Where romantic poetry in a fading language draws stadium crowds
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Where romantic poetry in a fading language draws stadium crowds
Audience members react to a poem being read by Shakeel Azmi during the Urdu poetry festival Jashn-e-Rekhta, in New Delhi on Dec. 3, 2022. The festival, which was in its seventh edition, is part of a decade-old effort to bridge the gap between the language’s wide emotional connection and its receding accessibility. (Saumya Khandelwal/The New York Times)

by Mujib Mashal

NEW DELHI.- The four designated stages inside the crowded stadium complex in the heart of the busy capital weren’t enough. So poetry lovers also took to the footpaths and the spaces in between, turning them into impromptu open-mic platforms for India’s embattled language of love.

In one corner of the festival grounds, which had been draped in vibrant colors and calligraphy, a group of university students alternated between singing popular romantic songs, backed by a young man on guitar, and jostling to recite verses of their own.

“In your love,” one young poet began, leaning into the huddle with confidence, before forgetting the rest of his verse. “In your love … ” he repeated, unable to recall.

“Don’t worry,” someone from the crowd encouraged him as the others chuckled. “In love, we all forget.”

In another corner, Pradeep Sahil, a poet and lyricist, handed his phone to a friend to record him as he placed a red chair at a busy spot and took a seat, crossing his legs and reading poem after poem. A crowd soon gathered, cheering after every verse. With no room on the main stage, Sahil had found a stage of his own, climbing atop his chair and reciting what felt like his entire book.

“The times have changed, and so has the poet

I am half a businessman now, half a poet.”

That more than 300,000 people came to celebrate Urdu poetry during the three-day festival this month in New Delhi was testament to the peculiar reality of the language in India.

For centuries, Urdu was a prominent language of culture and poetry in India, at times promoted by Mughal rulers. Its literature and journalism — often advanced by writers who rebelled against religious dogma — played important roles in the country’s independence struggle against British colonial rule and in the spread of socialist fervor across the subcontinent later in the 20th century.

In more recent decades, the language has faced dual threats from communal politics and the quest for economic prosperity. Urdu is now stigmatized as foreign, the language of India’s archrival, Pakistan. Families increasingly prefer to enroll children in schools that teach English and other Indian languages better suited for the job market.

“In our effort to get on the gravy train, we left a lot behind on the platform,” Javed Akhtar, a prominent poet and lyricist, said at the festival. “And among those things we forgot on the platform was literature, language, poetry and other arts.”

Yet Urdu has remained the key language of romantic expression in the songs and cinema that saturate Indian life. Generations in India as well as across the wider subcontinent and in the diaspora have grown up humming songs from Bollywood musicals that draw heavily on Urdu poetry. Knowingly or unknowingly, Urdu has been their language of angst, heartbreak and celebration.

Urdu is a composite language. Its grammar and syntax are indigenous to India, but it draws its script — and a heavy share of its vocabulary — from Persian and Arabic influences that came on the back of Muslim invasions. The rich tradition of poetry, music and art that developed from this confluence became known as the Ganga-Jamuna culture, a meeting of the two great rivers with those names.

After Pakistan adopted Urdu as its national language with the bloody partition of India in 1947, the tongue increasingly took on an Islamic identity in India — a marginalization that has only intensified with the recent rise of the Hindu right. The governing party’s right-wing support base has long focused on “purifying” Indian culture, with the only acceptable confluence one in which it subsumes other streams.

The poetry festival, known as Jashn-e-Rekhta, which was in its seventh edition, is part of a decade-old effort to bridge the gap between the language’s wide emotional connection and its receding accessibility.

It all began in 2013 with a website, Rekhta.org, started by Sanjiv Saraf, an engineer and businessperson who was a lifelong lover of music set to Urdu poetry and had just begun learning the script at age 53.

He wanted to make a small number of good Urdu poems accessible by presenting each in three different scripts: in the original Urdu; in Devanagari, the script of Hindi; and in English transliteration. Readers could click on any word to get a pop-up of its meaning.

Saraf’s organization, the Rekhta Foundation, has since expanded its mission to reviving the Urdu language. Dozens of its employees travel around India to scan and archive works from old libraries and private collections, making out-of-print Urdu books available digitally. The Rekhta website now has about 20 million users annually, two-thirds of them younger than 35. The site has so far made available more than 120,000 pieces of work by more than 6,000 poets.

In many ways, Urdu’s poetic tradition gives it an advantage in the era of social media and short attention spans. The building block of much of Urdu poetry is a simple “sher” — two versed lines in which the first sets up an idea and the second completes it.

“The emotional power of this language — to express the deepest emotions in the shortest possible construct,” Saraf said, “you cannot help but fall in love with the language.”

The poetry festival was held for the first time since the pandemic, and there was an undertone about the fragility of life. Singer Hariharan captivated the audience with a slow meditation on life taken from a poem by Muzaffar Warsi.

“To make it or to break it, it takes no time,

Life is but a house of dew on the petals of a flower.”

Among the crowd that spilled out of the large tent where Hariharan performed was Snigdha Kar, an environmentalist, and her 7-year-old daughter, Shreyashri. As the singer dwelled on one line of poetry, repeating it over and over, Kar closed her eyes, letting the notes sink in.

Music and poetry provide a moment of grounding in a fast-moving world of work, travel and family obligations, she said. While Kar said she had always been moved by lyrics and poetry — “I used to pay attention to the words more,” she said — she has started classical lessons online during the pandemic to understand the music, too.

“I also bought a guitar,” she said, adding with a sheepish smile, “You know, classical music could become boring sometimes.”

The festival’s main attraction was the poetry sessions, from open-mic opportunities where budding poets nervously recited their works, trying to stick to meter and rhyme, to master classes that encouraged them to keep composing even if they were struggling with the basics of Urdu script or form.

“Poetry is not just arranging words,” poet Suhail Azad, who took early retirement as a police officer to focus full time on poetry, told attendants of one master class. “If it reaches the heart, it is poetry.”

At the festival’s headline poetry recital, the mushaira, a half-dozen senior poets took their seats on the stage, enchanting the audience in distinct styles, often to standing ovations.

Some of the poets sang their verses like melodious songs. Others, such as Shakeel Azmi, brought the same dynamism as a stage performer — moving away from the lectern, building up the suspense of the second verse by repeating the first over and over.

“Open your wings, the people are watching your flight

Sitting on the ground, why are you staring at the sky?”

The more senior poets, such as Fahmi Badayuni, 70, brought the quiet swagger and simplicity of a bygone era, both in demeanor and verse.

Before he recited his work, Badayuni — wearing a pink sweater, fur hat and checkered scarf — acknowledged the audience’s connection with his art by noting that his poems had gone “viral.”

“Those who are unaware of your scent

They make do with flowers.”

The crowd roared after every verse, many standing to shout, “Once more!” The master of ceremonies stopped Badayuni to offer an observation: His verses were so good that people were also whistling in appreciation.

“Keep whistling like that, brother, and you may get a job in the railways,” the emcee joked with the crowd.

Badayuni then went back to reciting another sher. He repeated the first line to the audience’s attentive silence and curiosity, then landed its kicker to their eruption.

“I keep reading it, day and night,

the letter that she never wrote.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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