Friday, September 28, 2007

Hybridity ain't just postmodern: Amir Khusro's Rekhta and Hinglish

The word Rekhta, meaning mixed, was used to refer to various types of poetry over the course of a thousand or so years that Persian mixed with various Indic tongues in India. In the age of the Delhi Sultans (before the Mughal Period) in the 12th-14th Centuries Persian came into its own in India to the extent that the very first tazkirah (loosely speaking anthology) of Persian poetry was published in India and included several hundred Indian poets (I have this from Muzaffar Alam's excellent book "The Languages of Political Islam"). North India seemed to be firmly in the ambit of Farsiworld which included modern day Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Tajikstan (where the Indian Persian poet of the 16th Century, Abdul Qadir "Bedil" is still very popular today, far more popular than in his homeland India).

In any event, I digress. The point was Rekhta and in particular the type of Rekhta practised by Amir Khusro. As I said at the beginning the meanings of Rekhta changed over several hundred years. In the 19th Century, it is often used to mean poetry written in the language we would today call "Urdu". The reason why Urdu came to be called Urdu is itself a fascinating story of colonial blunder, a story of the type that abound in India. The word "Urdu" in Persian simply means "camp".John Gilchrist the Indologist and Lexicographer, I think it was, who was studying this language that had taken shape around the Mughal capital of Delhi (I am ignoring the role of Deccan antecedents here). This language (which later erroneously came to be identified as having originated purely in the military encampments) was referred to sometimes as "zabaan-e-urdu-e-mualla-e-shahjahanbad", which translates as "the language of the Royal Camp of Delhi" (Delhi was resettled by Shahjahan who called his new city Shahjahanabad). Gilchrist for reasons I have yet to discover (but like to think had something to do with Imperial stupidity and arrogance) took only the word "Urdu" out of that phrase and the name stuck.

So Rekhta, in Ghalib's days referred to Urdu, as evidenced in his verse:
Rekhte ke ek tum hi ustad nahin ho Ghalib
Kehte hain agle zamaane mein koi Mir bhi tha

You alone are not the master of Rekhta Ghalib
They say that there was once someone called Mir

As also the verse I quoted at the end of my previous post.

Before Rekhta or mixed speech began to refer to the mixed language that is Urdu, it referred to a truly fascinating type of mixed poetry. This was half-Persian, half-Hindvi poetry. Amir Khusro experimented with this as did many others. And it is the beauty of that poetry that has inspired this ramble.
In some kinds of Rekhta part of one line of a sher would be in Persian and the other part in Hindvi, as for e.g. the famous Ghazal which opens:

Zehal-e miskin makun taghaful, duraye naina banaye batiyan;
ki taab-e hijran nadaram ay jaan, na leho kaahe lagaye chhatiyan.

It is breathtaking how Khusro combines two incredibly sweet tongues into something that is even greater than the sum of its parts.

Another famous example illustrates another type of rekhta, where Persian and Hindvi verses alternate:

Har qaum raast raahay, deen-e wa qibla gaahay,
Mun qibla raast kardam, bar samt kajkulaahay.
Sansaar har ko poojay, kul ko jagat sarahay,
Makkay mein koyi dhoondhay, Kaashi ko koi jaaye,
Guyyian main apnay pi kay payyan padun na kaahay.
Har qaum raast raahay, deen-e wa qibla gaahay.....

At times Khurso even combined the two languages into one phrase such that the verb and subject is Hindvi and the object Persian, as in:
Yaar nahin dekhta su-e-man... meaning My friend does not look at me anymore...

With multiculturalism being the postmodern buzzword today we find new forms of hybrid language such as Spanglish and Hinglish. Once more the purists are appalled (actually I don't know that they are appalled, but it seems safe to assume that they would be!) and the postmoderns are delighted at yet more evidence of their pet theme, hybridity. What could be a better example of hybridity can Khurso's poetry quoted above! Its not just Dosa in Denmark or Bi-bim-bop in Manhattan, not just Indian men sporting Ricky Martin t-shirts and watching appallingly bad American TV. Hybridity can be sublime. Granted, not all uses of Hinglish (Hindi + English, e.g. Come yaar, lets go, or Stop bakwaas maroing) are as beautiful as Khusro's Rekhta. But perhaps that is only a matter of time and chance.

Then again, I am not so sanguine about hybridity under the aegis if Global Capitalism. It might be another animal all together! Seeking the lowest common denominator of cultures rather than their sublimity.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

On Ghalib and Language-II

This post is a reply of sorts to the two excellent points raised in the comment to the previous post. You will need to read the brief comment to get the context here.
The range of language (even just in vocabulary) available to Ghalib is in fact the striking thing here. I am quite ignorant of English poetry in general but it seems to me that there isn't anything quite like this there. Poetic language can be simple or complex in different English poems, but words are generally not used verbatim (tatsam) from say German or French, except in unusual circumstances. While in Urdu, tatsam and tadbhav words can certainly be used from Sanksrit, and to extend the usage of tatsam and tadbhav, such words can also be used from Persian and Arabic (less frequently than Persian).

The manner of speaking a language is often associated with social class (this relates to the second point regarding the intended audience of a particular poem). As pointed out the vocabulary of different classes may have been vastly different during Ghalib's time. At least literary vocabulary was much more Persianized than street tongue. This harks back to the distinction between Sanskrit as the language of literature and the various Prakrits or Pali as the language of ordinary discourse.
Of course this class distinction also provokes literature in the ordinary tongue (like the Buddhist canon in Pali, instead of Sanskrit) as an explicit effort to make literature accessible to the ordinary person.
With a assuredly class conscious person like Ghalib, one wonders what made him write in more accessible language at all. Perhaps he felt a tension between composing in "high language" and the popularity to be gained by composing in "low language".
Also I suspect that he would have made a clear distinction between high and low language and high and low quality. As we know his simple and complex verses are both brilliant. So he really shows in some sense that language doesn't matter. He can be good at it all.
The one last thing to say is that he is reported to have said that all his Urdu divan is as naught compared to his Persian verse. But I don't know how much to believe that. After all he also says:
jo kehe ye ki rekhta kyun ke ho rashk-e-farsi
gufta-e-ghalib ek bar use padh ke suna, ke yun

To the one who says "how can Rekhta (Urdu) be the envy of Persian
Show him Ghalib's verse just once, and say "like so"!

Monday, September 24, 2007

On Ghalib and Language

I started talking about Ghalib, the last time in explaining why I chose "mehr-e-niimroz" as a title for the blog. Ghalib is as good a candidate as any (and better than most!) to start the first substantive blog entry.

The range of thoughts and emotions that find expression in Ghalib's shairi is of course quite apparent to anyone who reads him. But a related thing that I find equally fascinating, in his Urdu shairi, is the range of language itself, from very simpe, colloquial Urdu (what we might call Hindustani) which is very similar to the street language often called Urdu in Pakistan and Hindi in India, to highly Persianized or less often Arabicized Urdu. To offer some examples:

Consider the following verse from the ghazal "koi umeed bar nahi aati":

ham vahaan hain jahaan se humko bhi
kuch hamaari khabar nahi aati

or a matla (opening verse) from another ghazal:

kab woh sunta hai kahaani meri
aur phir woh bhi zabaani meri

Or the famous and amazingly multivalent maqta from a different ghazal:

pooncchte hain woh ke Ghalib kaun hai
koi batlao ke ham batlaien kya

This verse can be interpreted in English as:
He/she/they ask who Ghalib is
Tell them for what can I say
Tell me what should I tell them?
Tell me, should I tell them?

For this and all verses, I highly recommend visiting Frances Pritchett's online project "A Desertful of Roses" ( which is an online annotated Divan where Pritchett (a Professor of Urdu at Columbia University, New York) collects existing commentaries on each verse of Ghalib's urdu divan and then offers her own commentary. Also on her website you will find some excellent articles on Ghalib in particular and Urdu poetry in general by both her and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi.

Anyway, returning to our main point, all the above verses are in perfectly comprehensible everyday Hindi/Urdu. Khabar (in the first verse) and zabaani (in the second) are the only non-Indic (Arabic and Persian) words in the first two verses. The third one does not even have one.

Now contrast these verses with the following:
shua-e-aftab-e-subah-e-mehshar har taar-e-bistar hai

With the replacement of a single word (hai) with another (ast), this verse will become a perfectly respectable Persian couplet. And there are several such verses in thee Urdu divan.

And of course there is a range between these extremes wherein, probably most of his verses lie. Now the question that comes to my mind when I see this, is did Ghalib himself perceive this as something to be explained, or was it perfectly unremarkable for him to choose the words that best expressed his thoughts/emotions, with not much regard to their source/difficulty? Of course, in general Ghalib was thought to be a "difficult" poet and was well-known for using difficult language as well as complex imagery. There is also a belief among some that his early verses tend to be more Persianized than his later ones. But there are others who doubt this and I tend to agree with the later view. If time of writing is not an issue, what then explains the choice of extremely "simple" words at one time, and hugely "difficult" one at another? I put simple and difficult in quotes to remind us that it may the particular way in which Urdu and Hindi evolved in the 20th century, that may also play a role in what we consider difficult or simple. A phrase such as shua-e-aftab (ray of the Sun) is a perfectly simple Urdu phrase, albeit one that modern Hindi speakers may have trouble with.

I don't really have an answer to this (possibly ill-posed) question. I leave it there for the moment. But this isn't the last you've heard of Ghalib on this blog!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Why mehr-e-niimroz

mehr-e-niimroz (مھر نیمروز ) is a Persian phrase that can be translated into English as "The Noonday Sun". Mehr = sun, niim = half, roz = day. Apart from the sheer beauty of the words and the image associated with them, this is also the title of the official history of the Mughal dynasty that Asadullah Khan "Ghalib" was commissioned to write by Bahadur Shah "Zafar".