What's in a Name?


It seemed right to begin in Delhi, the home of the Urdu Shakespeare Ghalib, while making a film about Urdu. Delhi is, after all, the heart of Urdu, isn’t it? We spent a week in Delhi, in beautiful Delhi, in dilwalon ki Dilli, with its scatterings of history and a landscape that bluntly reflects the effects of time and discovered that it is, in fact, only one of the many hearts of Urdu. Urdu is a language after all, and one that sweeps across the South Asia subcontinent. The week was to offer many a paradigm shift.

We began in the Urdu Bazaar, where we’d already spent some time last July, by revisiting Tahirbhai. Tahir Khan Sahib runs a small travel shop in the Urdu Bazaar which, in its heyday, served as his father’s commercial art studio. In our previous visit, Tahirbhai had patiently guided us along a tour of the bazaar. The Urdu Bazaar is located just across the street from the Jama Masjid and once housed a plethora of publishing houses and bookshops, which has, in recent times, turned into more of a butcher’s market/food bazaar.

We assumed for the longest time that the Urdu Bazaar was thus called because of the bookshops and publishing houses that were once located there. On our fourth day in Delhi, we met Mr. Sohail Hashmi, linguist and historian, who revealed to us the actual reason for it being named such: the open ground just by the Jama Masjid, was where the army of the Delhi Sultanate once camped and was therefore known as the “Urdu Maidan”, Ordu being the Turkish word for army. The market just next to it, where the soldiers went to buy their daily needs, came to be known as the Urdu Bazaar. Now, of course, there is no Urdu Maidan and the open ground (or maidan) has come to be occupied by a bustling market.

Much later, a Hindi Maidan was named somewhere near the Daryaganj Police Station, under the premise that if there can be an Urdu Maidan, there ought to be a Hindi one too. This of course brings us back to the Hindi-Urdu debate, and the question of just how different the two really are. (On which note, one should really read the story Hindi-Urdu by Saadat Hasan Manto)

We also met Mr. RV Smith, a journalist who has spent much of his youth in Chandni Chowk, documenting the many tales that the iconic locality possesses. His books, of which the most popular is Delhi – Unknown Tales of a City, are full of interesting anecdotes and stories of the place. Now, two weeks hence, we find ourselves back in the capital, following up on some of Mr Smith’s anecdotes and tracing the journey and life of Urdu. Do stay tuned for more.

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