Urdu scholar and Moortidevi awardee Gopi Chand Narang speaks to us about the “communalisation” of Urdu and the abiding charm of the ghazal
If Dr. Gopi Chand Narang was a couple of decades younger than his present age, a sprightly 82, he would have had a book to show for every year he has lived. The respected Urdu scholar and former Sahitya Akademi president’s significant scholastic output has been shadowed, if not surpassed, by awards; apart from being a Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri awardee, he won Pakistan’s third highest civilian honour, the Sitara-i-Imtiaz earlier this year.
He was also felicitated recently with the Moortidevi Award (announced in 2010). Instituted by Bharatiya Jnanpith, it is awarded for a “contemplative or intellectual work, which underlines and expresses Indian philosophy and cultural heritage based on wider ideals and human values.” The book in question, Urdu Ghazal aur Hindustani Zehn-o Tahzeeb, is an attempt to “examine and trace the roots of the genius of the Urdu ghazal.”
“With Persio-Arabic genres, ghazal as a form of poetry travelled to more than 20 countries but it couldn’t strike such deep roots in the cultural psyche anywhere as it has in India. Today, ghazal is centre stage not only in Urdu but in Indian gayaki as well. There is no genre more popular than the ghazal; it has made inroads into Hindi, Bengali, Sindhi, Kashmiri, Marathi, Gujarati and Telugu,” Narang says.
Debunking the notion that a ghazal is merely a love poem, he adds that the “philosophical complexity and the communication with absolute consciousness which lies at the heart of Upanishadic philosophy” are to be found in the ghazal as well. Structurally, he points out, a ghazal is similar to many ancient Indian literary texts insofar as the couplet is the unit of expression in both.
But while the ghazal has seen a proliferation, Urdu itself has been robbed of its hybrid past. Calling it the “most beautiful, cultivated and sophisticated expression of the Indian creative mind”, Narang is sad to note the present “communalisation” of Urdu, whereby it has come to be seen only as the language of Muslims. “This is a fallacy, an aftermath of the partition of the subcontinent,” he observes.
But he is confident that Urdu will survive. “Language is like a river, it keeps changing its banks. Right now, Urdu is coping with the challenges of segregation and communalisation. Since it reflects the lingual genius of the Indian psyche, I am sure even in difficult circumstances, it will adjust and survive.” In extricating Urdu from the confines of orthodoxy and highlighting its past, scholars have a huge role to play, and Narang has devoted his entire career to it. Ironically, the process started far away, in the University of Wisconsin, where he spent two terms as a visiting professor in the department of Indian studies, and published his first few books.
The culmination of his second term coincided with the end of his neighbour and Nobel laureate Har Gobind Khorana’s stay in the University. While Khorana chose to leave for Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Narang decided to return to University of Delhi, where he was made professor emeritus in 2005. Recalling Khorana’s farewell party, Narang says “he turned to me and said ‘why are you going back? Are you a fool?’ I said I have a job in Delhi University. He said ‘look, I couldn’t get a lectureship in Ludhiana; here, in a few years I have produced work and been awarded the Nobel. You should reconsider.’ I said ‘If I were a scientist like you my decision would have been different. Your lab is here, but my lab is in my country. So I must go back because I want to be in the swim of my language.’”
Dr. Narang was accused of plagiarism in 2006 by Imran Shahid Bhinder, then a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Birmingham, U.K. Bhinder argued that Narang’s book Sakhtiyat, Pas-i-Sakhtiyat Aur Mashriqi Shi’riyat (“Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, and Eastern Poetics”), for which he received the Sahitya Akademi award in 1995, merely translated and transferred insights from Foucault, Derrida, Barthes and others without acknowledgement. The charge was repeated and substantiated by C.M. Naim, Urdu scholar and professor emeritus at University of Chicago.
Narang, who has said very little about these charges until now, stated, “They have misguided the public. There are so many ways of acknowledging. I have acknowledged everything in my preface; it’s for any person to read. There are 3 sections in the book, with comprehensive bibliographies. I have created a new signifier; if I read 2000 pages and give the gist in say 20 pages, it’s my work. ”