Monday, July 16, 2007

The romance of Urdu is lost in translation

All languages convey a culture but, perhaps, no other language does this better than Urdu.

Do you have regrets? I do. One of the great regrets in my life is that I cannot understand Urdu. I am reading this book called The Lost World of Hindustani Music by the late Kumar Prasad Mukherji. His floral descriptions of the Lucknow of his childhood only intensify my regret. Apparently, even the tongawalas of Lucknow spoke polished and courteous Urdu.
Languages are repositories of a culture. I know this because I grew up with a linguist. My father speaks 10 languages: French, German, Russian and several Indian languages. Now, at age 70, he is learning Mandarin Chinese.

Listening to The Magic Flute, he says, is a completely different experience if you know German; reading War and Peace in the original Russian offers nuances that are lost in the English translation.

All languages convey a culture but, perhaps, no other language does this better than Urdu. America’s exuberance, for instance, isn’t quite captured in English; Punjabi enterprise and risk-taking isn’t fully expressed in the crude bravado of its language; Mumbaiya Hindi captures the capitalist matlabi Mumbaikar but fails to represent Mumbai’s generous spirit that swells, it seems, with every monsoon flood and natural catastrophe that hits this city. Italian barely conveys the depths of Italy’s contribution to the arts, particularly opera. But Urdu... the cadences and sighs of this beautiful language seem to encompass the courtly graces of Islamic-Indian culture which flourished in Awadh.

Urdu is the language of romance; it is the language of poetry, of diplomacy. I can’t help think that if Juliet had uttered her “Good Night” and “Parting is such sweet sorrow” in Urdu, the whole Montague-Capulet quarrel would have been sorted out. When my untutored ear listens to Urdu shairi, what I enjoy is the relish with which the poem is told and the wah wahs with which it is appreciated. When I listen to a Farida Khanum ghazal, I don’t understand the lyrics, but my heart hears the longing. The Mughals were many things but they were, above all, bon vivants. They epitomized the title of my column. They lived the good life by surrounding themselves with decorative things, aromatic cuisine, soulful music and heartfelt poetry. All of this is encompassed in the exquisite nuances of their language.

Living in South India is a handicap if you enjoy Urdu. Besides Hyderabad, there is no bastion of the Urdu language in the South. Purists will probably say you have to go to Lahore or Pathankot to hear good Urdu, but for a novice such as me, New Delhi is good enough. That said, one of the wonderful things about India, though, is that you can find pink lotuses in the most surprising ponds (to slightly alter an ancient Tamil poem). You can find Bengali scholars in Mulund, Sanskrit experts in Lucknow and excellent Bharatanatyam dancers in, perhaps, Noida. In Bangalore, where I live, I know a gentleman called C.R.V. Subramaniam. A more Tamilian name you cannot find. But this gentleman grew up in Varanasi and speaks excellent Urdu. He composes Urdu shairi, usually after a drink or two and then translates it for me. CRV Uncle introduced me to the nuances and gestures of the Urdu language, the lakshan of a shairi or raga; the lilting intonation with which it ought to be spoken. Like Bengalis, who take pride in their language, lovers of Urdu are uniformly fanatical, believing Urdu to be the mother lode, the fairest language of them all. I wish I had learnt it. I wish I could understand it.

Shoba sings Urdu ghazals... with atrocious pronunciation... mercifully when she is alone. Write to her at

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Update on Translation: گوہر رزہ کی نظم "شامِ غریباں" ۔

In my very first post on this blog, I had mentioned a translation of an Urdu piece by Gauhar Raza that I had put on my personal blog, and had been trying to get in touch with him to submit it for his attention and maybe get his okay for. I finally got in touch with him (and his wife Shabnam Hashmi) over the last few days and got him to comment on the translation and the poem. It was gratifying to hear that he thought well of the humble effort at translation. He added:
"Though I would like the poem to be dead and irrelevant as soon as possible but since the world is not going to be peaceful in near future therefore I suppose it has some use."
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Writing Urdu for a Scottish Fair - سارے جھاں میں دھوم۔۔۔

Recently had a very interesting chance to help someone with Urdu text. I got a message from a fellow contributor to the Wikipedia, asking for Urdu text for "Festival" and "Carnival" and I sent those to him--and suggesting that he also use the word Urdu word "میلہ" (mela). He's put it up and you can check it out at. [Warning: it also kicks up a pop-up ad.]

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