From Dusty Books to Glowing Screens – How Urdu Got a Digital Revival

“Kabhi yunhi safar karte, agar koi musafir sher padh de Meer, Ghalib ka
Woh chahe ajnabi ho, yahi lagta hai woh mere watan ka hai
Badi shaista lehje mein kisi se Urdu sun kar
Kya nahi lagta ke ek tehzeeb ki awaaz hai, Urdu”

Sometimes while travelling, if a fellow passenger reads out a poem of Meer or Ghalib

Then even if he’s a stranger, he seems like he’s from my home country,

In a very polite manner, when you hear someone speak Urdu

Doesn’t it feel like it is the sound of culture, Urdu”

This is how Gulzar, one of the most loved poets, lyricists and screenwriters of our times, wound his love for Urdu into a poem.

Urdu has been more than just a language in the Indian subcontinent; it has been a way of life and tehzeeb. Its appeal and influence has cut across classes and regions, being spoken by poets, princes and paupers alike. By adopting elements of Persian, Hindi, Turki, Braj, Gujri and Awadhi, it reflected the syncretic and accommodating nature of the culture in the region.

Urdu was in many ways at the forefront of the freedom movement in India, giving rise to memorable slogans like ‘Inquilab Zindabad’, rousing poems like ‘Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna’ and Allama Iqbal’s ode to the nation ‘Sare Jahan se Acha’. In fact, it is Iqbal’s birthday on November 9 that is celebrated every year as World Urdu Day.

Partition and exile

However, Urdu was as much scarred as it was shaped by the freedom movement. As schisms in the society grew, language too became a victim of communalisation. Despite Gandhi’s attempts to show the unity between Hindi and Urdu and promotion of ‘Hindustani’, they became associated with communal identities. Hindi was Sanskritised and Urdu Persianised. The latter became linked with Muslim identity, and as many of the Urdu writers went to Pakistan, it lost its gleam in India. The final nail in the coffin came when it was declared as the national language in Pakistan. Thus, like many people who were uprooted and became refugees overnight, Urdu too went into exile after Partition. This was lamented by Manzar Bhopali in his poem:

“ye nāzoñ kī palī thī ‘mīr’ ke ‘ġhālib’ ke āñgan meñ

jo sūraj ban ke chamkī thī kabhī mahloñ ke dāman meñ

vo shahzādī zabānoñ kī yahāñ be-anjuman kyuuñ hai

vatan meñ be-vatan kyuuñ hai?

That which grew up in the garden of Mir and Ghalib

That which shone like a sun in premises of palaces

That which was the princess of languages,

Why is without an association here?

Why is it in exile in its own country?”

A digital revolution

However, recently, Urdu seems to be spreading its wings again. The revival of the language and its growing popularity, especially among youth, has been the result of a digital cultural revolution of sorts. Over the past five years, several new platforms to promote Urdu have cropped up. They don’t just post and promote the language online, but also organise festivals, mushairas and storytelling sessions to reach the masses. Together, they have taken Urdu from its snug place in historical books to the digital stage.

At the forefront of the revolution is Rekhta, an organisation which has grown rapidly in five years since its inception in 2013. It began as an attempt by Sanjiv Saraf, businessman and cultural entrepreneur, to create an online repository of Urdu poetry at Just over five years after it started, the site now contains over 36,000 ghazals, 6,000 nazms, and 25,000 shers by more than 3,400 poets.

To make them more accessible, the pieces are interactively available in Roman, Devanagari and, of course, Urdu scripts on the website. Rekhta also has an ever growing collection of audio poems, videos  and e-books.

Rekhta not only aims to promote Urdu poetry but the language as a whole. On its website and various social media pages, it posts a new word of Urdu daily, along with its meaning and usage. The organisation has also started an Urdu learning programme focusing on learning through the original script, which sees massive participation, especially from non-Muslim youth.

The ‘word of the day’ on November 14, 2018. Credit: Rekhta/Facebook

Seeing such a widespread positive response from people, in 2015, Saraf launched Jashn-e-Rekhta, an annual festival held in Delhi every year since then. It has only grown with its each successive edition, and seen participation from the likes of Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Nida Fazli and Munawwar Rana. The festival includes performances, recitations, mushairas, panel discussions, debates, conversation on films, calligraphy workshop and haats designed in a style reminiscent of pre-partition Dilli.

Another smaller but popular organisation is Kaafiya. Yaseen Anwar founded the Poets Corner in 2013 and later Kaafiya in 2015. ‘Kaafiya’ is a play on the word ‘Qaafiya’, which refers to the rhyming device used in forms of Urdu poetry like ghazals and nazms. Anwar began the page on social media and later expanded to organising poetry festivals.

One of the poems on Kaafiya’s page. Credit: Pradeep Goyal/Kaafiya

However, his goal, he says, is to “form a close knit group of Urdu lovers in the capital, who promote and pursue the language in depth”. Thus, the page is used as a platform to get in touch with people from all walks of life interested in understanding the language and its literature. This group of people then meets in person, and conducts reading sessions and mushairas. He also conducts a “poetry darbaar” to reach out to a wider audience outside the national capital. He insists that “this is a great phase for lovers of Urdu” as the language has only grown in popularity and reach in the last five to ten years.

So what lies ahead for the language in the future? Yaseen is greatly optimistic. “I hope Delhi becomes the capital of Urdu literature again, as it once was, and the some of the greatest poets come out of here”, he says, with a smile.

Shruti Sonal is a freelance journalist and a poet, who writes with equal fervour about language and politics. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @shruti_writes.

Featured image credit: Marium Ali, The Herald