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At the Annual Conference on South Asia held at the University of Wisconsin, a highlight for Urduwallahs used to be the panel on literature from the Progressive Writer’s Movement, with presenters delighting the audience with impeccable poetry recitations and concurrent English translations. The last panel in this tradition must have been close to 10 years ago; scattered papers on the Urdu milieu continue to be presented and exclusive panels on Urdu literature have a wide range.

This year I organised a full-day preconference on literary history and, cue Ralph Russell, called it ‘How (Not) to Write the History of Urdu Literature’.

Urdu literature’s history has no continuous narrative of development as Muhammad Hussain Azad would want us to believe. In the subcontinent, writing in multiple languages was common practice. Regional language(s) often determined the preferred register of poets. We need to investigate, identify and unpack adjacent readings of literary genres before the divide of Hindi and Urdu that developed in the 19th century.

An important subject of inquiry is the multisided history of Rekhta. Purnima Dhavan’s (University of Washington) paper ‘A Prehistory of Rekhta: A View from Mughal Provincial Networks’ introduced the Rekhta of Shah Murad — a 16th century Sufi from Chakwal — which is distinct from his other poems in which vernacular Punjabi verses are layered with Persian verses in the same composition. This early production of Rekhta does not fall within the timeline of its development in north India as commonly perceived. The multi-lingual, register-shifting dexterity of poets nestled in close embrace with regional languages has to be seen in its multiple regional contexts, representing what is essentially the grassroots linguistic reality of a multivalent literary production, debunking presuppositions regarding unilineal literary history.

Peter Knapczyk (University of North Carolina) drew attention to ‘The Forgotten History of Urdu Marsiya and its “Inept” Poets’. Khalifah Muhammad Ali Sikandar was a marsiya poet who composed in Khari Boli Urdu, Purbi and Punjabi in the late 18th century. Fazl Ali Fazli rendered the Rauzatush Shuhada [Mausoleum of Martyrs] from Persian into Hindi/Hindvi to communicate better with the audience. The linguistic style of Fazli’s Karbala Katha exemplifies a situation where only the elite could follow literary Persian, while the general audience was more comfortable with Hindi/Hindvi. It seems likely that Sikandar, too, wrote in a Purbi style to effectively communicate with the audience, suggesting again that the poet’s sense of how literary reception works not only influences literary production, but constitutes prima facie against unilineal historiography.

“Sar pit ke Zainab rovat hai ab tut gayi man ki aasha/ Kaho kaise mo ko chain parray biran ka halaq kata pyasa/ Ghar bar luta aur des chhuta koi mit nahin moray paasa/ Chal basiye Zainab va nigari jahan bir Hussain kiyo basa” [Zainab beats her head and cries, my hopes are shattered/ Tell me how would I have peace when my loved ones’ thirsty throats were slit/ My household destroyed, in a strange land with no friends/ Zainab, come let us go live in the city where Hussain has his abode] — this example shows how the flavour of Purbi can be contrasted with a verse in stately Urdu by the same poet.

Nathan Tabor (Western Michigan University) discussed Persian-educated literati composing in Rekhta as they critiqued each other’s Persian and staged gathering spaces or mushairas. There are intriguing social implications for how period Persian-educated literati understood the Rekhta/Persian distinction, especially if literary historians examine literature as they understood it: poetry was a commodity. Persian-educated elites of the 18th century set the terms of exchange on proper deployment of theme, metre, and comportment. These arenas translated into authority for members of late Mughal society. Divans and tazkirahs are examples of humorous, technically challenging and competitive verse that can help explain the day-to-day contestation over linguistic exchange and literary production within the recitational setting of the mushaira.

Bilal Hashmi (New York University) drew attention to the sudden fashion among early 20th century Urdu critics of writing about 19th century French poetry. Meeraji, Muhammad Hasan Askari and Sajjad Zaheer engaged with the works of the Decadents and Symbolists as a sounding board to debate on the anxieties around the nature of poetry and the poet’s role in society.

Walter Hakala (University at Buffalo) traced Urdu in the domain of inscriptions; Fauzia Farooqui (Princeton University) talked of Urdu literary terminology’s variance with English. Pasha Khan (McGill University) focused on the prestige and importance of Urdu storytellers (daastaango) in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Andrew Amstutz (Cornell University) and Jennifer Dubrow (University of Washington) engaged with aspects of the modern in Urdu. Gregory Maxwell Bruce (Berkeley University) and the legendary Frances Pritchett offered remarks. Over three days, papers and panels such as ‘Religion, Politics and Literature in Modern South Asia’, ‘Senses of the Lyric in South Asia: Sanskrit, Braj, Tamil and Urdu’ and ‘Representations of Voice in Urdu Literature’ featured a potpourri of fresh, invigorating scholarship.

This upswing of interest made me think of the situation in South Asian universities. Learning Urdu doesn’t seem to be a priority, but flocking to ghazal mehfils, daastaangoi performances or Urdu festivals appears to be a conspicuous trend. Audiences relish the temporary ambience produced by evoking nostalgia for the poetry, the daastaans, music and so on. Are we only consumers of the cultural package being sold at these venues, or is there a deeper awareness of the past and a desire to reconnect? At least some educated urbanites seek to connect with and publicly recognise a composite culture that has taken centuries to develop and mature, and which must remain strong and in public view when the polity is facing the promotion of nativist and atavist political propaganda. However ephemeral the surge may be, there is hope that it will provide a better understanding of what it means to be multilingual in a literary space.

The columnist is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 26th, 2017