Posts Tagged ‘Literature’


Forgetting Urdu!

December 23, 2008

My father-in-law, Dr Sifat Alavi’s, write up on Urdu



Urdu is a language, which is widely spoken and understood in the sub-continent of India, among the people of the sub-continent who live in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. Apart from English for among the few chosen people with Western Education, it is favoured language of communication among the masses in the sub-continent. What makes it unusual is the capacity to be a language that is equally popular among all the people from various classes of the sub-continent. Further, it is a language with a name, which is not derived from the name of a nation or from a name of a community. It has no nationality or religion. It is truly dynamic for it has the ability to accept words from other languages and hold them to itself giving them their own connotations and special meanings.

Because of its script, vocabulary and its poetry traditions, Urdu mistakenly is considered as a branch of Persian (Farsi), and therefore the language of Muslims of India as opposed to Hindi, the language of Hindus. However, because of its grammatical structure, its phrases and idioms, the fact of the matter is it is closer to Hindi, for it developed from that old Hindi, a relation of Sora.see’ni pra’kat, which was spoken in and around Delhi. The debate is not one way for the literary traditions in the modern Hindi, the Rashtar Bhasha of India, are derived from Urdu.

Because of its origin, its name as “Urdu” is more appropriate than calling it Hindustani. The later name was used by John Gilchrist (Hindoostanee Dictionary, 1787), might be technically correct, but it would also include in its folds other languages e.g. Rajasthani, Eastern Hindi and Western Hindi as well.

Historical Background of Urdu Language

In the present day of the advanced communication technology, where distances are minimised to such an extent that, people of a culture living in different parts of this world do not have to feel isolated. Nevertheless when people of different cultural backgrounds come together, they have a need of mutual communications. If the coexistence of such people is transient then perhaps their need of mutual communication initially could be satisfied by use of hand, face or other body gestures or some basic sign language. Where coexistence is of long duration, then the need of a verbal communication sooner or later leads to exchange of vocabulary in each other’s spoken language(s). How a particular language or the people of that language would accept the foreign vocabulary in their lingua would depend on their (a) political status (b) economic needs (c) cultural needs (d) religious needs. To a lesser extent it would also depend on the majority or dominant culture. The process invariably leads to an enrichment of language (s), which come in contact with each other. However, it would be uncommon or rather would be rare that such contact would lead to the development of a new language.

Today because of the advanced communication technology, less time consuming relatively cheap travel, distance has become irrelevant. People speaking the same language, in this case Urdu, but living in different countries and continents can become a close knit while by paradox also as well as an international community. The number of Urdu speakers increase in the world as the number of years pass but its position as a world language does not necessarily grow to accommodate boundaries which extend outside Asia into the north in North Europe, North America and into the south in South America, Australia and South America. This is because, although it satisfies the cultural, social and religious needs of its speakers, on the international scene its political and economic influence is relatively weak. By contrast, English is strong for United States of America’s cultural imperialism promotes it through out those very zones. Urdu has a chance to assimilate and change but whether it can compete with American English is another matter.

Pre-Christ Language Scene In India

In the Pre-Christ period, the Aryans with their invasion of the subcontinent brought Sanskrit to the Northern parts of India and pushed the original Indian inhabitants with their own vernaculars to the South. With passage of time coupled with a strict cast system of Hindu religion, Sanskrit became a language of high culture and academics restricted to high cast Hindus while spoken language among the majority developed colloquial nature (prak’rit) depending on the socio-economic needs of the people in various regions. With passage of time these prak’rits advanced to become Bha’shas (languages of literary nature and significance). Thus in the 6th Century AD, at least 20 prak’rits were spoken in India of which 5 were important and attained a status of Bha’sha. Those were (1) Pa’li, spoken in Magadh (Bihar) and religious literature of Budh-mat was written in it (2) Jee’nee in which Jain-mat literature was written (3) Ma’ha’rashtri a mixture developed of Aryan and Par’thein (4) Sora’see’in mainly developed in Bridge (Mathura) region [by the time of invasion of India by Alexander the Great had developed as Bridge Bha’sha with various dialects spoken in North India, e.g. Rajasthani, Western Hindi and Eastern Hindi etc] and (5) Magadhi which was spoken in Magadh in addition to Pa’li.

Bridge Bha’sha was spoken from Bihar to Sindh, from Lahore to Malva. During the time of Raja Vikramadita (50 BC) Pandit Draochi formulated the grammar of Bridge Bha’sha, which later in 1868 was researched and published from London under the name “PRAK’RIT PRA’KASH” by Mr. Cowell. South of river Krishna various Dravidian languages were spoken (some of them presently known as Talugu, Malayalam and Tamil etc.) which were relatives of Turani Language (Ural-Altaic and Palo Siberian languages).

The Begining Of Urdu

Before the advent of Modern Islam (late 6th Century), Arabs frequented the trade centres of the Indian subcontinent. It is conceivable that along with exchange of goods of trade, they also exchanged words of mutual interest from their languages. In the middle of the 7th Century, during the period of Khalifa Umar the Great, the Iranian Empire (of Yazdigar) fell to Arab Muslims resulting in the Muslim influence being extended up to Mulatto on the western shores of the river Sindh. However, Muslim forces were not able to establish their rule in the area. In 664 AD Muslims invaded India via Kabul and in 715 AD Mohammad Bin Qasim invaded Sindh but did not stay long. Nevertheless in the post-Christ period, those were the starting points in India for the establishment of a new homeland for the people of different culture and linguistic background. Their permanent presence as new communities among the established Indian communities would have necessitated the need of a mixed language. However, up to 1192, we do not have any written record of such a mixed language except in poetry Chand Barvai in his poem “Parthi Raj Raso“, Dil-pat in his poem “Khaman Raso” and Tur’pat Naal in his poem “Bell Dev Raso” used a number of Arabic and Persian words like dunya, per’var’di’gar, salaam with correct pronunciation and some like kalak for khal’q and pai’gam for pai’ghaam, pher’maan for fermaan with modified pronunciation perhaps because of the absence of appropriate alphabets in Bridge Bha’sha to comprehend Arabic and Persian sounds. Again in that period similar examples can be found in the poetry of the Persian poets. They also used words from local Indian languages. In fact Hakim Sa’na’i, a 12th Century Persian poets, never visited India, but still used certain Hindi words.

Although we find Arabic and Persian words filtering in the local Indian Bha’sha and Prak’rit, up to 1192, we see that, original inhabitants (mostly Hindus) and new settlers (mostly Muslims) formally used their own mother tongues with their scripts for their academic and religious literary pursuits.

At an early stage the new mixed language was simple and without any formality in its daily use. However, with passage of time, this mixed language became structured and broadened its vocabulary by an increase borrowing of words and phrases from Persian, Turkish and Arabic languages. With little modification it accepted Persian alphabets and its script for itself. The use of these modified Persian alphabets along with the diacritical marks in the script gives to Urdu a unique ability to pronounce correctly the words from Hindi as well as from the foreign languages especially from Persian, Arabic and Persian. One cannot loose sight of several other reasons in the development and evolution of a language. It is important to recognise that there is a distinction between court (political or imperial need), mosque or church (religious need) and bazaar (commercial and days today’s common purpose’s need). To make a language acceptable elite and populist elements have to be present. The new mixed language developed in the environs of Delhi, the main seat of Muslim rulers (the new settlers) of India had their secular mother tongue Persian and their religious scripture Arabic.

Nomenculture Of The New Mixed Language- Urdu

When and how the name URDU was given to the new mixed language is not clear. Qazi Min’haaj-ud-din in his Tab’qaat-e-Naas’ri (658 AH) used this word for Mughal’s garrison. Genghis Khan used this word to refer to his capitol and garrison, while his son called his garrison as Urdu-e-Mut’tala because of the golden coloured tents of his garrison. Babar (1483-1530) in his proclamation of his victory (935 AH) used the word Urdu-e-Nusrat Sha’haar for his victorious army. Akbar (1542-1605) and Ja’haan’geer (1569-1627) used this word in combinations as Ba’zaar-e-Urdu and Urdu-e-Mu’al’la for their garrison and also on their coins as Zarab-e-Urdu, Urdu-e-Zafar-e-Qareen, and Sik’ka-e-Urdu-e-Ja’haan’geer.

Saiyyidi Amir Khusro (1255-1325) called the language of his poetry as Kalaam-e-Hindi and Saiyyid Mu’baa’rak (Miya Khurd) in his book “Kitaab-e-Seer-e-Au’li’ya” refers to Baba Fareed Kunj’s sayings as Farmood – bazabaan-e-Hindi. Between 13th and 16th century wherever a Hindustani language is referred to, it was loosely named as Hindi or with a provincial prefix e.g. Zabaan-e-Punjabi, Zabaan-e-Multani, and Zabaan-e-Gujarati etc. But the language used in Delhi and in its environs, was always and strictly referred to Hindi.

Perhaps in the long passage of time with an increase in the use of the word “Urdu” within the long winded combinations the word URDU became restricted for the language spoken in the cantonments.

In the late part of Mughal period, the Indian Sub-continent was exposed to the West European traders and Christian missionaries from England, France, Holland and Portugal. This exposure inevitably influenced Urdu language. It is surprising that during the long period of British Raj in India, Urdu accepted relatively few Anglo-Saxon and Portuguese words, and that too after they were Urduised, as compared to the proliferation or un-Urduised Anglo-Saxon words in the post independence period. This is probably due to the Neo-Economic Imperialism by the Americans and their New Political World Order.

But the above does not give any indication of when this new mixed language became a language of literature.

Urdu Literature

The beginning of Urdu as a language of verbal communication, between various religious, cultural and socio-economic communities among the people of India, although established in the middle of 7th century AD, its literary traditions only started to take shape towards the end of the 13th century AD. The then dominant Persian-Arabic culture, the culture of the rulers of India influenced its choice of vocabulary, its script and its literary traditions. Thus we find that in Urdu the earliest literary works, apart from the ones of religious needs, which are merely translations of earlier works from Persian and Arabic, are in poetry. Here again I would like to emphasise that it should be appreciated that there is a distinction between the needs of a court (political or imperial), mosque, temple or church and bazaar (commercial or days today’s common person). During the Mughal period, because of the needs of the court (political and imperial) the language of the elite and that of high literary works remained Persian. However, with the beginning of the era of foreign British rule in India, the imperial and political needs changed. It became increasingly clear that to end the political dominance of Muslims in India, it was necessary that all remnants of the past Mughal period should be severed. And the New Masters, the East India Company and later the British Crown, realised that if they have to establish an effective rule from a distance, they had to take into consideration the need of bazaar. While recognising the importance of regional languages for that purpose, the New Masters saw that in areas with political and commercial Muslim dominance, the language, which acted as a lingua franca among various Indian communities, was Urdu. Thus in those areas in place of Urdu they promoted Urdu to become a second official language. They enforced it in the civil and criminal courts, encouraged it among the lower ranks of the law and order-enforcing agency, as well as promulgated it as a medium of instruction of instructions in schools for Indians attended by the lower middle classes. By 1822 Urdu became as a second official language in Bihar, United Provinces, and Punjab. To help to achieve the objective of an effective rule in India, the East India Company in 1800 established Fort William College at Calcutta under the able leadership of Dr. John Gilchrist. Although the college was originally established to educate English work force in local Indian vernaculars and to acquaint them with religious, social and cultural values of the local Indian subjects, it contributed immensely in the development of Urdu rhetoric and literature. Thus the political and commercial needs of the East India Company and later British Crown were unwittingly responsible for the development of Indian regional languages and particularly in the case of Urdu, it helped it establish itself and evolve as a language of rich literary traditions.

Poetry, fiction (novel and short story) essay, stage play, satire, travel biography, journalism and mass media communication (film, television and radio), oratory and etc. are a few of facets of literature where Urdu has developed its own strong traditions.

The Begining Of Urdu Literature

The poets of Mughal period who wrote the poetry in the mixed language of Persian and Hindi which wasspoken in and around Delhi called it Naz’m-e-Rekh’ti or Naz’m-e-Rekh’ta, meaning a kind of verse (naz’m) written in a language with a mixture of two or more languages. Later on all forms of poetry written in this mixed language was called Rekh’ti and the language itself was referred to as Zabaan-e-Rekh’ti. The basis for using this mixed language was laid down by the poets of Zabaan-e-Rekh’ti, which got its patronage from the Mughal court and people in the high places.

Therefore, we can conclude that Urdu as a literary language was a product of various practices in written poetry in the amalgamated languages, born out of a mixture of Persian, Arabic, and local Hindi of Delhi region in the Mughal period.

Urdu Poetry

Poetry is the foundation on which stand the edifice of prose and the rest of the literary traditions in a language. The truth of the matter is that when a language has strong poetry traditions, then the literature of that language truly represents the values by which its people live their lives.

As in most other language traditions, in Urdu the language of poetry is elaborate, precise and rhythmic. In Urdu poetry the rhythm is provided by using the language on the lines of Persian language construction and composition and meters used in Persian and Arabic poetry. Compliance with Ra’deef (one or more independent words placed after the rhythm at the end of the last hemstitch or verse) and Qa’fi’yah (the last letter in a verse which terminates in a double rhythm) is considered essential in Urdu poetry, although Blank verse and Free verse do not comply with ra’deef and qa’fi’yah.

The huge popularity of Urdu poetry has its roots in the fact that Urdu literary traditions were established at a time when there was political decadence in India and she was sliding under the yoke of foreign rule. During that time at most occasions poetry provided a freedom to a poet to express his or her opposition to the establishment without fear of reprisal.

Ghazal and Qaseeda are two popular forms of Urdu poetry. Other forms of Urdu poetry are Qat’a (also pronounced as qit’a), Ru’ba’i, Mas’na’vi (also pronounced as math’navi), Tar’jeeh Ban’d Naz’m and Tar’keeb Ban’d Naz’m. In all these forms compliance with ra’deef and qa’fi’yah and one of the 19 bu’hoor (pl. of bah’r meaning meter) is essential. Haiku, Free Verse, Blank Verse, Prose in Verse, Geet (song) are finding their way into Urdu poetry as a result of cultural influences from outside the sub-continent and under the aegis of Universal Literature.

Ghazal is the most popular form of poetry in Urdu literature. Technically the word “Ghazal” (Arabic) means to talk in an amatory and enticing manner. Originally it was an amatory poem or ode. In Urdu it could be a love poem, expressing love for a mortal, platonic love, celestial love, ascetic subjects etc. Because of the aesthetic qualities of a language to express the faculty of love in the form of poetry, these days Urdu poets use ghazal for expressing wider subject matters, which concern human behaviour and related problems. Thus it gives poets a freedom of expressing their dissatisfaction, their dissension and opposition to the establishment in a language of love with fear of reprisal.

Kaleem-ud-din, a critic of Urdu literature, once called this form of poetry as “Neem Vah’shee Sinf” (half tamed species) of Urdu literature and therefore not worthy of serious consideration, while Rasheed Ahmed Siddiqi, another critic, called it “Aab’roo-e-Urdu” (the pride of Urdu) and emphasised its importance of this form of poetry in Urdu literature. Nevertheless this is the most popular form of Urdu poetry.

The Urdu ghazal has influenced the writing of poetry in the other languages of Indian sub-continent. Thus we find experimentation of the ghazal writing in modern Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Punjabi, and Sindhi and in the languages of South India.

Urdu Prose

Practice of poetry writing in any language is different from that of prose writing. Apart from the abstract imaginative power, which is essential both for poetry and prose, the later needs disciplined thought process, ingenuity, sagacity, penetrative intellect and power to develop ideas logically. The fiction writing is an art, which relies on real life event(s). Fiction writer uses imaginative and cognitive powers to describe and evaluate the real life events, which surround the writer. The power and beauty of fiction lies in the accurate reflection of the intensity, rigour, awesome, dignity and majesty of human life. The figurative, allegorical and metaphorical abstraction as such may render a beauty to a poetic expression, but not fundamental to human life. The fiction writer has to express his or her experiences of life situations in a harmonious way that is in concordance with personal freedom of speech and thought. Perhaps this may be a reason that the best ever written fiction could never claim and enjoy the same status with its contemporary poetry.

Urdu prose had a late beginning and surprisingly it started in the Deccan, away from Delhi, the seat of the government. Urdu language historians have attributed various reasons for this late development e.g. Persian being the court language and the language of the elite, naz’m was the most favoured way of expressing one’s thought, so much so that even the letter writing was practised in naz’m. The practice of writing prose in Persian was so well established that even the evaluation and biographical notes on Urdu poets were written in Persian. However, most of these historians have over-looked the general political atmosphere of the country at that time, which helped poetry writing rather than fiction writing. Prose written in the early period was essentially benign and non-political with religious contents.

Urdu prose has its beginning in the form of leaflets and booklets (ra’saa’il) dealing with moral exhortations (sermons, parables and stories) and aphorism (mal’foo’zaat). Some of these writings were translations of earlier works in Persian and Arabic. Most of these were carried out by Muslim saints e.g. Shkeikh Ain-ud-din (d.1475Gunj-ul-ilm) Khawaja Gai’so’da’raaz of Gulbrga (Me’raaj-ul-Aa’shiqqein). The earliest fiction works in prose are from South India (Deccan), away from Delhi and Lucknow, the centres par excellence for Urdu literature.

It is understood that the first prose-fiction is that of Mulla Asad-ul-lah Vaj’hee’s “Sub-ras” (1604 ADS), which is an allegory and is an adaptation from an earlier Persian work “Dastoor-ul- ash’shaaq“. The other earlier works on record are “Jal-tarang” and “Gulbaas“, both by another Deccani writer Shah Bur’haan-ud-din Jaa’nam. Although the imaginative prose writing (fiction) in Urdu had its origin in Deccan, but did not get general acceptance.

The first prose work from North India available to us is 1732’s “Deh Majlis” by Faz’li, which is a translation of Mulla Hussain Va’is Kashfi’s work “Ro’zat-ush-shu’hada” dealing with the martyrdom of Haz. Imam Hussain.

Other significant works are the translations of Persian work “Qis’sa Cha’haar Dervaish” under the name “Tar’z-e-Muras’sa” by Mir Ata Hussain Khan Tehseen (1798) and by Mohammd A’vaz Zareen (1801) and under the name “Baagh-o-Bahaar” by Mir Am’man (1801). The later translation was commissioned by the Fort William College.

Early Urdu prose was riddled with similes and metaphors and used an elaborate style with sentences in ways intended to give a rhythm similar to that of naz’m. Basically the style adopted was that of Persian prose with little or no consideration to the grammatical structure of the Urdu language.

The early first Urdu Novels are “Mi’raat-ul-U’roos” by Nazeer Ahmed (1869) and “Fa’saana-e-Aa’zaad” by Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshaar (1879) and “Um’rao Jaan Ada” by Mirza Hadi Hasan Ruswa.

The Urdu Short Story is a relatively new form in Urdu literature. Prem Chand and Saj’jaad Hayder Yalderam could rightly be considered to be the founding authors of Urdu Short Story.

“Language can be a barrier which leads to wars or a carrier which leads to peace. Choice is ours”