On display today at the Godrej India Culture Lab are posters with lines which might seem oddly familiar. ‘Tu vastu badi hai anandmayi anandmayi…’, reads one, and ‘Jeevan ek yatra hai mangalmayi…’ reads another. It’s not difficult, if one focuses a little and, uses a dictionary (if required) to understand these lines, and neither is it difficult to identify them as what they are — lyrics from well-known Hindi film songs, in which all the Urdu words have been replaced by Sanskrit-origin Hindi words.
Shorn of the original words, these lines present a disconcerting picture, showing us what we would lose without the Urdu words that still make up so much of our culture. And that exactly is the point being made by visual artist Nasheet Shadani in these posters, part of the series of works he calls ‘Bollywood Without Urdu’.
These works by Shadani are being displayed as part of ‘Urdu Culture Now’, a celebration of contemporary Urdu culture. “Despite Urdu having had such a strong influence, it doesn’t seem to have much presence in Mumbai right now. We wanted to challenge this underrepresentation of the language in the city’s culture and show the different ways in which it is used in contemporary culture,” says Pallavi Khare, a student of Media and Cultural Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, who is one of the curators. Khare, along with six other Humanities students from colleges across the city, is a Fellow in the first batch of the Lab’s Leadership Programme, the first of its kind in the city.
Besides, Shadani’s works, also on display will be graphic designer and typographer Zeenat Kulavoor’s contemporary takes on Arabic calligraphy. The event will also have a panel discussion on ‘Urdu Revival Through the Internet’, featuring lyricist and poet Hussain Haidry, Kulavoor, and executive editor of The Wire Urdu, Mahtab Alam. This will be followed by a Qissabaazi performance by actor and storyteller Danish Husain and an Urdu rock performance by independent musician Winit Tikoo. “There are so many misconceptions about Urdu — that it isn’t an Indian language or that it is all about this old world ‘pehle aap’ culture, and we wanted to challenge that,” says Divya Vaidya, a third year student of architecture from the School of Environment and Architecture. Also available at the event will be a specially curated collection of books by city-based library and book store, Trilogy, as well as a daawat representing Hyderabadi and Lucknowi cuisines.
For the Lab itself, an important reason for hosting the event is to give its Fellows a good grounding in what it takes to be engaged with art and culture in the city. Parmesh Shahani, who heads the Lab, explains that this falls within the larger goal of enabling more people to engage productively with the city’s, and the country’s, culture scene. He explains, “We started the leadership programme for three reasons. The first one was the need to formalise our internship. The second reason, which is more ambitious, is to create a pipeline for people who want to work in culture because in the seven years that we’ve existed, we realised that almost everyone who is currently working in culture has either stumbled onto it or somehow figured out their way in. The third reason comes from a strong impetus we have to innovate. We have a super focused calender of events, but we also try to make some innovations every year. This time, one of the innovations is this programme.”