Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Urdu in West Bengal

Over a hunderd years after Mirza Ghalib travelled to Calcutta and, referring to the sweetness of the native language, remarked that the Bengalis had a penchant for putting a rasgulla in every word and sentence, Bengalis seem to be returning the compliment with a renewed interest in learning Mirza Ghalib's beloved Urdu.

It is notable that it is primarily the Indian Muslims who have carried forward the syncretic tradition of the Urdu language after Indian independence. Bengal is the inheritor of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore but also of Kazi Nazrul Islam and is also one of the most secular states in the country both politically and culturally. The renewed interest in Urdu is a logical continuation of this tradition.

But there seems to be another dimension, indeed some strange, magical connection between Calcutta and Urdu.

I have always wondered, for example, why the character of Vijay, the Urdu poet in Pyaasa, was a Bengali (his mother in the movie actually calls him 'Beejoy', the Bengali pronunciation for Vijay.)

Then, Gulzar, the lyricist who writes in the Urdu language, has had a long affinity with the Bangla language but more so, its sensibilities. This is rather unusual for one who was born a Sikh in West Punjab and grew up in Delhi, far away from Bengal.

Something does seem to draw the Urdu language to Calcutta and Bengal. Perhaps, as the writer suggests, the reasons are historical:
"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."

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