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What we preserve, when we preserve a language

These dried out ink bottles are an SOS call for us to initiate the preservation of our languages and culture, the right way.

By Devki Pande

“Do you understand what I am saying?” Moiniyar Khan asks me. I am in Bidar right now, have come for the sole purpose of documenting the languages spoken here. Without waiting for a reply, he inquires about the languages I speak.

Tumhari zubaan kya hain?”

“English. And Hindi,” I reply.

Aur Urdu aati hain?” he asks. Do I know Urdu? Vaguely, I indicate. The Urdu that I am familiar with appears only in Bollywood music, in the occasional shayiri that my grandparents recite from time to time.

“Bagaer Urdu, khatati samajh nahi aati.” You can’t understand khatati without Urdu, he says. Nevertheless, he begins talking about this art of Urdu calligraphy by explaining the mechanics of the language that it is written in.

“Just like the Roman alphabet, the Urdu alphabet also has 26 letters,” he says.  “It developed out of constantly writing Arabic.”

He pauses. “And there are two types of khatati. The first one is rooted deeply in Arabic and is only used for the Qoran. That is known as Khatatisuls. The second is Khatatinusk.“

He pauses again, waiting for me to catch up. And after writing it down, I read his words back to him to make sure that I have put them down correctly. I am able to understand his words only in their most basic form – the way you grasp the gist of an unknown word when you read it in a sentence.

I know Urdu as an inherited, diluted tongue because it has been passed down to me from my father. The Urdu Moiniyar Khan is speaking is more complex than I expected. Hindi is my second language, but my access to it is like a qanat system – speaking it for long intervals creates a flow; makes me more capable of creating depth and discovering words buried inside. But with Urdu, there is only what there is and no more. With Urdu, there are no words that can be found.

“N-u-s-q-u-e,” Moiniyar Khan says, placing a finger over the incorrect spelling. After he is satisfied with my penmanship, he pulls out a box. Inside are round bottles of ink, blades, tapering fountain pens, paintbrushes, a rectangular whetstone, and pieces of rosy brick.He picks up the blade and it turns out to be a pen. It is the slant that he is after, which writes like a length of ribbon. The blade is sheep foot and the paint bottles unscrew in a cloud of black and brown specks.

“They are all spoilt,” Moiniyar Khan says. His ink has run dry, his cutters have blackened. His daughter brings him a steel container full of water, and he tips it into the bottles, waiting for sludge to form. He takes my A4 cartridge sheet drawing book from my hands and prepares to write something.

Sabse pehle, char line maarna,” he says. Before starting on the calligraphy, I should draw four lines. He dips blade into ink bottle and draws the pen from right to left four times. The lines fade away before he has finished.

“The paper is absorbing water,” I observe.

 “Nib ko cut karna padta hain. Stone ke upar is tarah karna padta hain.” He says. The nibs can be ready-made or cut by self. Slowly, he draws his knees to his chest to serve as a drawing board and begins again. And in between drawing, he tells me about his craft that he learnt by himself. He had no teacher; he started by copying headings, by tearing out strips of newspaper and working through them himself.

He has a book that he used to refer to. I flipped through it but it was in Urdu. He also has a book that he created – an album of all those pieces of newspaper, of all the verses that inspire him, but that too is in Urdu.

The dying art of penmanship?

I try out all the pens. Most of them squeak. The ink that once flowed has dried up like the water in the qanat.

“This was before computers when wedding invitations were written by hand. Now everyone prints,” he says. Everyone does everything digitally. There is no use for him anymore.

The Khatati monogram made by Moiniyar Khan for the Karnataka Charitable Trust, Bidar.

The Khatati monogram made by Moiniyar Khan for the Karnataka Charitable Trust, Bidar. | Photo Courtesy: Devki Pande

But this is not to imply that he does not have any work. There was a girl in the community who won a scholarship to drama school. There, she was given the role of the queen of fairies, and her mother was so proud that she got him to make a pink and black tiara for the occasion. He also made a khatati monogram for the Karnataka Charitable Trust, Humnabad district, Bidar.

His portfolio consists of verses, writings, and golden wedding cards. He has taken some of the words from the Rangin Mahal, and he says that in certain parts of the palace, a split shell was used to carve the inscriptions. I learn that his arm tremors, which is why he can only teach now. Even what he is showing me is just a demonstration. He is the only one in Bidar who practices this craft now.

The state of the vernacular

Access to a language is constructed like a flute. A hollow rod with holes on the top. A qanat is a system which is based on this technology. A series of interconnected wells. Technically, it is a structure used to lead trapped underground water from the interiors of hills to expanses of land. The qanat was brought to Bidar by Mahmud Gawan in the 15th century and built to transport water to Bidar fort. But it seems that people forgot about it. Recently, the area was being mapped and when the mouth of the qanat was discovered, no one knew what it was. Most of it was covered in vegetation, and frogs, porcupines and thirteen-foot snakes had taken up residence. The access points were all suffocating and filled with mud. It had to be dug out again. When I stood inside the qanat, it was like standing inside a vein of the city. Veins collapse when empty, and when people stop reaching for a language, the same thing happens.

'Qanat' underground systems were built by Persians to ensure water supply during droughts.

‘Qanat’ underground systems were built by Persians to ensure water supply during droughts. | Photo Courtesy: Pinterest

As a child, my father was enrolled in a school where Urdu was the main language of instruction. But he has forgotten pieces of the script now because he never needed to use it again. And that is the problem: that the vernacular is no longer something to aspire to.

I take the pen from Moiniyar Khan and try to copy his strokes. He is willing to teach, but only if somebody is willing to learn. He doesn’t say a word, watery eyes following my hand. I try to replicate exactly what he has made. There is a method to approach a script, but I am focusing only on getting it to look right. As I am writing, he says that I can’t learn khatati by just copying it. He tells me how the most magnificent examples of khatati can be seen in the Abdul Faiddargah, in the Mahmud Gawan Madrasa, even at the entrance of the khanqah that I had spotted for the first time. I know that Arabic is taught in a khanqah, that the teaching at the Abdul Faid khanqah is for free. I know this because the day before, I had encountered a member of the Sufi brotherhood there. Tariqa Hussaini had mentioned that ten years ago, there used to be six maulanas, and all seats used to be filled. Now, the number has dwindled.

A piece of Khatati made by Moiniyar Khan.

A piece of Khatati made by Moiniyar Khan. | Photo Courtesy: Devki Pande

When I finish, Moiniyar Khan looks at what I have done. He has pulled out spectacles from somewhere, and they are perched on his nose. Meanwhile, I look around. His house is constructed out of bricks of laterite, and the holes that make it porous give it the appearance of wine coloured coral. The door to his inner quarters is painted a vivid Persian blue. A neem tree grows at the entrance. There is a sewing machine on a table, an orange rubber duck tucked behind clothes. He is probably a grandfather. There is a pocket-sized book which has fallen open on the ground. Phone numbers and addresses are scrawled in it, with an asterisk and a short note under the ones which have changed. The addresses are scribbled in English, the notes under them in Urdu.

How language endures

This is how language is not like a qanat system: it endures. It finds a form to dwell in. Like water.

Dakhini, a language of Bidar, is an example. It had become the most common street language in cities like Hyderabad, Aurangabad, and even Bangalore, the city of my residence. And in Bidar, I strained my ears to hear it, but whoever I asked said that they didn’t speak it.

Until I realised that I was chasing something that no longer existed. Until I realised I have already heard some of its forms before. I have heard it echo in Hyderabadi Urdu – a variant so different from the Hindi-Urdu that I know. Language, I realised, is a palimpsest. Any representation is not an absolute image, but a work in progress. It holds evidence of all the tongues who have ever uttered it. Even now, it changes: taking words on loan, giving some up. Moiniyar Khan might be speaking it right now, which would explain my more-than-usual struggle for comprehension. So need I worry about forgetting?

That remains the other problem: we are more concerned with conservation rather than usage, with preservation rather than need.

Languages were not meant to be stored. Syntax was not meant to gather dust in a museum, to be rewound and heard through film. Languages have died. They die when we leave them no space to grow, when we crush the structures that support them. I, myself, have come here to document the tongues in Bidar, rather than learn them. And we document things to prove that they happened. Sometimes I wonder if the vernacular is becoming a refugee. Like the Syrians. Their homes have been destroyed, and they look for a land that can take them in as its own.

Moiniyar Khan pats me on the shoulder. He picks up a wider blade and draws over what I had copied, making adjustments and thickening lines that had shaken. Changes that I could have never made. To my eye, both look identical enough.  He looks at me, takes off his spectacles and says, “Lekin nakal karne ke liye bhi akal jaroori hai.” Even to copy something, you need a measure of understanding.

“I can teach you if you wish,” he says. “I can teach you Urdu also. Hindi theek se samajh aati haina?

We let that sentence hang. Even I am not sure at this point.

Devki is a student at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, intern at Contract Advertising Ltd, has worked for Essel Vision Productions Ltd, developed education oriented content for Laugh Out Loud Ventures, conducted workshops for underprivileged children in rural Uttarakhand and is an avid marathon runner. She is currently interning at Penguin. 

Featured Image Source : Unsplash
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