The story of Urdu from the British Raj to the present day

You may recall that last November we held a well-attended talk by Professor Walter Hakala titled “When Did Urdu Become Urdu? The Prehistory of Pakistan’s National Language” which covered the early origins of Urdu and took its story through to the mid nineteenth century and the advent of the British Raj. Based on the interest shown by the members attending, we had at the time committed to look at an opportunity to continue the enticing journey of Urdu further to the present day, at a subsequent event.

We are now pleased to advise that Zahra Sabri, will now take up the story of Urdu from where Professor Hakala left it at the middle of the 19th century. In the first of her two talks, scheduled for 28 July, Zahra will trace Urdu’s story to the end of the British Raj and the birth of Pakistan in 1947.  She then carries this forward in her second talk on 4 August and charts the course the language has since taken as Pakistan’s lingua franca, and describes the challenges confronting it within the country and in the wider world. 

Talk 1: 1850 to 1947 – Urdu’s acceptance under the British Raj, and role in the movement for Pakistan

In the minds of most South Asians today, Urdu is overwhelmingly associated with the Muslim-majority state of Pakistan and certain minority Muslim communities in north and south India. Yet there was a time not too far back in history when Urdu, quite overtly, functioned as the widely spoken language of a much more religiously diverse demographic cross-section in this region. The talk will cover the circumstances behind Urdu’s administrative elevation and expansion of influence during its heyday under the British Raj when it became the language most commonly taught to colonial administrators arriving from Britain. The talk will cover, inter alia:

–          Urdu’s struggles to hold on to its form, script, and administrative privileges in the face of the emergence of modern Hindi 

–          Calls to collapse Hindi and Urdu into a political project known as a joint ‘Hindustani’ language 

–          Urdu’s role in Indian politics, and as a key factor in the movement to achieve an independent ‘Muslim’ homeland called Pakistan 

Zahra Sabri teaches Indo-Islamic History and Urdu Literature at the Department of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the IBA, Karachi. She received her MA degree from the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University in the City of New York. She has taught History and Urdu Literature at McGill University, Canada, the Aga Khan University, Pakistan, and the University of Karachi’s Pakistan Study Centre.​ Her research focuses on the influence of the Persianate on Indo-Muslim languages, cultures, and traditions of learning, as well as politics of identity centred around Urdu in South Asia.

Time: 6pm (UK Time)

Date: Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Venue: Zoom webinar

Register in advance for this webinar by clicking the zoom link below:

https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_kChMlWD-QgOyZyV0YORlqA

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar. 


Talk 2: Urdu since 1947 – Urdu’s usage and role within Pakistan and the wider region 

Ever since the birth of Pakistan and its independence from British rule, there have been repeated constitutional commitments to move all state business from English (a little-understood colonial language) to Urdu (the much more widely-understood ‘national’ language), albeit spoken ‘natively’ by hardly one-tenths of Pakistan’s population. The talk will explore the circumstances which led Urdu (a ‘migrant’ language whose original heartland lies in India rather than Pakistan) to be declared the national language of Pakistan, how the language has navigated linguistic tensions in a multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic society like Pakistan over the decades, and what is at stake in Urdu’s ‘competition’ with English in Pakistan’s civil bureaucracy, private sector, and multi-layered education system. The talk will cover, inter alia: 

–          Jinnah’s declaration about the official role of Urdu in Pakistan and its reception in the country’s eastern half (today’s Bangladesh)

–          Urdu’s shrinking status in India and the added prominence achieved by its status in Pakistan by comparison 

–          Urdu’s sometimes tense existence in the province of Sindh and its status in other provinces of Pakistan 

–          Urdu’s continuing popularity in Bollywood, and the impact of this on Urdu within Pakistan 

–          Urdu’s struggles against English in Pakistani education, the private sector, and the civil bureaucracy 

–          Urdu’s importance for South Asian diasporic communities in countries such as the UK and USA

Zahra Sabri teaches Indo-Islamic History and Urdu Literature at the Department of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the IBA, Karachi. She received her MA degree from the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University in the City of New York. She has taught History and Urdu Literature at McGill University, Canada, the Aga Khan University, Pakistan, and the University of Karachi’s Pakistan Study Centre.​ Her research focuses on the influence of the Persianate on Indo-Muslim languages, cultures, and traditions of learning, as well as politics of identity centred around Urdu in South Asia.

Time: 6pm (UK Time)

Date: Wednesday, 4 August 2021

Venue: Zoom webinar

Register in advance for this webinar by clicking the zoom link below:

https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_lDkjjkQSS8S7q30_dn-V4A

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar. 


COVID-19

You will of course be aware of the problems arising from the Coronavirus contagion and the need for everyone to take particular care and observe the restrictions on movements and assembly that the Government has announced. It seems safe to assume that these restrictions will remain in being for many weeks and possibly several months.

With this in mind, the Executive Committee of the Pakistan Society has decided that all further meetings of the Society should be online only for the time being.  The Annual Dinner is currently postponed. Given the uncertainties over the duration of the restrictions we cannot say whether it will be possible to stage any dinner this year. Just as soon as we know when the restrictions are lifted, and we judge it prudent to resume normal service, we will inform you.

It hardly needs stating that the Executive Committee hopes that this dreadful pandemic can be swiftly overcome and that in the meantime all of the Society’s members and their families and friends, wherever they may be, remain safe and free of infection.

If you have any questions about this, we will do our best to answer at info@thepakistansociety.org.uk

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