language trends

A Delhi artist is trying to popularise Urdu by putting Faiz and Chughtai on T-shirts

Shiraz Husain believes love for the language is best communicated through visuals.

Art teacher by day and painter by night, 30-year-old Shiraz Husain wants you to know about Urdu literary figures. Not just know about them, but know them – as in, by face.

“To appreciate the language, one needs to first recognise the writer,” he said. “So instead of using abstract forms of their writings, I decided to simply sketch their faces, in their own andaaz".

And thus was born Husain’s Facebook page, the Khwaab Tanha Collective.

Husain wants young people to read more Urdu literature, but he also wants to transform the imagery of Urdu on the internet. The few times that he tried to Google images for Urdu poetry, the results were unattractive fonts, portraits of heart-broken girls with roses and tears morphed on to the images. Husain decided to do something about it. The words Khwaab Tanha translate to "a loner’s dream", an apt description of his vision, he says.

Husain’s paintings are like the Urdu version of visuals from Maria Popova’s immensely popular website Brain Pickings, or Berlin Artparasites. Husain has made about 100 sketches and paintings and he draws each one by hand to achieve what he calls an "organic process".

“The feel you get from writing in Urdu or drawing a Firaq’s hand holding a cigarette or Amrita Pritam’s deep eyes… it is a personal connection with the artwork which a computer cannot replace,” he said.

Despite Husain’s deep love for creating art by hand, he is, like the rest of the world, excited by Graphics Interchange Formats or GIFs. One of his GIFs depicts an Ismat Chugtai story, Nanhi Ki Naani. While the GIF itself means little to someone unfamiliar with Chughtai’s work, its aesthetic appeal, Husain hopes, will draw readers to explore Chughtai’s literary themes of women and sexuality.

Husain’s father, an Urdu teacher, fed him stories with his food; his sister played ghazals by Mehdi Hasan and Ghulam Ali all day long. But it was studying at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi that deepened Husain’s love for Urdu literature. He recalls playing baith baazi, a game where two teams try to outdo each other with Urdu couplets. The couplets Husain memorised in the spirit of competition, later grew into a significant part of his life.

Khwaab Tanha Collective’s Facebook presence is small, but growing rapidly, particularly among Delhi’s lovers of Urdu shayari, and among visitors to Jashn-e-Rekhta, the capital’s Urdu festival, where Husain exhibited some of his works.

Husain has begun to receive requests to create similar artworks, with writers who write in other languages – such as MV Basheer, a Malayam fiction writer, but for now, he plans to focus on Urdu and Hindi alone. At present, he is trying to make souvenirs more memorable by adding Urdu couplets to them: for instance, a calculator framed with lines from Faiz Ahmad Faiz:

Kar raha tha Gham-e-jahan ka hisaab, Aaj tum yaad bay hisaab aayay.

I am calculating the atrocities of the world, today I missed you countless times.

Husain hopes his wares will elicit a curiosity to learn Urdu among those who cannot understand it at all, although this is rare in India, given Bollywood’s penchant for including Urdu lyrics in love songs.

“Listen to Gulzar’s lyrics closely and you will realise that Bollywood is incomplete without Urdu,” he said. “Now that I have said this, nobody will be able to point out what is purely Hindi or Urdu. This is precisely the beauty of how both the languages have evolved together.”

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