Thoughts & Ideas

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Urdu or Hindi?

... the bastard mongrel speech of the army on the move, Urdu, camp language, in which half a dozen half-understood tongues jabbered and whistled and produced to everyone's surprise, a beautiful sound: a poet's language born out of soldier's mouths.
Salman Rushdie in “The Enchantress of Florence”

Thursday evening (18th April 2013) was my third annual tryst with the Mushaira arranged by the Sir Syed Educational and Cultural Society in Bahrain. Being wiser with experience, I reached the venue by 9.30 pm though the invitation clearly mentioned that the function would start from 8 pm. I don't think I really missed much since the opening ceremonies were continuing and people were just about drifting in by the time I took my seat. The actual mushaira started by about 10 pm but really picked up fervour after mid night and continued to nearly 4 am with whole hearted participation. 

The Mushaira this year was dedicated to Padamshree Pandit Anand Mohan Zutshi ‘Gulzar’ Dehlvi, one of India’s most noted shaires. He looked quite old and frail and later informed us that he would be celebrating his 88th birthday in July this year and had had an open heart surgery a couple of years ago. But neither age nor health seemed to have sapped Panditji’s enthusiasm or vigour in reciting poetry and pulling punches. As the main speaker, his turn came at the end, that is, about 3 in the morning. By this time more than half the audience had left and ones who remained can only be described as die hard fans of Urdu poetry. But the wait was more than amply rewarded, with Pandit Anand Mohan regaling us for nearly 45 minutes with shayries and nazms.

One of the impressions which got deepened during this visit was that shayars are not distinguished by age, sex, social class, religion, or political affiliations. Among the assembled poets on the dias, there were old and young, plebian and aristocrats, male and female, Hindus & Muslims (and maybe some atheists too!). One of the most distinguished shayars was a scientist (neurologist) and a Vice Chancellor of a major university in Pakistan with credit of having composed a substantial amount of serious poetry. Some used high flown, artistic language, though most used simple, easy to understand language. And these poets got much more appreciation from the audience. On the whole, what came out of the experience was the realization that poetry is the essential glue which binds all together into humanity. Without poetry there would be no humanness.

I still remember my initial brushes with Urdu. As a very young boy I was dragged to see Pakeezah (the movie) by my mother, basically because she wanted to see it and there was no one with whom she could have left me. I was a reluctant companion and as soon as the movie started, I noticed that it mentioned the language as Urdu. I immediately started to howl as to why had I been brought to see a movie whose language I did not know. It must have taken some patience for my mother to quieten me. But after a little while, I was thunderstruck that I could understand the language which till that time I did not even know that I knew!

Then there were occasions, when while searching the radio-waves, one came across Urdu language services of Radio Pakistan which left us wondering why do these people speak such funny Hindi until we were told that the language was Urdu not Hindi. Much later, when I was studying at the university, while discussing writers who wrote both in Urdu and Hindi such as Munshi Prem Chand, I mentioned to a friend as to why don't Urdu writers use the Devnagari script. It would make it so much more intelligible. My friend burst out laughing and enlightened me that Urdu was nothing but Hindi written in the Persian script. I found it funny but did not give the issue any thought.

Recently, I had a rather heated Hindi vs Urdu discussion (anybody who heard it would classify it as an altercation) with another friend who claimed that while he could understand Hindi, he could not follow Urdu. I found this position rather hard to appreciate or understand. Especially since I am told by other friends that I speak good Urdu, without knowing that I have any familiarity with that language. This prompted me to look up as to what does Wikipedia have to say on the subject. What I found was quite informative and interesting and helped clear up the confusion. I give below some excerpts:

Urdu is often contrasted with Hindi. Apart from religious associations, the differences are largely restricted to the standard forms: Standard Urdu is conventionally written in the Nastaliq style of the Persian alphabet and relies heavily on Persian and Arabic as a source for technical and literary vocabulary, whereas Standard Hindi is conventionally written in Devanāgarī and draws on Sanskrit. However, both have large numbers of Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit words, and most linguists consider them to be two standardized forms of the same language, and consider the differences to be sociolinguistic, though a few classify them separately. The syntax (grammar), morphology, and the core vocabulary of both the languages are essentially identical. Mutual intelligibility decreases in literary and specialized contexts which rely on educated vocabulary.

Owing to interaction with other languages, Urdu has become localized wherever it is spoken. Urdu has a few recognised dialects, including Dakhni, Rekhta, and Modern Vernacular Urdu. The Pakistani variant of the language becomes increasingly divergent from the Indian dialects and forms of Urdu, as it has absorbed many loan words, proverbs and phonetics from Pakistan's indigenous languages such as Pashto, Panjabi and Sindhi.

In retrospect, I missed out a chance during or after the Mushaira of eliciting the views of such a vast and erudite company of Urdu / Hindi lovers on the question: If Urdu were written in Devnagari script what would it be known as? Would it be possible to distinguish it from written Hindi?

I leave my readers to consider this existentialist question: “If Ghalib or Mir or Firaq had written their poetry in Devnagari, would it be referred as shayari or would it be termed kavita?”