Sanjiv Saraf: Celebrating the vibrant shades of Urdu

Connecting people: Sanjiv Saraf says Urdu helps in building bridges between cultures

Connecting people: Sanjiv Saraf says Urdu helps in building bridges between cultures   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

As the fifth edition of Jashn-e-Rekhta begins today, founder Sanjiv Saraf tells us how it has become one of the biggest festivals in the world

A Marwari businessman in love with Urdu. As far as stereotypes go, Sanjiv Saraf doesn’t fit into one. Perhaps, that’s why year after year he manages to wipe off layers of miasma that surround Urdu through Jashn-e-Rekhta, a festival that informs and entertains in equal measure. Ahead of the fifth edition, he tells us that Morari Bapu will grace the opening ceremony. The wit of Shrilal Shukla will find its way in “Dastan-e-Kanabati” by Mahmood Farooqui and Darain Shahidi. Ram Katha will be staged in Urdu and Carnatic vocalist Gayathri Asokan will render ghazals.

Amazing reach

“Urdu is the only language among all our languages which lends itself to so many different art forms. There is ghazal singing, there is qawwali, there is Sufi singing, there is dastangoi, there is bait baazi...a number of genres that exist because of Urdu,” says Saraf. “The regional languages are understood by a limited number of people whereas Urdu, which is actually Hindustani, is understood by a much larger cross section of people. It appeals to people across different age groups, economic backgrounds and religions,” he adds.

Saraf reminds that his core work is the website “That is the heart and soul of whatever I do. When we started, we got phenomenal response. However, there was a feeling that the website has a two dimensional aspect. It cannot convey the beauty of the language in all its flavours. So we thought it would be an interesting experiment to see if we can bring the language to the people through these events. That experiment, by god’s grace, has become one of the largest festivals in the world.”

The festival’s journey started in 2015 when it was organised at the India International Centre. “We expected 2000 people but we ended up with a footfall of 18000. We realised that there is a large appetite for the language.”

The festival moved to Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts but within two years the number of audience crossed 75000 forcing Saraf to look for a stadium. “Last year, around 1.5 lakh people attended it at Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium,” he informs with a tinge of pride.

On how the festival is attracting youngsters, Saraf says Urdu is a very expressive and romantic language. In two ashars (couplets) you can express so much.” In times of Twitter, when brevity is the buzzword, there can’t be a better language to express so much in so little. In fact, Saraf’s romance with the language began when he fell in love.

“We used to sing Hindi film songs to impress and most of them were actually in Urdu,” he chuckles. Years later after graduating from IIT Kharagpur, Saraf felt a void in his life and rediscovered his love for the language. “It helps all through your life. In the Parliament, the Prime Minister quotes Urdu couplets, the foreign minister quotes ashar and no budget speech is complete without them. It is a very sophisticated language and now it has an aspirational aspect also. We started our online Urdu learning programme in 2017 and in the last 18 months 30000 people have registered to learn the script.”

Dynamic being

Purists often raise eyebrows when the language is reduced to a source of entertainment. Saraf says his objective is to bring more and more people to a language which connects.

“If you stay pure, you are creating a divide. It is not a plant that you put fertiliser and it will grow. Language is a dynamic living thing. Unless there are more people coming towards the language, it will not flourish. Having said that a number of academics are showing interest in the festival as we try to cover all the bases.”

This year there are literary figures like Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Shamim Hanfi and Gopi Chand Narang in the lineup and there is an interesting session, Sanskrit Aur Farsi: Ek ghar ke do darwaze (Two doors of one house) on the cards. “Persianised Urdu and Sansktirsited Hindi are the products of the British rule. Before that, by and large, Hindustani was the lingua franca of the country. Even today 70 percent of words in Urdu come from Indian languages. Persian, Arabic and Turkish constitute the rest. Its grammar is Indian. It literally represents Ganga-Jamuni culture. These things need to be brought out,” says Saraf.

What is also remarkable is the Rekhta library which is full of scanned copies of rare and out of print books of Urdu literature. “It has become the world’s largest resource of Urdu for scholars and researchers across the world. I was in the US recently to give speeches in the University of Chicago and New York University. The amount of respect and appreciation that I found for our website was really heart warming.”

Over the years, the massive turn out proves that Urdu is not in danger and is not a language of one religion. In this scenario, calling Kathavachak Morari Bapu for the opening ceremony seems like an attempt to dress the event according to the political climate.

“I have never claimed that the language is in danger. We just need to brush the dust off. I am happy that the youth constitute 80% percent of our audience. I am very optimistic about the future,” says Saraf.

As for the choice of guest, Saraf counters, “I don’t want to colour the event with politics and religion. I have not called Morari Bapu as a religious person. He is a kathvachak who tells stories of our heritage. He is fond of Urdu and organises several mushairas across the country. Similarly, Ram Katha in Urdu is an old tradition which is being practised since Akbar’s time. If two cultures come together through a language, what’s the harm. Unka jo farz hai wo ah-le-siyasat jaane, mera paigham mohabaat hai jahan tak pahunche,” he sums up with Jigar Moradabadi’s popular couplet.

(From December 14-16, Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium, New Delhi)

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 8:55:16 PM |

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