THE INTRODUCTION of the Shahmukhi course at Panjab University in the new session comes at a time when Pakistan has also introduced a diploma in Indian studies with courses in Gurmukhi and Devanagari at the University of Lahore, perhaps signalling a change in their outlook to understand each other beyond a discourse controlled by mainstream media and the English-educated society. After all, Punjabi is spoken on both sides of the border, divided only by the script. While Gurmukhi is used by Indians, Pakistan has adopted the Perso-Arabic script, Shahmukhi.
Earlier in the year, Punjab Finance Minister Manpreet Badal talked about the importance of learning the Shahmukhi script to restore Punjab’s cultural heritage. He promised to create five faculty posts to start an independent learning centre for Shahmukhi, for which the university formed a committee.
With Vice-Chancellor Arun Kumar Grover taking a personal interest, the pilot project for a six-month certificate course in Shahmukhi script will be launched in the new session. While there is a plan to teach the first batch of students for free, the first draft of the syllabus will be submitted to the V-C on Tuesday.
Prof Yog Raj Angrish said, “We thought of introducing the course to understand the historical and cultural heritage of our neighbour where 7 crore people write Punjabi in Shahmukhi. India’s Punjab is smaller than Pakistan’s; only 3.5 crore people here write in Gurmukhi.”
The committee had proposed Rs 2 crore for the project, but there is no official nod to it yet. The five-member committee held a meeting last week and has decided to submit the syllabus on Tuesday. It has also proposed that after the first year, students will be charged Rs 2,000 that will have to go through the statutory bodies of the university.
The enrolment to the course will only start after July and classes will be held from 4 pm to 6 pm. The independent centre will be started under chairpersonship of Lt Gen (retd) K J Singh. “As a student of literature, we are looking at cultural closeness through language. This will help us with transcription of texts written in Shamukhi,” added Prof Angrish.
While a Malerkotla college has a Shahmukhi course, Punjabi University in Patiala was forced to stop its 20-year course due to lack of faculty. “The syllabus will focus on learning the script in the first two months, starting with the alphabet, word and sentence formation. People who know Punjabi, write in Gurmukhi or even in Devanagari; we want them to write in Shahmukhi and create experts in the script,” said Prof Angrish.
Experts said Shahmukhi was first written in the 12th century by medieval poet Baba Farid. It has been mistaken as a language of royalty, but it has always been the language of Sufi saints and poets, said Lt Gen (retd) KJ Singh, who will chair the independent centre. He added that the courses were simple linguistic modules and the students will be taught Shahmukhi through Gurmukhi unlike in Pakistan where it is taught through Urdu.
This gains more importance in the light of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. In April, Pakistan High Commissioner Sohail Mahmood met the Chief Ministers of Punjab and Haryana to discuss the plan to host Indian pilgrims in Pakistan on the occasion. Sikhs have applied for visas to visit Gurdwara Janam Asthan Nankana Sahib in Lahore (Guru Nanak’s birthplace).
“Before Partition, Pakistan used Gurmukhi and Urdu to write Punjabi, but now they use Shahmukhi. Gurmukhi, however, has a better repertoire of tonal nuances,” said Lt Gen Singh.
Talking about the script, he added that there was a distinct movement in Pakistan to drive the language away. He gave examples of the increasing Arabic influence on Urdu: ‘Khuda hafiz’ has turned into ‘Allah hafiz’ or the month of Ramzan is now referred to as Ramadan.
However, he spoke of the strategic importance of learning the Shahmukhi script in India and talked about how it might not lead to ‘Aman ki Asha’, but will influence the relations in future. “The academic world needs patience. If not now, then some day the barriers will break. We’re looking 100 years ahead. Also, just like Pakistan pretends to have leverage over Kashmir, we can develop an overarching influence of Punjabi composite culture in Pakistan,” he said.
Highly beneficial to research scholars, students of defence studies and journalists, knowing this script could also open a window to other languages. Committee member, Professor Ishwar D Gaur, said, “It is a progressive step for Punjabis. The language is one, but the scripts are not. Unless we know each other’s scripts better, we’ll not know each other.”
He added that the two neighbouring countries were not reading each other’s literature because of the script divide.
“If we learn this script, there will be more spontaneity in writing Punjabi and it will enrich the literature on both sides. If they’re writing about Guru Nanak, we won’t know about it and if we’re writing about Baba Farid, they wouldn’t know,” he added.
Prof Gaur said it was simply a colonial game to trifurcate the Punjabi society, based on religion, so that Muslims write only in Shahmukhi, Sikhs write in Gurmukhi and Hindus write in Devanagari.