Urdu in the Pre-modern Period: Synthesis or Particularism? by C M Naim

Urdu in the Pre-modern Period:
Synthesis or Particularism?

Published from Prof. C M Naim’s
Ambiguities of Heritage: Fictions and Polemics.
Karachi: City Press, 1999. 213 pp. ISBN 969-8380-19-1.

Urdu is commonly described as the finest product of the so-called ganga-jamni culture/1/ that developed after the establishment of Muslim rule in North India. A typical example of this sentiment is the recent comment by Professor Muhammad Hasan of the Jawaharlal Nehru University: “Urdu literature is the by-product of a cultural synthesis.”/2/ There is, however, an opposite view, as expressed by Professor Aziz Ahmad of the University of Toronto. He argues that “only in a larger sense can [Urdu] be called a language which developed as a synthesis of Hindu and Muslim cultures in India; it developed rather as a means of contact between two mutually exclusive cultrues.”/3/ I tend to agree with the latter view, adding that the use of Urdu actually provided a very limited number of points of contact, which declined with the rise of Hindu self-consciousness and nationalism in North India in the nineteenth century. More importantly, throughout the pre-modern period, i.e. up to the middle of the nineteenth century, all major developments in Urdu language and literature exemplify a dominant contrary theme, namely a trend to discourage synthesis and encourage exclusiveness and particularism. This paper will attempt to delineate the details of that trend, which continued, albeit with increasingly reduced effectiveness, into the modern period.

What is now called Urdu has the grammatical structure of the Khari Boli (shared with modern Hindi), is written in a variant of the Perso-Arabic script, and borrows its learned vocabulary from Persian and Arabic. The last two factors distinguish it from Hindi, which is written in the Devanagari script and borrows its accoutrement of learning from Sanskrit. However, a closer look, keeping in view the history of Urdu literature as it is generally taught now, shows that more than the script it is the third factor that seems to be the decisive one. For example, whereas the literature written in the Deccan (South India) in the so-called dakini variety of Urdu’s literary tradition is considered a genuine predecessor to the main body of literature in Standard Urdu, the Prem Margi love narratives of Avadhi — e.g. Jaisi’s Padmavat — are given scant attention in any discussion of Urdu’s literary heritage, notwithstanding the fact that the earliest manuscripts are also in a Perso-Arabic script./4/ The operative argument is the closer affinity of the dakini verses to Perso-Arabic literary tradition with respect to both the meters and the genres. It seems that in attempting to define Urdu, we cannot restrict ourselves to purely linguistic constituents; we must bring in supra-linguistic factors, the chief being the matter of a closer affinity to the Perso-Arabic learned traditions simultaneous with a disaffection for what may be Indian and vernacular.

Take the name Urdu itself. It was not the earliest name of the language; the earlier ones being hindawi, hindi, dehlawi, and rekhta. The world Urdu, in fact, seems to be an abbreviation of a longer phrase: zubaan-e-Urdu-e-mu’alla, “the language of the exalted camp,” i.e. the language of the area in the immediate vicinity of the Red Fort in Delhi that was populated by the elite and nobility of the Mughal Court and their dependents from the time of Shah Jahan. In contrast with that, the next common term, rekhta, has humbler associations; it merely means “mixed; fallen.” Similarly, dehlawi and dakini refer to the regions of Delhi and Deccan, respectively, while hindi and hindawi have closer ties with such words as Hindu and Hindustan. The eventual triumph of the term Urdu was, in my opinion, due to its suggestion of both a supra-regional as well as an elite Mughal, i.e. Muslim, identity for the language. In other words, “Urdu” represented not a region but a state of mind.

Another expression of that state of mind can be seen in the controversy that has frequently raged in Urdu circles since the eighteenth century around the concept of ahl-e-zubaan, “the people of the language,” with its corollary of a belief that at any given time there could be only one markaz, “centre,” of Urdu. As one would suspect, these twin concepts were used to establish the superiority of one regional idiom, in terms of its alleged refinement, exactitude, and normativeness, over all others. This development took place in the eighteenth century perhaps as a reaction to the snobbery of such Iranian visitors as Sheikh Ali Hazin (1692-1766), who regarded the Persian of Indian writers with much contempt./5/ Indian poets, led by Sirajuddin Ali Khan Arzu (1689-1756), defended themselves and their Persian against such attacks, and claimed themselves to be as good as the natives of Iran. On the other hand, Arzu also encouraged Sauda (1713-1781) and others to turn away from Persian and adopt rekhta or Urdu for their literary expression. Arzu’s argument was that the Indians could not hope to improve over the earlier Persian masters, and that, after all, the Indians were more of an ahl-e-zubaan in Urdu.

What thus began as a reaction to one type of linguistic chauvinism came later to be an exercise in chauvinism itself. As is well known, the first business at Delhi, after poetry in Urdu became popular there, was to cleanse it of all its dakini elements. The idiom of Delhi became the norm. Later, when Lucknow became the more prosperous centre of culture and attracted a large number of immigrants, there began in Lucknow a rivalry between the ahl-e-zubaan of Delhi and the ahl-e-zubaan of Lucknow. This rivalry continued vociferously until the middle of the nineteenth century, and persisted even after that, though only intermittently and in a subdued way. Similarly, the misplaced belief that Delhi and Lucknow were the only proper centres (markaz) of Urdu and that the people from Uttar Pradesh and Delhi were the true ahl-e-zubaan of Urdu often led to much bitterness and antagonism well into this century in places such as Patna, Lahore, Calcutta, and Hyderabad./6/

Thus we see that those who claimed equality with native Iranians in the matter of Persian idiom turned around and themselves showed reluctance in granting equal status to all speakers of Urdu./7/ Lest it be thought that only the Muslims were guilty in this regard, I should point out that even the Hindu literati of Urdu were not free of this attitude. Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar (d.1902) was as eager as the next Muslim to use the phrase bu-e-kachauri mi aayad, (“it smells of kachauri,” a typically Hindu dish,) with reference to the hyper-Persianised Urdu of certain Hindus. Early in this century, in the controversy that raged between Abdul Halim Sharar (1860-1926; a Muslim) and Braj Narain Chakbast (1882-1926; a Hindu) over the language of Daya Shankar Nasim’s masnawi, Gulzaar-e-Nasim, most Muslim authors of Lucknow sided with their compatriot Hindus and made fun of Sharar, who was originally not from Lucknow./8/

Next we should consider in some detail the development of the three chief genres of Urdu poetry, the ghazal, the masnawi, and the marsiya, in the pre-modern period. As is well known, all the prevailing genres of poetry in Urdu are of non-Indic origins. Not that the early poets did not try their hand at dohra and chaupai; quite a few of them did, but merely as a diversion. Their creative powers were devoted, however, to the production of ghazals, masnawis, qasidas, and other similar Perso-Arabic genres, and it is these genres that define the perimeters of Urdu poetry.

As is well known, much of the early ghazal poetry written in the Deccan differs dramatically from the later ghazals of both the Deccan and North India. The difference lies not only in their language, which shows a prevalence of regional, dialectal forms, but more essentially in the treatment of the main theme of the ghazal, i.e. the theme of love. In the dakini ghazal, love is always heterosexual; it is expressed in a female voice directed toward a male beloved, addressed as sajan, pitam,/9/ etc., or a male voice directed toward an unmistakably feminine beloved. This was contrary to the common practice in Persian poetry — where the sex of the beloved is either ambiguous or obviously male — and quite in accord with indigenous, Indian literary traditions. There are lovely descriptions of viraha, “separation,” in the early dakini ghazal which have little in common with the highly stylised landscape of hijr, “separation,” in the later Urdu ghazal. Early dakini ghazal is rich in local colour, and uses Indian flora and avia as much as the Persian cypress and nightingale. However, with the passage of time these traits, instead of being augmented, disappear. First the use of the feminine verbal forms stops, then the use of such words as sajan and piya, until we reach a stage in the later part of the eighteenth century where Wali is told by his mentor to imitate (plagiarise?) Persian poets, and where Qaim calls dakini ghazal “vulgar.”/10/ Things did not come to a rest with that major break. There began also a process of “cleansing” the language. In the first phase, the language of the ghazal was purified of all its dakini vocabulary. That was accomplished in Delhi. The second phase began in Delhi but came to fruition in Lucknow; in it not only Person-Arabic vocabulary but also Perso-Arabic grammatical rules came to hold validity in Urdu.

A related phenomenon is that shift in the modality of the ghazal which we perceive when we compare the slow, musical, geet-like ghazals that Mir wrote in his favourite long meters with the enigmatic, highly intellectualised ghazals of Ghalib. The shift here was from being less to being more in accord with the established norms of Indo-Persian literary taste. Ghalib quotes Nasikh to acknowledge Mir’s pre-eminence, but does not seek to follow him in any creative manner./11/ That, incidentally, occurs only in the fifties of this century when Nasir Kazmi and others revive Mir creatively.

Here, within the context of the ghazal, it may be interesting to consider also the case of rekhti, i.e. the poetry written in a feminine voice. As mentioned earlier, the Deccan poets often adopted a feminine voice for themselves in their lyrics, which always expressed a heterosexual love. The practice was quite in accord with the Indian tradition. The Deccan poets did not dwell upon lesbian themes, nor did they see anything humorous or obscene in their use of a feminine voice. In the North, however, the voice of the ghazal poet became heavily masculine, as did the image of the beloved, and the adoption of a feminine voice came to be identified, at best, with sexist humour, and at worst, with outright obscenity. Rekhti — the term itself is a later coinage — came to be regarded as poetry of sexual titillation, lesbian as well as heterosexual. The result was that even the women poets of Urdu had to employ a masculine voice in their ghazals. In other words, within the domain of the ghazal, Urdu lost a distinctive linguistic feature, namely the expression of the true gender of the subject, and took on the “anonymity” of the Persian.

But that is not all. The case is a bit more complicated. The development of the rekhti does not reflect an act of imitation: there was no rekhti in the Persian tradition. Rather it reflects the fact that Urdu literary conventions came to be dominated by the values prevalent in the elite, Islamic milieu of Lucknow and Delhi. It tells us:

(a) that women were segregated in the elite Muslim society and had developed a distinctive dialect of their own;

(b) that lesbian sex was common in the harems of the elite and was viewed as a worthy source of titillation by many poets of Urdu; and

(c) that a feminine voice was not regarded as suitable for the expression of tender heterosexual love.

These three features are definitely not duplicated in any other Indian literature outside of Urdu. That the Urdu poets could not only give up the indigenous feminine voice for tender love, but later use it exclusively for bawdy purposes, only indicates the extent of their rejection of indigenous tradition in the pre-modern period.

When we turn our attention to the history of Urdu masnawi we find a similar story. Masnawi, ascribed to the creative genius of the Persians, is used for narrative poetry, more often than not to tell some romantic tale. Masnawi, therefore, is full of descriptive as well as dramatic passages, which allow greater depiction of local culture and landscape. It was a favourite with the kings and poets of the Deccan and, being a continuous poem, had much in common with the poetry in the surrounding Indian languages. Not only in sheer number and size but also in their overall quality, the masnawis of the Deccan are far more notable than the later products of North India. It is only our present linguistic deficiency and prejudice that makes us now more appreciative of the later, somewhat puny, efforts of Mir Hasan and Daya Shankar Nasim as opposed to the grander compositions of Vajhi and Nusrati./12/ It seems to me somewhat pathetic that instead of developing into an epic of the nature of the Shahnama of Firdausi, the tradition of the masnawi in Urdu faded out into the trifles of Nawab Mirza Shauq./13/ The blame for that is generally placed on a change of taste: the royal patrons no longer cared for long narrative poems; they didn’t have enough time. That cannot be the entire reason; evidently much more was involved. The progression from a simple masnawi to an epic needed not just a generous patron and great powers of description and narration, but more importantly a sense of myth, which was visceral and terrestrial. That was something that never developed among Urdu poets. What did develop was a taste for the atomism of the ghazal, which had no affinity with the kind of poetry that was being written in other Indian languages. Thus, it can be said that the rise of the ghazal at the cost of the masnawi was another aspect of the trend under discussion.

The third and the last genre to be considered here is that of the marsiya, which, in relative significance and achievement in Urdu, is next only to the ghazal. Marsiya literally means an elegy, but in Urdu milieu this term, if not explicitly qualified differently, refers only to the poems commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husain and his companions on the battlefield of Karbala. These poems are declaimed in public gatherings, specially during the month of Muharram. For that reason it is a genre closely identified with the Shi’ite culture, and it naturally began to flourish early in the Shi’ite kingdoms of the Deccan. Early marsiyas were simple poems, written in various forms and containing a random mixture of topoi, but over a period of two hundred years or so they developed into highly elaborately constructed, six-line stanza (musaddas) poems of such masters as Mir Anis (1802-1874) and Mirza Dabir (1803-1875), dealing with specific heroes and incidents. It is interesting to note that the marsiya is the one genre of Urdu poetry which, as it developed, managed to maintain to a great extent its original balance of local and foreign elements. In these elegies the emotions are Indian though the personae are Arabs; the landscape is conventional — sort of vintage ghazal — but the material culture, customs and rituals are Indo-Muslim. This development was, no doubt, a direct result of the peculiarly didactic and public nature of these poems. The marsiyas are written to be read before an audience in a majlis and to make the listeners cry. To succeed in its chief goal a marsiya has to be firmly rooted in the intimate and the local. Though in purely linguistic terms the later marsiyas are as different from the dakini ones as the later ghazal is from the earlier, in their operative aspect, i.e. in the mubki (tears-inducing) aspect, they are not that different. They too utilise indigenous value systems, emotions, and material culture to bring the tragedy closer home to the devout audience.

The marsiyas of Anis and Dabir are marvellous, and yet they mark a dead end. By succumbing to the dictum of the purity of the language, being burdened with a heavy load of religious zeal and ritual piety, and having to be of a restricted length in order to be presented in one sitting, Urdu marsiya failed to develop the kind of epic quality it could have. Some writers have argued that the marsiya was the precursor to the modern Urdu nazm (a continuous poem on a particular topic, in blank, free, or rhymed verse.) Aziz Ahmad supports this view:

“It has been rightly pointed out that the revolution which transformed Urdu poetry, after the mutiny of 1857, was, in fact, heralded by the impact of the marthiya, for this contributed several elements to the new poetry, which were later developed under Western influence. Among these was a sensitiveness to the beauties and severities of nature, the identification of poetic emotionalism with religion and a break away from the shackles of the ghazal to a freer form of versification.”/14/

I would disagree with this opinion for several reasons. The depiction of nature in marsiya is as convention-ridden as in the masnawi. Further, it is not nature in all its manifestations: predominant are two scenes, dawn in a wildernesses (which often tends to look more like a dawn over a formal garden) and the excruciating heat of a desert noon. The two fulfill a major structural purpose, namely to match the life-into-death process that the heroes themselves go through between dawn and noon, but they are a far cry from what would be called nature poetry. Certainly, in comparison with that, most Urdu masnawis, not to mention the poems of Nazir Akbarabadi (d.1830) display a more variegated palette. As for the matter of identifying poetic emotionalism with religion, that can at best be regarded as a mixed blessing. It certainly leaves any objective critic open to attacks by the devout. The third point about an alleged break away from the shackles of the ghazal requires a longer comment.

It is true that the marsiyas popularised the musaddas. In the modern period, Hali’s “Ebb and Tide of Islam,” Chakbast’s “Scenes from the Ramayana,” and Iqbal’s ever popular “Complaint” and “Answer to the Complaint” are only a few of the important poems written in the six-line stanza form. At a cursory glance it might appear that the popularity of the musaddas suggests a preference for sustained, continuous poetry and a break away from the atomism of the ghazal. A more careful look, however, would reveal that the six-line stanza of the musaddas works on the “hammer and anvil” principle of the quatrain. In the quatrain, the first three lines are the “anvil,” being prepared to receive the resounding blow of the fourth, the “hammer.” In the musaddas, the first four lines are a preparation for the teep, the final two lines that form a rhyming couplet. Thus the basic structure remains binary, and the basic unit a bait, a couplet, in other words, very much within the ambit of the Perso-Arabic traditions and quite in affinity with the atomism of the ghazal.

In conclusion, I would like to quote Professor Aziz Ahmad at some length, as it would be impossible to improve upon his succinct statement on the case of Urdu during the pre-modern period.

“Urdu poetry did not miss the Indian atmosphere, much of which it had chosen to ignore. It created for itself, by a process of mathematical multiplication, an inexhaustible wealth of symbols, images and designs, which corresponded to generalized necessities of emotion and intellect. It was a desperate unconscious clinging to the origins of the symbols of Muslim India’s cultural experience which had begun abroad, and an instinctive escape from the fear of submergence into the Hindu cultural milieu, with its strange gods, its almost pagan love of the actual Indian nature, its startling realism, and its tempting fragrance and rhythm. In Urdu poetry, the 18th century Muslim diaspora, no longer in a position of political or economic power, and threatened generally by chronic upheavals, chaos, insecurity and the fear of extinction, found its insular emotional escape. Its rejection of Indian themes was also an imposition of self-discipline, an uncompromising conformity to a conservative emotional symbolism, to remain spiritually and emotionally and creatively distinct and different. It did not mean or envisage a conflict with the Hindu tradition of expression or their active repudiation. The attitude of Urdu, on the positive side, was motivated by a semi-conscious urge for preservation of artistic solidarity with the external world of Islam with which it had lost direct touch; on its negative side it was a detachment from India, the land of the Hindus, without any considerable efforts.”/15/


/*/ Originally published in New Quest (Bombay), #6, February 1978.
/1/ Ganga-Jamni, lit. “having both the Ganges and the Jamuna,” refers metaphorically to any conjunction of the Hindu and Muslim cultures. It also describes any decorative work that combines gold and silver.
/2/ Muhammad Hasan, “Thought Patterns of Urdu Literature,” in Problems of Indian Literature; no editors; Calcutta, 1975, p. 122.
/3/ Aziz Ahmad, Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment, Oxford, 1964, p. 245.
/4/ For reasons of space I have not discussed Urdu prose in this paper, but it can be pointed out that a fate similar to the Avadhi prem margi poems has been accorded also to Inshallah Khan Insha’s Rani Ketki ki Kahani, a tale written around 1800 in a Khari Boli (Insha calls it Hindawi) that includes not a single non-Indic word. Insha’s poetry, however, is regarded an integral part of Urdu’s literary heritage.
/5/ Sarfaraz Khan Khatak, Shaikh Muhammad Ali Hazin: His Life, Time and Works, Lahore, 1944, passim.
/6/ The misguided belief that somehow Urdu is the “Islamic” language par excellence in South Asia caused much grief in the brief history of what was once known as East Pakistan.
/7/ Coincidental to this discussion of the language, I would like to venture a remark which is purely impressionistic, but which may contain more than a grain of truth. It is chiefly in two areas, namely those of abstract nouns and adverbs — and to a lesser degree in the area of adjectives — that Urdu borrows heavily from Arabic and Persian. These three categories provide the vocabulary that helps the speaker make generalisations, rise above the specific and the terrestrial, and express his sense of values. The predominance of Perso-Arabic elements in these categories may be one of the causes for the rise of the trend under discussion.
/8/ See Mirza Muhammad Shafi Shirazi, Ma’raka-e Chakbast-o-Sharar, edited by Amir Hasan Noorani, Lucknow 1966.
/9/Sajan from Sanskrit sajjan, “well-born; sweetheart”; pitam from Sanskrit priyatam, “most beloved”; piya from Sanskrit priya, “dear.” These words are now used in Urdu only in geet, “songs.”
/10/ Muhammad Husain Azad, Aab-e Hayaat, Lahore 1917, first published in 1881, passim.; Mir Taqi Mir, Nakaat-al-Shu’ra, edited by Abdul Haq, Aurangabad, 1935, p. 1.; Qiyamuddin Qaim, Makhzan-e-Nakaat, edited by Abdul Haq, Aurangabad, 1929, passim. Qaim’s couplet is: Qaim main ghazal taur kiya rekhta warna / ek baat lachar si ba-zubaan-e dakini thi: “I have established, Qaim, the ghazal in rekhta; otherwise it was something vulgar in the language of the Deccan.”
/11/ Ghalib quotes Nasikh with approval in the maqta of a ghazal: Ghalib apna ye aqida hai ba-qaul-e Nasikh / aap bee-bohra hai jo mo’taqid-e Mir nahin: “I believe, Ghalib, in agreement with Nasikh, that he who doesn’t believe in Mir is himself an ignorant person.”
/12/ Mir Hasan (d.1786) wrote a masnawi, Sihr-ul-Bayaan, an English synopsis of which can be found in Ralph Russell and Khurshid-ul Islam, Three Mughal Poets, Cambridge, 1968. Daya Shankar Nasim (d.1843), a native of Lucknow, wrote a masnawi, Gulzaar-e-Nasim, which is noteworthy only for its highly terse, even dense, diction; Vajhi (c.1630) wrote only one masnawi, Qutub Mushtari; while Nusrati (c.1665) wrote several, the most famous being Gulshan-e-Ishq. Incidentally, the shift from Mir Hasan to Daya Shankar Nasim is very much of the same nature as that posited earlier with reference to the ghazals of Mir and Ghalib, i.e. a shift from the relatively simple to the more complex and erudite.
/13/ Nawab Mirza Shauq (d.1971), a native of Lucknow, wrote several masnawis, the most famous being Zehr-e-Ishq, which are not very long and whose only charm lies in their colourful and idiomatic language and a certain degree of raciness.
/14/ Aziz Ahmad, An Intellectual History of Islam in India, Islamic Surveys, Edinburgh, No. 7, 1969, p. 101.
/15/ Aziz Ahmad, Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment, Oxford, 1964, p. 253.

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