Monday, July 16, 2007

The romance of Urdu is lost in translation

http://www.livemint.com/2007/07/14001456/The-romance-of-Urdu-is-lost-in.html

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 thegoodlife@livemint.com

Technorati tags applicable to this post: - - - -

4 comments:

Sharjeel said...

Excellent writeup indeed... Any lover of Urdu can be swayed by the passionate description of Urdu along with the privation of not knowing the language.

I was personally enthralled by these lines:

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.

Siyaah said...

Nice post...yes the nuances are difficult to capture...but perhaps some translation is better than none...

Soni said...

I totally agree with you. I read this other blog a few minutes back and that dwells a little into the history and the facts why Urdu is vanishing from India.

Here's the blog if you want to read that. http://www.arhama.com/?p=11

Keep up the good work.

-Soni

web.vitex said...

I read any where " Translation is a coffin we leave the soul behind " and being a writer & poet i love this saying, Your love with Urdu is really is a matter of shame for the Elite class of Pakistan, the class which even don't know the Alpha batik of Urdu and they are Pakistani.