to read the script). What I found most interesting were the innovative performing art approaches to introduce Urdu to newer audiences. Anees Azmi's children's plays, his readings of "Ghalib Ke Khatoot" and Mahmood Faruqi's "Daastan Goi" seem to be genuinely creative efforts at a softer pedagogy. Zia Mohyuddin's readings have performed a similarly invigorating role in introducing classics of Urdu literature to the "English Medium" segment of younger Pakistanis. (Photograph is of Mahmood Farooqi during a performance. He performs the epic "Daastan-e-Ameer Hamza Sahibqiraan". I believe Mahmood is the son of the eminent Urdu critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi.)

Nobody who loves Urdu language and literature can be indifferent to the vigor of Urdu's health in the centers of its historical birth in Delhi and UP. Even though Urdu continues to be patronized at the higher education level by the Indian government, the state of the language at the grassroots is by all accounts unenviable. Urdu has suffered in post-partition India both by its exclusive association with Muslims and perhaps more grievously by not having any Indian state which could adopt it as its first and official language. The heart of Urdu's historic presence became the Hindi heartland in post-independence India and Urdu shrunk to a niche language of the Muslim lower middle classes. An essay by Syed Shahabuddin in the 2003 Annual of Urdu Studies titled "Urdu in India, Education and Muslims - A Trinity Without a Church" sheds some interesting light on this issue (even if you don't necessarily agree with his prescription). Fortunately, Urdu's rich literary heritage and its widely appreciated mellifluous cadences have helped it maintain a stubborn presence in the poetic and musical high culture of India.


readerswords said...

For all practical purposes, Urdu is now a ghetto language. A few nostalgic adherents from the elites also continue to patronize it reciting classical Urdu poetry. Even Hindustani- something between Urdu and Hindi and upheld mostly by the cinema folks, is getting dissolved in Hinglish- a mix of Hindi and English.

In this bleak scenario, the silver lining is revival of Urdu newspapers especially in UP/MP. A few years ago, newspapers in Urdu were stagnant or declining, this has now fortunately changed.

Fawad said...

@ readerswords, thanks for your comment. It is sad to hear your observations on the state of Urdu in India. I have reflected on this before but for all the ills of partition one big benefit has been the preservation and thriving of Urdu as a living language in the state of Pakistan. Urdu suffers from many issues in Pakistan as well (particularly a lack of a hearty embrace from the younger elites) but it is now truly a lingua franca across the provinces with no controversy about the script (since Bangladesh's independence). Everybody who is literate learns to read and write it. The best evidence is the private media channels where you see everyone from politicians to people on the street from even alienated corners of the country communicating in fairly decent Urdu.

I believe that in a united India Urdu's fate would have been close to what it is in India today. The Urdu heartland (Delhi, UP, Bihar and further away Hyderabad) would have had Muslims in a minority and no state would have had Urdu as its first language. Punjab, which was the other center of Urdu writing and journalism would have likely given greater prominence to Punjabi which was the linguistic link between Hindu, Muslim and Sikh Punjabis. Of course, these are all speculative what ifs but interesting to ponder.

sanyukta said...


in case you have any information, please could you let me know about any books/memoir in urdu written after the partition about the city of delhi, for example the changes in the city post-partition written by any dilliwala? thanks