A place for Urdu

Aparna Srivastava Reddy

Mushaira Jashn-e-Bahar had poets coming from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan
Mushaira Jashn-e-Bahar had poets coming from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan

They say it is a dying language. But, is it? Urdu, the language in which poetry was composed even before prose was written, which was the language of courts and high office till just a few decades back — is ready to evolve with the times, to stay alive. One often hears the lament in literary circles that Urdu is dying. Perhaps the traditional ways of reading, enjoying and even learning Urdu are in a decline. But the language is finding new avenues, new creative solutions to sustain itself.

A rain laden August weekend. The capital’s Siri Fort Auditorium that is known as a hub for cinema fests and music evenings, plays host to a mushaira for the first time. Mushaira Jashn-e-Bahar has got together the cr`E8me of poets not just from India and Pakistan but from Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, too.

Afghan poet M. Afsar Rahbeen, whose poignant verses in Urdu at the mushaira touch a chord with the audience, says he learnt the language by watching Indian films, TV and listening to All India Radio. He says being at the mushaira was a rewarding experience. "It was good to see Urdu poetry’s appeal cutting across all sections of Indian society."

One could see a good sprinkling of young college goers amid the academics, the glitterati and the old city enthusiasts that evening. "I am here to listen to Nida Fazli and Ahmad Faraz," said Anjum who studies history at Delhi University. The big names of contemporary Urdu poetry, be it from India or Pakistan, are big draws.

There are school goers too. One young lad accompanying his grandfather keeps disturbing him as he asks for the meaning of this word and that. "After my board exams, I am sure going to learn to read Urdu," he is heard saying as he enjoys the kebabs at the stall outside.

Rakhi had come along with her cousins from Lucknow. Azm Behzad, the grandson of the great Urdu poet Behzad Lucknawi, who was here from Karachi, was the draw. "Pahle apni khwahishon ko hamne har jaanib bikhera; ab unhe hasratzadaa palkon se chun-na chahte hain" (I let my wishes take wing and spread them far and wide, now I want to gather them all back to my anxious heart), Behzad does not let them down.

They listened intently, applauded and asked for more. Urdu, at least Urdu poetry, seemed to be live and thriving.

Sixty years ago Urdu yielded place to Hindi. Independent India opted for Hindi as Pakistan gave Urdu the status of national language. Over the years, Urdu also got identified with Muslims and went off the syllabi of most schools and educational institutions. Yet, Urdu is second only to Hindi in the number of speakers and the first language of Bollywood.

Urdu was born as a lingua franca as the Mughal army got together various linguistic groups. In fact the word ‘Urdu’ itself means ‘army’. Once again it is cutting across boundaries. Just Google ‘Urdu’ on the Net. More than 26 lakh sites show up that define the language, teach you how to read it, present compilations of the famed Urdu poetry and blog over the latest.

What poses the biggest barrier to the spread of Urdu today is the ‘nasta’liq’or the script. In India, few are able to read Urdu but hardly any sentence in modern day Hindustani will be complete without an Urdu word.

Kaamna Prasad, the founder of Jashn-e-Bahar Trust and a noted Urdu activist believes that this language is not a slave to its script and "its not dying." She organises an international mushaira every year, publishes the verses of chosen Urdu poets in Devanagari among many other activities to promote the language. A collection of the verses of Meer Taqi ‘Meer’, one of Urdu’s greatest, is the latest offering from Prasad’s JIya Prakashan.

Here to participate in the mushaira Jashn-e-Bahar, Sagar Khayyami, who is often hailed as the last of India’s great Urdu satirists, says Urdu lives in the hearts of people and stands for the richness of our composite culture.

Ahmad Faraz, the top name in Urdu poetry from Pakistan, agrees that Urdu shayari is a culture, it is a civilisation.

And Omar Salem Al Aidroos, an Arab from Jeddah, and a rather unusual practitioner of the art of Urdu, reads a shair — "Urdu zubaan ka kitnaa hasin gulistaan hai; ab Meer ki nahi yeh sabhi ki Zubaan hai." (Urdu is blooming, it’s not just the language of Meer anymore, it belongs to everyone).