As a second-generation Indian American and a language lover, I have often felt that growing up in the midst of dual (and sometimes dueling) cultures has been both a blessing and a curse. To boot, being from Southern India and not a speaker of the national language (Hindi), I have, at times, felt that I have existed on the fringe of Indian culture and community. Worst of all is the knowledge that in India there exists a rich and varied cultural tradition of music, poetry, literature and art, of which I know very little. The best way I can describe it would be the feeling that one is an outsider in the midst of a very exclusive club, to which nearly every Indian is a card-carrying member.
Despite this setback, I grew up in a house where my parents loved and often shared their love of Indian music and culture with their three girls. It didn't matter that we children didn't know Hindi,and that many of the songs were sung in Hindi. My sisters and I grew up listening to the likes of Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle, Mukesh and Mohammed Rafi, names that few of my readers will know, but were major Indian playback singers in their day. We sang along with the songs, many of them from popular Hindi films, butchering many of the Hindi words, and picking them up anyway, through imitation of the sounds we heard, but we got the melodies right, even though we had no idea what the words meant. Our introduction to Hindi came in the way of songs from Bollywood films - usually love songs or catchy, danceable tunes. At some point, we became aware that there was a finer, artistic side to Indian music - particularly when we learned of the existence of the Urdu language.
Urdu, which is the national language of neighboring Pakistan, is also spoken widely in India, and from what I have observed, enjoys a status equivalent to what the French language would be to the Western world.
I first heard Urdu spoken when I met a beautiful Pakistani girl in my sophomore year at Ohio State University and ended up living with her and her brother for a good many months. Even their simple greetings of "Assalaamu Alaikum" (Peace be upon you), the response "Wa'alaikum asalaam" (And upon you, peace) and "Khuda Hafiz" (May God be your guardian) sounded to me like the elevated speech of angels. I was literally enthralled hearing the soft, mellifluous words roll off their tongues and wished fervently that I could speak Urdu. Aziza taught me many things about Pakistan and plenty of Urdu words as well. She spoke intelligent and cultured English, but when she spoke Urdu, the sound of her words took on an angelic, almost magical quality.To this day I love hearing her speak Urdu, and when I recently visited her in her home in Washington, DC, felt again that longing to be a native and fluent speaker of Urdu.
Urdu is similar to Hindi, and they share many common words, but there are some significant differences:
Although the auditory sensation of Urdu has some relation with Hindi, there are some distinguishing substantive differences between the two languages. Hindi is usually written in Devanagari script, where as Urdu is generally written in Arabic script. Some words of Urdu are also taken from Turkish. As a result of combination of many languages, Urdu has ginormous (sic) set of purposeful and substantive words. The finesse and quality of Urdu literature is really appreciable. Urdu literature was comprised of mystic spiritual poems. Due to the spiritual leeway of the princedoms’ sawyers, Urdu literature adopted Hindu and Muslim motifs. (cited from www.indianchild.com)
Wikipedia cites the history of Urdu as follows:
Based on the Khariboli dialect of Delhi, Urdu developed under the influence of Persian, Arabic, and Turkic languages over the course of almost 900 years. It began to take shape in the region of Uttar Pradesh in the Indian subcontinent during the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1527), and continued to develop under the Mughal Empire (1526–1858). Urdu is mutually intelligible with Standard Hindi spoken in India. Both languages share the same Indo-Aryan base, and are so similar in basic structure, grammar and to a large extent vocabulary and phonology, that they appear to be one language. The combined population of Urdu and Standard Hindi speakers is the fourth largest in the world.
Urdu poetry is also very popular in India and Pakistan and has a long and rich history. I don't know enough about it myself, to expound upon it in detail but I first learned of Urdu poetry through my love of music, particularly my love of ghazals:
A ghazal is a poetic form consisting of rhyming couplets and a refrain, with each line sharing the same meter. A ghazal may be understood as a poetic expression of both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain. The form is ancient, originating in 6th-century Arabic verse. (cited from Wikipedia)
I don't remember when I first heard the voice of (the now deceased) Jagjit Singh, one of India's foremost ghazal singers. I fell in love with his smooth, soulful voice. The following ghazal sung by Jagjit Singh and written by Ameer Meenai, a respected 19th century Urdu poet, is very popular in India and Pakistan. Titled "Sarakti Jaye Hai Rukh Se Naqab", it is a love song that was also featured in an Indian film. In the video that follows, you can hear Jagjit Singh in concert singing an achingly beautiful rendition of this song. The sounds of shouting in the background are nothing less than the audience's effusive appreciation of his masterful singing, and probably of the poetry as well. I've included the lyrics in Urdu, and the translation below, found on the net; (however, not being a speaker of Urdu myself, I can't vouch for the accuracy of the translation). Nevertheless, if you've never heard a ghazal, or any other music, for that matter, from a different part of the world, I hope you'll open your heart and mind to this movingly beautiful work. I am living proof that you don't need to be an "insider" to love and appreciate music - music extends universal membership to all who seek it with love and an open heart, and breaks down the barriers of race, creed and language.
And to those who seek knowledge and enlightenment, perhaps knowledge and enlightenment also come to them at last... ahista, ahista.
Don't forget to scroll all the way down to pause the Music Box in the sidebar at the left, before you start the video!
[Male part:]sarakatii jaaye hai ruKh se naqaab ahista ahista
Sliding from her face, the veil. Slowly, slowly.nikalataa aa rahaa hai aaftaab ahista ahistaThe moon reveals itself. Slowly, slowly.jawaaN hone lage jab vo to ham se kar liyaa pardaaEntering youth, from me she veiled herself.hayaa yakalaKht aayii aur shabaab ahista ahistaShyness came at once, but maturity came... Slowly, slowly.The next two couplets are not in this rendition of the song, but I've heardother renditions where they do include them:[Female part:]
shabefurkat kaa jaagaa huuN farishton ab to sone do
I am awake since the night we parted. By the Angels! Let me sleep.kabhii fursat men kar lenaa hisaab ahista ahistaLater at leisure, you may calculate who owes what. Slowly, slowly.[Male part:]
savaalevasl par unako uduu kaa Khauf hai itanaa
Conversation, like a villain, scares her so muchDabe honThon se dete hain javaab aahistaa aahistaaThrough tightened lips she replies, slowly, slowly.hamaare aur tumhaare pyar men bas fark hai itanaaMine and your love differs in this onlyidhar to jaldii jaldii hai udhar aahistaa aahistaaThis side seeks speed and that side... Slowly, slowly[Female Part:]vo bedardii se sar kaaTe "ameer" aur main kahuuN un se
How unkindly the prince executes me... yet I say to himhuzuur aahistaa aahistaa, janaab ahista ahistaLord, slowly, slowly. Sir, slowly, slowly.