Soon after receiving the Moortidevi Award, Professor Gopi Chand Narang talks to Rakhshanda Jalil on the state of Urdu today, newer ways of making it more accessible, and the perils of politicising culture.
Scholar and spokesperson for Urdu, Professor Gopi Chand Narang is also a symbol of the pluralism and secularism that was once the hallmark of Urdu tehzeeb. Excerpts from an interview:
What do you have to say to those who claim Urdu is the language of the Muslims?
They are misguided. This is part of the communal divide created by the politics of partition. They are not friends of Urdu. The most unfortunate thing is that sometimes our administrative machinery succumbs to such narrow views and implements wrong policies. In fact, the larger issue is the communalisation and politicisation of culture. This is also connected to the harmful and unhealthy vote bank politics.
The fact is that Urdu is a product of the composite culture of India and provides a bridge between not only communities but countries also. The labelling of Urdu by religion goes against the very grain of the secular genius of Urdu. It is detrimental to its growth.
Why is no other language marked by such a divide? English is the largest spoken language of the world, but has it ever been restricted by Christianity or any other religion?
Is Urdu in India dead, or dying?
Urdu is neither dead nor dying. It is surviving, though with difficulties. It is a victim of the aftermath of the two-nation theory and facing problems at the school level, especially in north Indian states. It is well known that Urdu is the most cultivated form of Khadi Boli Hindi, and being the core of Hindustani, it is at the heart of the lingua-franca not only of India but all of South Asia. It has been sustaining Bollywood movies, satellite TV serials and the entertainment industry. Can anyone think of all this activity minus Urdu?
Can investments in cultural capital sustain a language? Or must languages be linked to employment to survive?
The two are interlinked. Language is a construct of culture and culture a construct of language. A speaking community must have equal opportunity for growth and progress so that it can partake in the development of the country. Our democratic structure has all the provisions; similarly, subaltern Urdu needs to be guaranteed all those rights and privileges which are enjoyed by other regional languages in India.
Music, be it in the film industry or ghazal gayeki, has done much to sustain Urdu. But most mehfils and mushaira see a largely “grey” audience? How does one draw younger audiences towards Urdu?
It’s true. Language and culture are dynamic. They are not static. All art forms are perpetually changing. The ghazal from Ghalib to Faiz to Shaharyar, Gulzar and Javed Akhtar has also changed. So have the ghazal gayeki and singing styles and popular music. Urdu has the resilience and capacity to cope with new challenges. The moot question is the provision of equal protection under the Right to Education Act and honest implementation of the three-language formula in our general education system at the school level.
Comparisons between the state of Urdu in India and Pakistan are made all the time. Isn’t this unfair? For most Pakistanis, Urdu is an effective second language whereas we still have a substantial number of “native” Urdu speakers?
Unnecessary and wrong comparisons are generated by politically motivated vested interests. You are right. Even today seven to 10 crore Indians claim Urdu as their first language, though there is no State in India where Urdu speakers are a majority, and Urdu is the second largest spoken language after Hindi and a source of strength to Hindi.
In the north-western areas covered by Pakistan, Urdu has been a link and cultural language from the pre-Partition times. It’s good that it now has State patronage, but English has the upper hand as it does in India. The fact is that Urdu in Pakistan is not yet the State’s official language. With increasing globalisation, the rise of multilingualism is a must. The age of mono-lingualism is a thing of the past.
How can the teaching of Urdu in the Urdu script be made simpler for a lay person? At present it is daunting and only the very diligent manage to learn the script.
Like Bengali, the Urdu script is cursive, artistic and beautiful. It is not difficult. Rather it is close to shorthand as it is more consonantal than vocalic. The short vowels are generally omitted and not written. It might appear difficult as opportunities for learning it at the school level have been denied. Apart from my own series of books Let’s Learn Urdu in both English and Hindi, there is scientific material by which one can learn Urdu script in a matter of weeks. Much depends on the motivation and time spent practicing it.
On a personal note, can you single out one text/verse that speaks to you again and again, no matter how many times you read it?
There is none other than Ghalib. He always speaks to you and is so refreshing. He is a poet of all times and ages. His world is too vast and too contradictory to fit into any one category of things. His poetry is unique not only for the intensity of emotions and depth of thoughts it expresses, but also for the exquisite charm and the beauty of the world which he reveals.
Ghalib is also valuable for a completely fresh approach to the world. He is endowed with a passionate appreciation of life, yet he deeply questions the very fundamentals of faith and dogma never compromising on the unity of mankind and freedom of human spirit. He has a range and touch of magic no other Urdu poet has.