Learn from Karim Khan’s notes
URDU and Hindi have been the most disruptive languages for South Asia. Urdu, for completely spurious reasons, was declared the national language of Pakistan. Hindi was wrongly but aggressively foisted as the main language of a Unitarian Indian state.
The conception of Urdu as a linguistic attribute of South Asian Muslims — the reason for its embrace by Pakistan — would be laughable had it not led to a tragic denouement for the country. The creation of Bangladesh questioned the axiom.
Several linguistic groups within Pakistan and many more Muslim clusters in India mock the primacy accorded to Urdu because of a communally enforced error. Likewise, none except a section of the mostly upper caste elite in India speaks Hindi. They condescend to assert that Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Brajbhasha, etc are dialects of Hindi.
The fact is that a speaker of one can’t understand the other. Let Mr Lal Kishan Advani summarise the Bhojpuri news telecast on the Mahua TV channel. He would pine for visitors from Pakistan’s Sindh province to give him some badly needed comfort.
(The late K.R. Malkani, another rightwing ideologue from Sindh, believed in the waning ideology of Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan. He asked me to write an Urdu verse, which he liked and wanted to publish in his party organ. I scribbled the lines in Devnaagri, the common script for Hindi, which he confessed he couldn’t read. So I dictated the verse in Urdu for an ardent advocate of Hindi!)
It has been strongly suggested that Hindi and Urdu are in fact the same language with different scripts. There is no evidence to support the suggestion. Moreover, the way they have evolved belies the claim. One has become Persianised, the other Sanskritised.
Asankhya kirti rashmiya’n vikirn divya daah si, saput matra bhumi ke ruko na shur saahasi! How many members of the Indian parliament or even the ultra-patriotic NRIs can absorb Jai Shankar Prasad’s exhortation to nation-building?
Loo’n waam bakhte khufta se ik khwaab e khushwale, lekin ye khauf hai ki kahaa’n se adaa karoo’n! How many popularly elected members in Pakistan’s National Assembly can explain Ghalib’s sorrow at his inability to dream dreams? It’s difficult.
The imposition of any culture on another group has parallels with the Taliban. The Taliban believe, for example, that their shalwar kurtawith a turban is a divine dress code. Arab, Malayaali and Indonesian Muslims among others would strongly disagree. The entire controversy in Pakistan about the sari is rooted in ethnic and religious bigotry. Indian bigots harass women who wear jeans and lipstick.
Similarly, imposing a language is an expression of cultural zealotry. In India, Maharashtra was created as a linguistic state like Gujarat and several other South Indian provinces. Migrant workers in Mumbai though speak their respective languages. Hindi-Urdu cinema has enabled millions to understand the language. These may include Tamil, Punjabi, Gujarati, etc.
Members of Raj Thackeray’s Marathi-chauvinist party attacked Maharashtra assembly member Abu Azmi for taking his legislator’s oath in Hindi. (It was probably in Urdu though.) The constitution of India allows elected legislators to address their state assembly in Hindi and English, which are flaunted as national languages. But the fact is that Hindi (in Azmi’s case, Urdu) is essentially an imposition through a constitutional fiat and doesn’t have a popular sanctity outside the artificial arrangement.
In any case Marathi is by far the richer language than Hindi. Marathi theatre and literature, its natya sangeet, bhaav geet or koli geet of the fisher folk have few challengers and Hindi is not one of them. Also, be it classical Hindustani music or folk nautanki theatre, their language is Brajbhasha or Awadhi, not Hindi. Little remains of Hindi if we delete Kabir, Surdas, Raskhan, Meera, Tulsidas, Rahim and so on.
They wrote in languages which are today called dialects. This sounds like nonsense. Ghuturun chalat renu tanu mandit mukh dadhi lape kiye. Is this Hindi? If so, how many so-called Hindi-speakers will know the meaning?
The great blind poet Surdas just described those lines Lord Krishna’s childhood. The language was ornate Brajbhasha, spoken around Mathura. Would Surdas understand the following description by Tulsidas of Lord Ram’s childhood in chaste Awadhi? Kilaki kilaki uthat dhaaya. Girat bhoomi latapataay. Dhaay maat gode lete, Dasharath kee raniya. D.V.Paluskar made this verse about toddler Ram and his doting mother quite popular, but it is not in Hindi. It is in Awadhi, a language that a Hindi-knower can understand with great difficulty, if at all.
Abu Azmi deliberately spoke in Hindi/Urdu because it would help him polarise his Mumbai constituency comprising migrant workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In doing so he was poking an unpredictable beast in the eye. He dare not try the stunt in Tamil Nadu or any other linguistically sensitive state.
Mr Azmi should realise that Marathi is not just a rich language. In fact, because of the sway that Maratha power held over vast tracts of India, it is best equipped to be the national language, any day a better idea than All India Radio-style Hindi.
This is not to deny that Raj Thackeray and his uncle Bal Thackeray represent India’s fascist tendencies. Their politics is based on spewing hatred of the ‘other’, be it Muslims or migrant workers from Bihar. At one time the Shiv Sena, which they had led together, spread hatred of Brahmins, South Indians and Christians among others.
The Congress party set up the group in the 1960s to crush Mumbai’s powerful trade unions with lumpen street power. Indeed, leaders like Bal Thackeray and Narendra Modi are used by India’s big corporates and multinational companies to split industrial workers communally, which then impairs their bargaining power. Like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in Punjab, shored up by the Congress as a foil to the Akalis, the Shiv Sena may have become a veritable Frankenstein’s monster.
Abu Azmi’s needlessly provocative antics might fetch him extra votes or perhaps a seat in parliament. But it could seriously harm the fragile cultural bouquet of Mumbai. If he likes, there is another way of claiming popularity, not only in Mumbai but anywhere in India.
Let’s call it Abdul Karim Khan’s way. Like Azmi, Khan Sahib was a devout Muslim migrant who came to the Marathi-speaking court of Baroda as a musician from Kirana in Punjab.
Karim Khan expounded a style of singing which is embraced today by hundreds of talented Maharashtrian singers. Not only that, he composed and sang songs for Marathi theatre in Marathi language, which he learnt with considerable diligence. When he went to meet Carnatic musicians in South India, he picked up something from there too. The legendary Balasaraswathi’s mother taught him to sing Raag Kharaharpriya. There’s a moving record of it still available.
Mr Azmi should try to take a leaf from the notes of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. This Hindi-Urdu chauvinism is just that. Eject it.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.