In my previous column, I had mentioned that the dozen or so Urdu poets we remember today as the masters of the language, through our exposure to their excerpts in textbooks, do not provide a true picture of the length and breadth of Urdu’s poetic canon. A much larger group of poets, acknowledged as masters by their learned contemporaries, remain in obscurity, even though their work should be recognised as part of our canon, and reintroduced to bring it wider exposure.

A similar case can be made for the works of Urdu classical prose, first written from the oral tradition in the 18th and 19th centuries, or originally composed during the same period.

I also suggested that the best way to build engagement with this corpus is through involving the single largest body of scholars in society: schoolchildren. Having written for children in both English and Urdu, and worked with them over 12 years as a storyteller, I feel no doubt that, given the tools to study a text, children can study quite complex texts.

And while they may lack the lived experience to appreciate the nuances and layers of meaning encountered in literary language, just the exposure to literary language and structures of verse and prose increases their linguistic ability, making them advanced users of the language over a short time.

The vehicle I had hinted at, one which could be easily linked to the extracurricular life of young scholars, is the institution of bait-bazi (verse-play). It starts with one player narrating a she’r (couplet). The opponent must reply with another couplet that begins with the last letter of the couplet used by the first player. And on and on it goes until someone is unable to answer.

Some readers of this column would recall old PTV shows, such as Neelam Ghar, that regularly featured bait-bazi. In the last few years, the activity has again attracted popular attention, with popular TV shows featuring bait-bazi competitions. The Iqbal Academy recently held a bait-bazi competition based on Allama Iqbal’s poetry.

Another vehicle is spelling bee competitions. They generate great excitement among children and, if a spelling bee programme can use a language’s literary corpus to build a graded vocabulary, alongside curating difficult-to-spell words, it could offer a great entry way to literary studies.

In the proposed model described below, a different strategy is employed for works of verse and prose, because prose classics require a greater degree of involved work in the preparation of age-appropriate editions.

The Custodianship System: Classical Verse

The custodianship system designates literary custodians at three stages of academic studies: middle school, secondary school, and higher secondary school. In Year 1 of the programme, grade six students will receive the custodianship of a work of classical verse, with the meanings of all the difficult words provided in an accompanying glossary, along with biographical information about the author.

For the next three years, until the students finish middle school, they will be encouraged to use the work to participate in bait-bazi competitions, study the life of the poet and write a story about him or her based on the autobiographical information provided, and practise the vocabulary used in the work through spelling bee competitions. The programme can be made more challenging with the study of synonyms and antonyms.

In year four of the programme, when they have progressed to grade nine, the students will receive the custodianship of another work of literary verse, to study for two years, using multiple immersion activities described above to familiarise themselves with the work and the author. An advanced layer can be added to the programme for high school, with the study of the idioms used in the text.

In year six of the programme the students will receive the custodianship of a third work of classical verse, and the study of proverbs will be added to the programme. By the end of their college studies, the first batch of students would have studied and intimately familiarised themselves with three works of classical literary verse over seven years.

The level of language acquisition may not be the same for all students, because of the voluntary nature of the programme, but the competitive element involved would involve a large number of students, with a very significant impact.

The Custodianship System: Classical Prose

A similar custodianship system is proposed for works of classical prose. Many of these stories can be adapted as picture books, which can be introduced as early as grade three. The picture book would strip the complex text into a simple storyline and characters who propel the plot.

And as children typically read picture books over and over again, the plot and characters would easily become ingrained in their minds. Each year, from grade three to five, the first batch of students will study three picture books.

At the start of middle school, the same three stories studied as picture books will be presented in textually complex versions as chapter books. Layers of plot and characters left out from picture books because of the demand of a picture book’s simple, fast-paced narrative can be introduced in the chapter book versions of the text. Already familiar with the basic plot and characters through the picture book version, students will have much to explore and discover in these chapter books.

During the secondary school and college years, fully annotated versions of the original texts of the same texts will be introduced to the students, who by that time would be intimately familiar with the characters and plot, and will have a much smaller challenge studying these texts. Those who may question this model should understand that O and A level students in Pakistan study Shakespeare through annotated editions.

Literature is the foundation of all education. Using the above model, where each batch of students study three works of classical prose and six of classical verse, we can simultaneously create a custodianship model for our literary heritage, and popularise it through the vehicle of spelling competitions and bait-bazi, to develop a model of literary education that could be widely participated in by schoolchildren, outside the limitations of language curricula and prescribed textbooks.

The columnist is a novelist, author and translator.

He can be reached on X: microMAF or via his website: micromaf.com

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 24th, 2024

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