Urdu Literary Culture: the Syncretic Tradition
Theme paper for the Seminar at Azamgarh (Shibli Academy), Nov. 2007

By Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

Of all modern Indian languages, Urdu presents the most complete instance of syncretism. This has been vaguely known, occasionally acknowledged, but rarely discussed in scholarly environments.

Although it is not usually necessary for a language to "explain" or "defend" its national character, political and cultural circumstances have conspired, since the middle of the nineteenth century, to construct a "non-Indian" character for Urdu, so that Urdu may not be allowed to take its rightful place in the comity of languages. As early as 1864, we find Rajinder Lal Mitter bringing the script of Urdu in question, and asserting that the Nagari script was inherently superior to the Urdu script. And if the script was inferior, it followed that the language too was inferior. Later in that century, the Urdu script was reviled as "foreign" and "conducive to fraud." The debate raged stronger during the last years of the nineteenth century, by which time modern Hindi was widely represented as the proper medium for the expression of India (=Hindu) consciousness. The slogan Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani became a rallying cry for the Hindi enthusiasts. This undermined  the position of Urdu by the clear implication: what was not Hindi was not Hindustani (=Indian) either.

Some Muslim authors also muddied the waters around that time by writing as if Urdu was an exclusively Muslim domain and no Hindu, or for that matter, any non-Muslim writer in Urdu, deserved a place in the Urdu canon.

Although this wasn't at all the case, it became a general assumption around the middle of the 20th century that the case for Pakistan was also the case for Urdu: Pakistan was constructed as a "homeland" for the Muslims, and since Urdu was the language of Muslims alone, its proper place was in Pakistan, not in India.

A major reason for the creation of the false identification of Urdu=Muslims was faulty perception of the literary and cultural history of Urdu, and failure to inquire into its early history and nomenclature. For instance, it was widely assumed, and not by the anti-Urdu lobby alone but also by historians and scholars of Urdu, that the word "urdu" means "army," and the language therefore developed through the interaction of "Muslim invading armies" with the local tradespeople. Thus two birds were killed with one stone: Urdu was the outcome of "foreign aggression," and its character was basically "inferior." It was therefore necessarily "gentrified" by imposing upon it a heavy overlay of Arabic and Persian vocabulary.

In point of fact, the word "urdu" doesn't mean "army" in Urdu, or even in Persian. In India, it originally meant "royal court"—a meaning testified to by Dr. John Gilchrist in 1798—or at best it meant the rolling court maintained by Akbar in late sixteenth century, a court that contained in full all the elements of a stationery establishment, including an extensive market. Thus the term began to mean "a camp market." The term "urdu" continued to be applied to the royal court, that is, Shajahanabad, after Shah Jahan established that city as his capital in 1648. In Urdu, the term's first meaning was "the city of Shajahanabad," and then "the language of the exalted  city-court of Shahajahanabad," that is, the language that was then known as "Hindi" or "Rekhta." This meaning couldn't have developed much earlier than the arrival and settlement of Shah Alam II in Delhi in 1771.Around the middle of the eighteenth century, we find Sirajuddin Ali Khan-e Arzu, the great linguist and lexicographer, declaring that Persian  was "the language of the exalted city-court (=urdu) of Shahjahanabad."

Urdu scholars appreciated that the language now called "Urdu,"  during most of its history prior to the last quarter of the eighteenth century, was not called Urdu, but Dihlavi, Hindi, Hindvi, Hindui, Gujri, Dakani, and Rekhta. But they failed to inquire why and how the language obtained the name "Urdu" in preference to all others. They also failed to appreciate that a language all but one of whose ancient names related to a city or a territory in India, or in fact to whole of India—at least North India—could not have evolved in an army interacting with the local tradespeople.

Another failure of Urdu scholars consisted in their not appreciating the simple fact that if the language name "Urdu" dated only to the last quarter of the eighteenth century, it would necessarily have nothing to do with "foreign" military or army matters, for the only foreign armies present at that time in India were European, and no language, far less Urdu, emerged as a result of their interaction with the locals. Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, the lexicographer Sayyid Ahmad Dihlavi estimated that 75% of Urdu vocables were borrowed from Sanskrit, directly or indirectly. This fact should have been enough to bury the theory of Urdu's "military origin." But no one pursued the matter further.

The Urdu-Hindi controversy was given a new twist in the first half of the 20th century by claiming that Urdu was in fact nothing but a style (shaili) of Hindi. This implied that modern Hindi was anterior to Urdu, with the further implication that Urdu was a comparatively late, and perhaps British-inspired, arrival on the Indian linguistic scene. The boot was in fact on the other leg—Modern Hindi was a style (shaili) of Urdu. Suniti Kumar Chatterji, the greatest modern Indian linguist, confirmed this:

Linguistically, it is quite correct to say that Hindi and Urdu are two forms or styles of the same 'Western Hindi Speech'—the Khadi-Boli Hindustani of Delhi. Urdu is not the modified, Muslimised form of what nowaday[s] passes as Hindi, i.e., Sanskritised Khadi Boli. It is rather the other way about: Persianized Hindustani as it developed in the Mogul court circles during the eighteenth century (before that, we find [it] in the Dakni speech of the Deccan...), ...was taken up by the Hindus...they adopted or revived the native Nagari and began to use a highly Sanskritic vocabulary...and thus they created the literary Hindi of today, round about 1800, mainly in Calcutta./1/
Chatterji's view was a newer version of the thesis first advanced by Dr. Tara Chand, to the effect that:
They [the "Hindi" authors at the College of Fort William] found a way out by adopting the language of Mir Amman, [ Sher Ali] Afos, and others by excising Arabic/Persian words from it, replacing them with those of Sanskrit and Hindi [Braj, etc.]. Thus within a space of less than ten years, two new languages...were decked out and presented [before the public] at the behest of the foreigner... Both were look alikes in form and structure, but their faces were turned away from each other...and from that day to this, we are wandering directionless, on two paths./2/
Some Hindi writers accepted the above narratives as true historical accounts of the origin of Modern Khari Boli Hindi,/3/ but their voices were soon forgotten, buried under the rhetoric of the influential group of politicians,  agitationists, and writers whom Alok Rai calls "the Hindi Nationalists."/4/

The late adoption of Khari Boli by what was called "Hindi" under the influence of mainly the College of Fort William and the Christian missionaries of that time, is reflected in the fact that it took a long time for it to develop a proper "literary language." Francesca Orsini is struck by the fact even as late as 1915 in Hindi literature

Poetry was the medium for almost everything: apart from literary enjoyment (rasavadan), verse was the vehicle for religious discourse and controversy, social reform, women's uplift, and political awakening. By contrast, in the case of Urdu, prose fiction was already the medium of public discourse./5/

Urdu scholars remained generally unaware of these socio-literary perspectives. They also seem to have been held in thrall by the Fort William writer Mir Amman Dihlavi's unhistorical remarks in his Bagh o Bahar (1804), where he linked Urdu's origin and development to the advent of Mughal rule and Mughal armies. The most interesting part of Mir Amman's explanation of Urdu's development is his omission to mention the fact that the language which he describes as "the language of urdu" [=the City of Delhi) is known as Hindi. In fact, Mir Amman studiously abstains from naming the language, and his frequent mention of "the language of urdu" was misunderstood by later scholars to mean "the language of Urdu." Urdu scholars were therefore unable to resist or withstand the onslaught of the promoters of 'Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani'; and the spread of misinformation about Urdu's origins and further development as a court language, or as the language of a handful of the urban elite, continues to prevail in many circles even to this day. Although Urdu was never the court language at any Mughal court or any of Mughal subsidiary courts, its phenomenal growth over five centuries throughout the Indian sub-continent is often likely to be dismissed as having come to pass as a result of "court patronage."

The following facts stand out:

(1) Shaikh Baha'uddin Bajan (1388-1506) was the first substantial poet in the language that he called "Hindi" and "Gujri." He was a Gujarati sufi and lover of music, hence the name "Bajan." In each of his short Hindi poems he has specified the particular raga in which the poem is to be sung: he specifies, for instance, Sabahi, Lalit, Bhopali, Bhairaun, Bilawal, and so forth as the ragas appropriate to the poems. He also wrote a longish poem, Jang Nama, depicting a dispute between the sari and the peshwaz (a kind of shalwar), and another dispute between the choli and the tahband. This shows that the Urdu poet was fully steeped in the local culture and his frames of reference were not Iranian or Arabic.

(2) At about the same time as Shaikh Bajan in Gujarat and Burhanpur (1421-1434), we have Fakhr-e Din Nizami, a poet from the Deccan proper who has left a long narrative poem on statecraft, miscegenation, and love. Fully derived from local lore and customs, the poem called Kadam Rao Padam Rao has nothing overtly "Muslim" about it.

(3) Sufis became almost the first users of the new language, because they needed to talk to the common people who were not necessarily conversant with Persian. Hindi/Hinvi/Gujri, on the other hand, had become the most widely understood language in Gujarat. According to Satish Mishra, the language was used:

By the Sultan and his court in Ahmedabad, Arab and Persian traders in the coastal marts..., by  the Sufis and other Muslim preachers, and finally the large mass of immigrants who had come in with Ala'uddin Khalji and his subsequent waves... Thus while Persian was the accepted language for official and formal intercourse, for informal occasions Gujri became the common language./6/
Syncretism was at the very core of Urdu. It was not something added on as an afterthought.

(4) It has been argued by some that Urdu may have begun as a force of syncretism, but a change of course was effected by the poets of Delhi who consciously decided to weed out local (=Indic) elements from the Urdu vocabulary, and thus promoted the adoption of a non-Hindu, if not an anti-Hindu, tone of thought and speech. This argument has no historical base, and is in fact the result of uncritical and tendentious reading of available evidence. More important, if the Muslims struck their own path and left the Hindus to develop their "Hindi language," as Amrit Rai has argued, how is it that notable Hindu names in Urdu literature begin to appear in the eighteenth century at precisely the time when according to Amrit Rai the great Muslim shift occurred? Here are some of the Hindu names prominent in the Urdu literature in the second half of the eighteenth century:

Hari Har Parshad Sambhali, historian, fl. 1730-1750
Aftab Rai Ruswa, poet, d. 1747
Brindaban Das Mathravi, historian, d. 1757
Raja RamNarain Mauzun, poet, d. 1763
Maharaja Shitab Rai, poet, d. 1773
Sarb Sukh Divanah, poet, 1727?-1788/89
Budh Singh Qalandar, poet, Nanak Panthi Sufi, d. 1780's
Tirambak Das Zarrah, poet, d. 1785
Kanji Mal Saba, poet, fl. 1780's
Balmukund Huzur, poet, fl. 1770-1790
Lachhmi Narain Shafiq Aurangabadi, poet 1745-1808
Raja Kishan Das Raja, poet, 1782-1823
All these writers were bilingual in Persian and Urdu, like hundreds of others. Some of them wrote in both Persian and Urdu, and would have been exclusively Persian writers but for the strong pull that Hindi (=Urdu) exercised on them, and they were not in or from  Delhi alone. There were many more like them, I mention only a few; and by the nineteenth century it was virtually a flood of non-Muslims, and not Hindus alone, who were writing in Hindi (=Urdu). A biographical dictionary (tazkirah) of poets active in Allahabad, compiled in 1831, records the names of seventy poets, of whom a round dozen are Hindu.

(5) Needless to say, since Urdu's literary forms and conventions were mostly borrowed from Persian, Urdu's literary language leans heavily on Persian. But this is no more than what can be said about English literature: almost its classical forms and classical conventions, all its mythological idiom and metaphor, all its metres are directly borrowed from Greek, Latin, and Italian. This does not make English literature  less English. The same is true of Urdu. In spite of its heavy borrowing from Persian, the thought processes, the worldview, the vision, reflected in the Persian poetry produced in India is practically incomprehensible and even unpleasant to the Iranian mind. If such is the case of Indian Persian, one can imagine how far from its Iranian sources Urdu poetry would be. It is by no means Iranian, far less Arabic poetry. It is exclusively Indian.

(6) Non-Persian and exclusively local themes, allusions, idioms and proverbs are not by any means scarce in Urdu. Urdu poets, even up to the modern times, wrote on or used Hindu themes and religious experience as freely as they would use Persian themes, images, and Muslim religious experience. The examples of Hasrat Mohani (1875-1951) and Swami Marehravi (1892-1960) come readily  to mind. Swami Marehravi was most notable for his use of Braj words and idioms and themes, to the exclusion of Iranian or other local Indian sources.

(7) The seventeenth century saw the rise of what can best be described as "folk poetry" in Urdu with Muhammad Afzal's Bikat Kahani (1625), a barah-masa type of poem whose language is a free mixture of Urdu and Persian. Much of the satirical writing of Jafar Zatalli (1658-1713) has strong a folky flavour, but the marsiya poems which were being written in the South in the mainline Dakani register of the language acquired a much more folky character and metres in the North, especially from toward the end of the seventeenth century. The same is true of the jang nama poems: semi-Muslim-religious in character, they were written in a lower key of the language everywhere from Gujarat to the northern part of the country. All these folk-style poems were imitated and developed in folk songs for specific occasions: births, deaths, departures, marriages, seasons, so forth. These folk songs are not confined to the North alone. Maimuna Dalvi has compiled a voluminous compendium of Urdu folk songs from the Konkan area.

(8) Urdu has a rich tradition of translations from non-Muslim religious texts of all descriptions. Shrimad Bhagwat Gita is a case in point, of which there at least fifty translations extant in Urdu. One of the remarkable recent translations is by the Pakistani poet and scholar Shanul Haq Haqqi (1917-2005) who translated from the original Sanskrit into Urdu verse with remarkable felicity./7/ Pandit Habibur Rahman Shastri translated substantial portions of the Upanishads and the Dhammapada  in recent times.  Even closer to our times, the Hyderabadi scholar Sayyid Hasan Askari published a translation of the Upanishads with commentary (2002). Tota Ram Shayan (d.1880) produced an extremely competent translation of the Mahabharata in verse; based on a Persian abridgement and the original Sanskrit, it still covers 330 large-size pages, each page containing four densely written columns./8/ More than a century  earlier, the Tamil Sufi saint Shah Turab Khata'i (b.1688, fl.1730-50), born in modern Tamil Nadu, settled in Tanjore, and devoted himself to literary and sufistic pursuits. Around 1745, he translated into Hindi (=Urdu) the Manachay Sloka,  a classic of Marathi bhakti poetry by Ramdas. From the mid-nineteenth century began a new age of translations from English and other European languages, and it was not just poetry or fiction, but also hard sciences that were translated. Thus proper translations, not just adaptations, began in Urdu literary culture in the middle of the eighteenth century, and continue to be one of its glories to this day.

(9) Urdu is the only modern Indian language to whose literature people of all religions and all literate communities have made substantial contribution: Hindus of all persuasions, Muslims of all sects, Roman Catholics, Protestants, members of other Christian denominations, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, all have drunk from its well and all have poured their ambrosia in it. Urdu is the only truly nationally integrated language. As testified to by John Gilchrist (1796) and nearly a century later by Yule and Burnell in their Hobson Jobson (1886), it was spoken all over the country and continued to be so spoken until well into the twentieth century. It was only from the first half of the twentieth century that it fell on evil days, and it is the duty of all Indians to rehabilitate it in the national consciousness as a treasure worthy of our great country.

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/1/ Suniti Kumar Chatterji, India, A Polyglot Nation, and its Linguistic problems vis a vis National Integration, Mumbai, Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Research Centre, 1973, pp 50-54.

/2/ Tara Chand, in Hindustani, a collection of  Urdu talks broadcast from All India Radio, Delhi, in 1939 and published by the Maktaba Jami'a, New Delhi, n.d. (circa 1940 ), pp. 11-12.

/3/  See, for instance, the views of  Ayodhya Prasad Khatri, Dhirendra Verma, Vishwa Nath Prasad Mishra and some others as discussed by Mirza Khaliq Ahmad Beg in his Ek Bhasha...Jo Mustarad Kar Di Ga'i (A Language That Was Rejected), Aligarh, Educational Book House, 2007, pp. 35-53.

/4/ Alok Rai, Hindi Nationalism, Delhi, Orient Longman, 2002.

/5/ Francesca Orsini, The Hindi Public Sphere, 1920-1940, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 74.

/6/ Satish Mishra, in his English Introduction to Abbas Ali's poem Qissah-e Ghamgin (Tale of Sorrow), 1779; Baroda, M. S. University, 1975, pp. 21-22.

/7/ Bhagwad Gita, translated from the Sanskrit by Shanul Haq Haqqi, New Delhi, Anjuman Taraqqi-e Hind, 1994.

/8/ Tota Ram Shayan, Mahabaharat Manzum, Lucknow, Naval Kishor Press, 6th reprint, Sept. 1905.

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