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Sunday, July 3, 2022

Jashn-e-Riwaj and linguistic myopia

Akshat Pranesh discusses the evolution of Hindustani and examines how the language and Muslim culture is written into the very language used for its rejection.

CW: Islamophobia

The growing rejection of anything not deemed purely Hindu is a deep affliction within contemporary Indian society, not least because such furore is directly motivated by Islamophobia. Anything which does not seem to fit an increasingly uniform party narrative is often subjected to violent criticism. In recent memory, who can forget the outrage caused by jewellery company Tanishq’s advertisement, which so brazenly depicted the marriage of a Hindu woman to a Muslim man, despite a well-established precedent of such interfaith marriages in a country with such a history of religious diversity? Who can forget when, last year, Indian clothing company Fabindia had the audacity to release a clothes collection called Jashn-e-Riwaj (Festival of Tradition) around the time of Diwali? This was naturally decried by many, among them an MP from my home state, who wrote, “Deepavali [a synonym of Diwali, commonly used in South India] is not Jash-e-Riwaaz” (typos and all), before going on to complain about the lack of “traditional Hindu attire” in the ad, seemingly having overlooked the multiple saris on show. So why did the name cause such controversy? 

The issue at hand was the name of the collection (not a renaming of the festival of Diwali, despite this being the name-plate of many a fervently-constructed straw man), which is written in Urdu – evidenced by the izafat (the possessive connective ‘e’, found in Persian and Urdu but not common practice in Hindi) – as well as the choice of words, which derive from Persian and Arabic respectively, as opposed to the possible Sanskrit equivalents. It would be another article entirely to analyse the extent of nationalistic fragility that might evoke such a response to three Urdu words, but today’s quiver contains only the arrow of language, so let us focus on that. Before looking at the language in depth, it is worth defining a few key terms: Sanskrit is an extremely ancient standardised Indo-European language, a direct ancestor of Hindustani, and the language of the Hindu religious and literary canon. In contrast, Persian and Arabic are not languages native to the Indian subcontinent (although Old Persian, Avestan, and Sanskrit share close linguistic links), with Persian generally spoken in modern-day Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan (while Arabic stems from a different language family altogether – the Afro-Asiatic languages).

Language and history are, of course, connected. That is quite the understatement. Language is often personified as a living, breathing entity, which develops into the future based on its markings from the past. Hindi and Urdu, which will henceforth be referred to as Hindustani, are not exempt from this process. Hindustani is an Indian language, and therefore derives the majority of its vocabulary and syntax from Prakrits, descendants of Sanskrit that were spoken in India from approximately 300BC to 700 CE. After this, the language underwent several stages of development across the Indian subcontinent, yielding varieties such as Dakhani, spoken in the Deccan region, which was strongly influenced by Muslim rulers, as well as varieties around Delhi, which had less influence. 

During the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Period a process of Persianisation took place, whereby Hindustani retained much of its Prakrit core vocabulary, but absorbed huge amounts of Persian, Arabic, and Turkic loanwords. As the Mughal empire spread, so too did Hindustani, benefiting from Hindu-Muslim contact. This coexistence was so harmonious in places that it gave rise to the development of the Ganga-Jamuni-Tehzeeb1, a synretic cultural fusion of Hindu and Muslim culture and religion. At this stage, historical linguists point out that Hindustani was so diverse as a language that it was referred to as Rekhta, ‘mixed.’ Hindustani has survived with these various influences throughout the extended period of British Colonialism, and is still often used as a term to describe the language in Bollywood, which enjoys popularity in both India and Pakistan and cannot be described as belonging to one or the other. 

It is, of course, impossible to speak Hindustani without subconsciously accepting, with almost every sentence, the role that Persian and Arabic culture has played in the formation of the country and its eponymous language2 (Hindustan is a synonym for India). We could, for example, look at an excerpt from speeches made by India’s PM, Narendra Modi. In a speech made in March 2022, at the India-Australia summit, he talks about the ‘creation of structural mechanisms of regular review of our relationship,’ using the word taiyar, standard Hindustani for ‘ready,’ a perfectly normal word, which came into Hindi from Arabic, via Persian. Such is the case for countless other Hindustani words and phrases which have been integral to a rich literary tradition for centuries. They are found in poetry, prose, ghazals (amatory poems with an origin in Arabic poetry) and many other forms of art enjoyed by innumerable proud Indians, myself among them. 

If the extreme right-wing are to kick up such a fuss about collection names such as Jashn-e-Riwaj, then it would be quite hypocritical to use any vocabulary with a similar origin. Let us say goodbye to any words with the suffix -dar, as they are borrowings from Persian, and bid farewell to words such as intazar, mohabbat, duniya, zindagi (expectation, love, world, life), mainstays of not only poetry but everyday language, too. Following this reductive logic, only obscure words with a purely Sanskrit origin should be used (often lovely words too, it must be pointed out), before speech would inevitably judder to a halt. Let this blindfolded right-wing pause for thought when trying to express words for beginning or finish, (shuru, khatam, – both from Arabic via Persian), or even trying to eat their favourite foods, such as paneer. Let them find a new name for their very identity and religion – the very word Hindu is directly from Persian, deriving from an ancient Indo-Iranian root likely referring to the river Indus. 

There is, then, a truly outrageous hypocrisy in criticising companies for choosing Urdu names and in the same breath making daily use of Arabic and Persian vocabulary loaned into Hindustani. This intentional linguistic and historical myopia, if it can be termed such, is one that transcends the boundaries of ignorant comedy, and has the capacity to yield horrendous consequences, particularly in a country as animated, energetic, and fervent as India. It is indicative of an attitude of historical revisionism, which seeks to ignore the role that Muslim influence has played on the very formation of the country.3 Is it really the case that the right-wing can enjoy the Taj Mahal as a symbol of India, a wonder of the world, without noting its origin and name, both from a Persian-speaking Muslim dynasty? (Taj – crown in Persian, Mahal – place in Persian, reanalysed as palace in Hindustani) It must surely be the case that even this group, which better resembles a kindergarten than a political faction, must eventually grow up and realise the inherent hypocrisy of such ways – one can only hope that such a realisation occurs before it is too late. 

I should like to conclude this article with a couple of lines from an Urdu ghazal, written by poet Syed Khwaja Mir Dard, a poet from the Delhi school, which seem particularly relevant to this discussion of identity. It is below in the Perso-Arabic and Devanagari scripts, alongside a transliteration and meagre translation attempt: 

دوستو دیکھا تماشا یہاں کا بس                                              

تم رہو اب ہم تو اپنے گھر چلے 

दोस्तो देखा तमाशा यहां का बस 

तुम रहो अब हम तो अपने घर चले

dosto dekhā tamāśhā yaāhaN kā bas.

tum raho ab hum to apne ghar chale

friends, I’ve seen the spectacle here – that’s enough

you stay here, I’m heading back home

Make of that word, ghar – home, what you will. 


1A term which means Ganges-Yamuna culture in Hinudstani, named for the two rivers around which this syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture thrived. Elegantly, it just so happens that the term itself is a combination of both Sanskrit and Persian terms…

2For the sake of balance, it is important to point out that Persian and Arabic also contain several loanwords from Sanskrit, although these are far fewer (for obvious historical reasons) than the number of loanwords into Hindustani. Nevertheless, they include the word nârang, orange, from Sanskrit nāraṅga, from which most European terms for this fruit derive, too, as well as Persian/Arabic shatranj, deriving from Sanskrit caturaṅga (an army of four parts – elephants, chariots, cavalry, and infantry) –  The name of the  board game this may have spawned escapes me…

3Yes, a great deal of Persian influence originally spawns from Zoroastrianism, but the impact of Persian on Indian languages is directly traceable to Muslim rule which used Persian as the language of the court.

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