Monday, May 30, 2016

Urfi and Abul Fazl - From the Letters of Ghalib

As is well-known, Ghalib considered himself the last word on the Persian language among his contemporaries, and did not regard any Indian-born Persian poet except Amir Khusro to be a master. Even Bedil, whom he started out emulating, was consigned to a lower category by the later part of Ghalib's life. His hero was Ferdowsi, the great 10th/11th century composer of the Shahnameh. Others he regarded highly included the great classical poets Rudaki, Khaqani, Anvari, Rumi, Sa'di, and Hafez, as well as the later poets who came to India from Iran in the Mughal period, including Urfi, Naziri, Saa'ib, Kaleem, et al. In contrast to them, he regarded Indian-born poets such as Faizi, Bedil, Vaaqif, Qateel et al., as imperfect imitators at best and ignoramuses at worst. His posthumous trolling of Qateel and Vaaqif is legendary.
In this excerpt from a letter to Chaudhri Abdul Ghafoor Suroor, written in March or April 1859, Ghalib relates a well-known story that encapsulates his attitude.
Urfi was a Persian poet who came from Shiraz in Iran to Akbar the Great's court, and is regarded as one of the great masters. Abul Fazl was a scholar who is generally considered the leading light among the famous "nine gems" (naoratan) of Akbar's court. Khaqani and Anvari were both classical masters of Persian poetry from the 12th century.
Ghalib writes:
"... once there was an argument between Maulana Urfi (blessings upon him) and Abul Fazl. The Shaykh [Abul Fazl] said to Urfi, "We [Indians] have brought forth limitless scholarship and acquired high perfection in Farsi". Urfi replied, "But what of the fact that we [native Persians] have heard Farsi from the elderly women of our households since infancy?" The Shaykh said, "We have learned Farsi from [the writings of] Anvari and Khaqani, while you have learned it only from old women!" Urfi retorted, "Anvari and Khaqani too learned their Farsi from old women!" "

This is a very subtle point regarding the issue of what comprises "correct" language. Is it the natural, idiomatic speech of native speakers, or what scholars of the language deem to be "correct"? In Urdu, which, for all its populist origin, has been an elitist language for centuries, the tension is especially interesting. In part, it can be appreciated as a contrast between "words" (lughaat) and the "idiom" (mahaavara). Words are the province of the scholar, who can get into etymology, usage, grammatical contexts, etc., but idiom is something created by speakers in real-time, given validity more by communicative value than the following of strict rules. Serious students of language, like Ghalib, have always recognized this, and regarded what he called "roz-marra-e ahl-e zabaan" (the everyday speech of native speakers) as an important criterion. This is also what Mir Taqi Mir had in mind when he said that the purest Urdu was spoken on the steps of the Jami' Masjid (in Delhi). In this context, it is clearly important to determine exactly whose "everyday speech" is to be considered "proper" (faseeh), and whose is to be regarded as impure. In the case of Urdu, this question has always been bound up in the issues of social class and region, with native speakers from Delhi, Lucknow, and areas around them claiming a unilateral privilege. One curious subtext of this is the value placed on the speech of women in "respectable", i.e. socially high-status, households. The argument might be that, since these women seldom ventured outside their homes, their language was "polluted" the least by the vernacular of "the market" (baazaar). In that sense, their idiom came to be seen as the purest. When Ameer Minai (my great-grandfather) began work on his monumental Urdu dictionary, Ameer-ul-Lughaat (which was destined to remain unfinished), one of the things he most attended to was the speech of women. It is said that he once overheard a passing woman use an unusual idiomatic expression, and followed after her to confirm what she had said and what she meant.
Formally, in Urdu poetry, the criterion of validity for a word or expression has been usage by recognized masters such as Mir, Sauda, Zauq, Daagh, et al. Ironically, purists sometimes regard Ghalib as being too fond of linguistic innovation to be considered an appropriate validator (sanad)! That tradition has now largely vanished, with Daagh and Ameer perhaps the last poets to be regarded universally as appropriate references. Among later poets, only Seemab Akbarabadi acquired an approximately similar status. We now take a much more appropriately modern view of language as a living, ever-evolving entity. But what Ghalib implied in quoting Urfi was, in its own way, recognizing the same thing!

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