The Rise and Decline of King’s Urdu

By Anjum Altaf

Any discussion of the future of Urdu arouses heated emotions turning swiftly into a test of one’s loyalties. But love of the language should have no bearing on a candid consideration of its prospects. I believe such a consideration is possible and wish to revisit the issue in light of aspects of the language I have been thinking about lately.

As part of the exploration of some aspects of Urdu speech, I have already discussed the rise of King’s Urdu in the courts of the later Mughals where, according to many, it attained its zenith during the reign of Bahadur Shah with whom the dynasty came to an end. Did that event mark a major turning point in the trajectory of Urdu? All phenomena with historical roots have a momentum that carries them beyond the point at which their sustaining force is removed. What happens next depends entirely upon the existence and nature of forces that emerge as replacements. Whether the phenomenon continues its upward trajectory, levels off, or ultimately enters a period of gradual decline is not something that can be taken for granted. This is a framework that could be useful in assessing the trajectory of Urdu beyond 1857.

I approach the search for new sustaining forces for Urdu via an examination of its functional uses. In a somewhat unusual choice I turn to an exploration of its script as the point of departure. An aspect that comes immediately to the mind of one who has tried to teach the language is the excessive ‘casualness’ of Urdu script. Urdu has few vowels and, in principle, relies extensively on diacritical signs to indicate how sounds of consonants combine; the combination ‘jm’, for example, could be read as ‘jim’, ‘jam’, or ‘jum’ depending on the diacritical sign employed. However, in most Urdu writing the diacritical sign would be absent; all one would see would be ‘jm’ and the intention of the writer would have to inferred from the context. This is different from Arabic where diacritical signs are generally indicated or Hindi, which not only has more vowels but in which the diacritical signs are never left out. There is thus no ambiguity in the writing of Hindi.

[Urdu, Persian and Arabic also rely extensively on the number and location of dots to distinguish between different letters. For example, the five letters ‘be’, ‘pe’, ‘te’, ‘Te’, and ‘se’ look exactly alike except for the number and placement of dots. In this context, it is of interest that there is in the Jehangirnama a plate showing a page written in Persian in which the dots themselves have been left out. The resulting text is a message in shorthand that has to be interpreted entirely from the context.]

Could this characteristic point to a relevant aspect of the language? Professor CM Naim (Urdu in the Pre-Modern Period: Synthesis or Particularism) has endorsed the argument that Urdu is not a language that developed as a synthesis of cultures; rather it developed as a means of contact between two mutually exclusive cultures. It was a vehicle to conduct the business of the day. That could explain, at least partially, the casual and shorthand nature of its writing.

One can imagine that a language that gets appropriated for the codification of religion, the way Sanskrit or Arabic did, cannot afford to remain ‘casual’ in the sense the term has been used to describe Urdu writing. A mispronunciation of a word can be deeply embarrassing or offensive much as it can be in conversational Chinese. A language that becomes the vehicle for detailed legal and business purposes, like English, likewise cannot afford to remain ambiguous. But Urdu serves none of these purposes. Hence, the shorthand nature of its writing remains unchanged.

As mentioned in the earlier discussion of Urdu speech, despite these roots as a means of transactional interactions the language also became the medium for communication and intellectual pleasure amongst the aristocracy of the later Mughal courts. And this is what contributed to its flowering as a language of high culture giving rise to poetry of a very high order. [But note that because the language was not a synthesis of cultures, both the diction and literature of this King’s Urdu drifted away from any roots in Indian soil and lent itself to a Persianization that was held to be the epitome of high culture for the Mughal aristocracy. This seems to me to be the gist of Professor Naim’s argument.]

If true, what implications does it have for the place of Urdu in the future? Urdu has not become the language of religion, law or business nor are there indications of its ever attaining such status. In addition, it has lost its place as a language of high culture. I doubt there would be disagreement with the claim that Urdu is not employed by the Pakistani aristocracy today as a means of communication or intellectual pleasure. Rather, it is more a vehicle to communicate with those who do not know English like members of the domestic staff or traders in the market. At best, Urdu is intended to serve as a link language for all those whose first languages are the regional languages of Pakistan. This was precisely the function of Khari Boli as described by Justice Katju.

In this perspective, one view of the trajectory of Urdu would see its birth as a transactional language followed by a flowering as an alienated language of high culture in the later Mughal courts. Once the Mughal era ended, its momentum carried it along for a while but without fresh sustaining forces the wave crested. In the ensuing ebb, the dimensions of high culture were progressively attenuated returning the language to its functional role as a vehicle for transactions and linkages in the market place. Does that mean that Khari Boli provides the mirror in which the future of Urdu can be glimpsed?

Could one conclude from this account that King’s Urdu is now well into its period of decline; that Iqbal, Faiz and Rashid were the luminaries of its fading glory. When all is said and done Urdu remains a language almost perfect for poetry with ‘a very low boiling point’ as Victor Kiernan put it to explain the fact that Urdu poetry was so much better than Urdu prose. But are enough people engaged with Urdu poetry to give it the vigor it needs to sustain itself as a language of high culture? There is indeed an audience that remains an avid consumer of the heritage of King’s Urdu but is there one for whom that heritage is being replenished at the same level of brilliance? It seems to me that those nostalgic for an era that has passed into history are now themselves preparing to follow suit.


  • Zubeida Mustafa
    Posted at 21:09h, 02 August Reply

    Interesting article. But I am not clear how you say that Arabic always has diacritical signs. It is ONLY Arabic in the Quran that has these signs because most people (Muslims) reading the Holy Book do not know or understand Arabic. But the Arabic that is spoken and written in the Arab world has no diacritical signs, as far as I know. Why don’t you check.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 12:54h, 03 August

      Zubeida: What I wrote was that diacritical signs are generally indicated in Arabic and never omitted in Hindi. I did look at a random sample of newspapers in Arabic and found the use of diacritical signs to be more prevalent than in Urdu although, of course, nowhere as complete as in religious texts.

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