What’s in a language?

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Intizar Husain

THIS is in continuation of my column in which I had written about Garcin de Tassy’s research work published under the title Tareekh-e-Adabiyat-e Urdu. I gathered from the response of some readers that they want to know more about this work. After my second reading of the author’s preface to his work and in addition to the commentary of the translator, I feel I can add something more to what I have already said.

The text of the book is divided into two parts — the Urdu chapter and the Hindi chapter. Liliane Sixtine Nazroo has translated only the Urdu chapter. In his preface de Tassy has started with the assumption that because of their common syntax, Urdu and Hindi can be treated as the same language. Later influences of Arabic and Persian along with Persian script in one case, and Sanskrit with Nagri script in the other case, has led to this language being divided into two separate languages. And de Tassy tells us that the poet Kabir was foremost among those who registered their protest against the use of Sanskrit in Hindi. After his death his followers Sarat Gopal Das, Dharam Das and Guru Nanak continued this line of thought.

At a later stage of development, de Tassy finds Hindustani writers divided into two camps: Hindu writers and Muslim writers. He adds that Hindu writers often write in Urdu and Deccani. And he also says on the authority of Sir Syed Ahmed that in the early period the Hindu writers used to write in Persian too. However, he adds, the Muslim writers never cared to write in Hindi. This statement has been challenged by his translator Nazroo, who has enumerated a number of Muslim writers, who earned fame as Hindi poets. More prominent among them were Malik Mohammad Jayasi, Khan-e-Khana and Raskhan. She also registered her disagreement when he said that the Muslim writers always patronised Persian, and it was also the court and judicial language. She says that Adil Shahi and Qutab Shahi, Sultanates of Deccan, had chosen to patronise Urdu pointing out that “during those very years when Persian scholars were being patronised in the durbars of Akbar and Shahjahan, the Urdu writers and poets were being decorated in the durbars of Adil Shah and Qutab Shah”.

De Tassy tells us that he has discussed 3,000 writers in his book: out of these, 2,200 are Muslims. The Hindu writers are no more than 800, out of which those writing in Hindi are only 250. Hindu writers writing in Hindi hail from Punjab, Kashmir, Rajputana, Delhi, Agra and Benares. The poets who wrote exclusively in Deccani are no more than 200 in number. So the poets writing in Urdu happen to be in the majority. They mostly belong to Delhi, Agra, Meerut, Lucknow, Benares, Kanpur, Murad­abad, Faizabad, Allahabad and Kolkata.

De Tassy has also researched on how many of these writers were Christians and Jews: according to him, these writers included those few who were originally Jews but later converted to Islam. Among them was Jamal Ali Meeruthi who originally belonged to Hyderabad and was Jewish. In later years he converted to Islam and chose to reside in Meerut. As researched by him, six writers were Christians, one being Zafaryab, who was the son of Sardhana’s Begum Samru.

This list of Hindustani writers, as researched by de Tassy, included a number of kings, mystics, fakirs, and even beggars. From among the rulers were Tipu Sultan, three rulers of Golkanda, one from Bijapur, a number of Mughal kings, three from Oudh: Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, Ghaziuddin Haider, and Wajid Ali Shah. As opposed to them there were a number of fakirs such as Kaleem Dehlvi and Mian Kamtareen Maroof, who were seen roaming in the bazaars selling their ghazals for two paisas.

A number of female poets, as unearthed by de Tassy, stand distinguished among these Hindustani writers. One is known as Shehzadi Khala, the other is Al-Fatima Begum. Four of these were dancers. “So”, says de Tassy at the end of his preface, “such is the variety of poets and writers I have dug out from a variety of sources and discussed in my history of Hindvi and Hindustani. However, I owe an apology to the Sanskrit scholars, who would not like to come down from their high pedestal and take notice of what is happening in the world of spoken languages.”


In last week’s column, An Unprejudiced View, the blurb stated “Two young Pakistani girls take us on a journey to the land of the Pharohs” when in fact the writers in question were a brother and sister. We regret this error.

Intizar Husain, “What’s in a language? ,” in Dawn, June 28, 2015. Accessed on June 28, 2015, at: http://www.dawn.com/news/1190820/column-whats-in-a-language

The item above written by Intizar Husain and published in Dawn on June 28, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on June 28, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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