Yousuf Saeed

Arts Research

Grant Period: over one year

Yousuf Saeed is an independent filmmaker, designer and author based in New Delhi. Since 1990, he has been producing documentary videos, writings and designs based on Indo-Islamic art and culture, especially from South Asia. His documentary films have screened on television as well as international film festivals and academic venues. His interest in research and documentation of the popular Sufi culture of India has led to a large collection of religious poster art, which culminated in a few exhibitions and a research-based book. With an IFA grant in 2013, Yousuf undertook a research and documentation project on printed images from early to mid-twentieth century Urdu literature using material from public and private collections in and around North India which culminated in a website. He is currently the project director of Tasveer Ghar, an online archive of South Asia’s popular visual culture. This grant supports him to organise an international conference on the evolution of the Urdu language and its proliferation in popular culture across music, film, literature and television in collaboration with Centre for Indian Languages, JNU in September 2017.

Unlike all other regional languages of India, Urdu is not confined to any particular region or state; and it was not associated with a particular community until very recently.  The language, whose origin is disputed, is spoken and understood across India along with other regional languages which have contributed to its lexicon, thus giving rise to unique and thriving cultures of Urdu. Yet, Urdu, by and large, has been known for its highly romantic and classical poetry of stalwarts like Ghalib, Mir, Sauda, Iqbal, Jigar and Faiz. In the discourse on Urdu, the lesser-acknowledged popular culture - movie songs, detective fiction, Ghazal singing, poetry inscribed behind vehicles, Mushairas, and Qawwalis - that have kept the language alive among Urdu-speaking and non-Urdu-speaking masses, does not get serious attention and is scorned by the literary elite since it does not abide by the classical norms of the language.

This two-day long international conference will attempt to create a rich tapestry of research, debate and discourse around the idea of popular Urdu culture, locating it in its historical and contemporary contexts. It will examine various genres of popular entertainment that keep this language alive with the public demand albeit with frequent transformations and amalgamations in its vocabulary and poetic expressions. While Urdu and its ethos are alive in popular forms of entertainment, the traditional, elite Urdu speakers continue to lament about the demise of their language. Its recent reappearance in the popular media such as TV, in cinema, radio and other social media is brushed aside with disdain because they do not adhere to the strict literary norms of the language.

This conference aims to counter this claim by looking at a much larger repertoire of popular literature which includes detective novels, theatre transcripts, songbooks, saint biographies, serialised narratives, and popular poetry, printed in Urdu on cheap paper, alongside other popular media. This provides activities of pleasure for thousands of new readers among other things. The conference seeks to bring to light this alternative view of Urdu as people’s language. The larger aim of this conference is to explore the prevalence of Urdu in the popular culture irrespective of the religious identity of its users - a more natural, organic phenomenon that probably needs no official patronage - and should be encouraged to thrive. A significant question to be explored in the contemporary context is the veracity of the complaints of the elite of Urdu as a dying language.

The conference will have two sets of speakers. One set will be invited, which will include scholars and practitioners who are working in the domain of popular Urdu culture. This will include a few foreign scholars too. The speakers will be carefully chosen so as to bring multiple perspectives on the popular Urdu culture with each one of them addressing a different area or concern about the subject. Discussions will also explore various ideas that formed the early debates around the language and identity after the partition of India when Urdu became the national language of Pakistan. The second set of speakers will include scholars and practitioners who will be selected through a ‘Call for Proposals’ process. The idea is not to have only well-established scholars and practitioners speak on the subject but also reach out to young scholars and practitioners who are working in this domain.

Yousuf will put together a small team that will help him organise the conference and ensure outreach through the press and social media to the broader arts community, especially the Urdu fraternity in and outside of institutional spaces. Professor Mazhar Hussain of the Centre for Indian Languages, JNU will be the convener for this conference. A Dastangoi performance on the theme of popular Urdu culture will also take place as a part of the conference.

The idea of this conference took nearly two years to develop into the final proposal and subsequently into a grant. During different grant-monitoring trips to Delhi, Bhopal, Hyderabad and Lucknow, over the last two years, programme staff met experts from the field to discuss the idea. Subsequent to this, the proposal was sent to various international scholars of the discipline to solicit their views. All their concerns and views were incorporated in the final proposal to sharpen its focus.  The decision to make this grant is informed by our concern to support projects in Indian languages other than English, so as to contribute to discourse building in particular language contexts.