‘Hindo¯sta¯ni¯ is primarily the language of the Upper Gangetic Doab, and is also the lingua franca of India, capable of being written in both Persian and De¯vana¯gari¯ characters, and without purism, avoiding alike the excessive use of either Persian or Sanskrit words when employed for literature. The name ‘Urdu’ can then be confined to that special variety of Hindo¯sta¯ni¯ in which Persian words are of frequent occurrence, and which hence can only be written in the Persian character, and, similarly, ‘Hindi’ can be confined to the form of Hindo¯sta¯ni¯ in which Sanskrit words abound, and which hence can only be written in the De¯vana¯gari¯ character.’
George Grierson, scholar, who conducted the Linguistic Survey of India (1898–1928)
The MyDilliStory campaign, a Delhi government initiative asking residents to contribute stories in the four languages of the city (Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and English), recently ran into the rising bigotry of our time. Self-confessed RSS karyakartas objected to an Urdu slogan about Delhi being painted on a wall in GT Road, Shahdara, east Delhi. The flowing Persian script was wiped off and firmly replaced with Swachh Bharat. That Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Iran at the time, caressing Hafiz in Fars, had little resonance. The Urdu calligraphy was painted over for being Pakistani/ Muslim/foreign.
Urdu, from the Persian word for army camp, (the same Turkic root that gave the English word “horde”), is a modern Indian language whose origins lie somewhere in the 12th-13th century. It found its origins in necessity, pragmatism, the need to convey instructions, and, ultimately, into an expression of everything else — evidenced in its vast repertoire of literature, philosophy, love and romance.
Urdu was first called by various names, some of which were Hindawi, Hindvi or Hindi, before being designated Urdu. Hindawi was a mix of Persian and khari-boli. Amir Khusro, the Etah-born poet, singer, seer of the 13th century, did a lot to cradle Hindawi in his poems, lines, dohas — he developed a prism through which one could explore communication.
In the south, Urdu spread and flourished in the Deccan Peninsula. Wali Daccani, the sufi saint (whose mazar was one of the casualties in the mass violence in Gujarat in 2002 after it was mowed down and levelled into a road) was a leading light of Urdu.
In the early 20th century, the British began to interfere with the script of Hindustani, the language of the Indo-Gangetic plain, on religious grounds; Devanagri became the dominant “Hindu” script, and Hindi and Urdu became neatly compartmentalised into communal silos. The Hindu right with its insistence on “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” went on to make it an obsession lasting well into the Jan Sangh years and the BJP.
At home, the first few decades after Partition, were certainly not acche din for Urdu, as bigoted governments in UP and Bihar, and then Socialists, in their anti-English frenzy, made Hindi an article of faith, ignoring those who saw Urdu as their language and related to it. Fine writers and poets, Raghupati Sahay (an English professor, who is better known as Firaq Gorukhpuri), Rajendra Yadav, Premchand and others, thought and wrote in Urdu. Former PM Manmohan Singh read his speeches in Hindustani from right to left.
As it happens with all things that are stifled, the forbidden fruit had takers — Urdu stayed alive in the form of Hindustani lyrics and poetry that continue to sway the nation. In the 1950s, All India Radio played only Hindustani classical music — the Bombay film industry and its music appeared to be too much of a good thing to be made publicly available. Radio Ceylon was the only way one could tune into listen to the hits till Binaca Geet Mala came around; Ameen Sayani, the host of the show and the Indian countdown phenomenon, became wildly popular. Post 1947, this was the first time Urdu, Hindi and Hindustani came together to craft Hindustan’s dream of hope, peace and aspiration about a future. It was a tough call but the lyrics, music and poetry, in Hindustani and Urdu, made that possible.
In the 1980s, however, as Urdu was not the main leading language in any north Indian state, it suffered marginalisation. The Socialist leadership preferred Devanagri and pushed it. The idea that Urdu was Muslim gained ground as divisive politics made a comeback in a big way in the 1980s and stayed on.
As lyricist and poet Javed Akhtar, who now hosts a popular show on Urdu and Hindustani poetry on TV, once said, “It’s an irony how Urdu, a language of the bazaar and the maikhana (bar), is now being thought of as the language of the madrasas.”
In these polarised times, when Urdu is identified with just one religion, it would surprise many to know that Premchand wrote the body of his work in Hindustani and in the Persian script. The lines that open the film Masaan — Zindagi kya hai, anasrir mein zahur-e-tadbeer/Maut kya hai, ini ajza ka pareshaan hona — flowed from the pen of poet Brij Narayan Chakbast from Faizabad.
A “Muslim” Urdu is a dream of bigots from both sides, but not an accurate portrayal of anything real. It is as Muslim as chicken biryani or the ladies trouser popularised by Zindagi channel.