Urdu Fest Puts Jeddah on Literary Map


By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Wednesday, June 11, 2008

For those who believed Urdu would die a natural death in India, this week's World Urdu Conference and grand mushaira must have come as a pleasant surprise. Not only is Urdu alive and flourishing in India but it has also found new fields in Jeddah, Riyadh, New York, Chicago and even Oslo.

Organized by the Hyderabad-based Maulana Azad National Urdu University and the Consulate General of India in Jeddah, the first Urdu literary festival brought together some of the best writers, academics, critics, poets and journalists in today's Urdu world. These included Gopi Chand Narang, Chandra Bhan Khayal, Ziauddin Shakeb, Shamim Hanafi, Taqi Ali Abidi, A.M. Pathan, K.R. Iqbal Ahmed, Zahid Ali Khan, Zafar Ali Naqvi, Abdul Wahab Qaiser, Basir Ahmed Khan, Hisam-ul-Islam Siddiqui and Masoom Moradabadi.

Narang's literary credentials are impeccable but his oratorical skills left everybody speechless. "He is a living legend, a giant among all Urdu critics and when he speaks, he speaks flawless Urdu," said the Indian Consul General Ausaf Sayeed. "His presence here in Saudi Arabia is proof of the fact that Urdu has come to stay in Jeddah."

Narang spoke on three occasions during the two-day conference and each time it was a treat to listen. "Urdu is a functional language," he said. "And functional languages do not die. Despite all the step-motherly treatment, Urdu has stood the test of time. Its past was glorious, its present is safe and its future assured," he said. "Yes, Urdu has been a victim of politics, but the fact that I am addressing you here in Jeddah explains it all. I have just come from New York where Urdu is also making waves. A lot is happening in Canada as well. Urdu is unstoppable precisely because this is the language that quenches society's cultural thirst. It makes an individual's cultural identity stand out," he said.

He paid glowing tributes to Maulana Azad National Urdu University Vice Chancellor A.M. Pathan who is playing a crucial role in promoting Urdu in India. "Here is a man who is a brilliant scientist. But since he took over the reins of this university, he has forgotten his science. The only thing that bothers him now is: Urdu, Urdu, Urdu. This is the magic of the language. You fall in love with it. It has that attraction. It has that freshness. There was a time in a not very distant past when there were only a couple of students at the Maulana Azad University. Today, there are more than 150,000 students studying various aspects of Urdu. This is phenomenal," said Narang.

Narang talked about the late 1940s when Urdu was eyed with suspicion. "When I enrolled for a degree in Urdu literature in Delhi, my own parents were upset with me," he said. "That was a horrible period. People would say, 'Urdu has gone to Pakistan.' I persisted and today this is the language that gave me everything. I am known because of this language. There is so much that is being done in Urdu that one need not be pessimistic at all."

Narang's views were seconded by Ziauddin Shakeb, the UK-based scholar and teacher of Urdu. Shakeb felt importance should be given to teaching Urdu at the primary level. "We should provide students with the basics of the language and then they will automatically read Ghalib and Mir. Our primary focus should be children. Unfortunately, all steps in the past to promote Urdu have been focused on secondary-level students," he said. "This is a mistake and will take us nowhere."

Shakeb lamented the fact that nobody was writing for children these days. "All important writers and poets in the past also wrote for children. Now that is not the case. In fact, today's writers have no target audience," he said, and referred to a recent seminar in which Urdu writers and poets acknowledged that they were composing their lines for themselves. They said they were writing for themselves. "In which case, they are writing soliloquies," he said.

Shakeb threw some interesting light on the debate about the controversy surrounding Urdu script. "Increasingly the young generation is writing Urdu in Roman script, especially on the web, in e-mails and in Internet chat rooms. You can't stop them, can you? There was a belief earlier that the language would lose its identity if people stopped writing in the original script. I think it is becoming increasingly popular. You cannot stop people from reading Urdu in the format they want. The puritans may say whatever they want to say. In India, Urdu books are simultaneously published in Urdu script and Devnagiri script. This has led to a larger readership so what is the harm?"

Taqi Ali Abidi, the well-known Urdu scholar from Canada, disagreed. "Our script is non-negotiable. I am aware of the fact some of our best writers have advocated a change of script, but I think that would be a nail in the coffin of Urdu. We shall not, and should not, compromise on our script. The script is the soul of the language and its identity. If you erase your identity, then there is not much left to it. This will make the task of those who want to merge Urdu with other languages easier. We should not fall into this trap," he said. Abidi suggested that pioneering work should be done to make technology available so that computers would be compatible with the vagaries of Urdu script.

Ausaf Sayeed, who himself runs a website in Urdu, pointed out in his presentation the work that is being done about Urdu in the world of technology. "There are a number of programs available on the Internet such as Nastaliq and InPage. There is a dire need to popularize them and to make them even more efficient and easily available."

A.M. Pathan, the Maulana Azad University vice chancellor, said his focus at the university had been to link Urdu with employment. "The biggest barrier we encountered initially was that those who learned the language felt — and rightly so — that it had no economic utility. Our primary task therefore was to introduce technical courses in Urdu. That changed the scenario dramatically. The other area that we want to focus on is translation.”

The Urdu literary festival, which was preceded by a grand mushaira, was quite a success and the outgoing consul general came in for effusive praise. "Promoting Urdu is out of the domain of diplomats but because Sayeed comes from a literary family, he has made this into a successful event," said journalist Masoom Moradabadi.

Sayeed acknowledged the difficulties. "Getting the permission, bringing the university on board, making preparations and arranging accommodation were the most challenging tasks. But I am happy that all went well and Jeddah has now become one of the most important centers of Urdu outside India."

Local writers who turned up in large number for the conference were delighted beyond words. "It is not every day that you get to meet a legendary figure such as Narang. He was fabulous," said Jeddah-based writer Aleem Khan Falaki. "Thanks to the conference, we are now pretty well-informed about what is happening in the Urdu world," he added.

For Dammam-based writer Nayeem Javed, the biggest achievement of this conference was the coming together of so many literary greats. "We have had 'mushairas' in the Kingdom for a long time. We have never had a conference of this importance. To have Narang, Shameem Hanafi, Chandra Bhan Khayal and Ziauddin Shakeb on one stage.... My God, that was spectacular. I doubt if we will ever have such a conference again in Jeddah."

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