Revival Via Adaptation


Sukhan is one of those performing at 4th edition of Jashn-e-Rekhta festival, a celebration of Urdu in the capital that’s been attracting larger, and younger, crowds with every passing year


It is hard to put a name to what Sukhan does. This bunch of singers, orators and storytellers from Pune takes music, Urdu poetry, banter, ghazal and qawwali, tosses it together with histrionics and invites the audience to laugh and sigh together.

Actor Om Bhutkar does the shattered, mildly plastered lover, with a hand over the heart with great effect: “Us bewafa ka shahr hai, aur waqt e shaam hai…” The crowd waits for the treacherous lover’s blow to land. “Us bewafa ka shahr hai aur waqt e shaam hai… aise main zinda rehna himmat ka kaam hai (I am in the heartless one’s town and dusk is falling/ To remain alive at a time like this is a work of courage)” Aaaah… comes the sound of collective heartache from the audience.

Sukhan is one of those performing at the fourth edition of Jashn-e-Rekhta festival, a celebration of Urdu in the capital that’s been attracting larger, and younger, crowds with every passing year. And the sheer variety of entertainment on offer this weekend shows how a language that was nearly declared dead has come back from the brink.

There is Urdu prog rock band Parvaaz, a western take on the ghazal by English songwriter Tanya Wells, dastangoi and a dramatic tribute based on a letter to the legendary writer Jaun Elliya. Kathak dancer and storyteller Neelesh Misra come together in The Courtesan Project to tell the story of Ghalib and his lover Nawab Jaan with a mélange of Urdu poetry, history and dance.

There was a time when Urdu was defined only by well-loved familiar faces like Javed Akhtar and Gulzar — and they still pull massive crowds — but what is remarkable is the rise of new names pushing the cause of the language.

Khalid Ahmad, vocalist, frontman and guitarist at Parvaaz, says the group took a big chance by running with Urdu in Bengaluru where it is based. “We didn’t even pick Hindi mind you, we stayed with Urdu and we were encouraged at every single venue. We keep pushing the boundary with our lyrics now,” he says.

Ahmad and Mir Kashif Iqbal come from Kashmir and say they saw no reason to sing in Hindi, English or other languages common to rock in India. “Just as all Indian languages are now finding their voices in rock music, Urdu too belongs here. It was the language we grew up with in Kashmir and comes naturally to us,” says Kashif.

Parvaaz’s lyrics are moody and existential — Ab ki ye subah is qadar hui/ Shaam ki hamein kuch khabar nahi/Sheikh ka bayaan is qadar haseen/ Ilm ki zubaan beasar hui (the morning is so beautiful that it leaves us oblivious to dusk, the poet’s words are so magical that it left the language of knowledge meaningless).

Singer Tanya Wells, who juggles her musical career between Brazil and the UK, learnt Urdu because she found herself riveted by its musicality. She is now something of a ghazal evangelist in the West, and her video takes on Mehdi Hassan and Nusrat Fateh Khan have left even connoisseurs in Pakistan impressed.

“In a world increasingly stressed by aggression, Urdu takes us back to a different time and mindspace. I think that is why it is now getting new fans,” says Kokab Fareed, actor, who is doing a dramatic presentation dedicated to Pakistani poet Jaun Eliya. ‘Jannat se Jaun Eliya Ka Khat’ by Pakistani writer Anwar Maqsood is a work that imagines the greatest of Urdu poets from Ghalib and Mir to Faraz in heaven. Fareed has tweaked its content into a play. “Indians usually turn to Urdu when they fall in love, so did I, but then it became a passion,” he says.

What is interesting is that this creative spurt is coming from across the country, not just the Hindi belt. Sukhan is a bunch of Marathi-speaking artistes from the heart of Pune, and Parvaaz musicians work and thrive in Bengaluru.

“There are few Indian languages that have been left completely untouched by Urdu and that is the case with Marathi as well. There are several words like zabardast, parvanagi, sifarish and zameen that we use every day without even being aware of their Persian/Urdu origins,” says Om Bhutkar who forms Sukhan, along with Nachiket Devasthali and a team of musicians. “And, of course, no one who has watched Hindi films can claim to be ignorant of Urdu. So when people come and listen even to complex poetry they absorb it easily.”

Sukhan’s USP is its constant effort to get audiences to participate. A grave couplet will suddenly be addressed to an imagined Rameshji in the crowd or audiences will be asked to repeat a line. The act also changes from time to time, juggling Ghalib, Faiz, Sahir Ludhianavi and a host of celebrated poets.

“The trick is to draw a fine line between that which is entertaining but lightweight and literature that is deep but inaccessible,” says Bhutkar. Besides drawing raucous wah wahs at last year’s Jashn-e-Rekhta in Delhi, the group has played to full houses in the smaller cities of Maharashtra like Akola, Daund, Nagar and Nashik.