The Decline of Persian in India

As an advanced research student of classical and semitic languages and cultures, the fact that Persian has almost become a defunct language in India came as a sad realisation for me. Now it’s quite difficult to believe that Persian was one of our languages and poets like Amir Khusro, who never went to Iran, wrote in this language. Persian is such a euphonic language that even if you don’t understand a smattering of it, the phonetic sound of the language can transport you to a different realm. I vividly remember when I heard it first at the age of three, the language intoxicated me and thus began my lifelong romance with the world’s most fascinating language.

Persian has a feminine appeal and it oozes sensuality. Any Persian speaker or one who has at least some familiarity with it will agree with me. This exquisite language has a vast literature and immense profundity. Tailor-made for verses, Persian literature is mainly available in the form of poetry.

Great mystic poets like Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, Hafiz Shirazi, Fariduddin Attar, Sanai, Khakani and Jami (the coeval of saint Kabir) greatly enriched Persian language. Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi’s “Masnavi-e- Maulana Rumi” is considered to be the next to ‘Holy Quran’ in its loftiness. Maulana Rumi himself wrote about it that he omitted the bones of Quran and retained the pulp in his ‘Masnavis.’ Abdurrahim ‘Khankhana’ Rahim, who translated Babar’s Tuzuk-e Babri (Turkish) into Persian entitled ‘Babarnama,’ Abul Fazal and Faizi were the masters of Persian prose. Many dohas (couplets) of Rahim in medieval Hindi are penned in Persian script, though Rahim could write Hindi as he was a polyglot.

Abul Fazal’s Aina-e-Akbari, though slightly turgid and biased at times, is the quintessence of delicate Persin prose. Faizi’s love letters written in chaste Persian could be the best gift a man can give to his beloved, provided she understands not only the language, but also the intricacies of it. Raskhan and Rasleen, two Muslims, who embraced Hinduism and were enamoured of Krishna, wrote sublime poetry in praise of Krishna. Though the language of their poetry was Braj, the script was Persian!! Malik Muhammad Jaysi, who wrote the first epic, Padmavat, in Khadi boli Hindi, resorted to Persian script because he wasn’t acquainted with Devnagari! In order to have a better understanding of Mughal dynasty and that particular period in Indian history, the knowledge of Persian is indispensable, because most of the documents of that era are in Persian. There was a time when a person who did not know Persian was an illiterate. It was a prerequisite for getting a job in the court. Akbar’s contemporary historians like Mufid Zaman and Shahidul Alam called Akbar unlettered because he could not read or write Persian!

It’s almost impossible to analyse the entire works of Ghalib and Muhammad Iqbal without knowing Persian. Apart from writing independently in Persian, both the poets liberally employed Persian idioms and idiosyncrasies in their Urdu poetry. Their Urdu poetry is teeming with Central Asian ethos, which were foreign to Indian culture and psyche, because Persian per se is a culture. How can we quaff the exalted beauty of Iqbal’s poetry if we read the translations of ‘Hayat-e-Kalim’ (The Life of Moses, 1936) and ‘Baal-e-Jibreel’ (The Wings of Gabriel) by western scholars like Swanton, Aurbery, Lambert and the legendary Sir Hamilton Gibb, however superb their renderings might be? Read ‘Rubaiyat-e-Umar Khayyam’ in Persian and then its English translation by scholar of Persian poetry, Sir Edward Fitzgerald, the difference is that of chalk from cheese. Even Coleman Barks’ modern English translation of Rumi’s poetry leaves a lot to be desired.

And what a pity! Such a breathtakingly beautiful language is almost unknown even to the learned Indians. There’re very few universities in India offering Masters in Persian, but the level of standard leaves much to be desired. The Indian students of Persian language and literature cannot write a single sentence in correct Persian, nor can they speak it with any degree of confidence. And there’s not a single non-Muslim, studying Persian at eight Indian universities. But then, can they write proper Urdu? In a country, where Urdu is not promoted because it’s erroneously thought of belonging to a particular community, how can Persian be expected to figure in the present polarised scenario? 

A researcher and writer, Dr Sumit Paul is based in Kolkata. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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