'Ghazal Usne Chherhi' brings Urdu, India's lost daughter, back to her roots

Rekhta's new book of poetry traces her lyrical journey of 1,000 years, and a Hindustani ancestry we can no longer deny.

 |  5-minute read |   14-05-2016
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It might seem like an odd place to begin this review but the book, Ghazal Usne Chherhi, readily brought Bimal Roy’s 1959 movie, Sujata, to mind. The Bollywood classic revolved around the adoption of a lower-caste orphan girl by an affluent Brahman family and masterfully depicted the emotional barricades the head of the household had to overcome to fully accept her as his daughter. 

More poignantly, it portrayed the heart-breaking anguish of the girl at not being accorded a true sense of belonging to the only "parents" she had ever known, respected, and loved. The parallels between a tender orphan seeking acceptance and a hybrid language striving to be recognised as actually belonging to the nation where it was born are striking. 

ghazal_051416040029.jpg Ghazal Usne Chherhi; Rekhta books; Rs 499

Putting the concrete specifics of these two situations aside, it is plausible to regard Urdu as India’s linguistic Sujata. Born in India (circa 1200 AD) from a betrothal of the Muslim lexicon of Turkish, Persian, and Arabic, with the regional dialects of Awadhi, Braj-bhasha, and Punjabi, Urdu has remained vulnerable to being side-lined by the nation’s socio-politically conservative factions.

The fact is that upon its emergence, Urdu (a variant of the Turkish word Ordu, meaning "military barracks") became the language of North Indian commoners while Persian was retained for judicial and administrative transactions of the court. This led the litteratuers at first to shun Urdu (variously known as Hindavi, Rekhta, and even Hindi, over the course of its evolution). 

Gradually, however, a distinguished cadre of writers emerged who began experimenting with poetic forms in this fresh hybrid of a language. Contrary to the popular belief which tends to locate such pioneering movements in Delhi and Lucknow, the early centres of prolific creativity in Urdu were largely restricted to Gujarat and Hyderabad, Deccan. 

To be sure, great poets (for example, Amir Khusrau) had existed in Delhi, but the credit for the first published collection of Urdu poetry goes to Mohammad Quli Qutab Shah (1565-1611 AD) of Hyderabad. It was in the 18th Century AD that Urdu ghazal "returned" with full force to Delhi where its most impressive exponent was the great Mir Taqi Mir (1722-1810 AD).

The rest, as the saying goes, is history, a history that extends from the world-renowned Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) and other asaatiza (masters) like Zauq, Momin, Aatish, Naasikh, and Daagh, through the mid-twentieth century doyens like Yagaana Changezi, Faani Badayuni, Firaq Gorkhpuri, Jigar Moradabadi, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Majaz, and Jan Nisar Akhtar to the contemporary luminaries like Ahmad Faraz, Nasir Kazmi, Bashir Badr and Nida Fazli.

The initial phases of this thousand year-long sojourn of Urdu poetry forms the topic of the book under review.

Representing the first volume in a proposed four-volume series, Ghazal Usne Chherhi opens with an erudite preface by its editor, Farhat Ahsas.  He traces the evolution of Urdu language in India and delineates the twists and turns in the history of a particular genre of its poetry, namely, the ghazal. Ahsas notes that the scope of this relatively formal genre is quite large and subsumes themes of human suffering, love, man’s need for God, the travails of interpersonal relationships, the nature of desire, and the existential dilemmas of life and death. 

Ahsas introduces 36 poets ranging from Amir Khusrau (1253-1325 AD) to Mir Hasan (1741-1826) with succinct remarks that capture the essence of their craft and, often, the place they occupy in the lineage of this art. A few representative poems of each follow such brief introductions. These are true gems and a source of great delight. They also inform the reader of the evolving idiom of Urdu poetry over the course of nearly six centuries.

Astute at non-interference, Ahsas lets readers partake of the rich feast he has laid out without over-feeding them with commentary and explication.  The "quiet" insertion of Hindi translations of difficult Urdu words, in smaller font after each couplet, is deemed enough. Readers are free to read the book chronologically, at one fell swoop, one ghazal at a time, or simple wander through the literary garden lost in their own reverie, turning in this or that direction as they like. 

The book is handsomely produced with meticulous attention to the page layouts, the color scheme, the font, the artwork, and so on. What, in lesser hands, could have readily turned garish has been kept subtle and sublime. For this aesthetic restraint, the producers of this book deserve our respect.

And, this brings me to my final point. Ghazal Usne Chherhi is a culmination in print of the cybersite Rekhta which has revolutionised the access of non-Urdu reading people to Urdu poetry. Started in 2013 by the highly successful energy industry entrepreneur, Sanjiv Saraf, this website has a worldwide reach with readership from over 160 countries, and is the largest repository of Urdu poetry in the world, containing the works of over 1,200 poets. The decision to bring out the most outstanding samples among them to the print medium is truly welcome. 

We thus owe our profound gratitude to Saraf and of course to the grand poets whose imagination and creativity adorn the pages of this collection. As we resonate with the lyrical cadence of Urdu and soak in the sacred river of its metaphors, we can no longer deny its Indian ancestry.

Like the father in the Bimal Roy movie, who finally gave up calling the adopted girl humari beti-jaisi (like our daughter) and began addressing her as humari beti (our daughter), we proudly own Urdu as India’s luminous offspring.

Her radiance has lit up the parental abode and we – all of us – can see our inner and outer worlds in fresh and enlightened ways.


Salman Akhtar Salman Akhtar

The writer is professor of Psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, and author or editor of over 70 books on diverse topics in psychiatry and psychoanalysis. He is also a poet in both Urdu and English.

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