A fresh breed of poets, writers, stand-up comics, film-makers and advertising hotshots are revitalising the language with a new idiom
Abhishek Bali and Manish Mansinh
HERE’S a twist on the Ship of Theseus paradox. The original paradox is this: If a ship has been restored or fixed after having all its parts replaced, is it still the same ship? But what if the ship were taken apart, its rusty parts polished, its software updated and the whole thing re-assembled and manned by a new crew? Is it still the same ship?
A decade ago, Urdu was a cultural vessel that looked the worse for wear. Lovers of the language spoke of it ruefully, as if it were headed for the ship-breaking yard.
Mushairas (public poetry recitations) were organised in a few cities, but tucked out of sight of the cultural mainstream. A generation educated in English-medium schools couldn’t even read the posters advertising the event. Besides, Urdu wasn’t necessarily their scene. College fests had jazz and hip-hop rather than ghazals and qawwalis. The new leisure was gaming and memes, selfies and social media, Netflix and trying to chill. Couplets and metaphors?
Actually, yes. Couplets and metaphors. Enter the new Urdu. The old ship has got a fresh coat of paint, new steel joints and a robust crew. Stereotypes associated with Urdu, its ethos and its poets are, thankfully, dying out. You’d be hard pressed to spot a black sherwani in the mehfils and open mics where the most popular poets read. Today, Urdu wears jeans and T-shirts. The wah-wahs might come off as a bit self-conscious, and are usually replaced by applause. In fact, the wah-wahi now takes the form of likes, shares and follows on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.
When the new Urdu writes of its terror of death-by-nicotine, it ends up as a viral video. Chartered accountant-turned-financial manager-turned-writer Hussain Haidry’s performace of his poem “Lat” (Habit) was turned into a video by a cultural space, Kommune, earlier this year. It garnered over 3,22,000 views and brought more visibility than he’d anticipated. He followed it up with “Hindustani Mussalman”, which doubled his audience and led to appearances on national television, invitations to mushairas and writing lyrics for Hindi films.
The new Urdu doesn’t take itself too seriously. Take Ishq Urdu, a Facebook page with around 2,55,000 followers. On August 15 this year, a still of Madhubala from the iconic 1960 film Mughal-e-Azam taking a selfie was posted, with the caption: Anarkali – Qile mein Ishq Urdu ki saalgirah par DJ party ke liye tayyar! (Anarkali is ready for the DJ party at the fort to celebrate Ishq Urdu’s second birthday!). It started after advertising creative Nasheet Shadani (pictured below) won a bronze and a silver at the Cannes Lions Festival. One was for the Save Calligraphy project, the other for redesigning the logo of Ogilvy & Mather in Urdu. Winning made him sit up and think about the importance of culturally rooted work.
In 2015, he says he started Ishq Urdu with two ideas. The first was the word “Aazadi”, written in Urdu and Hindi such that it could be read both left to right and right to left. It was an instant hit on Independence Day. The second was Bollywood Without Urdu: a series of posts referencing popular film songs and dialogues with Urdu words replaced by Sanskritised Hindi synonyms. “Mogambo khush hua” thus became “Mogambo prasann hua”, while “Dil to bachcha hai ji” became “Hriday to baalak hai ji”.
The idea was to remind people that so much of what they sing, dream, speak is actually Urdu. Shadani was troubled that even though songs like “Rashk-e-Qamar”, “Afghan Jalebi” and “Chhaiyaan Chhaiyaan” were on everyone’s lips, young people thought of Urdu as a language spoken by an obscure species. Indeed, the promoters of the language were using obscure methods. Many blogs and websites presented Urdu in a rather depressing way, Shadani felt, focusing mainly on poetry and not on its cultural ecosystem. With Ishq Urdu, he’s brought back some of the fun. The page offers couplets and quotes from writers as diverse as Manto, Plato and “Mirza” Eminem, along with jokes, memes, word meanings and graphic art.
There are other literary design initiatives, like the Khwaab Tanha Collective by Shiraz Husain, which cleverly spans virtual and tangible worlds. It offers merchandise like mugs, posters and T-shirts printed with writers’ portraits, and lots more online: sketches, interactive GIFs, recitations on Soundcloud. What’s more, Khwaab Tanha doesn’t restrict itself to a narrow definition of the Urdu writer. Ghalib and Manto find place, of course, as do Parveen Shakir, Jaun Eliya, Gulzar, Vinod Kumar Shukla, satirist Harishankar Parsai, Amrita Pritam and Paash, who wrote in Punjabi.
The most significant thing about the new Urdu is that it rejects ghettos. Rana Safvi, a historian who started two vibrant Twitter handles, @urdualfaz and @shairoftheday, is among those who reject the false binary of a Hindi/Urdu split along religious lines. A pinned tweet on her own page says: “My name is Urdu and I am not a Muslim”.
Partition was rough on the language as the interwoven threads of Urdu-Hindustani-Hindi were unravelled. Fewer people could read the script, Nastaliq. Urdu was not on the syllabus at English- and Hindi-medium schools. As early as the Sixties, Sahir Ludhianvi, one of the most beloved poet-lyricists of Hindi cinema, was writing of the step-motherly treatment afforded the language, and its demonisation as a “gaddar zubaan” (traitor’s language).
Even so, through the Eighties and Nineties, Urdu remained a big part of north Indian pop culture. Middle-class entertainment included ghazal nights at the theatre. Singers like Jagjit Singh, Pankaj Udhas and Penaz Masani were desi rock stars. On television, there was a series about Mirza Ghalib’s life. There were competitive qawwalis too, of the ladies’ team versus gents’ team type, where the poetry was often humorous. But, along with the last century, these entertainments also faded away.
In recent years, though, the tide seems to be turning. The language is reasserting itself in the cultural mainstream, and not in any apologetic fashion either. Safvi, for instance, had been living abroad and feeling very cut off from her cultural roots when Twitter came to the rescue. In 2011, she started Sha’ir of the Day as a way to connect to Urdu lovers regardless of their religious background. She picked a theme and a couplet, and followers jumped in with their own contributions. Thus the conversation was built. In 2013, she started another handle to help with vocabulary. Urdu Alfaz offers a word, its meaning and examples of how it is used in poetry. Both handles remain popular, with over 15,500 and 20,100 followers, respectively.
Then, in 2013, a tall figure came striding onboard the Urdu mothership. Sanjiv Saraf (pictured above) set up the Rekhta Foundation. “Rekhta” is the older word for the uniquely Indian hybrid language that eventually developed into Urdu. Saraf attended IIT Kharagpur before joining his family business, manufacturing polyester films. He incubated some other businesses, including a hydroelecticity project and Manupatra, an online legal information provider, before finally, at 53, returning to his old love, Urdu. He tried to learn it but found there weren’t enough good resources online. Assuming there were millions like himself who loved the literature but had limited access, he set up Rekhta to preserve, archive, digitise and promote what he describes as a deeply expressive tongue, linked with love, romance and sophistication. With due respect to all others, he says, no other language matches the lyrical beauty, sweetness and magnificence of Urdu.
He also stresses that it isn’t just a language but a culture that transcends age, region and religion. He wants to expand its audience, and in this he is succeeding. Websites like urdupoetry.com existed; they provided the text in Roman English with the meanings of unfamiliar words. But Rekhta pushed the envelope much further, with a smarter, more aesthetic design and many more tools: Rekhta.org offers a dictionary, but one can also just look up a word by clicking on it. Readers can switch between Hindi, Urdu and English scripts for the same text. They can read scanned versions of books that may not be in bookstores. There’s video and audio and a daily dose of couplets and word meanings. The latest offering is Aamozish, which offers tools to help learn to read Nastaliq.
None of this is one man’s doing, of course. Rekhta employs a team of 60 people, including writers, scholars, IT professionals, music composers, editors, translators and social media handlers. The team has little doubt that there’s a surge of interest, especially among the younger generation. They estimate that about 70 per cent of visitors to the website are between 18-35. The big leap, however, was taking that interest offline, with Jashn-e-Rekhta. Literary festivals, including the world’s biggest, in Jaipur, already feature poets like Gulzar and Javed Akhtar, who attract tens of thousands of fans. Jashn, however, is devoted solely to Urdu. Free and open to all, it’s growing into one of the more prestigious events on the circuit; footfalls have risen from 20,000 in 2015 to about 1,40,000 in early 2017. The fourth edition, slated for this month, will take place at a larger venue in Delhi to accommodate bigger crowds.
If a new, hyperconnected India is seeking out Urdu again, the evolution of technology, from websites to blogs to social media and widespread access to smartphones, has a lot to do with it. The creative energy and content comes from individuals driven by passion and a special set of skills. One of them is a self-confessed drifter who turned his film-making experience to the service of poetry. Manish Gupta has made films like Karma Aur Holi and lived abroad for 15 years doing a bunch of things, including running a nightclub in Miami. Four years ago, he founded YouTube channel Hindi Kavita, and followed it up with Urdu Studio.
Gupta says he was concerned that Indians were losing access to their best writers now that English was the new normal. “I lived in Indore in the Nineties and we were already using English a lot. My wife and I even fought in English! There was a time when, if you spoke in English, especially in small towns, people said, he’s showing off. Now if you speak in pure Hindustani, people get intimidated. They think you’re showing off!”
He invested time and money producing videos to professional standards. Actors, directors or writers read out a beloved poem, revealing a personal connect. Style is of essence, Gupta says, for it is stylish content that seduces people rather than mere appeals to nationalist or linguistic pride. “There is no format, but we edit carefully. We pay attention to things like background score. We don’t just document poetry, but try to show the glory, the mazaa of the language.”
So far, his team has shot about 700 videos, and uploaded about 400. Careful curation has garnered Hindi Kavita and Urdu Studio over 59,000 and 21,000 subscribers, respectively. Gupta has also screened some videos at colleges. And with the help of volunteers located as far as Dehradun and Hyderabad, he hopes the movement will go beyond video. However, more video initiatives are also welcome, he urges. “Our literature is cool, pretty mainstream. At least 60 crore people speak the language (Hindustani). We need 1,500 or 2,000 channels, not just two.”
Though he created separate channels for Hindi and Urdu, the dividing line is blurry. Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Dushyant Kumar, Nazeer Akbarabadi and Allama Iqbal find place on both. Gupta says, “This two-different-language thing is a childish argument. Someone did complain once about the use of ‘kavita’ instead of ‘nazm’ for an Urdu poem, but…” he trails off and throws up his hands.
Yet, the wall between the two languages has always been thin as an eggshell membrane. Or, as Ishq Urdu puts it, they’re a “Jai-Veeru” unit. Some scholars believe the divide is an artificial one. Rekhta/Urdu, Hindi/Hindvi or Hindustani were brewed in the same pot, and the words were used interchangeably in the 19th century, with Khari Boli and Dakhani being variants. In the 20th century, two distinct strands emerged, especially of written literature. There were discernible traces of Persian in Urdu while Sanksrit was more evident in Hindi, but the common idiom has always straddled both.
Film-writer, lyricist and stand-up comic Varun Grover laughs at the irony of attempting to stuff the two into separate, sealed-off compartments. “Hindi is an Urdu word,” he points out. “In Hindi, there’s no word for Hindi. The only way to make Hindi speakers stop using Urdu is to physically reach inside their throats and pull out their tongues.”
His own writing is best described as Hindustani. “It’s what everyone who writes in the popular mainstream uses. Take that popular dialogue from Tanu Weds Manu Returns: ‘Hum thode bewafa kya hue, aap to badchalan ho gaye.’ (I was a little unfaithful, but you have turned immoral). What language is that if not Urdu?” There may have been a feeling that it was being ignored, but Grover believes Hindi speakers, especially readers, have always been proximate to Urdu. “Ghalib, after all, is a bestseller even today. Dushyant Kumar’s ghazal collection, Saaye Mein Dhoop, has been a bestseller for decades.”
The credit for enabling the literature then goes to publishers like Rajkamal and Vani Prakashan, who have published the work of writers like Ghalib, Sahir Ludhianvi, Nida Fazli, Bashir Badr, Gulzar and many others in Devnagri. Hussain Haidry (pictured above) would agree. It was Devnagri that helped him discover the stalwarts. His father ran a bookstore in Indore, so he had plenty of access to literature. However, he didn’t write much himself. What changed things for him was moving to Mumbai to work for Ernst & Young, and discovering the concept of the open mic.In 2009, Haidry says, he hadn’t imagined himself up on stage. Amateurs could only attend mushairas to hear established poets. But at open mics, he soon made friends with other poets and eventually started performing. “I don’t think I’m even one per cent as good as the best poets at mushairas and sammelans, but at least I found a platform,” he says.
Cultural spaces like Kommune and open mics held in cafés and private studios are significant in that they help people cross linguistic borders and foster the cultural mellifluence that gave birth to Urdu in the first place. They also help fresh voices emerge, but Haidry adds a note of caution. Poets must develop their craft, or the open mic may turn into just another fad that lets you appear “cool and deep”.
Haidry makes no bones about the fact that he himself is not an “adbi shayar”, a literary poet. “The spoken medium is no measure of high quality,” he says. Nor are the number of likes on Facebook or YouTube, and Grover agrees. The best writers are not necessarily internet sensations. Asked to name a contemporary they admire, both promptly name Abhishek Shukla.
Born in Ghazipur in 1987, Shukla is what you’d call a poet’s poet. He works hard on his craft. He not only sought mentorship when he began writing, he also subscribes to the view that rhyme and metre are as important as ideas. His next goal is to try to learn Persian. The journey hasn’t been easy. The language used at home was quite rough, he says, and his interest in poetry developed through songs. He recalls a time when he heard taunts like, “Ye Javed Akhtar banna chahte hain” (he wants to be Javed Akhtar). “I suppose my family was worried that I wouldn’t have a job,” he says.
He does have a job now. Based in Lucknow, he works at a rural branch of the State Bank of India, setting out for work every day at 7am and returning at 9:30pm. He reads and writes only in his spare time. Yet, since writing his first ghazal in 2008, his reputation has quickly grown. He’s read at Jashn-e-Rekhta and even international mushairas in Dubai, Bahrain and Karachi.
Shukla is likely to publish his first collection of ghazals early next year, which is the real goal. Mushairas are more prestigious than open mics – he calls them “fashionable” – but they don’t matter as much. “What’s important is to publish, to build a body of work.” The development of this will be interesting to watch, for his work appears to be seeded with the humane values and lyrical strength that drove progressive Urdu writers in decades past. His couplets have the malleability that makes them pertinent to “love” but also relevant to any other spiritual or material context. Sample this: “Khush libaasi thi jahaan shart usi mehfil mein/Log kehte hain tera hijr pehen aaye the hum” (Where the dress code said, Bright, into that gathering/People say, I showed up wearing our separation).
The new Urdu “cool”, as represented by jokes and fake quotes attributed to Ghalib, is starting to bother Shukla, though he doesn’t mind the iconography. “You may have seen posters of Ghalib or T-shirts with Faiz printed on them. It makes the work visible, so it’s okay for the uninitiated. Chhat par paani gir raha hai to ghar seelega hi (when it rains on the terrace, the walls get damp). But what’s next? What’s beyond cool?”
Ask him to supply an answer to his own question and he pauses to reflect. “Currently, we have at least 20 good Urdu writers who are familiar with the best work produced around the world,” he says. Among them, he cites Rahul Jha, Pallav Mishra, Shahbaz Rizvi and Abbas Qamar, some of whom are still studying or only just out of college. “People used to say, ‘Just look at the work being produced in Pakistan, that’s poetry!’ I think soon we can say that about Urdu in India.”
If the new Urdu speaks in a confident voice today, it is also because of the several efforts from people who use whatever platform they have access to. There are video initiatives like Banana Poetry and The Mansarovar Project (TMP) – the latter was started in 2016 by Shivam Sharma, who chose the name Mansarovar because it means “lake of the mind”, and also because it is the title of the collected stories of Munshi Premchand, one of our foremost Hindi-Urdu writers.
Sharma, who grew up in small towns around Uttar Pradesh, before heading to Pune to study at FTII, wanted to do something on YouTube. However, Hindi Kavita and Urdu Studio were already doing recitation-based videos. “I looked at the comments and felt that the videos hold greater appeal to people already inclined towards poetry. I wanted to take poetry to people who didn’t yet know that they like it,” he says. So he used a different visual tack, starting with Jan Nisar Akhtar’s “Aakhri Mulaqaat” (Final Encounter) as the basis for an abstract short film. Collaborating with musician friends, he now hopes to perform live.
A few years ago, Arwa Mamaji and Priya Nijhara set up the blog Urduwallahs. They were invited to run a monthly discussion group called Urdu Mehfil at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai. Screenwriter Javed Siddiqui would lead the conversation and others pitched in with readings, sharing of anecdotes and film clippings.
There are fiction-based initiatives too, like Katha Kathan. Retired advertising man Jameel Gulrays started out recording himself reading short stories out loud and uploading them on YouTube. Soon, others joined in. In recent months, Gulrays and his band of volunteers have moved on to staged readings, and they also conduct an informal baithak for enthusiasts at regular intervals.
Theatre groups such as Motley, based in Mumbai, have performed Ismat Chughtai and Manto’s fiction for over a decade. This year, Tamashaa Theatre ran a series of Urdu readings to introduce audiences to other writers. Sunil Shanbag says the initiative is rooted in an attempt to recall what is at the heart of theatre: the stories. “We began with Marathi readings, which were quite popular. This year, we’re exploring Urdu. Most people don’t know much beyond Manto and Chughtai. If they’re well-read, they may have heard of Qurratulain Hyder, but their knowledge ends there. We’re taking it further, from the earliest published stories to contemporary fiction by Naiyer Masud and Intizar Hussain.”
Facebook, Instagram and Twitter keep the mix interesting with all of the above-mentioned channels and collectives, alongside Sha’ir, Jalwagah, NbtJashn and some dead poets (half a dozen handles are run by fans for Sahir Ludhianvi alone).
What’s remarkable is that all of these are born out of love. A better Urdu vocabulary or the ability to quote a couplet does not necessarily bring tangible rewards (although Gupta disagrees; the ability to flirt via poetry is a real incentive, he says). For most people, though, learning, interpreting and promoting the language has been a personal journey. Or perhaps it is just as the poet Farhat Ehsas claims: Sar charh ke bolta hai Urdu zabaan ka jaadu (Urdu is a magic potion that goes straight to the head). Perhaps Urdu has once again gone to our heads and turned us, gently, back towards itself. — GQ