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'Finding' the lost Urdu: But did the language ever really go away?

By Irena Akbar | PUBLISHED: 17, Feb 2015, 19:22 pm IST | UPDATED: 17, Feb 2015, 19:22 pm IST

'Finding' the lost Urdu: But did the language ever really go away?

There is Faiz in the air. Urdu, the 'lost' language of the poets, the hopeless romantics and the ardent idealists, is "re-emerging". Several online Facebook groups are dedicated to varied Urdu poets, and Urdu learning websites such as Rekhta and Urduwallahs are becoming popular. Pakistani soap operas, broadcast on Zindagi channel, too are helping “revive” the language that “got lost due to Partition”. A large number of mushairas and qawwalis are being held in metropolitan cities, thus further helping Urdu make a “comeback”.

The question, however, is, did Urdu really go away? If anything, it has stayed on, through Bollywood songs, and since the 1990s, through Hindi news channels. Hindi news channels relay “khabrein”, not “samachar”, as was by Doordarshan. Reporters talk of a “shakhs”, not a “vyakti”, and use “adalat” instead of “nyayalaya”, for example. So, since the 1990s, the use of Urdu in popular media has gone beyond just Hindi cinema and extended to television news. Certainly, the language has not been “dying” as Urdu “revivalists” claim.

What has been dying is not the language, but the credit given to the language. Most people don’t know that many of the words spoken in Hindi films or news channels are Urdu. This is not a case of war between Hindi and Urdu. Both languages are closely linked to and depend on each other for their survival. After Partition, Urdu came to be identified with Muslims. “Muslim” Urdu became the state language of Pakistan and was imposed on native Punjabi, Sindhi and Pashtun speakers. In northern India, the land of Urdu and Hindi, the language lost its popularity among non-Muslim Hindi speakers because of its “Muslim” label. Publishers of Urdu books began focusing only on religious literature, further making it less attractive for the non-Muslim audience. In sad contrast, there was a time when Hindu poets like Firaq Gorakhpuri added so much to Urdu heritage.

After Partition, and even now, it is Hindi cinema and news that have ensured Urdu its space in popular culture. But let’s not get patronising here. Urdu writers such as Salim Khan, Javed Akhtar, Sahir Ludhianvi and Shakeel Badayuni have contributed immensely to Hindi cinema. In fact, many Hindi film titles are in Urdu, like Mohabbatein, Kurbaan, Dil, etc. Most Hindi film singers and actors take classes in Urdu diction. Had it not been for Urdu, would we ever have timeless Bollywood dialogues like “Mogambo khush hua” or “Kitne aadmi the” or “Main tumhara khoon pee jaaoonga”?

Yes, “khush”, “aadmi” and “khoon” are Urdu words. And here is the flipside to the Hindi-Urdu marriage. Urdu has so often been used in Hindi cinema — which is a good thing — that Urdu words are now mistaken as Hindi — which is a bad thing. Hindi has helped Urdu grow in popular culture, but in the process, it has stolen (for lack of a better word) many Urdu words and added to its lexicon. How many of us know that “paani”, “duniya”, “gussa” and “baad” are Urdu words? In Hindi, these words are translated as “jal”, “jag”, “krodh” and “pashchaat”. Some people, thankfully, call this mixed lexicon “Hindustani”, thus acknowledging the frequent use of Urdu in Hindi. In fact, even as the government goes overboard in promoting Sanskrit, its ministers use Urdu words like “Ram-zaade” or “Haraam-zaade” to put their messages across.

But it’s neither the fault of Hindi or Urdu for the dying acknowledgment of the use of Urdu. Languages are used by people, and it’s only people who can make them thrive, survive or perish. So, for the sake of acknowledgment of the the use of Urdu, Hindi and Urdu speakers need to put in their efforts. Sadly, that’s not how it is. Take Zindagi channel. Despite garnering critical appraise and TRPs not just for broadcasting better content but also for “bringing back Urdu to the living rooms”, it has adopted a new tag line: “India’s premium Hindi channel”. When everyone is loving the Urdu being spoken in its serials, why not call itself “India’s premium Urdu channel”? Some say it is a way to attract more viewers. But how will Urdu in its tag line repel viewers? My sad guess is the channel’s decision is probably because of the language’s “Muslim” association.

And here comes the responsibility of Urdu speakers, primarily Muslims of north India. I am not getting into how governments, Muslim political leaders or organisations need to go about Urdu’s cause. I am talking about ordinary Urdu speakers. Here’s a small but telling example. I follow a Facebook page called “Lucknow”. A year or so back, the page would share posts which would display a word, its origin and its use in a couplet. The word, and the couplet, would be displayed in Roman and Devnagri scripts. The origin of the word would invariably be mentioned as Persian or Arabic. It was clear the word belonged to the Urdu language. But why no mention of Urdu? I asked the administrator of the page if, alongside the Roman and Devngari scripts, the word could be written in Persian script, so that people know it’s Urdu. The administrator, a Lucknow-based Muslim, said he had a “space problem” and “nobody understands Urdu”. It’s when other followers of the page, mostly non-Muslim, started demanding that they would like to read the word in Persian script, that the administrator agreed to my suggestion.

At the launch of an Urdu daily in the capital about two years ago, prominent Muslim businessman Sirajuddin Qureshi had said that he had started an Urdu newspaper some time back but no Muslim family he knew subscribed to it and so he had to shut it down. Also, when the Census was being conducted sometime in 1999-2000, some of our Muslim neighbours had said their native language was Hindi, even though they spoke Urdu at home. Their explanation: “Who cares about Urdu now”.

Such uninterested, defeatist “Urdu-is-dead-who-cares” attitude among Muslims will ensure the language continues to be denied the credit it deserves. In such times, it is good news that social media, and Pakistani serials are doing their bit for the Urdu cause. But here too, it would be great to see if praise for Urdu is not limited to just its poetry, but also extends to its simple, humble words that we use in our everyday lives. Ummeed hai hamari khwahish poori ho.