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Earthy, caustic, funny and declining: Dakhani finally gets its due in documentary ‘A Tongue Untied’

The language of the Deccan, famous for its humour and literature, has been relegated to dialect status, as filmmaker Gautam Pemmaraju finds out.

Subah ki dhoop mein agar saaya lamba nazar aya, tum apney kad ke baarey mein ghalatfehmi mey mat rehna (If in the morning sun you see that your shadow is long, don’t get deluded about your height): Ghouse ‘Khamakha’ or ‘Khamakha’ Hyderabadi.

When people hear of Dakhani, they tend to associate it with the unique dialect spoken in Hyderabad, often understood by outsiders and locals as a form of hybridised Urdu. There are other associations with Dakhani too – ribald humour and wry social commentary; an idiom so earthy and direct that it might border on insult to more sensitive ears; philosophical reflections on human nature, as in the verse above.

Gautam Pemmaraju’s ambitious documentary A Tongue Untied: The Story of Dakhani explores the cultural history of the language. The production began as a grant from the Indian Foundation for the Arts in 2012 to document the tradition of humour and modern satire in performance poetry. The filmmaker soon found that mere documentation would be inadequate.

“This began as a very conventional art history project, but it has expanded slightly,” Pemmaraju said. “Very soon, the mandate expanded into not just looking at humour and satire through poetry, but at the elephant in the room, which was, ‘What is Dakhani?’ That became something I needed to tackle in order to explain everything else.”

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A Tongue Untied: The Story of Dakhani.

Dakhani is far more than a dialect, he said. It is a language that developed in northern India alongside Urdu. When it moved to the Deccan plateau, it gradually developed a literary culture that lasted 350 years, from the 14th century when the language first seems to have appeared, to the early 18th, when Aurangzeb finally gained control of the Deccan.

People across the Deccan speak forms of Dakhani with regional infusions even today, from its northern reaches in Aurangabad, to Marathwada and Telangana, down southwards to the northern parts of Karnataka. There are a few Dakhani speakers in Tamil Nadu and north Kerala and in Hyderabad, there is even an entire news channel in Dakhani.

Pemmaraju is now looking to raise funds to complete the editing of A Tongue Untied.

Ghouse ‘Khamakha’ or ‘Khamakha’ Hyderabadi, whose pen name translates as ‘good for nothing’. Courtesy Gautam Pemmaraju.
Ghouse ‘Khamakha’ or ‘Khamakha’ Hyderabadi, whose pen name translates as ‘good for nothing’. Courtesy Gautam Pemmaraju.

The film will be a culmination of conversations that began nearly seven years ago. Pemmaraju began his research by meeting poets and organisers of mushairas, or forums where poets congregate to perform their art.

Everyone Pemmaraju met had different ideas of and associations with the language, many of which were stereotypes. Pemmaraju decided to bring some academic rigour to his study. He also met scholars and experts such as historians and philologists who worked with language and history to pin down what Dakhani really was and what were its origins.

“The film in that sense is an aggregation of poets and artistry on one side, and an aggregation of scholarly opinions on the other side,” he said. “What I have been attempting to do is to put these into a narrative that makes sense and gives viewers a broad picture of the language and the colour of the language.”

With 60 interviews, 70 hours of filmed footage and 40 hours of archival footage, Pemmaraju has had a difficult task cutting the film down to a viewer-friendly length. The final film will be driven by around five experts in the language as well as by poets and artists. Parts of the film are devoted simply to hearing how people in different regions speak the language today.

“What is striking immediately is the diversity of Dakhani,” Pemmaraju said. “It’s a large region, and there are many forms of the language.” There were also many interlocutors, who had a lot to say because of their deep sense of ownership and pride in the language, he added.

While Dakhani is broadly thought of as a language of Muslims, its presence across the plateau also means that there is a rich body of material available in the Devanagari script, for instance, which has not been studied well. Dakhani is also heavily influenced by Marathi, and many Persian words that appear in Dakhani seem to have travelled there via Marathi.

One of Maharashtra’s famous poet saints, Amrutray of Paithan, even wrote a Sudamacharitra, or the story of Sudama, friend of Hindu god Krishna, in Dakhani at some point during the 18th century.

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Abdus Sattar Dalvi on Dakhani in Maharashtra.

Mushairas have been a crucial part of the culture of Hyderabad and areas around it for decades now. From the 1970s and ’80s, the Hyderabadi diaspora began to organise mushairas where they stayed as well, leading to such gatherings in places as disparate as Chicago and countries in the Middle East.

Zinda Dilan-e-Hyderabad, an organisation formed in the mid-1960s to promote literary activities, particularly those pertaining to humour and satire, organised the first modern mushaira at that time. The organisation’s last mushaira was in 2010, but there are other groups who still conduct them.

Senior poets and scholars all agree that the quality of poetry is declining, Pemmaraju said. The texture of poetry has also changed greatly in recent times, he added. Early poetry tended to have pithy statements about poverty and the immediate circumstances of people. There was also a fair amount of sharp satire directed at religious figures, political leaders and even at poets themselves. Now, poetry is far more political.

Take one, by Sardar Asar, a couplet in a ghazal that says:

Bam key nazdeek jaako dekha mai,
Zafrani hai, hara thodeech hai
I went near a bomb to look at it
It was hardly green – it was saffron.

“Of course there is a milieu of social conservatism and its Muslim social culture which informs all this, but you can very clearly see the poetry has shifted from pithy folk wisdom to this direct commentary on politics,” Pemmaraju pointed out.

That said, Dakhani is ultimately a cultural history of southern India, particularly of the “Islamic encounter” south of the Narmada that is pre-Mughal. “I don’t think it’s a counterpoint between the north and the south,” the filmmaker said. “It’s not a battle. It’s looking at a vernacular region’s oral traditions which reveal to us a richer history.”

Gautam Pemmaraju. Courtesy Twitter.
Gautam Pemmaraju. Courtesy Twitter.
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