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COLUMN: LITERARY HISTORY: DO WE NEED IT?

September 10, 2017

History is temporal. The historical model tends to build walls between eras, creating boxes of time. Literary texts aren’t good examples of history; they transcend time. How do we think about literary history? Is its shape horizontal or vertical? Can we do justice to history and literature simultaneously? These questions are especially important in the context of Hindi and Urdu. Their history, impacted by colonialism, nationalist agendas and the teleology of nation-thinking, is so entangled that it is nearly impossible to separate the threads.

When Persian entered the language terrain of the subcontinent, boundaries were fluid. The Turkish sultans of the Delhi Sultanate promoted a free interchange between the local/regional language and Persian for their official records. Perso-Arabic script was used by Sufis for inscribing masnavis composed in the Awadhi language. Then Delhi speech made its way into Gujarat and the Deccan as the Sultanate spread under Alauddin Khilji and Muhammad Tughlaq. Persian became the language of empire under the Mughals, producing an indigenous community of non-Muslims who excelled in the language. Dictionaries were compiled to help learners of the language. Dictionaries enabled Indian words to be absorbed into mainstream Persian. At the same time, Iranian literati at the courts made efforts to weed out Indic words and assert the superiority of the native Persian.

In the 17th century, Rekhtah, an artful combination of several languages — Hindi/Hindvi, Persian, Braj Bhasha and Awadhi — emerged in north India. A mixed language had already emerged in the Deccan’s regional courts and was being put to literary use. Fakhruddin Nizami’s masnavi, Kadam Rao Padam Rao, written in the 1420s, hybridises Telugu with Deccani. Muhammad Afzal’s Bikat Kahani, a barahmasa style long poem written in the 1600s, is a classic example of Rekhtah. Afzal alternates between Persian and Hindi/Hindvi in an array of styles. But it was Wali Aurangabadi who seamlessly knit Persian and Deccani to produce poetry that rivalled pure Persian. His Divan took Delhi by storm. Many poets were influenced by its sweetness. Poets of Braj were drawn to it, too. Nagari Das incorporated tropes from Rekhtah into Braj. His mixed vocabulary produced charming poetry.

The Delhi poets embraced Rekhtah, but with reservations. They preferred Persianised vocabulary to Braj and other Indic lexis. While Mir Taqi Mir elevated everyday speech by composing poetry of great depth and beauty, others such as Shah Hatim believed in pulling away from common speech towards a ‘pure’ vocabulary. Ghalib did not emulate Mir, but looked up to Persian for linguistic sustenance. Ghalib’s highly Persianised, abstracted poetry went over the heads of mushaira audiences. His friends advised him to avoid abstruse vocabulary and exaggerated metaphors, but he continued to do so. Ghalib wanted to reach audiences beyond mushairas. Nonetheless, in spite of a long history of excellent Persian writing from the Indian subcontinent, Persian remained a foreign language and went into decline when patronage dwindled.

The process of purification and modernisation of languages seems to go hand in hand. Altaf Hussain Hali and Muhammad Hussain Azad’s sparkling Urdu has a spattering of English. Saiyyed Ahmed Khan’s Urdu prose is lucid, but unadorned. ‘Standardising’ Indic languages, and shifting from classical to vernacular in education, led to far-reaching changes in the literary, social and political domain of these languages. Urdu splintered from its Indian identity and became associated with ‘Muslim’. The common name ‘Hindustani’ faded, as naming became a political battle in the 1930s. Urdu and Hindi grew apart. Literary identity and national identity began to converge. Munshi Premchand’s writings are exemplary in this regard. He switched from Urdu to Hindi for economic and political reasons, then urged for the acceptance of Hindi as the national language. He had no qualms about the future of other regional languages. Maulvi Abdul Haq abandoned his projects that had anything to do with Hindi. Language debates drew ire at the meetings of the Indian National Congress.

Literary history posits a continuity. It tends to overlook, or smooth over, disjunctive realities. There is no continuous narrative of development in Urdu literature as Azad would want us to believe. The tazkirah, a style of recording literary production, was not anchored in time. Tazkirahs were organised alphabetically as a dictionary of poets with brief biographical notes and a whimsical sample of work. When the tazkirah gave way to literary history, it also succumbed to a colonial, oriental logic. Literary histories were tempered by a so-called modern approach to critiquing literature. Time, dates, periodisation became important.

Linearity, chronology was imposed. Acharya Ramchandra Shukla’s Hindi Sahitya ka Itihas, a first history of Hindi literature, demarcated literary production into kals [periods]. According to Shukla, the modern period, adhunik kal, is marked by the beginning of modern Hindi prose. But how can these periodic boxes represent the overlaps and the shared, horizontal spaces between Urdu, Hindi and other related languages? Shukla’s history appropriates the history or pre-history of the related languages into Hindi. Generally speaking, literary histories fail to take into account the mindset of the periods they demarcate. They are not concerned with the reception of the literature, its shape, geography or culture. They ignore the processes of assimilation in the service of a teleology-based unified history.

Is the Urdu-Hindi literary history a project worth recovering, tweaking and reformulating? Are the discrepancies resolvable? A multi-sided history that follows one or two subjects through time might be an answer. Different forms of chronology could be tried. Maybe adjacent readings of the histories of Urdu and Hindi could clear away the cobwebs. Perhaps a focus on lesser known moments in literary history that bring out the adjacencies? Collaborative work done with a passion to bring out relevant sources might produce results.

We just passed a milestone. Seventy years since decolonisation, independence followed by Partition. We’ve been busy writing histories and alternative histories. It’s time to read Urdu and Hindi together.

The columnist is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia, currently writing a commentary on Ghalib’s mustarad kalam

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 10th, 2017