Lost words

Written by Markandey Katju | Published on: June 4, 2015

Urdu has been abused and neglected in independent India

Great injustice has been done to Urdu in our country. This great language which has produced perhaps the best poetry in modern India1– the immortal poetry of Mir Taqi Mir, Mirza Ghalib, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and several others, this language which is a shining gem in the treasury of Indian culture, is today neglected and even regarded with suspicion. I cannot imagine any greater foolishness.

The injustice to Urdu was born of two false notions that were propagated by certain vested interests: one, that Urdu is a foreign language and two, that Urdu is a language of Muslims alone.

The first notion is palpably false. Unlike Arabic and Persian, which are undoubtedly foreign (though I have great respect for them as well, as I do for all languages), Urdu is a language that is entirely indigenous. It was born here in India as the language of the lashkar (camp) and of the market. In its simplified form, as Hindustani or Khari Boli, it is the language of the common man in large parts of urban India. Its prominent exponents all lived in India and made an outstanding contribution to our culture, dealing with the problems of the people, empathising with their sorrows and touching the human heart. Only the ignorant can call Urdu a foreign language.

The second notion, that Urdu is a language of Muslims alone, is also untrue. In fact, until quite recently Urdu was the language of all educated people, whether Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian, in large parts of urban India. Members of my own family, people of my father’s generation, were all proficient in Urdu. It is only in my generation that Urdu disappeared, a circumstance which I regard as unfortunate.

In my opinion, no country can progress if it overlooks its cultural heritage. And I must emphasise here that I do not regard Kashmiri Pandits alone as my ancestors although I was certainly born into this lineage. I also regard Kalidas as my ancestor, I also regard Amir Khusrau as my ancestor, I regard Ashoka and Akbar, Sur and Tulsi as my ancestors just as I regard Mir and Ghalib as my ancestors. Real ancestry is cultural ancestry, not mere blood ancestry. I believe we need to rediscover our rich and diverse heritage and restore pride in our culture.

The notion that Urdu is a language of Muslims alone can only be attributed to the policy of ‘divide and rule’. Looking to encourage dissension between Hindus and Muslims, certain vested interests spawned the false belief that Hindi was the language of Hindus while Urdu was the language of Muslims. As a matter of fact, the spoken language of the common man in urban areas is Hindustani (or Khari Boli), Urdu being Persianised Hindustani and Hindi being Sanskritised Hindustani.

Urdu has a national following in India, as it is spoken in 13 states of our country.

For those who are not very familiar with the Urdu language I would like to briefly describe its basic features.

Urdu is the language that was created by the superimposition of some features and vocabulary of the Persian language on a Hindustani foundation. Thus Urdu is a language created by the combination of two languages, Persian and Hindustani, which is why it was once called ‘Rekhta’ or hybrid. Since Urdu was created by combining Persian and Hindustani one could then ask whether Urdu is a special kind of Persian or a special kind of Hindustani. In fact, Urdu is a special kind of Hindustani, not a special kind of Persian – a point that requires some elucidation.

The language to which a sentence belongs is determined by the verb used in it and not the noun, adjective or any other elements. In Urdu all verbs are in simple colloquial Hindi (called Hindustani or Khari Boli). Many of the nouns and adjectives used in Urdu are often Persian or Arabic2 words but the verb is always from Hindustani. If the verb used in a sentence was from Persian, the sentence would become a Persian sentence, not an Urdu sentence, and similarly, if the verb were from Arabic, the sentence would become an Arabic sentence. Take a look at any Urdusher or couplet and you will find that the verb is always in Hindustani although many nouns and adjectives may be Persian or Arabic words. A study of any Urdu poem by any Urdu poet will invariably reveal a similar pattern.

Thus Urdu is a special kind of Hindustani, not a special kind of Persian. I emphasise this point because had Urdu been a special kind of Persian it would indeed have been a foreign language. The very fact that it is a special kind of Hindustani (Khari Boli) shows that it is a desi or indigenous language.

We must now understand something about Hindustani, the foundation on which Urdu was built.

Hindustani is simple or spoken Hindi as contrasted with the literary Hindi that is used by many writers and public speakers. Hindustani is an urban language. It is the first language of the common man in the cities of what is known as the Hindi-speaking belt (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and so on) and the second language of people in the cities of many parts of the non-Hindi-speaking belt, not only in India but also in Pakistan.3

How did Hindustani come into existence? This is a cardinal point we must understand if we are to understand Urdu.

Almost all cities in the world originated as marketplaces or mandis. This was only possible when productive forces had developed to an extent that people were producing more than they could themselves consume and hence the surplus had to be sold or exchanged; in other words, commodities began to be produced. Since the seller and buyer needed a common space where their transactions could take place marketplaces were created which later grew to become cities. Now the seller and buyer must have a common language otherwise these transactions would not be possible. Hindustani arose as that common language of the market.

In Allahabad, where I have lived for most of my life, Hindustani is spoken in the city but in the rural areas around it the dialect spoken is Awadhi, the language in which Tulsidas wrote his Ramcaritmanas. Hindustani is also spoken in Mathura city but in the rural areas around Mathura people speak Brij Bhasha, the language of the poet Surdas. In Benaras and other cities of eastern Uttar Pradesh, Hindustani is spoken but in the surrounding rural areas people speak Bhojpuri. In parts of northern Bihar as well, Hindustani is spoken in the cities while Maithili is the rural dialect, the language in which the poet Vidyapati wrote. Similarly, in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, Hindustani is spoken in the cities but people in the rural areas speak local dialects that an outsider would find difficult to understand.

So we see that in vast areas of North India while the rural population speaks different dialects the urban population has a common language, Hindustani or Khari Boli, one that originated as the common language of a burgeoning marketplace – the vast common market that had been created in India even before the coming of the Mughals. A trader travelling from Bihar or Madhya Pradesh could easily sell his goods in a city in Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan or Punjab because they spoke a common language which both seller and buyer knew in addition to their local dialects. And in many parts of the subcontinent’s non-Hindi-speaking belt as well, Hindustani is understood and spoken as a second language. A visitor travelling to Kolkata or Gujarat or Lahore or Karachi or Bangalore and many other parts of South India can converse in Hindustani with people living in the cities although things may be more difficult in rural areas.

Having understood the origins of Hindustani, we can now go on to understand the genesis and nature of Urdu.

As I mentioned earlier, Urdu is a language created by the superimposition of Persian on a Hindustani foundation.

Thanks to writers like Firdawsi, Hafiz, Saadi, Rumi, Omar Khayyam and others Persian had evolved into a highly developed language of culture, grace and sophistication in Persia whence it spread to large parts of the oriental world. For centuries Persian was the court language in India.

The Mughals, who were Turks, not Persians, and whose mother tongue was Turkish, adopted the more developed Persian as the language of their court.4 And though Babar wrote his autobiography, Tuzuk-e-Babri, in Turkish, his grandson Akbar had it translated into Persian, calling it Babarnama. Akbar’s own biography, Akbarnama, written by Abul Fazl, is in Persian as is the autobiography of his son Jehangir, called Jahangirnama, and the biography of Shah Jehan, called Shahjehannama.

The phenomenon of a foreign language being adopted as the language of a country’s upper class or royal court is not unique. French was the language of the Russian and German (and indeed much of European) aristocracy for decades as is evident, for instance, from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. English is the language of the elite in India even today.

Being the language of the royal court in India for several centuries, Persian also exerted its influence on the common language of the cities – Hindustani.

How then was Urdu created? This is a fascinating question, one that I will now attempt to answer.

While the Mughal emperors from Akbar to Aurangzeb were powerful rulers who controlled large parts of India, their successors, the later Mughals, were mere shadows of their illustrious ancestors. Emperors in name alone, these later Mughals were in fact pauperised, having lost their empire to the British, the Marathas and their own governors like the nawab of Awadh or the nizam of Hyderabad who had effectively become independent rulers. It was under the later Mughals that Urdu gradually replaced Persian as the language of their court.

Why did Persian, the court language of the great Mughals, give way to Urdu during the reign of the later Mughals? Bereft of much of their wealth and power, the later Mughals bore a greater resemblance to the commoners they ruled and even experienced first-hand some of the hardships their subjects did. They adopted a language closer to the common man. Why then did Hindustani, the common language of the cities, not become the language of their court? Notwithstanding their pauperisation, the later Mughals and their lieutenants, the nawabs and wazirs, still retained their dignity, culture and self-respect. Always conscious of their noble lineage, they took great pride in their status as Shahzade Timuria or descendants of Timur, the great conqueror (and ancestor of Babar), and as descendants of the great Mughals. And despite their impoverishment, they were not prepared to be treated as commoners. Hence while they gave up Persian and adopted Hindustani, this was not the Hindustani of the common man but Hindustani of a special type, borrowing from the polish and culture of Persian – they spoke a Hindustani that incorporated some of the grace, sophistication and vocabulary of the Persian language.

Urdu is thus the language of aristocrats who though pauperised still retained their dignity, pride and self-respect. It is the commoner’s language because, having lost their empire, the later Mughals had become virtual commoners. And yet it is more than that because the later Mughals, despite their pauperisation, insisted on being treated with respect as aristocrats, with all the graces, polish and sophistication of the aristocracy. Thus Urdu has a dual nature; it is at once the language of the common man and the language of the aristocrat. This may sound paradoxical but it is true and this in fact is the beauty of Urdu – that while it is the language of the common man, expressing all the troubles, sorrows and hopes of the common man, it is also a language of grace, polish, sophistication and dignity.

To recapitulate the main features of the Urdu language: Urdu is basically a combination of two languages, Hindustani, the common man’s language, and Persian, the aristocrat’s language. Urdu is a special kind of Hindustani, not a special kind of Persian, because the verbs used in it are all from Hindustani. Continuing this analysis, I would say that the content of Urdu i.e. the feelings and ideas expressed therein are that of the common man but its form of expression is aristocratic. In other words, Urdu expresses the troubles, sorrows, anxieties, hopes and aspirations of the common man but its style (andaz-e-bayan) is not that of the common man but of the aristocrat.

The celebrated Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib, for instance, had a horror of the commonplace in mode of expression. He considered himself an aristocrat, he had an intense desire to be different from the common masses and his poetry is marked by its originality and unconventionality. He was of the firm view that the language of poetry should be distinct from the spoken language and he often expresses his thoughts not directly but indirectly, by hints and suggestions.

This is also true of many other Urdu poets. They often express their thoughts and feelings not in simple direct language but by insinuations, allusions and indications, in a roundabout way, the aim being to appear sophisticated and elitist rather than commonplace. However, this can sometimes make their work difficult to understand (the great Urdu critic and biographer Altaf Hussain Hali thought one third of Ghalib’s verses were too recondite to be regarded as Urdu) and their words can at times be interpreted in several different ways.

As long as there were powerful Mughal emperors in India, Persian was the language of their court and Urdu never attained respectability – it could never become the court language in North India, finding instead its haven or sanctuary in South India and Gujarat, where it was the language of the elite. In a sense, Urdu originated in South India where it became popular during the reign of the great Mughals, receiving patronage from the southern kingdoms of Golconda, Bijapur and Ahmednagar, for example, where it was adopted as the court language. Thus it is interesting to note that Urdu became the court language in South India and Gujarat during the reign of the great Mughals but it could not displace Persian in the north as long there were powerful Mughal rulers. While in the north, Persian was considered the ideal language and Urdu was frowned upon and regarded with some disdain, in South India and Gujarat it spread widely among the elite.

Nevertheless, when the great southern Indian Urdu poet Wali Dakhani5 visited Delhi in 1700 AD, during Aurangzeb’s rule, he found that his fame had preceded him and his works were very popular. At a time when the Delhi poets were all writing in Persian, which the common man did not understand, Wali Dakhani’s poetry in Urdu could be easily understood by the common man in Delhi. Though he was a South Indian, Wali Dakhani is often regarded as the father of Urdu because he introduced to Delhi poets the possibility of writing poetry in Urdu, a language that the common man could understand, and this enhanced Urdu’s prestige.

But it was only after Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, when the era of the later Mughals began, that Urdu gradually displaced Persian as the court language in the north and even this was rather grudgingly done.6 Writing in Urdu was considered infra dig and all respectable writers at the time wrote in Persian. A notable exponent of this distaste for Urdu was ironically one of its greatest poets, Mirza Ghalib. Ghalib, who prided himself on his Turkish ancestry, was openly partial to his Persian poetry and looked down on his Urdu poetry although it was the latter that brought him real acclaim. He was very reluctant to write in Urdu, preferring Persian instead, and in fact his early Urdu poetry is highly Persianised and more difficult to understand while his best verses came later when he started using more Hindustani.

The collapse of the Mughal empire following the death of Aurangzeb was a blessing in disguise for Urdu, for only then could it displace Persian as the court language. Urdu gradually began to flourish in the days of the later Mughals, reaching its zenith during the reign of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar.

Thereafter, until 1947, Urdu was the language of the courts and of the educated people in large parts of India. At the same time, due to its dual nature it was also, as Hindustani, the common man’s language in urban areas. Being the common man’s language in large parts of urban India, Urdu borrowed from every language, freely adopting words from other languages into its vocabulary. And being the common man’s language, Urdu was loved by the common man as it is loved even today. Its continuing popularity in India is clearly evidenced in the following ways:

Ø Even today Hindi film songs are mainly in Urdu, for the voice of the heart will always find expression in one’s own language however much some people may try to suppress it.

Ø The most popular books at railway bookstalls are the Urdu works of Ghalib, Mir, Faiz, Josh, Firaq, Hali, Daag, Majaaz, Zauq and others (now in the Devanagari script) and not the works of Hindi poets. We are told that Hindi, not Urdu, is the language of the people. Then why do the works of Hindi poets like Mahadevi Verma or Sumitranandan Pant not sell at railway bookstalls where the common people buy books? Why do so many Hindi-speaking people buy books of Urdu poetry?

Ø Hindi writers from an Urdu background, such as Premchand, Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Gopi Chand Narang and Malik Ram, are the most widely accepted even in the Hindi world.

Urdu is loved by the people of India because it has grown among the people. Urdu literature is a literature of protest; protest against the afflictions of the common man and against injustice.

Urdu is also the language of patriotism. Most of us are well acquainted with the famous words of Ram Prasad Bismil: "Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamaare dil mein hai (The desire for sacrifice is now in our hearts)."

Urdu poetry has protested against ritualism, formalism and oppressive or antiquated social customs and in this sense it can be called a successor to the poetry of Kabir though, of course, it is far more sophisticated. Thus Ghalib writes: "Nahin kuch subh-o-zunnaar ke phande mein gir aayi/ Wafaadaari mein shaikh-o-barhaman ki aazmaaish hai (The amulet (of a Muslim) or the sacred thread (of the Hindu) is of little consequence. The test of a Sheikh or Brahmin is his loyalty (to his ideals or principles)."

Another noteworthy example would be the short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto, particularly those, like ‘Thanda Gosht (Cold Meat)’, which describe the horrors of partition.

Being the language of the common man in modern India, Urdu writing is almost entirely secular; an exception being the later part of Muhammad Iqbal’s poetry when he crossed over from nationalism to Panislamism.7 Some of the greatest Urdu poets are almost anti-religious.

Thus Ghalib writes: "Imaan mujhe roke hai jo khinche hai mujhe kufr/ Kaaba mere peeche hai kaleesa mere aage(Faith stops me while atheism pulls me forward. Kaaba is behind me, the church lies ahead)." Here the word ‘kaleesa’ or church in fact connotes modern civilisation. Ghalib, like many Urdu writers, is opposed to feudal civilisation and commends modernism.

Urdu literature reveals a distinct Sufi influence, the Sufis being the liberal among the Muslims, not the bigoted. They spread the message of universal love among all humans regardless of their religion, caste and other differences.

Among the modern Urdu poets, Sahir Ludhianvi is outspokenly atheistic. Consider the following lines: "Aqaid wahm hain, mazhab khayaal-e-khaam hai saaqi/ Azal se zahn-e-insaan basta-e-auhaam hai saaqi (Faith is but superstition, religion an inferior idea. Since the dawn of time human imagination has been imprisoned by these falsehoods)."

Or: "Bezaar hai kanisht-o-kaleesa se ye jahaan/ Saudagaraan-e-deen ki saudagari ki khair/ Ilhaad kar rahaa hai murattab jahaan-e-nau/ Dair-o-haram ki hailia ghaaratgari ki khair/ Insaan ulat raha hai ruq-e-zeest se naqaab/ Mazhab ke ehtemaam-e-fusoon parwari ki khair (This world is sick of the temple and the church; You who peddle the power of religion, beware! Atheism is now laying the foundation of a new world; You who call out in the name of shrines, beware!
Humanity is unveiling the real face of life; Religion’s wily artifice, beware!)."

I believe that no poetry in the world has expressed the voice and sorrows of the human heart in the manner that Urdu poetry has done.

Some Urdu writers like Mir and Nazeer wrote beautiful poems about Holi, Diwali, Raksha Bandhan and other Hindu festivals and customs, which emphasises that Urdu was not the language of any particular religion. A large number of Hindus, such as Firaq Gorakhpuri, Brijnarayan Chakbast, Ratan Nath Sarshar and others, have established themselves in the front ranks of Urdu literature. In Wali’s poetry, words like Ganga, Jamuna, Krishna, Ram, Saraswati, Sita and Lakshmi frequently appear.

Urdu poetry represents both the diversity and the unity of India, a land where many peoples and communities migrated and where they were all assimilated. As Firaq Gorakhpuri writes: "Sar zamin-e-Hind par aqwam-e-alam ke firaq/ Karwan baste gaye, Hindostan banta gaya (In the land of Hind, caravans of people from all over the world kept on settling as India kept on forming)."

The greatest damage done to Urdu was by the partition of India in 1947. Since then Urdu has been branded as a foreign language in India, as a language of Muslims alone insomuch that even Muslims stopped studying Urdu to show their ‘patriotism’ and solidarity with their Hindu brethren. After 1947, Persian words that were in common usage were systematically sought to be replaced by Sanskrit words that were not in common use. This policy of hatefully removing Persian words that were commonly used in Hindustani and replacing them with less common Sanskrit ones has resulted in the creation of an unnecessarily Sanskritised Hindi which the common man finds difficult to understand. In our courts of law, for example, it is often difficult to understand the Hindi used in government notifications. This policy of hatred for Persian words has also led to a virtual genocide of Urdu.

Notwithstanding all hostile efforts however, a language that speaks the voice of the heart can never be stamped out as long as people have hearts. Evidence that Urdu still lives in the hearts of Indians is visible in the large crowds that mushairas, readings of Urdu poetry, attract from all sections of society in all corners of the country even today. If Urdu is a foreign language, it is indeed surprising that the people of India love it so much!

In Allahabad, an organisation called the Sanskrit Urdu Academy was formed with the principal aim of promoting Sanskrit and Urdu, our two great but neglected languages. When the academy was formed some people said that the juxtaposition of Sanskrit and Urdu was a strange cocktail. They were perhaps unaware that 70 per cent of Urdu words are in fact derived from Sanskrit. Sanskrit is the grandmother of Urdu, as it is of most other Indian languages, and when grandmother and granddaughter walk hand in hand both benefit.

There is a parallel misconception about Sanskrit being a language of the Hindu religion just as there is a misconception that Urdu is the language of Muslims. In fact, Sanskrit is the language of freethinkers. The sheer range of philosophical schools in Sanskrit is astonishing, from the deeply religious to the totally atheistic. The great Hindi writer Rahul Sanskritayan used to say that before he learnt Sanskrit he believed in god but after he learnt it he became an atheist. The great scientists of ancient India like Aryabhatta, Sushrut and Charak all wrote in Sanskrit as did philosophers, grammarians, playwrights, poets and other intellectuals.

A revival of the Urdu language in India would, I believe, be best accomplished if it were linked with Sanskrit rather than being pursued in isolation. This could also prevent Urdu from being branded a communal language.

If the works of Urdu poets were also printed in the Devanagari script it would help make Urdu literature accessible to a wider audience, enabling those who are unfamiliar with the Persian script to read it as well.8 In my view, one should not be too rigid about the script that is used.

Moreover, contemporary writers in Urdu (and Hindi) should use simple language. If it is to be truly appreciated, a literary work must first be understood by the people. If the language of literature is incomprehensible to most, what purpose does such literature serve? If literature is to reach the masses, if it is to reflect their reality and voice their concerns, if it is to contribute to the struggle for a better society, it must necessarily be intelligible to the people. 


1 In my opinion, the best poetry in modern India is in Urdu while the best prose is in Bengali. However, this is merely my personal opinion; others are entitled to their own.

2 Arabic words were adopted into the Persian language after the Arab conquest of Persia. The great Persian poet Firdawsi, author of Shahnama, sought to remove Arabic words from Persian but he failed. In fact, by adopting foreign words a language becomes stronger, not weaker. English, for example, has benefited from a wealth of foreign words.

3 A personal experience illustrates this phenomenon. Some time ago I was travelling by taxi from Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh to Gulbarga in Karnataka where I was to attend a function. My companions on the journey were the Telugu-speaking taxi-driver and a Kannada-speaking professor from Gulbarga University who had come to fetch me. The two of them spoke to each other in Hindi, which surprised me because both of them were South Indians. When I asked them why they were speaking in Hindi they said this was because Hindi was the link language for both of them.

4 Akbar’s finance minister, Raja Todar Mal, had all the revenue records of the Mughal empire written in Persian.

5 Some people regard him as the father or founder of Urdu.

6 The firmans of the Mughal emperors, including those of the later Mughals, were always in Persian, never in Urdu.

7 See Muhammad Sadiq, A History of Urdu Literature, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, pp. 461-465.

8 Urdu is written in the Persian (not Arabic) script. There are some differences between the Persian and Arabic scripts but it is not necessary to go into this here.