Alchemy brings Jaipur Literature Festival to Southbank

by Divya Mathur



In collaboration with ‘Alchemy’ – Southbank Centre’s festival of South Asian culture – the ‘Jaipur Literature Festival-Southbank’ was held on the 16th and 17th of May 2015, in London. It travelled to London for the second time with a creative caravan of writers and thinkers, poets and balladeers. Showcasing South Asia’s unique multilingual literary heritage, JLF at Southbank was an intense two-day teaser of what has been declared the ‘greatest literary show on earth’.

The Southbank edition of JLF retains and resonates with the unique spirit of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival, which has firmly established its place in the global literary calendar as the world’s largest free literature festival. The Festival Directors are Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple and it is produced by Sanjoy Roy, Sheuli Sethi and Teamwork Arts.

Credit goes to the JLF for including a programme – Awaaz Do: Voices from Urdu, Hindustani and Hindi – in its repertoire of Alchemy on 17 May at Purcell Room at South Bank for its diverse and multilingual visitors. The moderator was Divya Mathur, award winning author and Founder of Vatayan: Poetry on South Bank-UK and the distinguished panellists included Francesca Orsini, Professor of Indian literature, SOAS, Dr Achala Sharma, freelance author and ex head of BBC World Service, and Qaisra Sharaz, award winning and acclaimed novelist.

The idea behind this discussion basically was to celebrate Hindustani and share its unique literary voice with the audience. To reach the wider audience, the panellists kept switching over to Hindi, Urdu, Hindustani and English, which was quite unique and fascinating. Ms Mathur introduced the programme saying that highly Sanskritised Hindi and highly Arabicized Urdu can be understood by Pandits and Maulvies only, quoting Haeez Jalandhari’s couplet
हफीज़ अपनी बोली, मुहब्बत की बोली
न उर्दू, न हिन्दी, न हिन्दुस्तानी
(What I speak is the language of love, you may call it Hindi, Urdu or Hindustani).

Hindustani is a 19th century name given to Hindi and Urdu by the British. Later it was also advocated by Gandhiji – one language written in two scripts. In earlier days, script and language were not as tightly identified – that’s why we have Chandayan (Mulla Da’ud’s Chandayan, is perhaps the first work of Hindi literature) and Padmavat (epic poem written in 1540 by Malik Muhammad Jayasi in the Awadhi language) circulating in both scripts, we have Hindu poets writing in Persian and Urdu and Muslim poets of Avadhi and Brajbhasha, we have Urdu Brahmasas (romantic poetry of separation) and Ramayanas and Hindi Yusuf Zulaikhas (the story of Prophet Yusuf).

Prof Francesca Orsini spoke about the historical and cultural perspectives of the subject. Her research interests span modern and contemporary Hindi literature; popular literature in Hindi and Urdu such as detective novels, romantic fiction, and barahmasas; women’s journals; nineteenth-century commercial publishing in Hindi and Urdu; and the multilingual history of literature in early modern North India. She has written several books on the subject including Before the Divide: Hindi and Urdu Literary Culture. Francesca made two sets of points: a) one is historical, about the literary traditions that we call Hindi and Urdu, and how they fit within the wider multilingual literary culture of north India. b) the variety contemporary Hindi and Urdu writing – not so much universal but telling us stories about people and contexts that we don’t read about in writing in English, and using literature as a way of exploring problems of the times – communalism, caste, limits to social mobility, etc. She also read short excerpts from Intizar Husain’s story, Bastee.

Dr Achala Sharma, former head of the BBC Hindi Service, and a widely published freelance award winning author, was asked about the code of practice the BBC’s World Hindi Service adopted as far as Hindi was concerned. She said that in 1940 when the service was launched it was called the Hindustani Service, a language spoken by common man. After the partition of India, when it was divided into two sections, broadcasters of the Indian section were encouraged to use more Sanskrit words and of the Pakistani section to use more Persian and Arabic words. But Hindi Service, as it was later named, gradually adopted a more simple language which even today is widely understood by its audiences.

The second question was posed to her was about the future of Hindi and Urdu scripts keeping in view Chetan Bhagat’s slogan ‘bhasha bachao, Roman script apnao’ (save Hindi, use Roman script). She said that Hindi doesn’t need ‘saving’ as it is spoken and understood by millions of people in India and around the world. In her opinion, Roman script did not fully comprehend the phonetics of Hindi language. She did however accept that considering the demands of modern day technology, a suitable Roman script could be developed for Hindi but in no way should it replace Devanagri.

The youngest panellist, Qaisra Shahraz, who is an award winning and critically acclaimed novelist and Scriptwriter, was asked what Urdu means to her in view of her being a second generation migrant of Pakistani origin living in the UK, specially when English is her first language, She said that there is a great connection between Urdu and her work as a novelist and as a scriptwriter…..
Qaisra was brave enough to read an excerpt in Urdu to the audience from her novel, The Holy Woman.

Founder of Vatayan and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Divya Mathur is an award winning and widely published author of five story and six poetry collections and a novel. Besides translating five children’s books, she has also edited three much acclaimed anthologies of stories of Indian Women Writers Abroad. The Arts Council of England awarded her for her outstanding contribution and innovation in the field of Arts. She said that Hindustani is in her blood. Her late father was a Sufi, who used to read from the Quran, the Ramayan, Guru Granth Saheb and other scriptures in his weekly discourses. Her grandfather was a Mughal painter and a shair (Urdu/Farsi poet), who took her to meet his artist friends in Old Delhi. Her youngest uncle and two aunts were musicians and singers, with whom she grew up, so naturally she acquired a taste for Hindustani, which not only taught her to be humble and modest but also filled her with ras and taal and the chamatkaar – the surprises – that life brings. She concluded the programme with a recitation of her two poems in Urdu and Hindi.