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US: Festival explores Urdu literature, history

A Correspondent | October 20, 2008 23:34 IST
Last Updated: October 20, 2008 23:40 IST

The University of Virginia Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures hosted an Urdu festival to increase understanding of the Urdu language, its literature and the culture and society that developed it.

The festival, titled 'Urdufest: Contemporary and Historical Facets of Urdu and its Literature,' brought together Urdu scholars from around world to the campus from September 12 to 14, who explored various aspects of this language and culture through discussions and interactions.

Urdu is the fourth most common language in the world, with 60 million to 80 million native speakers. It is the national language of Pakistan and one of the 23 official languages of India. It is also a repository of the cultural heritage of these and other South Asian countries where it is spoken. Yet, it is unfamiliar to most in the West.

"At a time when the [Indian] subcontinent has been in the news so much, and so much of the news has emphasized just the economic or some of the more difficult issues that trouble the subcontinent, this conference was a valuable introduction to the long lineage of a nuanced cultural and literary history," Dr Geeta Patel, an associate professor at the department and one of the conference organizers, told India Abroad.

Mehr Farooqi was one of the University of Virginia faculty members and another of the organizers. She spoke about poets Ghalib and Bedil at the event, called the conference a 'chaman-e-sthan-e-sukhan' � a spring garden where speaking, poetry, prose live and bloom.

'This was an exquisitely apt metaphor for the event that participants have variously called 'exciting,' 'marvelous' and the 'best conference I have been to in a very long time,' Professor Patel said.

'People really enjoyed and learned from the breadth and depth of the offerings -- from the inspiring keynote calling for new histories of Urdu to [discussions on Urdu poets and writers] Bedil, Ghalib, Mir, Zay Xay Shin, Qurratalain Hyder, and women's autobiographies. Besides, the topics covered went 'from shahr ashob [a classical genre of poetry] to how Urdu is perceived in contemporary India, from Josh Malihabadi, Iqbal and N M Rashid to cultural debates among Progressive writers in Pakistan,' said Dr Farooqi, who is University of Virginia assistant professor and an expert in the literary cultures of South Asia.

"This conference showed there is a lot of interest in Urdu. The enthusiasm of the participants, the graduate students who came with their faculty mentors, people who stayed overnight and enjoyed the proceedings, turned a conference into a celebration of Urdu in all its facets,' Dr Farooqi said.

Besides, the conference had an entire panel on poet Mir Taqi Mir, talks on time in Urdu literature, those who wrote about cities, Ghalib's literary antecedents, women writers such as Qurratulain Hyder and the 19th century Pardah-nashin poetess Zay Kay Sheen, women's autobiographies, contemporary understandings of the place of Urdu, the poet Josh Malihabadi, the rhetorical battles in the Pakistani Progressive Writer's Association,' Dr Patel explained.

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, a renowned Urdu critic, poet and novelist who has nurtured students and authors of Urdu literature since the 1950s, kicked off the conference with a talk on, "A Modest Plea: Please Could We Have a Proper History of Urdu Literature." He dwelt on where a new history of Urdu ought to go and what it ought to address, and closed with readings from his newest novel Kayi Chand the Sar-e Asman, Dr Patel said. He also gave the closing remarks at the conference.

A panel on 'Urdu Language and Literature in India and Pakistan Today' included presentations on 'Temporality in Pakistan Modernism' by Sean Pue, assistant professor of Hindi and South Asian literature and culture at Michigan State University, and 'Crossovers: Urdu and Hindi, Intra-textual and Intra-cultural Convergence,' by Dr Farooqi.

Highlights of another panel, on 'Women and Writing in Urdu Literature,' included presentations on 'Female Writers' Self-Representations in Urdu Autobiographies,' by Tanveer Anjum, professor of English, IQRA University, Karachi, Pakistan; 'No Ladies Department in Literature, Please: Qurratulain Hyder's Experiences as a Writing Woman,' by Christina Oesterheld of the University of Heidelberg; and 'Zay Kay Sheen, Aligarh's Pardah-Nashin Poet,' by Gail Minault, professor in the South Asian Institute at the University of Texas.

The panel that focused on the 18th -century poet Mir Taqi Mir, a pioneer in Urdu poetry, was chaired by Alireza Korangy, chairman of the University of Virginia Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures. Titled 'Why Mir Taqi Mir Continues to Fascinate Alireza Korangy,' it featured two presentations: 'Mir in Fact and Fiction' by C M Naim, professor emeritus of Urdu studies at the University of Chicago, and 'Mir as Suffering Curmudgeon: The History of a Hatchet Job' by Francis Pritchett, professor of modern Indic languages, Columbia University.

In the fourth panel, about 'Politics, Religion and Urdu Literature in South Asia,' Barbara Metcalf, University of Michigan, talked about 'Urdu and the Madrasa in British India and After.' Aditya Behl of the University of Pennsylvania spoke 'On the Shahrashob: Urbanism, Urbanity and Urdu Poetry.'

Attendees included aficionados of Urdu, students of Urdu, academics and writers of critical prose and poetry, Dr Patel said.

Urdu primarily came from Persian and Sanskrit with some Arabic and Turkish thrown in. Although Urdu shares many similarities with Hindi, its sociopolitical underpinnings are different, according to Dr Patel. It developed in 13th-century Muslim courts and is written right to left. Although the dialogue of Bollywood films from India is in Hindi, the song lyrics heard in these films are often in Urdu, she noted.

Urdu is spoken in many parts of India where there is a Muslim majority, and can be heard in North American cities with large numbers of Pakistani and Indian immigrants, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto and Montreal, she said.

The conference had also a new spin on the mushaira, an institution that has reinvented itself many times. It has interspersed fiction with poetry and tarannum recitation, Dr Patel said. There was also a display of digital prints on Ghalib and Mir by Prajna Parasher.

The conference was sponsored, among others, by the American Institute for Pakistan Studies , the Indian Council for Cultural Relations , Harrison Institute, and a few UVA entities, including the Special Lectures Fund, International Studies Office, Center for South Asian Studies, Middle Eastern Studies Program, and the department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures, History, English, and Comparative Literature.

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