Today, during a time of severe political polarisation in India, Urdu literature and poetry and their attendant “spaces” continue to find broad audiences. Indeed, Urdu poetry remains a medium that is deployed as a trenchant critique of the vagaries of political discourse and the communal polarisation that is taking place in India.

The formal and informal spaces of poetry remain crucial arenas for not only understanding the anxieties of the past, and the contradictions of the present but also the possibilities of discovering the possibilities of the future. The aim of this book then, is to highlight the ways in which various Muslim intellectuals, often through poetry, interrogated what it meant to be Muslim and what they imagined India to be.

The success of Sanjiv Saraf’s Rekhta website, his online Urdu language course Amūzish and the annual festival his organisation hosts are illustrations of this. Indeed, Saraf’s service to Urdu literature in the age of the Internet through his tri-scriptual website, is perhaps comparable to the kind of work Munshi Nawal Kishore carried out by cheaply printing Urdu and Persian books more than a century earlier when print was a relatively new as well as an affordable and accessible medium.

Rekhta has not only popularised Urdu poetry but has lead to a cultural effervescence at a time when India’s “Muslim” past is a highly contested and contentious issue. It is of course another issue all together as to whether Urdu poetry is seen as part of India’s Muslim pasts or is viewed in isolation as part of a more cosmopolitan and secular inheritance, but more on this later.

Like many others, Rekhta has used the mushā’irah as a space to catalyse a renewed interest in Urdu. Smaller societies and organisations continue to hold mushā’irahs away from the hustle busy of the big metropolis, and poets like Imran Pratapgarhi and Kumar Vishwas, although not necessarily known for a high standard of composition, regularly recite their work in front of crowds of tens of thousands.

Indeed, Pratapgarhi’s work, in some ways, represents a highly self-cons\cious use of everyday language and particularly the nazm form to articulate a distinct Indian Muslim identity that does not shy away from asserting and indeed embracing its religiosity. The audience at his mushā’irahs tends to be comprised of young, devout Muslims who sway at his lyrical broadsides against the BJP. Although not within the scope of this work, the mushā’irahs would make for an interesting site for analysing the “convoluted modernities” that Tabassum Ruhi Khan speaks of in her work on emerging Muslim identities in modern India.

Pratapgarhi’s poetry, often criticised by more established poets for its lack of substance and depth, nonetheless offers trenchant critiques of politics as well as of the socio-cultural realities of being a Muslim in India. Pratapgarhi, like many other poets, has also used social media to consolidate his popularity and has often also used poetry to encourage activism amongst his followers.

On Twitter, a medium that seems almost tailor made for disseminating couplets from ghazals, Rana Safvi’s hashtag #shair could perhaps be seen as a kind of proto e-mushā’irah. Political parties have held online e-mushā’irahs and kavi sammelans and in universities there is also a revived interest in Urdu.

Sukhan, a group from Pune, has put together a wildly popular three-hour show with a “veritable cornucopia of influences” from Jaun Eliya to Ghalib, they combined poetry with qawalli and bait-bāzī. Curated by an all Marathi team, with a Gujarati thrown in for good measure, the artists in Sukhan did not shy away from taking political issues head on. The show began with adaptation of Heer Ranjha:

Hīrōñ kē rānjhōñ kē naghmēñ ab bhī sunē jātē haiñ wahāñ Ay Husna
Aur rōtā hai rātōñ meñ Pākistāń kyā waisē jaisē Hindōstāń Ay Husna 

Are the laments of Heer’s lovers still heard over there O Husna
Does Pakistan also weep at night like Hindustan O Husna

In Ashoka University, I recall an exuberant and excited young student, Kanan Gupta, coming to me when he was trying to set up a Hindi-Urdu literary society. He had chosen the name Hindavī, which was not only one of the older names for Urdu but also in a way it detracted from the stark binary of Hindi and Urdu that we have inherited because of the politics of the last century.

Apart from universities, politicians often use couplets to add colour and flourishes to their political speeches. Narendra Modi, when assaulted by a couplet of Bashīr Badr’s in parliament, replied in kind and hurled back another couplet by the same poet at Mallikarjun Kharge. Interestingly, the same verses that were recited by Kharge were apparently also recited by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto addressing Indira Gandhi at the time of the signing of the Shimla Agreement.

Indeed, it is worthwhile noting that despite the fact that the BJP and its various ideological progenitors have sought to purify Hindi from Arabic, Persian and Turkish influences, their slogans and even their political speeches are often punctuated by non-Sanskritised phrases and word. Irena Akbar was vociferous in a column about this kind of double speak, following the 2018 slogan released by the BJP: “Saaf Niyat Asli Vikas” or Pure Intentions and Real Development.

As Akbar wrote in her column, three out of the four words are of Arabic origin and “yet, away from its anti-Urdu (read anti-Muslim) antics on the ground, the BJP, in all its hypocrisy, profusely uses Urdu words in its sleek marketing campaigns.” At a programme to launch Sohail Kakorvi’s collection of poems, BJP politician Mohsin Raza went out of his way to use Hindi words and added towards the end that he would take his oath in the local assembley in Hindi and not Urdu, and swear by Ishwar and not by Allah.

Indeed, a year earlier in Aligarh, a BJP municipal corporator, Pushpendra Singh, had decided to file a police complaint against a colleague, Musharraf Hussain, for taking his oath in Urdu. Hussain was booked under section 295 of the Indian Penal Code for allegedly “hurting religious sentiments”. There has been much work on Urdu and its many lives in the aftermath of partition.

To this day Urdu seems to be stuck in a kind of purgatory where in on the one hand it is perceived to be a “Muslim” language that lives on in madrassahs and is used to preserve and impart religious instruction while on the other hand it is thought of as a language that is synonymous with a cosmopolitan and sophisticated urban tradition that harks back to a “hybrid” or “composite” culture that developed over centuries.

The question of the relationship between Islam and Urdu today is an open-ended one and one that does not lie within the scope of this book. However, what is certain is that Urdu and in particular Urdu poetry remains intimately and inextricably linked to larger cultural, political, social and indeed religious questions.

Indeed, the reason for delving into the contemporary debates about Urdu in some detail is because, poetry and its attendant spaces, might appear to be quintessentially modern but they are inextricably linked with and influenced by a past that continues to resonate today. My contention is that the mushā’irah, amongst other spaces, and Urdu continue to have the ability to question the dominance of what I call the “normative horizon” of the nation-state.

In many ways the musha’irah is a gathering that is not merely an arena for reciting poetry but indeed serves as a space that has the ability to interrogate linear and capitalist ideas of temporality and spatiality. The Urdu language represents the confluence of a number of different languages – Persian, Hindi, Arabic and Turkish and so it seems almost inevitable that it would resist the narrow parameters of categorisation that the nation-state needs to define itself. This book is, of course, mostly centred on a period (1850-1950) in which the nation-state had not yet become the dominant and de facto form of political representation and therefore it is important to draw out and illustrate what I mean by normative horizons.

Using the category, and indeed the idea, of the nation-state as “the container of social processes”, even when it was merely a future possibility, offers an opportunity for a reassessment of how Muslims approached issues to do with their religious and political identities. These debates are not new and their origins can be traced back to past Islamic empires. As Soroush argues: “for over two centuries Muslim societies have been experiencing the challenges of modernity and modernisation. During this time their response in terms of thought and practice has swung like a pendulum between premature and even “radical” secularisation (in the name of modernity) and the extreme reactionary trends of religious revivalism and fanaticism (in the name of religion)”

Today, for the average person, it is relatively difficult to imagine a time when modernity and its attendant markers of abstraction, futurity, individuation, liberation and secularisation were still nascent if not completely unformed. Importantly, therefore, another reason for choosing the period is precisely because the world was in the midst of a great flux because of what I call a change in normative horizons.

Excerpted with permission from Poetry Of Belonging: Muslim Imaginings Of India 1850-1950, Ali Khan Mahmudabad, Oxford University Press.