On World Poetry Day, it is essential to reaffirm that Urdu and Urdu poetry must never go out of fashion because of the curse of time, and certainly not because of its politics.
“Ajab hain you zaban, Urdu. Kabhi kahin safar karte agar koi musafir sher padh of Mir Ghalib ka, woh chahe ajnabi ho, yahi lagta hain woh mere watan ka hain”, writes Gulzar in his Nazm ‘Yeh Kaisa Ishq Hai Urdu Zaban Ka‘, a poem that celebrates the enchanting allure of Urdu.
This line of nazm brings me back to a recent controversy surrounding FabIndia’s Diwali campaign which had the slogan reading, ‘Jashn-e-Riwaaz,’ which received immense backlash because Urdu was a “Muslim” language and Diwali was a “Hindu” holiday. All of a sudden, words took on a saffron and green color, a language was abandoned, and religion was isolated.
However, getting Urdu out of India is impossible, as it is tied to our languages as we are to our homes. It should also be noted that Hindi and Urdu are mutually intelligible as they both originate from Hindustani and discrimination between the two is meaningless.
That said, Urdu, in all its glory, was here long before us and will be there long after. It’s not meant to be confined to popular tropes, it’s not an exotic language, or the remnants of an opulent feudal culture. It’s not their language, it is not our speech, it is that of India tehzeeb and zubaan. It crosses the soul of this country, through its films, its poetry, and of course through the soft murmurs of the hearts that have retained it and passed it on as a legacy. It remains an emblem not only of India but also of Hindustan, that is to say of present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh. Some call it the language of love, others a dissenting voice, but for almost everyone it’s the language of poetry.
On this World Poetry Day, we pay homage to Urdu poetry, a vast ocean of knowledge, wisdom, culture, emotions and passion. A tradition of poetry that molds itself in different forms. It’s a desperate lover’s balm, a woke revolutionary’s weapon, and an ordinary man’s path to panache. In fact, Mirza Ghalib, unquestionably one of the greatest Urdu poets of all time, was a firm believer that the language of poetry should not be equivalent to that of what the common man spoke, and so poetry Urdu has, since time immemorial, provided an escape from the ordinary, as well as an opportunity to fall in love with it. Moreover, one of the most striking qualities of Urdu poetry is that it is not explicit at all. Instead, there is a maddening use of allusions, implications and symbolism.
For example, the work of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, which explores socio-political themes, is disguised as love poetry. ‘Mujhse Pehli Si Mohabbat,’ was of course a turning point in Faiz’s poetic journey, as he used to write about themes of unrequited love and separation. However, post the score in ‘Mujhse Pehli Si Mohabbat,’ he recognizes that there are far greater sorrows in the world than love, as he writes”Aur bhi dukh hain zamane mein, mohabbat ke siva, rahatien aur bhi, vasl ki rahat ke siva’.
In ‘Gulon Mein Rang Bahre,’ he writes, “gulon mein rang bhare baad-e-naubahaar chale, chale bhi aao ki gulshan ka karobar chale,” or gulshan is symbolic of the country, and the message meant to be conveyed is that the country is ready for a revolution, as a new wave of patriotism and justice rises. Written in Montgomery Jail in 1951, where he, along with several others, was imprisoned in the infamous Rawalpindi case, ‘Gulon Mein Rang Bahare’ to date provides an exceptional example to explain what it means to read between the lines.
The ghazal also makes it easy to determine what distinguishes Urdu poetry. Because while poetry is universal, it is also true that each language has its own nuance and mode of expression, and for Urdu it is the ability to have multiple meanings, and to travel through themes, to paint a multi-faceted picture.
That said, you will find that in poetry, language is often used as a way to transcend and go beyond syntax. Thus, it should be noted that it is a chore to compare the poetry of one language to another.
After all, poetry is the first facet of expression, and expression is the source of civilization, emotion and knowledge.
In 1999, UNSECO announced that April 21 would be celebrated as World Poetry Day, and the aim was to support “linguistic diversity through poetic expression and increasing the opportunity for endangered languages to be heard.” In a country like India, where the diversity of languages is considered an asset, it is Urdu that is made to feel foreign and foreign. However, the oft-maligned Hindi film industry is to be thanked for allowing Urdu and Urdu poetry to reach the nooks and crannies of India.
Poets and songwriters like Sahir Ludhianvi, Mahjrooh Sultanpuri and Kaifi Azmi, to name a few, were responsible for ensuring that after partition, Urdu did not leave for Pakistan and remained a language loved by both nations. Nowadays, lyricists such as Gulzar, Javed Akhtar and Irshad Kamil have kept Urdu’s slow flame alive. Their rewarding quest to leave a mark of Urdu in popular culture has succeeded as millennials try to embrace and understand Urdu poetry with fascinating curiosity.
On World Poetry Day, it is essential to reaffirm that Urdu and Urdu poetry must never go out of fashion because of the curse of time, and certainly not because of its politics. The binary created between the rashtra bhasha, Hindi and tropical Urdu should be banned because languages have no religion, and also because the tradition and heritage of Urdu shayari must be preserved and passed on at all costs.
Takshi Mehta is a freelance journalist and writer. She strongly believes that we are what we stand for, and so you will always find her wielding a pen.
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