A celebration of Urdu

Ali Madeeh Hashmi describes Jashn-e-Rekhta, an event dedicated to propagating Urdu in the digital world

A celebration of Urdu
Delhi’s picturesque India International Centre (IIC) was the recent venue for the first ‘Jashn-e Rekhta’, a festival celebrating the beauty and elegance of the Urdu language. Organized by the Rekhta foundation whose founder, Indian businessman Sanjiv Saraf visited Lahore recently to drum up support for the festival, the two day event was a smash hit and was attended by tens of thousands of Delhi’ites demonstrating that a passion for Urdu remains alive and well across the border. The festival included panel discussions, lectures, exhibitions, readings from Urdu prose and poetry, a mushaira and musical performances by renowned artists from both India and Pakistan.

“Rekhta” is the name given to the language spoken in the Northern Indo-Pak subcontinent from the late 17th to the late 18th century after which it evolved into “Hindi/Urdu”. It evolved from the ‘khari boli’ (literally ‘standing dialects’) spoken in and around Delhi to ‘Urdu’ after Persian and Arabic words were incorporated into it because of the influence of the Mughal court where the official language was Persian.

The master himself, Ghalib, referred to the language when he wrote the verse:

Rekhta kay tumhiN ustaad nahiN ho Ghalib

kehte haiN aglay zamanay maiN koi Mir bhi tha

As an aside, Urdu did not form in the camp of the Mughal armies contrary to popular belief although the word ‘Urdu’ is derived from the Turkic word “Ordu” (Army), the same root from which comes the English word ‘horde’.

‘Jashn’e Rekhta’ was a live celebration of the cyber world that is the website ‘Rekhta.org’. Set up less than a year ago, the website has a global readership and is a huge (and growing) repository of Urdu poetry and prose. Its founder, Sanjiv Saraf ambitiously claims that his dream is to eventually have the entire corpus of Urdu literature and poetry available on the website. While that dream may be some time away, ‘Jashn-e Rekhta’ proved that there is no shortage of Urdu enthusiasts to support this effort.

The first day of the festival kicked off with our panel ‘Internet ki duniya main Urdu’ (‘Urdu in the world of the internet’) moderated by Indian academic Pervaiz Alam. My fellow panelists included Karachi based publisher, translator and writer Ajmal Kamal, Lalit Kumar, the founder of the hugely popular website ‘Kavita-kosh’ (sadly inaccessible to Pakistani readers since the entire content of the website is in the Devanagri font) and Rana Safvi, founder and moderator of #shair on Twitter. Our session highlighted some particular problems of Urdu (and Hindi) in the cyber age. While the internet has given a global platform to lovers of Urdu, it has also introduced new challenges including the central problem of which script should be used to transmit the language. As Pakistanis, we often do not realize that in many countries, including India, the number of people who can read the classic Urdu script (derived from Persian and Arabic scripts) is dwindling rapidly since Urdu is not a compulsory language in schools and colleges.

The highlight of the afternoon session was a recitation titled ‘Padhant’ by none other than Zia Mohyeddin. While Zia sahib looks visibly frailer, he hasn’t lost his knack of performing and entertaining audiences. His recitation to a houseful auditorium was also live-streamed to several other locations at IIC with several dozen people or more watching and applauding.

A simultaneous session in another room on the famed Progressive short story writer Krishen Chander was marred by a slightly distasteful exchange between one of the presenters who ran over his allotted time for his initial presentation and was then upset that he was interrupted by the moderator. This pointed to one of the weaknesses of the panel discussions which were scheduled over one hour with four participants and a moderator. This allowed precious little time for anything other than an ‘opening statement’ by the moderator and each panelist and even less time for audience questions. It might have helped if the time reserved for such sessions was extended to 90 minutes to allow all the presenters to have a say and also to involve the audience.

An evening session on “Urdu main jasoosi adab” (Detective fiction in Urdu) was also greatly appreciated by the audience since the venerable C.M Naim was one of the panelists. Naim sahib, originally from Barabanki,

The evening was capped off by a soulful rendition of some of the best and most popular works of Begum Akhtar. Titled ‘Akhtari-A tribute to Begum Akhtar’, it was hosted by none other than ‘dastaan-go’ Danish Hussain who kept the audience in stitches in his inimitable style while singer and composer Vidya Shah performed Begum Akhtar’s compositions and did justice to all of them. Vidya, of course, has been to Lahore more than once and has also recorded and released a CD of Faiz which became very popular in India. The evening Mushaira featured poets from India, Pakistan and abroad including Lahore’s own Amjad Islam Amjad, Nida Fazli, Ashfaq Hussain (from Canada) and others. They recited their works to a packed, very appreciative, open air audience of several hundred with threatening rain clouds overhead.

The highlight of the second day was a lecture by another living legend of Urdu; Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, a poet, writer, critic and novelist who has rewritten the rules of Urdu appreciation. He is now eighty years old but as spry and energetic as ever and he held the audience of several hundred spell bound in his talk titled ‘Ghazal-ahd ba ahd’ (Ghazal through the ages). Starting from the thirteenth century, through the times of Wali Muhammad Wali “Deccani”, the founder of the Urdu ghazal and onwards to the present day, Faruqi sahib’s discourse was an inspiring education in the evolution of the ghazal to its present form. In between, he kept the audience entertained with anecdotes, tit-bits and jokes about the various historical poetic figures that have played a key role in the ghazal as it exists today.

Our afternoon session was on Translations and was titled ‘Tarjuma-haasil aur la-haasil’ (Lost and Found in Translation). I was again joined by Ajmal Kamal, Professor Anisur Rahman of Jamia Millia University as well as Zakir Hussain as we discussed the intricacies of translating works of prose and poetry from one language to another. The next day I was invited to Delhi’s huge Jamia Millia Islamia University for another session on translation, specifically the recently published “What will you give for this beauty?”, my translation of acclaimed Pakistani author Ali Akbar Natiq’s popular short story collection ‘Qaim Deen’. Faruqi sahib again presided over the session which included a conversation between the author and Indian writer, director and ‘dastan-go’ Mahmood Farooqui (who also happens to be Shamsur Rahman Faruqi sahib’s nephew). Once again, the highlight of the session, other than the very entertaining conversation between Natiq and Farooqui was Shamsur Rahman Faruqi sahib’s summing up of the session in which he compared recent prose works from India and Pakistan and dissected out what makes a good work of fiction different from an indifferent one.

In between I found time to reconnect with my very dear friend, the noted Indian writer, scholar and translator Dr. Rakhshanda Jalil, granddaughter of the celebrated poet, writer and scholar Ale Ahmad Suroor. We discussed some of the difficulties facing Urdu writers and scholars in India starting with the fact that Urdu is fast losing ground to Hindi as young people (especially non-Muslims) become unable to read Urdu script. In addition to the many ills inflicted on the sub-continent by partition, one was the ‘linguistic’ partition in which Urdu was unofficially declared the language of ‘Muslims’ (which, as the experts repeatedly pointed out at Jashn-e Rekhta was absolute rubbish) and thus shunned by the non-Muslim majority of India’s citizens. This process has accelerated in the last few years with the increasing emphasis on business and technical education to position graduates for the ‘market’.

Thanks to people like Sanjiv Saraf (who taught himself Urdu from scratch in the last few years) and his team, it appears that a revival of Urdu may be on the horizon.