Re­defin­ing Lan­guage

Ti­tle: From Hindi to Urdu - A So­cial and Po­lit­i­cal His­tory Au­thor: Tariq Rah­man Pub­lisher: Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, Pak­istan (Jan­uary, 2012) Pages: 476, Hard­back Price: PKR. 1095 ISBN: 9780199063130

Southasia - - Book Review - Sabih Mohsin is a se­nior jour­nal­ist and ra­dio pro­fes­sional with a spe­cial in­ter­est in book pub­lish­ing.

It is gen­er­ally main­tained that Urdu was born in mil­i­tary camps dur­ing the Mughal pe­riod. But the fact is that the an­tecedents of modern Urdu and Hindi had ex­isted for around four hun­dred years ear­lier, com­monly re­ferred to by var­i­ous names such as Hindvi, Hindi and Dakkani. Dur­ing those four cen­turies, lan­guage was in­flu­enced by a num­ber of fac­tors aris­ing from so­cial changes and po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments in In­dia. The book un­der re­view is a de­tailed study of how var­i­ous fac­tors kept on shap­ing and re-shap­ing Hindi and Urdu, and how these evolved as two dif­fer­ent lan­guages due to po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions.

A num­ber of the­o­ries ex­ist re­gard­ing the area in which Urdu was born. Two well-known the­o­ries are ad­vanced by Hafiz Mah­mud Shi­rani and Syed Su­laiman Nadvi. The former main­tains that Urdu was born in the Pun­jab while the lat­ter ad­vo­cates Sindh as its birth­place. There are other the­o­ries as well, one of which even re­gards Urdu as a de­scen­dant of the an­cient lan­guage of the In­dus Valley. The au­thor has dis­cussed and an­a­lyzed all these the­o­ries and in do­ing so, has also de­scribed the po­lit­i­cal im­per­a­tives be­hind them.

Though it was the Bri­tish who fully sep­a­rated Urdu and Hindi along com­mu­nal lines, Urdu un­der­went a process of ‘Is­lamiza­tion’ dur­ing the eigh­teenth cen­tury. This process con­sisted of an ex­ces­sive use of Per­sian and Ara­bic words and ref­er­ences to the el­e­ments of the Mus­lim cul­ture in In­dia. Sub­se­quently, a large num­ber of re­li­gious books in Ara­bic and Per­sian were trans­lated into Urdu and, at the same time, orig­i­nal works of a re­li­gious na­ture were also writ­ten in this lan­guage. Re­li­gious trans­la­tion has been un­der­taken on such a large scale that now it is of­ten claimed that ‘af­ter Ara­bic, the big­gest trea­sure of Is­lamic lit­er­a­ture is in Urdu.’

Since the me­dieval ages, Urdu was also used by Sufi saints and other holy men for preach­ing as nonMus­lim na­tives could not un­der­stand Ara­bic or Per­sian. De­vo­tional songs re­cited in the Me­hfil-e-Sa­maa were of­ten in Urdu. Ad­di­tion­ally, re­formist groups such as the Deoban­dis and the Barelvis, mostly used Urdu in their lit­er­a­ture.

Be­sides re­li­gion, erotic and amorous themes have also con­trib­uted to the spread of Urdu but most of such lit­er­a­ture is in the form of po­etry and not in prose. The book sur­veys such lit­er­a­ture as well.

While these de­vel­op­ments were tak­ing place, the pro­tag­o­nists of Hindi as a dif­fer­ent lan­guage, con­tin­ued their ef­forts in that di­rec­tion. Be­sides the use of De­vana­gari script, they in­ducted words of San­skrit into Hindi and elim­i­nated the use of even the most fa­mil­iar words of Per­sian and Ara­bic.

The Bri­tish played a very sig­nifi- cant role in mak­ing Urdu or Hin­dus­tani, as they of­ten called it, an In­dia-wide lan­guage. The au­thor is of the view that the Bri­tish con­sid­ered it to be a lin­gua franca for the whole of In­dia which ‘prob­a­bly it was not, be­fore their ar­rival.’ Ac­cord­ing to Tariq Rah­man, they spread the lan­guage through­out the coun­try by us­ing it in the army, in ad­min­is­tra­tive and le­gal do­mains at the lower lev­els, and in con­ver­sa­tions with their do­mes­tic ser­vants. They also wrote gram­mar and phrase books and

com­piled dic­tio­nar­ies.

An­other im­por­tant as­pect of the Bri­tish use of Hin­dus­tani was that they fa­vored the Per­sio-Ara­bic script for writ­ing it. His­tor­i­cal re­search shows that the Hin­dus­tani they spoke was much closer to Urdu than to San­skri­tized Hindi.

The princely states of In­dia, most of which adopted Urdu as the of­fi­cial lan­guage, also played an im­por­tant role in strength­en­ing the po­si­tion of Urdu dur­ing the pre-In­de­pen­dence days. Hy­der­abad, one of the two largest In­dian states, had a Mus­lim ruler while the ma­jor­ity of his sub­jects were Hindu. Kash­mir, the other such In­dian state, had a Hindu ruler but the ma­jor­ity of his peo­ple were Mus­lim. Both of these states adopted Urdu as the of­fi­cial lan­guage.

In a largely il­lit­er­ate In­dian so­ci­ety, many more peo­ple fol­lowed the spo­ken word, rather than the printed word. As such, ra­dio had a large au­di­ence. Soon af­ter the ad­vent of ra­dio in the sub-con­ti­nent in 1927, WWII en­sued. The coun­tries that op­posed Bri­tain be­gan us­ing the ra­dio for pro­pa­ganda against it in Bri­tish In­dia. The au­thor main­tains that the lan­guage of those broad­casts were in­vari­ably Urdu as it was be­lieved that this was the lan­guage un­der­stood by most In­di­ans.

How­ever, in its do­mes­tic op­er­a­tions, the lan­guage of the broad­casts per­pet­u­ally re­mained a mat­ter of de­bate be­tween the high bu­reau­cracy of ra­dio and the of­fi­cials of the elected gov­ern­ment. The bu­reau­cracy main­tained that Urdu was the most suit­able lan­guage for most of the broad­casts while the of­fi­cials of the elected gov­ern­ment, be­ing Hin­dus by faith, ad­vo­cated the use of Hindi.

Ac­cord­ing to the au­thor, af­ter In- de­pen­dence, San­skri­tized Hindi be­gan to be used in In­dia for news bul­letins and other of­fi­cial pro­grams. Later, sep­a­rate news bul­letins were in­tro­duced in Urdu. En­ter­tain­ment pro­grams, how­ever, used the pop­u­lar Hindi-Urdu.

Dis­cussing the sit­u­a­tion in Pak­istan, the au­thor states that Per­sian­ized Urdu is em­ployed in news bul­letins and other of­fi­cial pro­grams. How­ever, Hindi-Urdu con­tin­ues to be the lan­guage of en­ter­tain­ment pro­grams. The au­thor re­veals that

dur­ing the early years of Pak­istan, ef­forts were made to ‘Is­lamize’ clas­si­cal mu­sic. This was done by elim­i­nat­ing or re­plac­ing words like kan­hiya, kr­ishna and shyam from

thum­ris and dadras, which led to ridicu­lous re­sults.

Parsi the­atre pre­ceded the cin­ema in In­dia. The au­thor states that ini­tially the lan­guage of this the­atre was Gu­jarati. But soon Urdu be­came its ma­jor lan­guage ‘mostly be­cause of busi­ness im­per­a­tives.’ How­ever, this was not the re­fined lan­guage of Lucknow but the lan­guage of the mar­ket place of Bom­bay.

When the cin­ema made its de­but, it adopted a lan­guage of wide in­tel­li­gi­bil­ity, which was closer to spo­ken Urdu than to San­skri­tized Hindi. This hy­poth­e­sis is sup­ported by the fact that many film per­son­al­i­ties en­gaged tu­tors to learn Urdu or to pol­ish their ac­cent.

Pak­istani films, too, use a lan­guage quite sim­i­lar to that of In­dian cin­ema. Of course, words of very ob­vi­ous San­skrit ori­gin are elim­i­nated. Within the elec­tronic me­dia, the com­puter is the lat­est en­trant. The book also refers to the use of Urdu on the com­puter.

The cen­tral ar­gu­ment is that Urdu was not cre­ated in mil­i­tary camps even though this Turk­ish word does mean ‘camp.’ It is there­fore not cor­rect to as­so­ci­ate it with Mus­lim armies or mil­i­tary con­quests. Rah­man also be­lieves that even af­ter two hun­dred years of drift­ing apart, spo­ken Urdu and Hindi is ba­si­cally the same lan­guage. Schol­ars on both sides of the border can lay em­pha­sis on shared cul­tural el­e­ments and, the au­thor hopes, this would re­strain the mu­tual ha­tred that threat­ens to de­stroy their land.

Re­viewed by Sabih Mohsin

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