Friday, April 3, 2009

Saving Urdu in India--its Birthplace

Popular Bollywood filmmaker MAHESH BHATT, known for films such as Arth, Saaransh, Janam, Naam, Inteha, Jism, Murder and Woh Lamhe, makes an impassioned appeal to save Urdu from extinction in India, the birthplace of the language, in an article published by the Hindu:

Man is memory, and memory is sound. The first sound that resonates in my heart is the Urdu word “Shireen”, meaning sweet; the name of my mother, who was by birth a Shia Muslim and remained one till the end of her days.

Shadowing that sweet memory is a bitter one. My mother couldn’t marry my Hindu father because my father couldn’t go against the wishes of his staunch Brahmin family in post-Partition India. She concealed her Muslim identity in the predominantly Hindu area of Mumbai’s Shivaji Park where we lived because, in spite of the Nehruvian vision of India as a plural and diverse nation, the rising Hindu fundamentalist movement looked upon the minority Muslim community as the enemy within. So, to arm herself from a possible Hindu backlash, she tried her best to fit in by submerging her true identity. “Do not call me by my Muslim name,” she would caution us in private. “I do not want the world to know about my Muslim identity.”

Suspect loyalties

Those were the days when Urdu was looked upon as the language of those who partitioned India. The Indian Muslim’s loyalty was always suspect; he had to regularly re-affirm his Indianness and patriotism to quell the nationalist anxieties of the majority, whose Partition-inflicted wounds had not healed.

Is it any wonder then that this Shia woman who was ‘living in sin’ with a Brahmin filmmaker gave all her children Hindu names, hurled us into Christian Schools run by Italian priests where we learned good English and absurd nursery rhymes and brought us up as Hindus?

At the same time, this same Shia woman who masqueraded as a Hindu, ushered me into the magical world of the Hindu mythology of Shiva, Ganesh and Parvati, Ram, Sita and Hanuman, as well as the great epic of the Mahabharata. “You are the son of a nagar Brahmin… you belong to the Bhargav gotra” she would say. And in the next breath, in chaste Urdu, give me a Kalma while telling me to chant “Ya Ali Maddat” if confronted with an adversary ! What a paradox !

A memory bubble bursts... The year is 1958. I am barely nine years old. The atmosphere in our house is sombre. One of the finest flowers of Indian renaissance, Maulana Azad, is dead. My mother is listening to a live relay of his funeral procession on the All India Radio Urdu service. Suddenly my father, who is equally upset by the death of this great nationalist, storms into the house. On hearing the Urdu relay, he angrily says, “Put this Radio Pakistan off! I want to hear this news in Hindi, not in Urdu!” My mother meekly does so, but I can see that she is deeply hurt.

Personal is political

They say the personal is the political. This incident explains the tremendous odds that lay in the path of Urdu, just as the first decade of Independent India was coming to an end. My father, who was a secular Brahmin, taught me a lesson through that action. That ‘tolerance’ implies superiority... where the majority community, very condescendingly, ‘ puts up’ with the very existence of the minority. But it is always ‘thus far and no further…’ an implied limit on their so-called tolerance.

My mother’s language was dying, and there was nothing that I could do as a child to keep it alive! As the years deepened, the only place I heard Urdu being spoken was on the sets of my father’s films. My father used to make enchanting Muslim fantasy movies like “The Thief of Baghdad” or “Sinbad the Sailor”. Or during secret visits with my mother to the Majlis during Moharram, where the blood-soaked history of Karbala was enacted with passion. Or, in the dark comfort of the cinema hall, watching “Mughal-e-Azam” or “Chaudvin Ka Chand”... and at the home of my actress aunt Poornima who, unlike my mother, was a successful actress. Poornima Aunty felt no need to hide her Muslim identity. And I loved her for being brave and audaciously speaking Urdu.

By the time I became a teenager, I realised that Urdu was the language of the ‘other’; and it also dawned on me that, in spite of all her attempts, my Muslim mother continued to remain an outsider in her own homeland. She would shoot down my rebellious attempts to unveil her real identity by saying, “It’s their country, and we have to get along with them.” But I could never seem to see it her way.

Emotional syntax

I felt Urdu and Islam were a part of my heritage and, as the years went by, I felt this burning surge within me to express who I really was. I couldn’t be myself by denying a part of me. My consciousness resonated with the chants of Hassan Hussain during Moharram; the bells of Mangal Murti Mauriya during the Ganesh Utsav, and the memories of Ave Maria of my Christian school. The only language that could give expression to a paradox like me was Urdu. And though I do not have an arsenal of words in my vocabulary, the emotional syntax of Urdu is my inner melody.

After the 93rd Amendment to the Constitution of India, the right of Urdu speakers to obtain education in their mother tongue has to be recognised as a fundamental right. Therefore to promote the teaching and learning of Urdu at the primary and secondary levels of education is the responsibility of the State. I feel that all Urdu lovers must compel the state to act with a sense of urgency and make this fundamental right a reality.

I wonder when it will dawn on our nation that Urdu is the language of India. I wonder what will it take for those who oppose Urdu to see that this fight to preserve Urdu is a fight for India!

© Copyright 2000 - 2008 The Hindu

Related Links:

An Indian's View of Iqbal, Jinnah and Pakistan

Sir Syed Day Urdu Mushaira in Silicon Valley

Shakespeare in South Asia


Anonymous said...

the artcile helps me to understand as to why pakistan had to be created and why it needs to be maintatanied.
The article alos tells the way as to how it can be conquered.
You have a very powerful arsenal mr.Bhat against which no defence system works.
we have to be concious about you but with a strong sense of admiration.
My compliments.

Anonymous said...

exposes hatred in Indian culture. funny they hate it but borrow a lot of Urdu vocabulary in their movies.

Naveen KS said...

This Mahesh Bhatt is a lunatic who is the favourite of the leftist liberal media in India and usually blabbers on our news channels from time to time and no one cares about him.

AFAIK Urdu is doing fine in India and its connoisseurs are taking good care to promote it. It is definitely not a dying language in India.

Anonymous said...

Nice article by Mahesh Bhatt. However, a few responses on the comments:

> Urdu is still going strong in India, and Indians don't 'borrow' Urdu in bollywood because you don't borrow something that already belongs to you. Some of the finest Urdu poets post independence have lived in India and have found bollywood as a medium.

> Post independence, there has been a sanskritization of language in India - concious or not, I dont know. It is much the same way Urdu in pakistan Pakistan looked to Arabic and Persian for linguistic inspiration and 'cleansed' itself of any indian influence. Case in point is the National Anthem, which has words in persian and arabic which few would understand.

Still, Urdu is a a beautiful language and while your concern is appreciated, it is not going extinct anytime soon. To begin with 160 millions speak Urdu (our muslim population). In fact, both Indians and Pakistanis should be more worried about the extinction of Sanskrit, of which there is a real danger.

Anonymous said...

Mahesh Bhatt is transferring his penchant for drama from the reel world to the real world. Makes for a nice readable story - but not much more. He's a fellow-traveler of Arundhati Roy - loony and entertaining.

HH said...

I am sorry to hear the sad story of bollywood filmaker Mahesh Bhatt's mother Shireen.
I can visualize the scene when he writes '..... my mother meekly does so, but I can see that she is deeply hurt...'
But then again I can also visualize that there was his Poornima Aunty 'who felt no need to hide her Muslim identity'.

The 1952's Language Movement started in the then East Pakistan has received worldwide recognition through UN and UNESCO. The world now celebrates 21st February every year as its International Mother Language Day.

Mahesh Batt needs to know that fortunately his father's days of concavity has long gone. He needs to tell his parents (particularly he owes that to his poor mother, if she is still alive) and his wider audience in India (may be using his expertise in creating an epic film based on our Language Movement) that an era of celebrating mother languages has dawned.

Urdu is the language of India too. Those who oppose Urdu in India will surely see that this fight to preserve Urdu is a fight for India!

With best wishes.

Dr.Hasanat Husain

Anonymous said...

Urdu is never used in any education institution but for madarassa. It is not only for urdu but for many indian language including sanskrit. English is the universal language. It carries the light for the future with all scientific studies documented in english

But for that all language will be used for speaking and for understanding the past. That shall be the same for urdu also.

Brian Barker said...

Although International Mother Language Day is now over, you may be interested in the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO's campaign for the protection of endangered languages.

The following declaration was made in favour of Esperanto, by UNESCO at its Paris HQ in December 2008.

The commitment to the campaign to save endangered languages was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations' Geneva HQ in September. or

I hope that you do not mind me passing on this information

Brian Barker

Anonymous said...

He is a bloody hypocrate and would do anything which get him money. dramatising anything. What is the constructive constribution of mahesh butt for the the muslims or for the urdu. Probably mahesh bhatt must be sent to saudi along with his daughter who poses nude on the press.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Haq,

Urdu is not dying in India. It's alive and well. Any Indian can study Urdu onsite or online at any national university in India. There are couple of Islamic national universities in India such as Jamia Milia Islamia and Maulana Azad university which offer college through doctorate level courses in Islamic studies.

I'm sure Mahesh Bhatt does not know all that. How would he? Mahesh is a poser who
has suddenly discovered the pain for Urdu.

Unknown said...

i am pained to see the comments on the fear of extinction of urdu language in present day india.i must praise mahesh bhutt for speaking out with such conviction on a subject which touchs a raw nerve in us. according to the latest census the no of urdu speakers exceeds 5 crores. they are above 5 % of the population. is it not their basic right to be educated in their mother tongue like all the other linguistic groups in our country. but this right is denied to them on one pretext or other. this was a reality before partition.but in a secular democratic india our constitution is being negated by the powers that be. urdu is language which is spoken in all the country and it is enshrined in those areas which our media presents as hindi heartland. this is a travesty of truth. the so called hindi heartland is s hindi. urdu heartland. by refusing these realities we are denying some hard historical facts.
it is a known fact that urdu books some times are not made available to the students of urdu medium even by the NCERT the three language formula has already been killed by putting a classical language like sanskrit instead of a modern indian lwnguage like urdu. denial of the rights of the others is a very sad state of afairs, that is gripping us.i fully endorse the views of mahesh bhutt to make the learning and teaching of urdu st primsry and secondary levels a fundamental rught of mure than 5 crores of indian citizens.
arman najmi.mailing address.pili kothi.mohalla baqargunj.PATNA 800004 bihar

kabhihaankabhinaa said...

Thank you, Mahesh ji, for writing on the importance of Urdu for a vibrant, rocking-modern Indianness.
Every one of us who has loved Meena Kumari (Sahibjaan, in Pakeeza, or her again in Benazir, or Gulzar's lyrics, or jagjit singh's ghazal singing, or umrao jaan from 1850s Lucknow, will join you in saying Urdu, tu meri jaan hai. Sirf Urdu hi nahin, but urdu bhi...
narendra panjwani

Riaz Haq said...

Here's Aaakar Patel on Punjabis and Urdu-speakers of Bollywood:

The dominant communities of Bollywood are two: the Urdu-speakers of North India and, above all, the Punjabis from in and around Lahore. They rule Bollywood and always have. To see why this is unusual, imagine a Pakistan film industry set in Karachi but with no Pashtuns or Mohajirs or Sindhis. Instead the actors are all Tamilian and the directors all Bengalis. Imagine also that all Pakistan responds to their Tamil superstars as the nation's biggest heroes. That is how unusual the composition of Bollywood is.

A quick demonstration. Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan are the three current superstars. All three are Urdu-speakers. In the second rung we have Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Akshay Kumar, Shahid Kapoor and Ajay Devgan. Of these, Hrithik, Ajay and Akshay are Punjabi while Saif is Urdu-speaking. Shahid Kapoor, as his name suggests, is half-Punjabi and half-Urdu-speaking.

Behind the camera, the big names are Punjabi: Karan Johar, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Yash Chopra of Lahore.

The Kapoor clan of Lyallpur is the greatest family in acting, not just in Bollywood but anywhere in the world. It has produced four generations of superstars: Prithviraj Kapoor, his sons Raj, Shammi and Shashi, their children Rishi and Randhir, and the current generation of Ranbir, Kareena and Karisma.

Bollywood is a Punjabi industry. We have Dev Anand of Lahore, Balraj Sahni of Rawalpindi, Rajendra Kumar of Sialkot, IS Johar of Chakwal, Jeetendra, Premnath, Prem Chopra, Anil Kapoor and Dharmendra who are all Punjabis. Sunil Dutt of Jhelum, Rajesh Khanna, Vinod Khanna, Vinod Mehra, Suresh Oberoi of Quetta, and all their star kids are Punjabis. Composer Roshan (father of Rakesh and grandfather of Hrithik) was from Gujranwala.

What explains this dominance of Punjabis in Bollywood? The answer is their culture. Much of India's television content showcases the culture of conservative Gujarati business families. Similarly, Bollywood is put together around the extroverted culture and rituals of Punjabis.

The sangeet and mehndi of Punjabi weddings are as alien to the Gujarati in Surat as they are to the Mohajir in Karachi. And yet Bollywood's Punjabi culture has successfully penetrated both. Bhangra has become the standard Indian wedding dance. Writer Santosh Desai explained the popularity of bhangra by observing that it was the only form of Indian dance where the armpit was exposed. Indians are naturally modest, and the Punjabi's culture best represents our expressions of fun and wantonness.

Even artsy Indian cinema is made by the people we call Punjus - Gurinder Chadha, Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair.

Another stream of Bollywood is also connected to Lahore, in this case intellectually, and that is the progressives. Sajjad Zaheer (father of Nadira Babbar), Jan Nisar Akhtar (father of lyricist Javed and grandfather of actor/director Farhan and director Zoya), Kaifi Azmi (father of Shabana), Majrooh Sultanpuri and so many others have a deep link to that city.

Riaz Haq said...

Why is the English laguage so dominant and widely used today? It's because language does not exist or grow in vacuum. As a means of communication, it reflects the state of the people whose language it is. The global ascendance of the English language has coincided with the rise of the Anglo-Saxon people beginning with the Industrial Revolution in 18th century England. It marked a dramatic shift of global power from East to West.

Riaz Haq said...

#Pakistan minister confirms the country is switching to #Urdu, dropping #English as official language via @TIMEWorld Pakistan is dropping English as its official language and switching to Urdu, a popular language in the Indian subcontinent.

The long-rumored change was confirmed by Pakistani Minister of Planning, National Reforms, and Development Ahsan Iqbal in an exclusive interview with TIME.

Iqbal said the change was being made because of a court directive. The Pakistani constitution, which was passed in 1973, included a clause specifying that the government must make Urdu the national language within 15 years, but it had not been enforced.

Still, Iqbal said the country is not entirely abandoning English, which will still be taught alongside Urdu in schools.

“It means Urdu will be a second medium of language and all official business will be bilingual,” he said.

Some Pakistanis fear that the move is part of an official backlash against the younger generation, which has been more open to Western culture.

But Iqbal argued that the move would help make Pakistan more democratic, since it will “help provide greater participation to people who don’t know English, hence making the government more inclusive.”

Urdu is just one of a number of languages spoken in Pakistan, but it retains a cultural cachet as the language of movies and music as well as the Islamic religion, while English has been more popular among elites and government ministries.

According to the CIA Factbook, nearly half of Pakistanis speak Punjabi, the language of the Punjab region, while only 8% speak Urdu. Several other languages are spoken by a fraction of the population.

The decision to break away from English creates a stark contrast with Pakistan’s neighbor and longtime rival India. English was the official language of the area that now comprises both countries under British rule, which ended in 1947.

Despite a similar language clause in its constitution, India continues to use both English and Hindi as its official languages.

Riaz Haq said...

For the first time in Pakistan's history, a university has awarded an MPhil degree in Hindi. Military-run National University of Modern Languages (NUML) here has become the first Pakistani university to award the degree.

NUML student Shahin Zafar is the first student from a Pakistani university to receive an MPhil degree in Hindi. Her thesis, titled 'Swatantryottra Hindi Upanyason Mein NasriChittran (1947-2000)' was supervised by Professor Iftikhar Husain Arif and endorsed by the Higher Education Commission, Dawn News reported.

A university spokesperson was quoted as saying that due to dearth of Hindi experts in Pakistan, Zafar's thesis was evaluated by two experts from India's Aligarh Muslim University.

Riaz Haq said...

Indo-#European languages (#English, #Hindi, #Urdu, #Spanish) originated in #Anatolia (#Turkey) via @SmithsonianMag

..there's about a 50 percent chance that any given person speaks a language from the Indo-European family, as Shoaib Daniyal recently reported for Quartz. Indo-European languages, a family that includes about half the languages spoken today. But there are still a lot of questions about who founded that original tongue, and when, and how it spread. Linguists do know that Proto-Indo-European was a language unique to a tribal culture in ancient Eurasia. They know that these ancient humans only spoke their language, they never wrote it down, and today it's extinct. (Of course, that hasn't stopped linguists from trying to reconstruct the language.) But they don't know exactly when and where the language truly began, or how it came to birth so many of our modern tongues.

Under one hypothesis, the ancestral tongue is 6,000 years old. It originated among tribal nomads on the Pontic Steppe, at the intersection of Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine. These nomads had significant military prowess and had domesticated horses. Such innovative feats allowed them to spread their language by travel and conquest.

Evolutionary biologists recently usurped this nomadic theory. In 2012, a team from the University of Auckland in New Zealand estimated that Proto-Indo-European is even older, perhaps originating 8,000 to 9,500 years ago. As for its geographic origins, they pointed to Anatolia, or modern day Turkey. By their account, the first speakers practiced animal domestication and agriculture. As these practices spread, so did their language.

Riaz Haq said...

How mystic Plato became genius Aflatoon

Pakistanis believe Bollywood’s language is Urdu (and what Vajpayee speaks is Hindi). Indians think Bollywood is Hindi, and what PTV speaks is Urdu. Hindi/Urdu is actually the same language, Hindustani, made alien because it’s written in two scripts. Most of Urdu’s sounds come from Sanskrit. It isn’t even possible, for instance, to write the word phool, flower, in Arabic.

This is because the letter P is missing in Arabic, which is strange, because it seems an easy sound to produce. Another basic sound Arabs don’t have is G, and McDonald’s signs in Arabic advertise the “hamburjer” in Dubai.
Arabs cannot spell Pakistan, and might pronounce it “Fakistan” or “Bakistan”. Pak is Persian and means pure.
Parsis always had P, and when Persia was conquered by the Arabs, the letter was accommodated into the Arabic script by adding two dots to ?( B) and inventing ? ( P).
Phool cannot be written in Gujarati either because, influenced heavily by Persian through trade, Gujarati uses the sound F instead of Pha. Phool is ful in Gujarati, but that word does not properly communicate the pendulous weight of a flower.
Sanskrit does not have F, and it must be modified for Hindi by putting a dot under Pha. Bollywood’s Gulzar (whose name comes from flower) writes in the Persian script and is keen that we claim all Hindustani words through active use of the dot under Devnagari letters like K, Kh, Gh, J, S and A. These sounds are only missing from the alphabet, not the language. However, only cultured Indians can properly pronounce qaaf, khay and ghain.
Plato is known to Indians by the beautiful name Aflatoon. How did Plato become Aflatoon? His name in Greek is actually Platon, meaning wide. English spells him through Latin, which drops the N.
We got the word from Muslims and, as we have seen, Arabs have no P and so his name begins with F. The reason for the A at the beginning is that “fl” (as in flower) is not a naturally occurring sound in Arabic, and the alif, or A, eases us into the word by separating F from L: Af-latoon.
Those who believe V.S. Naipaul cooks up anecdotes to fit his theories will find evidence of this in his book Overcrowded Barracoon.
He quotes a professor of literature in north India as describing his curriculum thus: “We begin with Eshakespeare” and then “the Romantics. Eshelley” and then “Esomerset Maugham”.
It is impossible that a north Indian will say Eshakespeare, Eshelley and Esomerset. Sh and S are both naturally occurring, and commonly used, in Hindi.
Naipaul quotes another man talking about his “estatus”, and this is correct. He might have picked up a couple of similarly mispronounced words, like “iskool” and “istation”, and then assumed, wrongly, that the problem was with all words starting with S. He then makes up the names that make his story entertaining.
So why do north Indians say “iskool” and “estatus”? Urdu cannot join letters to half-S because Sk and St (like Skanda in Sanskrit) are not naturally occurrent. For this reason, the spelling in Urdu of the word “school” cannot start S+K because that would produce the word “sakool”. An alif is put before the S, to ease it into the K, and this produces the easier “askool” or “iskool”.
The peasant’s inability to say F explains words like phoren and phillum, which urban Indians use with a laugh. But someone else might laugh at us.
We pronounce the word philosophy as fee-law-saw-fee. But in Ancient Greek f (phi) is aspirated like the Hindi phool and so Plato would know his work as phee-low-so-phee-aa (f???s?f?a). I think this makes the word, and the work, more rustic, more accessible, less intimidating.
Is it possible to truly understand the meaning of words you speak incorrectly? I do not think so, and Plato discusses this in his book on the sound of words, Cratylus.

Riaz Haq said...

Google adds voice support on web for #Urdu, 29 other languages spoken in #Africa, #India, #Pakistan | TechCrunch

Google today is expanding its speech recognition capabilities to support dozens of new languages, particularly those in emerging markets in India and Africa, the company announced this morning. That means more people around the world will gain the ability to search the web by voice as well as type via voice using Google’s keyboard app, Gboard.

The company says with the update, it’s adding 30 languages and locales around the world, bringing the total supported to 119. The update includes 8 more Indian languages, as well as Swahili and Amharic, two of Africa’s largest languages.

The new speech recognition will be initially supported in Gboard for Android and Voice Search. U.S. English speakers, meanwhile, can now use voice dictation to express themselves using emojis, too. (e.g. you can just say “winky face emoji” instead of hunting for it.)

The new languages are also available today in the Cloud Speech API, which already supported 89 languages, and is used in a number of third-party voice and video applications, like transcription services, speech analytics applications, IVR applications, and more.

In time, the new languages will be added to other Google products, including the Google Translate app.

However, the more critical part of this news is what this means for those in emerging markets – regions that are often ignored when it comes to being among the first to gain access to new technology advances from tech giants.

But with mobile, that’s changed. Tech companies are now aiming to establish footholds in these regions, as the next large swath of internet users come online.

In India, especially, Google’s move to expand speech recognition tech could have a significant impact. The country is estimated to have some 420 million mobile internet users as of this June, making India one of the biggest markets in the world for companies like Apple, Google and Facebook to address.

Google’s expansion with voice technology also comes shortly after a piece in The Wall Street Journal detailed how tech companies are rethinking their products for the developing world – in particular, how the next billion mobile users will heavily take advantage of technologies like video and voice. Google, for example, told The WSJ, that it’s been seeing “a new kind of internet user” – a group that’s “very different from the first billion” in terms of how they access the web.

To develop speech recognition capabilities for these new languages, Google combined human labor with its machine learning technology.

The company says that it works with native speakers to collect speech samples by asking them to read common phrases. This, in turn, helped to train Google’s machine learning models to better understand the sounds and words of the new languages to improve their accuracy when they were exposed to more examples over time.

The full list of new languages includes the following:

Amharic (Ethiopia)
Armenian (Armenia)
Azerbaijani (Azerbaijani)
Bengali (Bangladesh, India)
English (Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania)
Georgian (Georgia)
Gujarati (India)
Javanese (Indonesia)
Kannada (India)
Khmer (Cambodian)
Lao (Laos)
Latvian (Latvia)
Malayalam (India)
Marathi (India)
Nepali (Nepal)
Sinhala (Sri Lanka)
Sundanese (Indonesia)
Swahili (Tanzania, Kenya)
Tamil (India, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Malaysia)
Telugu (India)
Urdu (Pakistan, India)

Riaz Haq said...

#Hindi evolved at a time, when #Urdu – another form of #Hindustani since the 1800s – underwent significant #Persian influence and acquired prestige. Hindi was devised by #Scottish linguists of East India Co – how can it be #India’s National Language?

24 Sep 2019Devdan Chaudhuri
If the Anglophone Indians are derided as ‘Macaulay’s children’, then the Hindi speaking Indians can also be called ‘Gilchrist’s children’.

My late maternal grandmother – who had studied philosophy and biology in the 1940s Calcutta – had told me once during my boyhood, that Calcutta was the birthplace of the modern Hindi language: it was ‘invented’ by the British in Fort William, Calcutta.

I remembered my grandmother’s words when I read the news reports about the recently concluded ‘Hindi Divas’ day when the Union Home Minister Amit Shah pitched for Hindi as the national language of India.

This prompted me to consider and figure out why my maternal grandmother said what she did. I wanted to know about the ‘suppressed truths’ and understand the ‘secret history’ of Hindi.

Now I wish to share with you what I found; and have to begin by recalling few essential facts about the languages of India.

Linguistic Diversity of India

Papua New Guinea – with a population of just over seven million – has world’s highest number of languages: 852 (840 are spoken and 12 are extinct). It tops the Linguistic Diversity Index (Source: UNESCO 2009) with 0.990. India comes at #9 with a score of 0.930.

But if we measure linguistic diversity by total population, India with 1.3 billion people (#2 by population) is much ahead of the rest, including China (1), United States of America (3), Indonesia (4) and Brazil (5). And hence, one can say, India is the ‘most populated linguistic diverse country in the world’.

Census of India of 2001 said that India has 122 major languages and 1599 other languages. It recorded 30 languages which were spoken by more than a million native speakers and 122 which were spoken by more than 10,000 people.

There are 22 scheduled languages of India – Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithali, Malayalam, Marathi, Meitei (Manipuri), Nepali, Odia, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu – and two official languages of the Union Government: Hindi and English.

In addition to the above, the Government of India has awarded the distinction of classical language to 6 languages which have a ‘rich heritage and independent nature’: Kannada, Malayalam, Odia, Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu.

Tamil is also one of the oldest living languages in the world and this Dravidian language predates even Sanskrit (a part of the Indo-Aryan family of Indic languages).

Contrary to the perceptions formed by boisterous disinformation campaigns, Hindi is not the national language of India. India has no national language.

As per the 2011 census, only 26.6% of the Indians identify Hindi as their mother tongue.

Hindi Language

Modern Hindi – one of the youngest Indian languages – is based on the Khariboli dialect (vernacular of Delhi and the surrounding region) and its literary tradition evolved towards the end of the 18th century.

Khariboli itself had evolved to replace earlier dialects such as Awadhi – the sweet-sounding language of the commoners in which Tulsidas’ Ramcharitamanas was composed in the early 17th century. The Awadhi bhakti poem popularized Lord Rama all over North India; that in turn is influencing the politics of modern India.

Riaz Haq said...

#Hate campaign in #India against #Urdu for being a ‘Muslim’ language. #Hindu nationalist groups target #Indian-born language after clothing brand comes up with a #Diwali advertisement with Urdu words. #HindutvaTerror #Islamophibia_in_india via @AJEnglish

Last week, Hindu right-wing forces in India forced a leading firm to withdraw its festive season advertisement after it featured a couple of words from the Urdu language, which in the popular imagination in the country is a “Muslim language”.

The company, FabIndia, issued an advertisement for Diwali – a significant Hindu festival that falls next month – showcasing its latest collection of clothes. The text at the top read: “Jashn-e-Rivaaz”.

“Jashn” in Urdu means a celebration while “Riwaaz”, which is actually “Riwaaj”, means tradition. The title translated to “A Celebration of Tradition”.

But a young parliamentarian belonging to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who often makes headlines for his Islamophobic remarks, was not happy.

“Deepavali is not Jashn-e-Riwaaz,” 30-year-old Tejasvi Surya posted on Twitter, calling Diwali by its more traditional name.

“This deliberate attempt of Abrahamisation of Hindu festivals, depicting models without traditional Hindu attires, must be called out.”

FabIndia is a household name in India and sells clothes, furniture, home furnishings and food items. It has hundreds of showrooms across the vast country and abroad.

Surya said the company “must face economic costs for such deliberate misadventures”.

Soon, other members of the BJP and other Hindu nationalist groups started attacking FabIndia on social media, accusing the brand of “hurting” the religious sentiments of Hindus.

“The Hindutva project sees Urdu as a ‘Muslim’ language. And invisibilising Urdu is part of the larger project of marginalising the Muslim community, in fact, physically eliminating it,” Nivedita Menon, professor at the Centre for Political Studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Al Jazeera.

“Hindutva” refers to a century-old Hindu supremacist movement which seeks to convert India into an ethnic Hindu state.

The Urdu language was born in northern India during the Mughal rule. Linguists and historians say Urdu and Hindi originally developed from Khadi Boli, a dialect of the Delhi region, and Prakrit. It also borrowed heavily from Persian, Turkish and Arabic languages.

Until the British colonised the subcontinent, Urdu and Hindu languages were collectively referred to as Hindustani. It was British linguist John Gilchrist who for the first time classified and defined Hindustani into two broad categories – words inspired largely by Persian and Arabic were identified as Urdu, and those inspired by Sanskrit became Hindi.

However, spoken Urdu is similar to Hindi and the two share a common grammar and a large percentage of their vocabulary.

Riaz Haq said...

Why does India’s Hindu right-wing hate the Urdu language so much?

so complete was the communal association of Hindi and Urdu by that time, Rai recounts that “a Hindi friend” asked Nehru whose language Urdu was. “Yeh meri aur mere bap-dada’on ki bhasha hai,” Nehru replied. This is my language, the language of my ancestors. Thereupon the “Hindi friend” retorted: Brahman hote hue Urdu ko apni bhasha kehte ho, sharam nahin ati? (Aren’t you ashamed, being a Brahmin, to claim Urdu as your language?)

Uttar Pradesh, the heartland of the Hindi-Urdu fight, went even further, banning Urdu-medium schooling altogether. As Urdu writer and critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi put it, there was an effort to “wipe out Urdu” in Uttar Pradesh after independence.

Sanskritised Hindi—which Alok Rai pointedly calls “Hindi” in scare quotes to differentiate it from its spoken forms—has a fairly restricted life outside government and is practically absent from Bollywood, by some distance the largest producer of Hindi-Urdu content in the world.

Of course, Hindutva is ascendantly militant right now and is unafraid to use intimidation to try and resurrect colonial-era Hindi-Urdu debates. However, even as these political controversies break, one must keep in mind that changing language habits— especially the natural spoken tongue—of millions is a tough feat to pull off.

In fact, ironically, the Bharatiya Janata Party uses what could be called “Urdu” too in slogans such as “Modi hai to mumkin hai” (mumkin is from Arabic via Persian) or “azadi kā amrit mahotsav” (azadi is a Persian loan). Even words as basic as “Hindu” and “Hindi” are loans from Persian, being taken up by Indian languages in the medieval period. Hence, in the reductive lens of (Sanskritised) Hindi versus (Persianised) Urdu, they fit into the latter silo.

This, of course, does not mean language change cannot occur. In fact, like medieval Khari Boli absorbed Persian words as part of its everyday lexicon, much the same is happening with English today, which given its linguistic prestige and power exerts a significant influence even on non-Anglophones. Open any Hindi newspaper, for example, and it is suffused with English loan words. Informal, spoken speech will probably have even more.

Riaz Haq said...

Where Romantic Poetry in a Fading Language Draws Stadium Crowds
That 300,000 people celebrated Urdu verse during a three-day festival was testament to the peculiar reality of the language in India.

That more than 300,000 people came to celebrate Urdu poetry during the three-day festival this month in New Delhi was testament to the peculiar reality of the language in India.

For centuries, Urdu was a prominent language of culture and poetry in India, at times promoted by Mughal rulers. Its literature and journalism — often advanced by writers who rebelled against religious dogma — played important roles in the country’s independence struggle against British colonial rule and in the spread of socialist fervor across the subcontinent later in the 20th century.

In more recent decades, the language has faced dual threats from communal politics and the quest for economic prosperity. Urdu is now stigmatized as foreign, the language of India’s archrival, Pakistan. Families increasingly prefer to enroll children in schools that teach English and other Indian languages better suited for the job market.


The four designated stages inside the crowded stadium complex in the heart of the busy capital weren’t enough. So the poetry lovers also took to the footpaths and the spaces in between, turning them into impromptu open-mic platforms for India’s embattled language of love.

In one corner of the festival grounds, which had been draped in vibrant colors and calligraphy, a group of university students alternated between singing popular romantic songs, backed by a young man on guitar, and jostling to recite verses of their own.

“In your love,” one young poet began, leaning into the huddle with confidence, before forgetting the rest of his verse. “In your love ….” he repeated, unable to recall.

“Don’t worry,” someone from the crowd encouraged him, as the others chuckled. “In love, we all forget.”

In another corner, Pradeep Sahil, a poet and lyricist, handed his phone to a friend to record him as he placed a red chair at a busy spot and took a seat, crossing his legs and reading poem after poem. A crowd soon gathered, cheering after every verse. With no room on the main stage, Mr. Sahil had found a stage of his own, climbing atop his chair and reciting what felt like his entire book.

Riaz Haq said...

Where Romantic Poetry in a Fading Language Draws Stadium Crowds
That 300,000 people celebrated Urdu verse during a three-day festival was testament to the peculiar reality of the language in India.

“In our effort to get on the gravy train, we left a lot behind on the platform,” Javed Akhtar, a prominent poet and lyricist, said at the festival. “And among those things we forgot on the platform was literature, language, poetry and other arts.”

Yet Urdu has remained the key language of romantic expression in the songs and cinema that saturate Indian life. Generations, in India as well as across the wider subcontinent and in the diaspora, have grown up humming songs from Bollywood musicals that draw heavily on Urdu poetry. Knowingly or unknowingly, Urdu has been their language of angst, heartbreak and celebration.

Urdu is a composite language. Its grammar and syntax are indigenous to India, but it draws its script — and a heavy share of its vocabulary — from Persian and Arabic influences that came on the back of Muslim invasions. The rich tradition of poetry, music and art that developed from this confluence became known as the Ganga-Jamuna culture, a meeting of the two great rivers with those names.

After Pakistan adopted Urdu as its national language with the bloody partition of India in 1947, the tongue increasingly took on an Islamic identity in India — a marginalization that has only intensified with the recent rise of the Hindu right. The governing party’s right-wing support base has long focused on “purifying” Indian culture, with the only acceptable confluence one in which it subsumes other streams.

The poetry festival, known as Jashn-e-Rekhta, which was in its seventh edition, is part of a decade-old effort to bridge the gap between the language’s wide emotional connection and its receding accessibility.

It all began in 2013 with a website,, started by Sanjiv Saraf, an engineer and businessman who was a lifelong lover of music set to Urdu poetry and had just begun learning the script at age 53.

He wanted to make a small number of good Urdu poems accessible by presenting each in three different scripts — in the original Urdu; in Devanagari, the script of Hindi; and in English transliteration. Readers could click on any word to get a pop-up of its meaning.

Mr. Saraf’s organization, the Rekhta Foundation, has since expanded its mission to reviving the Urdu language. Dozens of its employees travel around India to scan and archive works from old libraries and private collections, making out-of-print Urdu books available digitally. The Rekhta website now has about 20 million users annually, two-thirds of them under 35. The site has so far made available more than 120,000 pieces of work by over 6,000 poets.

In many ways, Urdu’s poetic tradition gives it an advantage in the era of social media and short attention spans. The building block of much of Urdu poetry is a simple “sher” — two versed lines in which the first sets up an idea and the second completes it.

“The emotional power of this language — to express the deepest emotions in the shortest possible construct,” Mr. Saraf said, “you cannot help but fall in love with the language.”

The poetry festival was held for the first time since the pandemic, and there was an undertone about the fragility of life. The singer Hariharan captivated the audience with a slow meditation on life taken from a poem by Muzaffar Warsi.

Riaz Haq said...

Where Romantic Poetry in a Fading Language Draws Stadium Crowds
That 300,000 people celebrated Urdu verse during a three-day festival was testament to the peculiar reality of the language in India.

Among the crowd that spilled out of the large tent where Hariharan performed was Snigdha Kar, an environmentalist, and her 7-year-old daughter, Shreyashri. As the singer dwelled on one line of poetry, repeating it over and over, Ms. Kar closed her eyes, letting the notes sink in.

Music and poetry provide a moment of grounding in a fast-moving world of work, travel and family obligations, she said. While Ms. Kar said she had always been moved by lyrics and poetry — “I used to pay attention to the words more,” she said — she has started classical lessons online during the pandemic to understand the music, too.

“I also bought a guitar,” she said, adding with a sheepish smile: “You know, classical music could become boring sometimes.”

The festival’s main attraction was the poetry sessions, from open-mic opportunities where budding poets nervously recited their works, trying to stick to meter and rhyme, to master classes that encouraged them to keep composing even if they were struggling with the basics of Urdu script or form.

“Poetry is not just arranging words,” the poet Suhail Azad, who took early retirement as a police officer to focus full time on poetry, told attendants of one master class. “If it reaches the heart, it is poetry.”

At the festival’s headline poetry recital, the mushaira, half a dozen senior poets took their seats on the stage, enchanting the audience in distinct styles, often to standing ovations.

Some of the poets sang their verses like melodious songs. Others, like Shakeel Azmi, brought the same dynamism as a stage performer — moving away from the lectern, building up the suspense of the second verse by repeating the first over and over.

The more senior poets, like Fahmi Badayuni, 70, brought the quiet swagger and simplicity of a bygone era, both in demeanor and verse.

Before he recited his work, Mr. Badayuni — wearing a pink sweater, fur hat and checkered scarf — acknowledged the audience’s connection with his art by noting that his poems had gone “viral.”

Those who are unaware of your scent

They make do with flowers.

The crowd roared after every verse, many standing to shout “once more!” The master of ceremonies stopped Mr. Badayuni to offer an observation: His verses were so good that people were also whistling in appreciation.

“Keep whistling like that, brother, and you may get a job in the railways,” the M.C. joked with the crowd.

Mr. Badayuni then went back to reciting another sher. He repeated the first line to the audience’s attentive silence and curiosity, and then landed its kicker to their eruption.