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Musings on the current state of Urdu

By Khaled Jawed

The promotion of Urdu language would be in vain without encouraging and promoting originality and creativity in its literature. Our concern ought not to be limited to the functional role of Urdu as a language. Even if that may be the concern, Urdu as a functional language doesn’t have a bright future. For the promotion of this language, its literature has to be taken into consideration.

Urdu has a very long and rich history of remarkable prose and poetry. Meer Taqi Meer, Mirza Ghalib, Allama Iqbal, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz are the stalwarts of Urdu poetry. The genre of ghazal in Urdu is a unique phenomenon in the history of world literature. In a ghazal, each verse is self-sufficient and this may be called a capsule of amalgamation of many thoughts and philosophies in just one verse.

These days creativity in the true sense is scarce in the new generation. The institutions like the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL) and other state academies are basically political bodies. Members of these academies and institutions are politically biased. Owing to this fact, originality and creativity in prose as well as in poetry are not well recognized in these circles. A host of other factors, which are more visible, goes into the making of opinion about anybody’s work. Alternatively, true creativity in Urdu is not acknowledged.

There are a few organizations which are doing considerably good work in promoting Urdu language and literature. One of them is Rekhta. This foundation is involved in translating classical Urdu poetry into Devnagri, which is available on its website. Moreover, books in Devnagri are also getting published by Rekhta that entails works of the classical poets with references, notes, and meanings. Besides this, modern and contemporary prose and poetry are also present on the website.

Jashn-e-rekhta, the Urdu literary festival, is also a unique phenomenon in the sub-continent. It has revolutionized the concept of Urdu for the masses, and has carved a huge niche for itself. Besides Urduwallahs, people from different sectors as well as echelons of the society attend Jashn-e-rekhta passionately. Sanjiv Saraf, the chief architect of Rekhta, has to be saluted for taking up this important step. Given all these latest developments in the world of Urdu, the question of creativity is still unsolved.

The events of collective poetry called mushairas have a long history in Urdu. The legislative criticism used to be sparsely present. Unfortunately, mushairas these days have become performing arts, and their popularity is very similar to that of stand-up comedy and a host of such programmes that regularly appear on different television channels. Today’s mushairas have distorted the literary taste of the youth. The content of poetry that is read out in mushairas is shallow that creates only a temporary effect. It substantially lacks any lasting effect in terms of producing aesthetic pleasure. In a nutshell, it has got no shelf value. Real poetry is not meant for appeasing everyone as it contains a deep meaning and poetic tools. And it is intuitive in nature and not made for nurturing romantic ideas of politics and religion of a particular class.

It has also been observed that reciting Urdu verses has become a fashionable pastime among the youth nowadays. These youths come from vocational courses like engineering, medical, management, and others. Their background is not even Urdu. They appreciate and applause Urdu ashaaar. It is indeed a healthy sign for the popularity of Urdu among the youth. However, the appreciation of good literature is altogether a different thing.

We may notice that Mirza Ghalib is still the most popular poet. However, one needs to ask: Do these students perceive Ghalib as he should be? Can everybody appreciate the poetic beauty and literary mysticism hidden in Ghalib’s verses? The answer is, of course, ‘No’, given the fact that we are unable to feel or grasp the greatness of Ghalib. This is a passing fad, a mere fashion.

The academies and Urdu institutions are not interested in these crucial questions. The prime objective of these institutions is only organizing seminars and workshops. On the whole, either these bodies are concerned with organizing academic activities, or politically motivated promotional steps of language. The production and perpetuation of academic jargons is a routine work in all these academic activities. These gatherings are not meant for fostering creativity. In fact, creativity is the last thing on their mind! I have said above that academies and institutions are not acknowledging the real creative things. When it comes to appreciating and honoring somebody, there is a complete lack of objectivity and honesty. Political orientation, flattery, and fawning sycophancy have got an upper hand in recognizing anybody’s academic credentials. To put it differently, partisanship rules the roost. Mediocrity is in abundance everywhere. And mediocre people always play safe.

To my mind, a language and its script complement each other. Never the twain could be undone. Script is the soul of any language and it cannot be taken away from it. If Urdu gets deprived of its script, it will become a language of spoken words only. While in our daily conversation limited vocabularies are used, which is not enough to keep a rich language alive. Thus it could be argued that the popularity of Urdu may be an illusion.

There is a difference between writing and reciting. When one writes a creative piece of literature, unconsciously one thinks through the categories of structure and space of that script. This brings a natural and spontaneous flow in writing. Therefore, I am not in favor of the opinion that script of Urdu be replaced by Devnagri. Both these scripts have different characteristics, having their own specific modes and cardinal factors. Urdu will be a dead language without the script. Anyone who wants to learn Urdu, and is interested in its literature should first learn its script.

To a genuine artist his/her art is the ultimate reward which is self-luminous, and he/she is not dependant on any award and tangible gifts. He/she writes in the darkness with the light of his heart only.

Fortunately, Urdu does have writers who are the exceptions to the norm that has gripped the hallowed precincts of academia. However, we must be hopeful and wait for the things to take better shape in future, which is always uncertain as we know that everything in this world is in constant flux.

Khaled Jawed
is a renowned Urdu fiction writer. His Aakhri Dawat (Penguin), Maut ki Kitab and Nematkhana are highly acclaimed novels. The Aakhri Dawat [The Last Supper] is part of the syllabus of Comparative Literature Course at the Department of South Asian languages, Princeton University, USA. He teaches as an associate professor at the Department of Urdu, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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