URDU – A DISAPPEARING BEAUTY


Remember the  lines – “ Yaar mera khusboo ki tarah, jiski zuban Urdu ki tarah” from the song “Chhaiya Chhaiya”  in the Mani Ratnam film Dil Se? (Yes, it is the same song where you see SRK and Malaika dancing atop a train .) Roughly translated, the words mean – “ My beloved is like a fragrance, a person whose language is like Urdu” . While, not discounting the sweetness of every language when spoken or written to convey love, Urdu has its own special flavor.
Though I can speak five Indian languages and can read and write three of them, Urdu is a language that I have always yearned to learn. My introduction to this beautiful language was through the medium of music – Hindi film songs and later ghazals!  Probably the reason why I associate it with love and romance….

If we look at the meaning of the word “Urdu” it is of Turkish origin meaning  ‘camp’ or ‘army’. It is often referred to as “Lashkari Zuban” or the language of the army. A language that was born in  our subcontinent ,it is a mixture of Persian, Turkish, Arabic and the local Hindi dialects.  However,  the British used it as an effective tool to spread the communal divide resulting in the language being associated with Muslims.
The court usage of the language continues to dominate its form making it one of the most formal languages that I have ever heard! I firmly believe that it would be difficult to abuse a person in Urdu! Ofcourse, Hyderabadis in Deccan claim that it has a number of crude words. But if you look closely, what passes for “Urdu” in the Deccan is nothing but a F2 hybrid – of Urdu and South Indian languages  which is popularly known as Deccani! An exact opposite of its illustrious ancestor, Deccani is very informal, loaded with slangs and spoken in a sing song fashion in the style of south Indian languages.

But coming back to Urdu, I find that it is a language that is fast disappearing from the public space. There used to be a time when some of the best songs in the Indian film industry were loaded with Urdu words.  Words like “Amanat” , “ Qayamat”, “Mohobbat” , “Ishq”,”Majboor”  rolled over our tongues effortlessly as we sang all these songs in our “Antashari” ( a game that we used to play where we had to sing songs beginning with the last letter of the words of the previous song) times.  Lyricists like  Sahir Ludhianvi, and Gulzar kept our vocabulary alive with new words. We used to try them out in our Hindi compositions  and exasperate our Hindi teacher who probably felt that they were too flowery for school level compositions. Besides, being a Sanskrit scholar she definitely felt more partial to the Government of India style Hindi, making us making us replace “Majboor” with “Vivash” or “Lachaar”  in all our formal letters. But despite all that we loved the allegories to “Shama –parwana”  ( shama stands for flame while parwana is moth. Just as a moth is attracted to the flame resulting in its destruction so is a lover often destroyed in love) , “Ishq aur Husn” ( love and beauty)
I experienced the complete fragrance of this language as I spent one month doing an internship in Lucknow during my college days. While I knew that everyone was always addressed as “Aap” in Urdu ( including kids), what was surprising was that the third person was never used while referring to a someone in their presence. For e.g one would never say “ Inko wahan le jaiye”. They would say “Aapko wahan le jaiye”.  When I got back to my college in Bombay, I felt that I was among barbarians. Bombay Hindi in the best of times sounds harsh-after Lucknow it was unbearable!

Today I find a void in the language arena of the Bollywood industry as lyrics are increasing using Bombay slangs and Punjabi words. No, I have nothing against Punjabi  words but these words that populate the lyrics do not convey the depth of the meaning that the old Urdu words used to. They sound harsh and very primeval.
I am told that there is a general deterioration of the lyrics of film songs these days. While they seem to be including words that are considered more “rustic” and “folksy” they are not able to retain the beauty of folk tradition in them. When they migrate into the land of the big screen they seem to be losing the flavor that they held.

I also think there is a general deterioration of the way love is expressed these days through lyrics. It is no  longer  poetic , appealing to one’s emotions but more physical appealing to the baser instincts. And probably one no longer celebrates the pain of love these days as lovers are more aggressive getting what they want. The moth no longer flies in the path of self destruction towards the flame. One can see the quest for survival in these new times even among the established lyricists like Gulzar who have started  penning songs like  Bidi Jalaile and “Kajrare” ..!

Before you feel that I am indulging in a lot of stereotyping Urdu as the language of romance, let me also tell you that this is also the language in which some of the very revolutionary literary works have been penned.  Ismat Chughtai and Sadat Hasan Manto are some of the Urdu writers whose works have been far ahead of their times. Ismat Chugtai described for the first time , female homosexuality in her short story “Lihaf” ( quilt) during the pre independence days. She was also prosecuted for pornography. People were shocked that “a woman” could write like that! There you see.. goes the image of a hijab clad female speaking this tongue through a veil!

Like any rich language it is also a very strong and effective language for political conscientization. Those of you who have heard the songs of Safdar Hashmi of the Jan Natya Manch will agree with me.  
I am disgusted with the increasing communal association of Urdu. We do not seem to have moved ahead from those pre independence days. There are some people who actually think the Koran is written in Urdu!!! I also find that these days the Hindi film titles aren’t shown in Urdu like they used to during my childhood! Why this victimization I wonder..? Bus boards in my home town Hyderabad no longer have them in Urdu though Andhra Pradesh does indicate Urdu as one of its official languages. I hope we will not have a situation where the language will start being referred to as language of “minorities” because folks – that it is definitely not! It might be the national language of Pakistan but it is also one our languages!

  I remember meeting a lady from Pakistan when I was doing a course in Canada. Being from the same region we started conversing in what I considered was Hindi and what she thought was Urdu and became the best of pals during our one month stay there. We even sang the same song during the valedictory function –“Chalte Chalte”. She had the lyrics written in the Persian / Arabic script and me in Devnagri. I can only conclude by saying that Urdu unlike Sanskrit or Tamil may not be a root language or a classical one,  but it is like sugar that has seeped into many of our north Indian languages making  them sweeter and stronger in their expression.
( Sorry folks for this long silence! And I  must say I am touched by the mails I have received from some of you asking about this) No particular reason - Just writer's block )

Comments

  1. Urdu has created a unique richness in the literary as well as spoken world, Meera!

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  2. Welcome back :)
    I actually like the use of Bhojpuri in Omkara with songs like "namak ishq ka" and "bidi jalaile" - it has a rustic feel to it :) And the script demanded it! Even songs of GOW were appropriate if you consider the script and the setting :)

    But I agree with you when you say the quality has gone down the drains and people express love in the weirdest fashion with songs like "tera pyaar Hookah bar" and other songs which seem to just go over the top of my head :)

    Urdu is a beautiful language and yes, speaking in Urdu is quite a charm :) I wish it was still used as extensively as before in the Bollywood industry - afterall, those songs survived :) Songs these days are forgotten so easily because they are meaningless...People can remember beats not the words because words aren't mattering anymore...

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  3. A quintessential subject to break open the writers block.Apt.

    I cannot comment much as my association with Urdu and knowledge of the subject you discussed is next to nil and insignificant.
    However I must confess that there was a time when I associated Urdu with Islamic obscurantism.
    But then the little fascination with the language though not much discerning the essence of words was through the old time Hindi flick songs and gazals of Pankaj Udas, Talat Aziz and the likes.

    I agree with you that language where ever it is from is sweet and it is bigotry and shortsighted that it is used to gain political brownie points and divide people.
    You are lucky that your early education was outside Tamilnad, that now see you a sort of linguist.

    Pretty good read Meera, thanks.

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  4. @Divya, I like Namak Ishq ka too but I draw the line at "bidi jalaile" though I guess the setting demanded a "song" like that..

    @ Anil, yes I am very very thankful for growing up outside Tamilnadu. It has given me a view of this country that I would NEVER ever have got had I had to grow up here. BTW I have another interesting piece of information - Urdu was the language in which Lala Lajpat Rai brought out his journal "Vande Mataram"! A lot of people of a particular generation from Punjab were educated in Urdu. So you see that breaks the communal stereotype again!

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  5. Thankfully you are out. Phew! was worried, Meera. Nice language, but nearing its end like our mother tongue. Can you send me a link to the short story Lihaf? Would like to read it.

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  6. Like you I have lived in many states but had no skill to learn the languages as my wife and daughters did.Being a linguist,you are in a better position to appreciate Urdu.What strikes me most is the range of subjects you choose to write on.

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  7. @Cloudnine have shared the Lihaf link with you on facebook. Looks like all beautiful languages are going to die a natural death in this world of hybrid communication .

    @ KP I don't want to make tihs a gender stereotype but I think women are generallly quicker at picking up languages. And thanks for the compliment about the 'range of subjects"- I am randomness personified I guess!

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  8. Hi Meera, How are you???
    long time no stories posted in Kaleidoscope.
    I agree with you, women are quicker at picking up languages. You have done a good amount of research in this topic. How come the thought of Urdu came to your mind???
    Have you heard the album Marasim by Jagjit Singh, lyrics by Gulzar. If not do get the CD, the songs are so mesmerising. Especially there are some Shayaris in the beginning of each song...each one so beautifully penned:)

    Take care
    Gayu

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  9. Loved reading each and every paragraph, Meera. I agree with you, that the language of love itself is changing and we do long for the sweetness of Urdu.

    Loved the post and awaiting for more

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  10. An Excellent Blogpost Relevant to the Topic. It really generates a new thinking pattern in the viewers. Please pursue with your Blogging Activities.
    Living In Wellbeing

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  11. Beautiful post about urdu... Excellent research... A few years ago i heard urdu broadcasting of bbc through radio i wonder that it is something equivalent to hindi. Thanks

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  12. I could not agree with you more Meera ji. Urdu is such a beautiful language full of poetic richness and flavour. Listening to shayaris in urdu or someone speaking this language with proper "ada" and "nazakat" acts as melting sugar candy for your ears. I am born and brought up in lucknow, and i agree with you fully on the "Tehzeeb" people follow there while speaking with others. after all Lucknow is famous for its "Pehle Aap" culture :)
    I loved your writing so much Meeraji (although its my first time on your blog), and reading the above comments I know why you were being so missed in the bloggers community.

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  13. Welcome to my blog Jiggyasa ( I love your name- quest for knowledge). I am so glad that someone from Lucknow managed to read it. I hope to see you here more often!

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