Rekhta returns to Delhi
It seemed as if the place was exploding with people and clearly the organisers had not expected such a turn-out. One was left with a sense that something of immense cultural significance had taken place at the end of three-day Jashn-e-Rekhta, a festival to celebrate Urdu. As the crowds flocked to Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for Art (IGNCA), Urdu showed great promise of revival in a city where it was nurtured in palaces and street corners. With controversies and claims of ‘bias’ clouding most discussions of the role of Urdu in India, this private initiative by an Urdu-loving businessman Sanjiv Saraf at least broke the myth that the language was no longer an attraction for younger generations.
It was the third Jashn in succession and with each passing year the number of people thronging the venue has been increasing. What the Rekhta Foundation was offering the participants was a complete package of all the colours and nuances that the language carries through different genres. That is why all the simultaneous sessions held for three days in the sprawling lawns of the IGNCA seemed to be in competition for the visitors, who were engrossed in listening to powerful discourses by legends such as Gulzar, Sharmila Tagore, Gopi Chand Narang, Nadira Babbar and Prem Chopra. Serious discussions followed the presentations on different themes pertaining to Urdu as the organisers had left nothing untouched – from poetry, prose, drama, art and cinema to popular culture. When Anu Kapoor and Hans Raj Hans performed at the concluding session the audience literally went crazy – tapping and clapping with each action and words that was at play at the colourful evening. Not only did they arouse the interest of people through mushairas (poetic gatherings), dastan goi (retelling of tales and epics), theatre performances and music but the food festival named ‘Aiwan-e-Zaiqa’ was a major attraction offering food from Mughal to Kashmiri cuisine. Urdu was seen coming to new life though there are many more practical difficulties confronting its preservation.
Noted Urdu writer Subodh Lal’s words drew thunderous applause when he termed Urdu as ‘secularism’ and vice versa
Institutionalisation of this Jashn holds a lot of promise for a language that is known for bringing together hearts – one which has dominated Bollywood amidst a tendency to rename it ‘Hindustani’. The value that the language holds for hearts and minds came alive as people were jostling to get space in different venues and remained spellbound for hours to enjoy the various shades of linguistic expression that it provides. Such an effort with Rekhta has shown how to resurrect a language that is linked to a community ignored and buried under the heaviness of modern culture. What came up during the festival – dotted as it was with a most diverse audience – repeatedly was that language can bring together people of many faiths, without bias. Those performing at various events broke the shackles of religious fundamentalism as Rekhta provided a platform of oneness. Noted Urdu writer Subodh Lal’s words drew thunderous applause when he termed Urdu as ‘secularism’ and vice versa, going so far as to say that “it was a symbol of secularism”. He explained that Urdu did not bear any ill will towards any religion. In the words of Sanjiv Saraf, the businessman behind the festival, Urdu needed to be celebrated for its versatility and beauty. “Rekhta is a movement to preserve and promote the rich literary and cultural heritage of Urdu and Jashn-e-Rekhta is an extension of the same commitment to reclaim our rich heritage,” says an unassuming Saraf.
Rekhta storming into Delhi’s heart with Urdu rendering is certainly a novel way to protect a language that many believe would be a thing of the past since a new generation is running away, not only from Urdu, but from all regional and local languages. In today’s fast changing and competitive world, languages that have shaped the pristine glory of many civilizations and heritages are vulnerable. According to a survey by UNESCO, nearly 7,000 languages may disappear by the end of the 21st century. The people who are supposed to be linked to those languages are fast distancing themselves, adopting other languages which offer more opportunities and brighter career prospects.
“We found that at the global scale, a decline in the number of language speakers is strongly linked to economic growth – that is, declines are particularly occurring in economically developed regions,” says Tatsuya Amano, the lead author of a study at the University of Cambridge in England. And this threat is also looming large over South Asia. Although Urdu is not an endangered language, it is a fact that the number of its speakers is declining. It is no longer among the 20 most spoken languages of the world.
Institutionalisation of this Jashn holds a lot of promise for a language known for bringing together hearts, having dominated Bollywood
A common refrain about the decline of a language like Urdu is that it is facing a conspiracy to undermine it. But the fact is that Urdu is fighting for survival both in India and Pakistan, although a majority of people in Pakistan speak, write and learn the language. But in the absence of economic dividends even in Pakistan, where it is a national language, the young generation is running away from it and adopting English. That is why the Pakistani government is contemplating replacing English with Urdu as an official language. However, there is resistance to that move from the Pakistani elite, who dominate the bureaucracy and policymaking. The real challenge to the language today is that it does not offer too many economic benefits, and those who relish and cherish it as a language to soothe their spirits are not to be found in large numbers.
In India too, where the language had been linked to Muslim identity, it does not have bright economic prospects. The number of people adopting it as a means to gain employment is dwindling. The policymakers ignore Urdu for the reason that it does not offer much in terms of economic progress, and all of this does not augur well for the future of the language.
Successive governments in India, though, have provided significant funds for the promotion of the language. While the total grant for promotion of the Urdu language, provided by P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government was just Rs. 6 million, it saw a large increase during the NDA government led by A.B. Vajpayee. Under Murli Manohar Joshi as human resource development minister, the grant was increased to Rs. 50 million. In 2012-13 it was Rs. 400 million, and in the last budget it has been increased further (although grants for the promotion of all Indian languages have been clubbed together). While the number of Urdu-medium schools has increased recently, and so has the financial support to them, the language is still facing challenges. Nevertheless, the trend among Muslims of India to identify with both Urdu and Hindustani is fast increasing.
“The perception of Urdu as belonging to a larger community rather than just being identified with one particular religion is widespread and shared among Muslims and non-Muslims alike,” reveals a study ‘Whose Language is Urdu?’, conducted by Anvita Abbi, Imtiaz Hasnain and Ayesha Kidwai of the South Asia Institute at the Department of Political Science, University of Heidelberg. The trio conducted the study in Bihar, Lucknow, Mysore, Delhi and Simla.
Urdu was a popular language in united India, and even after the 1947 Partition, it was on the agenda of the Constituent Assembly as a contender for the official language. There was a tie between Hindi and Urdu, and Dr. Rajendra Prashad favoured Hindi eventually. Ironically Begum Aijaz Rasool and Moulana Hasrat Mohani both voted against Urdu. Mohani also opposed Article 370 and it was Gopala Swamy Iyengar who defended it in response to his opposition.
Although Urdu is the second official language in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi states, challenges to its survival come from its original speakers, who feel that it is devoid of any benefit. A distinguished writer and poet Gopi Chand Narang may surely say that “Urdu is my identity,” but that does little to reassure the people of the viability of the language. Jammu and Kashmir is perhaps the only place where it does not face a threat despite being an alien language. But at the official level, it is true that the neglect is deep.
Initiatives such as Rekhta come in contrast to common belief that the Urdu language has no takers. What was seen in Delhi this past week is a promising beginning for protecting the language that has proven its potential to bind the communities together irrespective of their faiths. We need much more Rekhtas all over. Salute to Sanjiv and his team!http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/rekhta-returns-to-delhi/