Bengali is the only Indian language to win the Nobel prize for litterature. It is one of the sweetest language with rich literary traditions not unlike Urdu. So it is surprising that Bangla speakers are picking up Urdu as a new language to learn. Read this article that appeared in Outlook magazine.
Alif For The Bhadralok
Bengalis, from city and kasbah alike, are falling for the gentle tug of Urdu literacy
History is repeating itself in Calcutta after two centuries. What the College of Fort William did to Urdu in the early 19th century, the West Bengal Urdu Academy is doing now: popularising and propagating the language and taking it, once again, beyond the confines of religion.
And, since last year, the academy’s efforts have started bearing fruit, with non-Muslims signing up in droves for the basic and advanced courses it conducts.
Last year, 155 persons, all non-Muslims, enrolled for the basic, one-year Urdu diploma course designed by the National Centre for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL) under the Union HRD ministry. This year, nearly twice as many have enrolled for the course that commenced in mid-September. The only state where non-Muslims are displaying a growing interest in learning the language, West Bengal is also the only state where study centres are being opened in even the smaller district towns.
The College of Fort William, set up by then Governor General Marquis Wellesley in 1801, too had become the only centre for developing Urdu and propagating it in Asia.
It was the first institution in the subcontinent to have a department of Urdu. The first Urdu printing press in the world was set up in the college in 1809. It sponsored Urdu scholars to translate Persian and Arabic works. Books by college-commissioned scholars, like Mir Amman’s Bag-O-Bahar (1802), Sher Ali Afsose’s Araish-e-Mahfil and Bag-e-Urdu (1805) and Haider Baksh Haider’s Tarikh-e-Naderi, occupy prime place in Urdu literature even to this day.
The reasons behind the resurgence of interest among non-Muslims in Urdu, says West Bengal Urdu Academy secretary Ikhlaque Islam, are several. "It could be the popularity of music talent hunts and reality TV shows which lay stress on proper pronunciation of Urdu words and terms. There’s also the growing realisation that Urdu is a very rich language that lends itself beautifully to poetry and prose. Bengalis are also more culturally inclined than others," he says. The students—from different professional backgrounds and age groups—agree. "Urdu is a beautiful language. I’ve always been very fond of ghazals and shairi. I know how to speak Urdu, but not how to read and write. Urdu strikes a chord in me like no other language does," says Supriya Newar, principal consultant with leading PR firm Hanmer & Partners. Newar signed up for the diploma course this year.
For Bharat Bhushan Biswas, it was his love for ghazals since childhood that lured him to Urdu. "It was only after retirement that I had time to learn this rich and sweet language," says Biswas, who retired as a senior officer of the Ordnance Factory Board five years ago. He completed the basic course last year and has now signed up for the one-year advanced course.
"The diploma and advanced courses are in the distance education mode. Since there are no regular classes to attend, people can learn in their spare time. This is perhaps why the two courses, started last year, are becoming so popular," says Islam. The students tend to concur. "It’s the distance education course that’s made it convenient for me," says Sandipan Roy Choudhury, a graduate in electronics and communication from the Regional Engineering College, Jalandhar, and presently a junior engineer with BSNL. Gautam Basu, a senior journalist with the Times of India, confesses: "Learning Urdu, being able to converse in it and writing it would break many mind-blocks."
The academy received permission to open seven Urdu learning centres this year in several districts as against the 10 it had requested the NCPUL.
"Next year, we’ll open six more," says Islam. These centres are attached to institutions like schools, colleges and madrassas where Urdu is taught through regular courses.An Urdu teacher is appointed to conduct contact classes thrice a week in the evenings for those who enrol for the diploma and advanced courses. But attendance is not compulsory. The students are given course material—books by Gopichand Narang and Roop Kishen Bhatt (both renowned Urdu scholars), a Bengali to Urdu dictionary brought out by the academy and audio-video cassettes to help with diction. "Students are also given ‘response sheets’ each quarter. Grades are awarded based on NCPUL evaluation," says Islam. Now, the academy is planning a series of interactive programmes for the benefit of the students.
Those who have completed, or have enrolled, for the diploma course include doctors, engineers, housewives, school and college teachers, government employees, businessmen and journalists. For most, it’s the passion for the language that’s driven them to the academy. A few, though, want to learn Urdu for practical reasons. "Learning Urdu will help me in my PhD programme since I’ll be able to read and comprehend a lot of Urdu source materials," says Leena Sarkar, a lecturer in History at the Milli Al-Ameen College in Calcutta. Tridip Mustaphi, an orthopaedic who’s involved with an NGO that works in Muslim-dominated rural areas, says: "Many of the people in the areas I go to are Urdu-speaking; it’ll help a lot if I can communicate with them in their language. Reading Urdu literature is of secondary interest to me."
Many are from small towns in Bengal, like Pranab Acharya, additional district sub-registrar of North Dinajpur, a few hundred kilometres north of Calcutta. "I want to be able to recite shairi and want to write in Urdu," says Acharya, who has enrolled for the diploma course this year and plans to attend contact classes at the nearest study centre at Malda, 95 km from his town, at least once a week. Ditto for Soma Mukhopadhyay, a lecturer in electronics at the Chandannagore Polytechnic College about 60 km from Calcutta who plans to travel that distance three times a week to attend the contact classes.
But then, Mukhopadhyay, Acharya and others like them are merely following an old Calcutta tradition. This city was, from the early 19th century till a few decades ago, the prime centre for Urdu. "Calcutta evolved as the primary centre for learning, research and enrichment of Urdu due to a number of reasons," says Urdu scholar Fayez Ahmed Khan. "The Fort William College gave a boost to Urdu and many scholars settled here from various parts of the country. This was the capital of British India till 1911. Also, when the families of Nawab Wajed Ali Shah and Tipu Sultan settled here in exile, exponents of Urdu literature in their courts followed them. Bengalis, be they Muslims, Hindus or Christians, were great lovers of art and culture and patronised the language. Calcutta was known as a centre of excellence for Urdu and many prominent Bengali Hindus were renowned scholars in the language." Bangla may be in no danger of being read right to left, but its speakers are certainly leaning that way.