By Amrita Sharma
As a research scholar and a student of literature since as far as I can recall, my encounter with a foreign language has remained particularly limited to ‘English’ as my primary medium of education and research. With the present quarantine confining most of us to our household, our attention is more than naturally drifting to what has so far remained unnoticed for many of us.
As a Hindu Brahmin scholar, though my religious affiliations should logically remain insignificant in the literary context but somehow they don’t, I have received no formal training in reading or speaking Urdu. Although I have read Urdu writers as part of my university curriculum, the English translations unfortunately remain inadequate in conveying the nuances of the ‘spoken language’ that now I realise come out beautifully in a ‘mushaira’ or performative act.
As our access to books in innumerable libraries across the world remains limited, it is the electronic content that presently caters to most of our literary needs. Out of these cyber blessings, Facebook and YouTube perhaps remain the most popular in generating a discourse on alternative literary media aesthetics.
In February I came across a random social media message regarding a Pakistani poet, named Tehzeeb Hafi. This momentarily caught my fascination with Urdu Shayari. While the entire world experiences the emergence of a global health crisis that has led us to a quarantine mode, it is this period of confinement that has taken me back to that social media post in March. With social media empowering every internet user with an access to information regarding almost everything, it is not difficult to ‘read’ such contemporary literature across dynamic platforms such as Facebook and YouTube that remain just a click away.
Watching one video after another and reading one post after the other, Hafi’s captivating style has primarily been my first serious literary encounter with Urdu Shayari so far. Though my city of residence, Lucknow, remains a significant host for many cultural events celebrating Urdu, a very small percentage of the population actually embraces these traditional cultural expressions in the face of the modern. However, what remains exceptional about Hafi is his integration of modernity within his shayari both at the level of thought and diction.
As a fresh voice that has attracted many social media followers, a phenomenon not so common for Urdu poets, Hafi has been successful in taking ‘shayari to smartphones’ across national borders. With a diction that is fairly intelligible to even a non-native speaker of Urdu, his charm has particularly attracted those who refrain from the language due to a lack of understanding of the complex vocabulary and seemingly difficult lexicon.
As often emphasized by Hafi himself in many of his interviews available on YouTube, popularising Urdu shayari through social media, of which he remains a significant example today, is undoubtedly helping to revive its popularity among the younger generation that remains unaware of its past. It is through an encounter with one good ‘shayari post’ that a social media user may be drawn to the study of a rich tradition that has had many practitioners on both sides of the border of the Indian subcontinent.
While the Indian society descends into social chaos even in the face of a global threat, it is probably such cultural texts that may, though momentarily, allow us to retain hope in the future of a human race beyond its base instincts.
It is thus ‘literature’ that, while flowing free across these alternative media, continues to strengthen our hopes in the human bonds that shall always emerge more powerful than the political, religious and cultural divides. It is our love for the ‘aesthetically appealing’ that will hopefully remain operational in overcoming our forced cultural choices and biases that impair free expression at times. While not in the least advocating a rejection of the cultural riches that we already possess, we might as well constantly add to our storehouse by embracing what is appealing despite its culturally different origin.
While everything about Tehzeeb Hafi is just a Google search away, he remains personally completely unknown to me. His profile on Facebook somehow makes him more familiar and his videos on YouTube remain my quarantine solace!
Amrita Sharma is a research scholar at the Department of English, University of Lucknow.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.