Save a Part of Urdu in Our Bol – Whose Zubaan is it Anyway?

Dr Rakhshanda Jalil takes us on a journey to figure out who owns the Urdu BOL and the findings are surprising.

5 min read

 The positivity surrounding Urdu far exceeds the negativity and a new set of people are claiming ownership and learning to use Urdu in new and innovative ways.

Is Urdu the language of Muslims? Or, to be more precise, Indian Muslims? Not to be confused with the Urdu spoken in Pakistan, which was a language smuggled in by the muhajirs and somewhat injudiciously declared the national language and adopted with much misgivings by the Punjabis, Pathans, Sindhis, not to mention Bengalis.

But, in modern-day India is Urdu a language of the ‘upper India’? And within that narrow category, a declining minority of sharif Muslim families?

Finding the Geography of a Language

If we must be geographically precise, is Urdu the language of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar? Surely the effective first language of Kashmiri Muslims is Kashmiri or Laddakhi, and Muslims in eastern India claim Bangla or Assamese as their mother tongue? What of the Deccan plateau, then, which was once the cradle of Urdu?

Urdu Dailies in India
Urdu Dailies in India
(Photo: The Quint)

Can the south of Vindhyas lay claim to Urdu? What of the sweet cadences of the Urdu of the Malwa region or the princely states of Bhopal and Hyderabad or even the rural hinterland of present-day Telangana which has suffused Urdu with a lilting charm over a period of slow distillation spanning several centuries? Or, for that matter, what of Gujarat that had once boasted Wali Dakkani as a proud son of its soil?

So, whose Urdu is it anyway?

Whose Urdu is it, Anyway?

Getting away from matters of geography, who can best lay claim over Urdu? Can it be just poets and politicians and polemicists?

Save a Part of Urdu in Our Bol – Whose Zubaan is it Anyway?

Is Urdu just for those who want pretty words full of sound and fury signifying nothing? Is the 'Hindi' film industry, located in Mumbai, the last bastion of Urdu poetry that can still reach the nooks and crannies of popular imagination?

And what of Urdu prose that is so often and so unfairly overshadowed by its more glamorous twin, Urdu poetry? What of the vast treasures of Urdu fiction, creative non-fiction, its memoirs and reportage, its long history of journalism?

Yes, there is no denying that Urdu has shrunk in importance in India; it is no longer the lingua franca it once was, nor does it carry much financial traction.

Indeed there are fewer and fewer jobs waiting for the poor boy from a madrasa or a Urdu-medium school. And yes, people might view you with some suspicion if you are caught reading an Urdu book on public transport – especially if you have a skull cap and a beard. 

And, yes, you might even be asked to go to Pakistan, where you belong, when you post an Urdu verse too many on social media.

Being Urdu Positive

The above mentioned are aberrations and one must, stoically and steadfastly, look for the glass that is half full rather than half empty. Also, in my experience, the positivity surrounding Urdu far exceeds the negativity and there can be no denying that a new set of people are claiming ownership and learning to use Urdu in new and innovative ways.

Urdu belongs to no single state or community; it is ready and waiting to be appropriated by anyone irrespective of caste, creed or credentials, who is willing to look beyond the stereotypes and straitjackets.

Yes, fewer people read Urdu in its script, but sufficiently larger number of people claim it as their own from both north and south of the Vindhyas. And, no, Indian Muslims have no hegemonic claim over Urdu. There is nothing to link Urdu, emotionally or theologically, with Islam. The namaz is not offered in Urdu, the khutba certainly is in the language best understood by the congregation – be it Malyalam or Telugu or Bangla, or Urdu as the case may be.

Yes, the ‘Hindi’ film industry has done more than any other organisation to ensure Urdu never goes out of our lives, and Urdu words remain in currency. But, then so has ‘Hindi’ publishing. In recent times, more Manto and Faiz are being published in Hindi than in Urdu.

So has the Hadith!

New Owners of Urdu

Online portals such as Rekhta, the brainchild of Sanjiv Saraf, an entrepreneur and Urdu enthusiast, and The Urdu Project run by Astha Gupta, a filmmaker and visual artist, fuel and nurture a growing interest in Urdu among a diverse demographic group.

So do blogs, websites and Facebook posts. Private and entirely self-funded initiatives, such as Mehfil at the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai, Sukhan by Om Bhutkar in Pune, and Indira Varma’s Shaam-e Ghazal running at the India International Centre in Delhi for the last 48 years, bring Urdu to those who can't read or write the script, but are nonetheless interested in its literature.

Organisations like Rekhta bring Urdu to those who can’t read or write the script.
Organisations like Rekhta bring Urdu to those who can’t read or write the script.
(Photo Courtesy: Rekhta)

Frances Pritchett, Emeritus Professor at Columbia University, manages a humongous work-in-progress called 'A Desertful of Roses' and a gargantuan mailing list called, appropriately enough, 'Urdulist' that knits together a biradari of Urdu lovers from across the globe.

Not only is old wine being poured into new bottles, but new wine is distilled for new bottles. Content-driven Urdu programming is attempting to bridge the gap between script and literature.

Save a Part of Urdu in Our Bol – Whose Zubaan is it Anyway?

New age poets such as Nauman Shauq, Kunwar Ranjit Chauhan, Iqbal Ashar are busy writing a new kind of poetry. Fiction writers such as Syed Muhammad Ashraf and Zakia Mashhadi are telling us that nothing is beyond the pale of literature.

The same Wali Dakkani whose grave was demolished and built over in the name of vikas and urban development holds out promise for the future of both, Urdu zuban and tehzeeb when he reminds us:

Save a Part of Urdu in Our Bol – Whose Zubaan is it Anyway?
“The path of new themes is never closed, The gateway of language shall remain open till doomsday.”

(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature)

(We all love to express ourselves, but how often do we do it in our mother tongue? Here's your chance! This Independence Day, khul ke bol with BOL – Love your Bhasha. Sing, write, perform, spew poetry – whatever you like – in your mother tongue. Send us your BOL at or WhatsApp it to 9910181818.)

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