This is a very interesting article sent to us by Ms Razia Hussain. Apart from a brief biography of the poet, it is an excellent analysis of language as well as the social circumstance prevailing at that time. It talks about a language which later on evolved into two major languages, i.e. Urdu and Hindi. A must read for language buffs and also for those who want to have a look at history through a completely different perspective
By Razia Hussain
Nazeer Akbarabadi (1735-1830) was one of the first ‘Hidustani’ poet – unfortunately he turned out to be the only one.
In early 1700s a new language was emerging in and around Delhi. This language was a mixture of some local dialects (Hindvi and Bhaashaa) and Persian, the language of the royal court. There was no formal script, grammar and no prescribed rules for this language. The formation of this un-named language was as organic as the formation of the society at the turn of eighteenth century in the northern sub-continent. There were Hindu aristocrats, eager to learn Persian to gain favor of the court. There were people of Persian and Mongolian decent already rooted in the culture of the sub-continent. Presence of East India Company was ever more felt in larger cities. Political tensions were high, there were many players and the balance of political power hung precariously between them all. At this precise juncture in history, when the fates of a society, a polity, a nation and a language were hanging in a balance, a linguistically gifted genius happened to be taking lexical snapshots of these accounts in his poetry.
Axes of Hindustani
The claim that Nazeer was the first and only Hindustani poet requires some explanation. There is no definition of Hindustani language. It is probably this hypothetical ideal of a language –the mother of modern Urdu/Hindi registers. As mentioned earlier, Urdu/Hindi are a result of an organically evolved language from local Sanskrit based dialects and Persian. One axis of Hindustani is, therefore, along the various languages it has evolved from: Sanskrit on one end and Persian on the other, with various local dialects in-between. The few foreign words of Portuguese and Latin come through the dialects (absorbed from Portuguese traders) whereas Turkish and Arabic come through Persian. Second axis of Hindustani ran along the social status of the speaker. Persian was the medium of instruction of higher education, and viewed similar to how English is viewed in modern day subcontinent. Education, though not always, also reflects the economic status of people because it is a luxury only the rich can afford. Therefore, in 1700s, a wealthy and/or educated person was more likely to use Persian vocabulary than not. Third axis of the language depicted the religious affiliation of the speaker. Islamic terms did not have Sanskrit words and Hindu terms did not have Persian counterparts. Therefore Hindus were likely to resort to Sanskrit based words whereas Muslims had more Persian vocabulary at their disposal. The third axis, however, was the weakest because as mentioned earlier, wealthy Hindu families routinely acquired formal Persian education.
The Chemistry of the language
Taking an analogy of a chemical reaction, if one can imagine a complex reaction of various socio-political forces with language as a reagent, one can imagine that for a brief period in history in a place called Akbarabad, the conditions were just right for Hindustani to exist before breaking up into its registers. Nazeer just happened to be at the right place at the right time under the right circumstances to record this period for posterity. Right place because Akbarabad was neither too far from the Delhi court, nor too near; right time because Hindustani had not yet been formally divided into the two registers; and the right circumstances because Nazeer was perhaps the only major poet of his time who was not associated with any court and did not receive any stipend from a local aristocrat. In fact, Nazeer’s only wealthy patron was a Hindu family whose children were his students. How is financial independence of Nazeer (who earned his living by teaching Persian and selling books) relevant, you ask? It is because, the poets who received stipends from courts of the sultan or aristocrats reflected the class of people they worked for and were removed from the common people. Nazeer, being a Persian scholar, was well aware of the etiquettes of high society but preferred to live among the common people. His close association with people of all religions and keen observation contributed inordinately to his vast vocabulary and knowledge of various dialects (regarded as separate languages in his time.) His poetic work, therefore, slides back and forth on all three axes of the Hindustani language, making him the one and only Hindustani poet of the subcontinent.
Nazeer is perhaps the only poet of subcontinent who blatantly disregarded all the rules of ‘proper’ language and went on a quest to forge a language as he saw fitting to the society he lived in. There are no other examples found in poets of his time or even later, who saw the potential in the newly forming Hindustani language, as did Nazeer. He used compound words like “nigeh guptii” (Persian;Sanskrit) and “dush.t .gazab” (Sanskrit;Arabic), joinedwords like “jawaan o la.rkei” (using the Persian conjuction forbidden to join Persian and Hindustani words) and concocted words like “phabaawa.t” (from “phabtii”). He also used many colloquial words not found in formal dictionaries, many of them quite lewd in nature. No wonder the literary elites brushed his work aside as substandard and later struck his name out from the prestigious collections of Urdu poetry. His vast vocabulary was criticized to be too uncouth, his linguistic innovations were dismissed as grotesque and his reverence for Hinduism and other religions was taken as the sign of apostasy.
Nazeer’s poems are a snapshot of the urban society under the failing Mughal empire. He describes in detail the everyday life, festivities and the breakdown of social fabric in the society of Akbarabad. He paints a picture of a society which is keenly aware of the different castes, religions and social classes and yet works through all these differences on a day to day basis. His poems encompass the unlikely characters of prostitutes (both male and female) eunuchs, peddlers and street performers. He writes of shallow frivolities as well as the deeper meaning of life; for the illiterate as well as the erudite. Nazeer is not just a poet of common people, he is a poet for all the people.
Nazeer and Now
Nazeer’s work is relevant now, more than ever, in the history of the subcontinent. While his peers such as Ghalib and Mir reluctantly slaved in the courts, he felt the pulse of the society and articulated the aspirations of the common man on the street: food, shelter and security. These are still the most coveted objects of desire for millions in the subcontinent. People really don’t care who rules over them and whether they have weapons of mass destruction to defeat the invaders. People want to survive and live in peace with their families and watch their children grow.
Nazeer’s discernment of one society never came to pass. The political tides drove the people of subcontinent onto two separate paths. Religion, the weakest axis of Hindustani language, was inordinately strengthened to achieve political goals. The script and vocabulary of the language was divvied up between various groups and what could have been a grand language and a grand nation was reduced to Hindi for Hindus in Hindustan and Urdu for Muslims in Pakistan.
Six decades later, Pakistanis still find themselves hooked to Hindi movies and Indians still fall for the Persianized Urdu songs of Bollywood. The governments try to keep the people apart, feeding fear and hatred, but the common culture and language unequivocally attracts them when they see each other outside of their homeland. The political stability of the area depends on their mutual cooperation which is crucial for their economic viability as well. India and Pakistan share the common geography which is equally prone to threats from epidemics such as UG99. It is only through mutual cooperation that both nations can find common solutions to their common problems.
There are some recent efforts, however humble, to bring the two countries together such as Aman ki Aasha. Who better to quote at this time than Nazeer, who says:
kaljag nahii.n karjag hai ye, yaa.n din ko dei aur raat lei
kyaa .kuub saudaa naqd hai, is haat dei us haat lei.
With poverty and populations rising and resources, such as water, falling short, peace is no longer a preference, but a dire need. One must never underestimate the power of necessity.