Urdu through the times by Ananya Tiwari (2017)

About the intern - Ananya Tiwari is a recent graduate of English literature (University of Delhi), who is simply fascinated by the diversity of languages and cultures around her. It is this curiosity that led her all around the city in search for scholars who could talk to her about one language she has always been intrigued by: Urdu.

A Language That Is Urdu

As I was heading towards the Sociology department in the Faculty of Arts at University of Delhi to fill out my optional course option, I walked past the Urdu department. The board was filled with that indecipherable and inscrutable script,looking exotic and yet, alluring. Perhaps I wanted to simply decode that language written on the board, and enter into an unknown world that seemed so beautiful, and which beckoned me with all its poetic essence. Perhaps I could just not stand not knowing. Whatever may have been the reason, I quickly found myself retracing my steps. Before I knew it, without thinking or planning, I gave my optional course form at the Urdu department. And thus, in the forthcoming months, I learnt its script, and its history and got acquainted with its eclectic literature.
Most importantly, I learned to manoeuvre in a place wherein proficiency in English was not required – a strange thing for an English literature student indeed.Initially, I did feel at sea in an environment wherein people did not speak English. It
was like learning to communicate like an infant, learning slightly newer ways of thinking and perception. Did it seem foreign? Perhaps. But, as the course went along,I gradually found myself fitting into this new atmosphere. I realised that I had taken
the indigenous languages of Hindi and Urdu for granted, despite hearing them around
me everywhere. And learning it from a scratch, I found in myself a boost in my confidence. I thought, finally, I will not stick out as an entitled English literature snob.I slowly fit in because, despite being an Indian, it was in the learning of its language
which helped me to understand and to assimilate into this culture in a more holistic and less distanced manner.

As a generation which grew up with Hindi as their so called mother-tongue, but in actuality using primarily the English language, it is only when one attains an age does one realise, that embedded in this language, rides yet another language – that is Urdu. Or that, riding with Urdu is yet another language, which is Hindi. Chances are, if you understand Hindi, you will, whether by accident or not, be a recipient to many
Urdu words and phrases as well – that is how close the languages function today.Perhaps it is best to call them both in their original names as Hindustani languages, despite their differences.

In this project, this relationship is explored, along with the myriad differences and particularities relating to Urdu. More than any other language of the
subcontinent, it is Urdu and Hindi, and their development, which reveals to us the rich historical legacy of the land that is north India. It is a symbol, a marker, a reminder, of the multicultural ethos of this blooming country. Unfortunately, like
every other strand of this culture, this division too has gotten stained with politics of religion and of rancid nationalism. Yet, as this project will show, even this can be purified with an understanding to the history and development of the language, and
reveal to us that a language need not be confused with religion. It can instead, be perceived as yet another tradition and culture that India has welcomed and fed, and which greatly enriched the cultural ethos of this ancient land.

Urdu’s language, its heritage, and its literature are part of a foreign culture – but this foreign culture chose to make India its home, and assimilate into its very soil. In a land of mixed blood and migrations, there is no foreign – perhaps, there are just those
who live at a distance. The most important takeaway would be, in this world wherein power politics infiltrates all aspects of life (even language), that, a language spreads irrespective of race, caste, creed, religion or rationality. It knows no boundaries. It is
human instinct to incorporate difference into one’s own culture. If anything, this project will compel this uncomplicated thinking into one’s thinking of language, and benefit one’s encompassing and open understanding of our culture, or of any culture.
And this is what Urdu as a study of language can teach us in this highly politicized and divided world.

This project is a set of interviews of professors and scholars on the subject. Their understanding of the language transcends mere bookish knowledge. And it is through their carefully synthesised knowledge that I, as a researcher, have been able to draw my conclusions. Though also touching upon the themes of poetry and the literary trends in Urdu, the narrative constantly keeps returning to the politics, status and the future of this rich tradition often characterised only by ghazals and shaayari. Perhaps,after reading this, one can gain a scholarly and detailed analysis of the processes of origin of language, its evolutions, and its transformations.

This world is a melting pot of cultures. It is through people’s intermingling, in their sharing, learning and incorporating of others’ languages, that this blending of people is most evident and colourful. Historical and political it might be – but language knows just one rule, and that is to spread. And Urdu has managed to not just survive, but to thrive, despite the ugly and misguided politics that threatens to engulf
this cultured, and simply beautiful, tongue, wherein all ills and lamentations seem like songs of beauty and delight: a language of poets and seers, crying for love and a kind heart.

Jamia Milia’s Professor Shahzad Anjum provides here not just a short history of the language, but also sheds his opinions on the politics and misconceptions that Urdu as a language is tainted with in today’s times. His rich and eclectic interview can perhaps help us in forming independent views on the tradition of Urdu language, and of other languages as well.

What is the history of Urdu language? Is the ‘military camp’ myth (since ‘Urdu’ means military camp in Persian) true?
This is not so, this is just a myth. This is not the translation of Urdu. This is a Turkish word and it has come from Turkey. 

So, I have heard, that when the Sultanates came from Turkey to India...

No, the language has nothing to do with Muslim religion. Not at all. The thing is, there is a lot of contention regarding the origin of this language. There is a lot of disagreement amongst people of its origin, about the origin, spread of the language. There are three views that are commonly held. One view the some researchers hold is that Urdu language originated in the Punjab region (also including that which in now in Pakistan). Second view is that it originated in the Deccan – the region around Hyderabad
such as Bijapur, Golconda etc. And Qutab Shah and other royal houses existed. One was Bahmani kingdom.

Where did the poet Vali Dakkani come from...

Vali Dakkani came to Delhi right at the end, very late, around 18th century.
Bahmani kingdom goes back –c. After them eight-nine kingdoms followed, but there were parallel kingdoms of Bijapur and Golconda. So most people think Urdu originated from here, and this is a view I share as
well .
The second view is that, no, Urdu’s origin can be traced to Delhi and its surrounding regions. Such as Meerut, Muradabad etc. Therefore, there three theories
of the origin of Urdu language hold. There was no Urdu language as such then, nor was there a Hindi language as such then.

Both got mixed...?

No, neither were any distinct languages only.

What did people speak then?

People spoke Pachali, in Kashmir, Magadhi in the Magadh region, Braj in the Delhi-Mathura-Agra region, and the Dravidian languages in the Deccan. Now when the Delhi Sultanate set up their rule, and after that the Mughals set up their rule. The language of the Mughals was Persian. Their court language, the administrative language, was Persian. Whichever manuscripts one finds of Urdu, they are in Persian. This Urdu which we speak now, that is a market-language. It was called Rekhta then.But the problem was that market-language meant the common man’s language, not that of the courts and the royalty, and the administrative work. That remained Persian.
However, there is a great force in a common man’s language. So people say that this Urdu prospered in Delhi or wherever. But, there was a mixing of languages, with which Urdu came up. The problem however, is of the script...

Yes, there seems to be a lot of Arabic influence....

No, this script is Persian. And the vowels, which is called ‘Harf’’, most of them are from Hindi, or Devanagiri, such as - ‘bha’ ('?’ ), ‘pa’ ('?’ ), ‘tha’ ('?’ ), ‘ka’ ('?’ ), ‘dha’('?’ ), - Some letters are Arabic, such as ‘se’, ‘sheen’, ‘zwaad’, ‘zwaal’ all this is also in Arabic. Some are Persian, such as ‘che’, which are not there in Arabic.

Isn’t Persian derived from Arabic?

No, not at all! That is a completely different tongue. (That is a very rich language...) Arabic’s script is different. It’s grammar is different. Urdu language is
closest, grammatically, to Hindi. Because these two languages, they came up together...however, the script of one is Devanagiri, and the other’s is Persian.

Was Urdu poetry famous in Arabia? Did the Urdu language travel outside India?

No. The thing is that this language came up slowly-slowly...people call it a sweet-tongue. Because the words in the language, I feel, are close to that in English.
For example, in English there is ‘pha’, ‘sha’, ‘za’ - and this adds a layer of beauty. Now in the evolution of the language, you asked of Vali Dakkani. Now Dakkani’s elders said that you go to North India. Whichever language he was using, he was already writing poetry in it. And this language also had Dravid language words (such as Kannada). Currently, I am teaching a text, and coincidentally it is right in front of me...
This tongue is Dakkani, and it is a very old language, of Vali’s time as well. It is Urdu only, but its words are Dakkan, for example –
‘Kata (Keheta) hoon, tujhe pand ki ek baat,
Kai faayada is mane (me) dhaag-dhaag
Mai tumhe naseeat ki baat kehena chahata hoon
Jo berakt bole toh batiyan pachees
Bhala hai toh yak (ek, yak is Persian) baat bole selees
Satasat nahin jis kirebaat (kism) me
Padhiya (padha) jaaye kyun jo lekar haat me
Jis baat ke rak ka faam nai (nahin)
Ushi sher kahane se kuch (kucch) kaam nai (nahin)
Nako kar tu lai bolne ki awas.’
This is a masnavi by Waji, called Qutab Mushtari. Waji was a great poet of the Dakkan. He also wrote Shab Ras.

This is the same degree of difference that is there, for example, in Hindi and Bhojpuri...

Yes, absolutely, absolutely! Now this is a dictionary...
Aapech – Aap hi
Aadhaar – Sahara
Ala – Aala
Aamd – Aam

I think, that Hindi in Deccan too has words which change their shape. They are pronounced in a different manner. I am from Hazaribagh in Bihar, and my in-laws are from Jharkhand. So what we have to say, the pronunciation changes, even if we have to say the same thing. I say ‘Us’, and they say ‘Oos’.

So this is like a dialect of Urdu?

‘Uparana – Nikalaana’
Now, we say ‘Uparao’. ‘Anaam – Inaam’, ‘Umas – Josh’. In Deccan, till today,‘kaaf’ is pronounced as ‘khe’. There are some words which are spoken in such a
manner, even now. For example, they don’t say ‘ka’, but ‘kha’. This hasn’t yet come down to them .‘Chaak – Chak’, ‘Khasaalat – Khasalat’.
So this dialect which existed, a lot of great poetry was transcribed in it. There is Waji, and then Vali Dakkani. When Vali Dakkani came to Delhi in the 17th century, there had been huge changes in the Urdu language. Now, words from Persian had come into being, and even those of Arabic. This language was what was existent in Delhi at that time. And the language Urdu, was slowly dying by then. Its relation with Hindi words was strengthening, and the Persian and Arabic influence was lessening.

What was the situation with Hindi then?

At that time, Hindi was not a distinct language as of yet. It was a Braj language. It is from the Mathura -Agra region that Hindi finally emerged.
Thus, in this way, Urdu kept spreading, and it kept evolving and changing. On one side there were poets of Deccan, but even in Delhi, many poets came up from the 17th century onwards, such as Mir and many more. Now, the age of Mir was that of the culmination, the Golden Age of Urdu language. A long time later, emerged Ghalib. He is the epitome of Urdu language.


The students who opt to study Urdu at Jamia, are there any international/non-Muslim students who also come to study?
There are two-three things I want to make very clear. Because I do not understand the purpose of the question...

Because nowadays Urdu is perceived as a distinctly Muslim language... Does the language of Urdu, as a mother tongue, transcend religion?

This is such a misunderstanding, such a misunderstanding! How do I even start this conversation with you...And I feel such dejection that there are such ignorant people who have gone ahead, who are creating a ruckus...do they not know anything?
Let me tell you, that in Urdu, there have been, at least, one thousand poets...no,ten thousand poets, who have been non-Muslim, or Hindu. Not one or two thousand.
Ten thousand! Every week I write a column for Dainik Jagaran, for their Inquilab Urdu edition. And they also want this misconception to be removed. The thing is, the problem is that a language has no religion. I know Hindi, so I have become Hindu? You know English, so you have become English? What is this?
This is a way to marginalise people, that such things are being spread. Every person in my household knows Hindi. Every person in my household knows English. What difference does this make? Initially, it was a joint culture. Nowadays, the kind of craze that is being created, and its spread...this kind of wailing is only poisoning one’s understanding. If I ask you, who was Farak Gorakhpuri? Raghupati Sahai? I can give
you thousand names of poets ... Now this column that I am writing, I want to use that as an example.
I went to Patna for a lecture a few weeks ago, and I will recite to you a small part of that lecture...it is on Chakbast, Kamana Prasad, Ratanaath Sharsad, all of whom were great fiction writers...It is about the fiction writers in Urdu. It is a long article,
but I am going to read just a few paragraphs from it, so that it becomes clearer. “Study the instances of non-Muslims in Urdu fiction writing....
Before writing on the instances of non-Muslim fiction writers in Urdu, a few questions came into my mind. I am still searching for these answers. Is it fair to divide the body of Urdu fiction writers into Muslim and non-Muslim? My thoughts are that it is
mighty unfair to divide artists. When we choose to read Tulsidas, Surdas, Kabir, Mir,Ghalib, Tagore, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Khusrao, Hafiz, Gopi Chand Narang,Chetan Bhagat, we don’t ever think what religion they come from. Yes, they belong to
a region, to a community. They do follow some religion or the other. Maybe they don’t too. This sort of hollow thinking only eats away at their excellence.
It is the text of these interesting artists that calls to us....
There have been critical commentaries lauding the works of non-Muslims...

A language has no religion. A language has no region.
A language has no caste. Then why such a division between a Muslim and a non-Muslim writer? I never think that I will analyse the text of – Ratan Nath
Sharshak, Premchand, Devendra Satyarthi, Sudarshan, Upendranath Ashk,Krishnchand, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Balwant Singh, Harcharan Chaula, Jitendra Baloo,
Devendra Isar, Shamsher Singh Nirula, Mulk Raj Anand, Ramlal, Joginder Paul,Ratan Singh, Braj Kamal, Surendra Prakash, Balraj Nirdas, Gulzar etc, etc., - based on whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims. All these writers come from the same region and culture as did Manto, Ismat Chughtai, etc, etc,. If it is the same society, the same region and neighbourhood, then why these false lines? Premchand’s story ‘Kafan’, Rajinder Singh Bedi’s ‘Rajvati’, Devendra Satyarthi’s ‘Neel-Gai’, Balwant Singh’s ‘Chand Aur Tara’, Joginder Paul’s ‘Pole Ka Telegram’, Surendra Prakash’s
‘Dard’, etc., stories brings people together, brings minds and hearts together, so does that mean that Ali or Suzaini etc., stories are disparate from the above? The lament of the writers are disparate from each other?” 

What I am trying to say is that these divisions that this is a Muslim and that a Hindu, but that all the writings that we have, such as marsiya, short stories, etc., all these have been written by Hindus as well.
I once went to a debate, and one woman stood up and asked me – I want to learn Urdu, but my parents do not allow it, as they say that it is a Muslim tongue. Now what can we do of such biases? The way this poison has been spreading....

Did you know, that earlier, during the British Raj, people used to learn Persian in school? Why don’t you ask your grandparents, if they know Urdu or not? I will give my word, that they did know. I say this with great pain; do not give a language a religion.
Show me any Urdu writing where there is a phrase of partition, of division of sects, of dividing Muslims and Hindus. You will not find even a single couplet where this is written. And I can show you lakhs of poets who have written about their love for the
country, of brotherhood (especially of poets from Lucknow). I challenge you to show me anything else. The talk has always been of secularism, of patriotism, of respect towards women and elderly, of love towards children, of sacrifice – these are the
values that are being propagated and taught.
Will one not call a murderer a murderer? In India, and in all religions, the punishment is the same.
I am telling you, you learn Urdu, and read for yourself. All this talk is airy, it has
no basis. I want you to immerse yourself in its study and learn for yourself. Give it a month, and you will be able to read Urdu. Then you can make your own decision, of what is good or bad. Even today, around fifty poets are non-Muslim. 

When we make our children learn German or French at school, why not Urdu? What is the truth, you accept, and what are lies you throw away.

Talking of the Muslim nature of the language, critic Ather Farouqui says “An extensive survey through Bihar, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh,Maharashtra discloses, surprisingly, that there was not even a single non-Muslim student enrolled for studying Urdu, even as an optional subject, at the primary or secondary level, or opting for Urdu as the medium of education.” She says “In almost all states in India, except Maharashtra, Urdu education has reached the verge of death.” Is this an exaggeration, or is there truth in what Farouqui says? What do you think are the reasons for this decline?

This is her own survey. But things have definitely changed. I have taught Urdu at Rampur. When I left, in my place, the lady that was appointed was non-Muslim. When I came here, then since then, there are a few foreign students that are still there. Most come from Mauritius. One or two even from Japan. They take the ICCR Fellowship,and search on the web, and then they get direct admission. Yes, non-Muslims usually
take up the certificate course more. When I was studying at DU, the most famous course that was there was the certificate course, wherein around 300 students used to be enrolled, and learn with great interest. Here, at Jamia, in the certificate course, all are non-Muslims. But the desire to learn is definitely there. 

There are other aspects to this as well. Nowadays, people want job-oriented courses. There aren’t many who are veering towards Hindi or Sanskrit language
studies as well. Everywhere, the Sanskrit departments are closing down. But there are a lot of fellowships for Urdu and Hindi language learning. But still, people want job-oriented courses. No one is making their children do this. But in school, our
children are taught these languages.

But in my family, they are also having a mullah come to teach them to read the Quran, and this adds to the advantage of learning Urdu. My daughter is pursuing
engineering, my son is in 11th science, and neither will take Urdu. But that does not mean that they don’t know the language, how it is written, its poetry etc.
Everyone wants a job-oriented course. The lessening of people knowing this language – one of the main reasons is this. The biggest example of this is Sanskrit. At
Jamia, crores of rupees was given to open up a Sanskrit department, but it is all a failure. And this is true in every university. This shows that just by governmental support no language is more capable of thriving or reviving. No matter how much Urdu is bashed – and I am hearing this since fifty years – but Urdu is proliferating faster than ever. Perhaps non-Muslims do not take up the language. But these isn’t a single region in India where you will not find people who speak Urdu. We listen to their stories, to the songs. In films, we listen to the ghazals and the songs that have so many Urdu words. We listen to the language, and we think – this is a beautiful language. Sometimes, Urdu and Hindi get mixed too, and it should be so as well.

In my region, I speak Magadhi. But when I enter my house, I change to Urdu. But in the villages, when you talk to the people, then I have to adopt their language.This statement by Ather Farroqui, it is her statement, it is her study, and perhaps there is some truth in it. But I have no comments. But it is true that the numbers of non-Muslims taking up Urdu in the universities has declined for sure.

Calling Urdu the “most beautiful, cultivated and sophisticated expression of the Indian creative mind”, G.C. Narang is sad to note the present “communalisation” of Urdu, whereby it has come to be seen only as the language of Muslims. “This is a fallacy, an aftermath of the partition of the subcontinent,” Narang observes.
But he is confident that Urdu will survive. “Language is like a river,it keeps changing its banks. Right now, Urdu is coping with the challenges of segregation and communalisation. Since it reflects the lingual genius of the Indian psyche, I am sure even in difficult circumstances, it will adjust and survive.” In extricating Urdu from the confines of orthodoxy and highlighting its past, scholars have a huge role to play, and Narang has devoted his entire career to it.

The Partition has various consequences. But perhaps you don’t know, since you are very young still, but they used to say - ‘Hindu, Hindu, Hindustan...Miya Chale Jao Pakistan.’ In those days a lot of slogans used to say this, and this still continues. How
many years have passed since then? Even today...
And now there is a propagation of Hindutva philosophy. My belief is that why are we even getting into all this? Get prosperity, development and justice into the
regions – the work should be done in these matters. Why do you have to stretch it and get it to religion all the time? Perhaps this is the effect of the Partition, it has bound to be. But the thing is, in Pakistan, though they have made their official language Urdu,there no one knows Urdu! They don’t speak in Urdu.

Yes, only 7% of Pakistan’s population speaks Urdu as their mother tongue....

They have the Baloch language, Punjabi language, Sindhi. If Urdu writers sit amongst themselves, they will talk in Punjabi. They manner in which we speak the exquisite Urdu here, they don’t have that there. They have their own languages...One of the reasons a country declines is when they make religion important at every level of society. Whichever nation veers a bit too heavily towards religion – their downfall is
certain. They did not make their nation secular. They have only used Urdu as a official language on the surface. But they have not been able to place it in their hearts. No wonder people think Urdu is Pakistan’s official language. But this is a misconception.
It is so only on paper.

Every language spreads on its own. A language has no religion, it has no region,even if everyone loves the language of their region.

Email: ananyat.13@gmail.com


  1. Ananya Tiwari
    School/College : LSR, Delhi University
    Duration of the Project : 14-03-2017 to 25-04-2017
    Research Project : Read more

  2. Yastika Sahrawat
    School/College : Hansraj College, Delhi University
    Duration of the Project : 06-02-2017 to 18-03-2017
    Research Project : Zoroastrianism in DelhiWeekl Read more

  3. Excellent Hansda
    School/College : IIT Roorkee
    Duration of the Project : 02-12-2016 to 13-01-2017
    Research Project : Gardens of Read more

  4. Ashwarya Samkaria
    School/College : Delhi University
    Duration of the Project : 03-10-2016 to 13-01-2017
    Research Project : Odissi in DelhiRead more

  5. Tarini Singh
    School/College : Hansraj College, Delhi University
    Duration of the Project : 22-08-2016 to 02-10-2016
    Research Project : Vasant Kunj Read more

  6. Sachi Shukla
    School/College : National Institute of Fashion Technology
    Duration of the Project : 23-05-2016 to 17-07-2016
    Research Project : Motifs Read more

  7. Gargi Chanda
    School/College : National Institute of Fashion Technology
    Duration of the Project : 23-05-2016 to 17-07-2016
    Research Project : Maati: Pott Read more

  8. Aakansha Malia
    School/College : Miranda House, Delhi University
    Duration of the Project : 23-05-2016 to 03-07-2016
    Research Project : Excava Read more

  9. Manisha Chaudhary
    School/College : Miranda House, Delhi University
    Duration of the Project : 23-05-2016 to 03-07-2016
    Research Project : The Li Read more

  10. Renu Deshwal
    School/College : Daulat Ram College, Delhi University
    Duration of the Project : 25-01-2016 to 06-03-2016
    Research Project : Phoolw Read more

  11. Sakshi Singh
    School/College : Miranda House, Delhi University
    Duration of the Project : 11-01-2016 to 26-02-2016
    Research Project : Bird w Read more

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