Let us try a simple exercise in cultural cartography. Let us locate the figure of the Urdu poet in popular imagination. Let us start with Guru Dutt’s character, Vijay, dishevelled, drunk and destitute, in Pyasa, lip-syncing the unforgettable poetry of Sahir Ludhianvi. Let us move on to the lipsticked and rouged Rajendar Kumar as Anwar, attired in a shervani and Aligarh-cut pyjama as he falls in love with a veiled beauty in Mere Mehboob.

Shifting mediums, let us take in the tragic figure of the poet Nur in Anita Desai’s novel In Custody. Beset by poverty and two squabbling wives, he can only bemoan the decline of a beautiful language, surrounded as he is by squalor. Back in the world of the movies, let us stop briefly to admire two enigmatic creatures: the coy Begum Para played by Madhuri Dikshit in Dedh Ishqiya, and the super-luxe Saba Taliyar Khan played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Ai Dil Hai Mushkil.

That these totemic images of the Urdu poet in the popular domain – few and far between though they are – are completely erroneous and woefully hackneyed is seldom seen as a cause for concern. For, in reality, the Urdu poet is not one of two binaries (destitute/opulent; wretched/exotic) nor a figment of someone’s imagination; they are a flesh and blood person, of this world, someone’s neighbour, colleague or friend. And that is precisely why the words that emerge from their pen are about the world we live in: flawed, uneven, magical, mundane, poetic, pedantic, fiercely political and unashamedly subversive.

It is annoying, therefore, when well-meaning people mouth platitudes to defend Urdu or proclaim their love for the language: “Urdu zubaan ishq aur muhabbat ki zuban hai (Urdu is the language of love and romance)”. That, to my mind, is not just banal but also limiting. For, not just Urdu poetry but all of Urdu literature is concerned with not one or two but a variety of concerns. But because stereotypes have greater reach and penetration than ground reality, not many are able to shake Urdu loose from the escapist fantasy of popular perception; the few who manage to do so see Urdu for what it is: a language of the people by the people for the people.

Beyond the traditionalists

Manya Ahuja, a third year student of Economics at Khalsa College writing for #KnowYourUrdu, a social media campaign that ran alongside the recently-concluded day-long celebration called Afreen, Afreen, declared: “In Urdu Poetry, I found there’ll always be someone out there who’s feeling the same things you are.”

Another young woman changed her profile picture to a silhouette of Urdu’s best-loved poet, Faiz, as though declaring Je suis Urdu! A young graphic designer, Siddhartha Iyer, designed the backdrop poster: a galaxy of the greatest Urdu poets seated in the likeness of da Vinci’s famous painting with the Christ and his disciples substituted by contemporary Urdu writers and poets.

Preferring to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty, I draw heart from instances such as these. And it is the inclusion of newer audiences and younger people in the Urdu-related events I periodically organise that is the greatest reward for what is otherwise an onerous task. Onerous not because it is burdensome or less than pleasing (far from it, for the joy of conceptualising a Urdu event is personally very satisfying), but because there are far too many shibboleths.

There are always the traditionalists among the professional Urduwallahs who demand strict adherence to a code of conduct that is a closely guarded secret. Concerns about script (whether or not one is accessing Urdu through its own script or in the borrowed robes of Roman or Devanagri), pronunciation (it must be immaculate or else the speaker is immediately denounced a poser), and political correctness (one must play to every gallery imaginable) – make Urdu programming a veritable minefield.

And yet, I do believe, it is through programming that one can attract newer audiences, from listening and watching rather than reading alone. While the teaching of Urdu script is important, it cannot supersede the creation of and sustaining an interest in Urdu per se. A bit like the cart and the horse, the question of script and its survival cannot be allowed to become an obstacle for those who can’t read Urdu in its script yet are sufficiently interested in the language itself to want to access it in other ways: through Roman or Devnagri, through translations into English or other regional languages, or aurally. Here too there are no fail-safe methods, for, to quote Madhup Mohta:

Chaliye angrezi se Urdu ko bachaya jaaye
Jashn-e Urdu ko Hindi mein manaya jaaye

(Come let us save Urdu from the clutches of English
Let us celebrate the Festival of Urdu in Hindi)

In the highly contested terrain that is Urdu in modern India, while there are no easy answers to any questions, there is ample evidence to indicate a slow but steady reclaiming of lost ground, an assertion of its identity as an Indian language, and a burgeoning interest in Urdu among the youth unburdened as they are by the baggage of history.

Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator, literary historian. She is the founder of Hindustani Awaaz and has recently curated the Urdu festival Afreen, Afreen.