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Should languages be treated as works of art that need to be preserved in their pristine form? Should they kept far from the public lest they be “polluted" and the creation marred? Or are they living, thriving entities that change, evolve, gather, discard and thus, grow? Language purists and grammar Nazis would perhaps have something to say in support of the former view. Language teachers burdened by the checking of ever-worsening answer scripts by successive generations of students are perhaps bound to agree with them. But linguists—those whose business is to “know" the way of languages—are bound to disagree. They are likely to point out how all languages are bound to change and evolve. And when languages travel to new territories, change is inevitable.

Centuries ago, a northern tongue moved south. There, it evolved, changed and grew. And wonderfully so!

When the famous comedian, Mehmood first brought this tongue to national notice in the mid-sixties in movies like Gumnaam, many were curious about this peculiar lingo. Dakhani (or Deccani) Urdu was the name proffered, much to the annoyance of the Urdu cognoscenti. They were miffed at having to append “Urdu" to this appalling (in their view) tongue with its peculiar intonation, choice of words and sentence construction. Indeed, the tongue did seem a world away from the effete, affected ways of Urdu speakers in Delhi and Lucknow.

It wasn’t the first time that northern Urdu purists were behaving in this fashion. As Syed Akbar Hyder says in his paper “Urdu’s Progressive Wit: Sulaiman Khatib, Sarvar ‘Danda’ and the Subaltern Satirists Who Spoke Up", something similar had happened a couple of decades previously as well. The Progressive Writers’ Movement in the 1940s had also refused to consider Dakhani Urdu as a language worthy of attention and had neglected to pay attention to writings emerging from this milieu. They were, in a sense, following in the footsteps of Josh Malihabadi, the Urdu poet who lived in Hyderabad for a while and dismissed its tongue as nothing more than a humorous diversion which brooked no comparison with the Urdu spoken in and around Josh’s native Awadh.

To put it simply, Dakhani is the language of the Deccan, a version of Urdu/Hindi spoken across a swathe of peninsular India—Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and in small pockets in Kerala. While Urdu/Hindi forms the base of this language, in terms of its vocabulary, it draws from its northern progenitors and also from the languages of the peninsula. In Telangana and Andhra, it borrows Telugu words; in Karnataka, Kannada words; in Maharashtra from Marathi, and so on. It is the first language of many (not all) Muslims in the region and co-exists with standard Hindi/Urdu as well as the region’s other vernaculars.

Given its Urdu/Hindi underpinnings, to trace the origin of this tongue, one would have to trace the coming of Hindawi (Hindi’s earlier name of sorts)/Urdu to peninsular India. Ashraf Rafi, in his paper “Dakhni Literature: History, Culture and Linguistic Exchanges", dates this back to Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq’s time, when he moved the capital to Daulatabad (in modern-day Maharashtra) in 1327 and also ordered the people of Delhi to move to the new capital. Others have deemed it likely that Malik Kafur’s Deccan forays, a couple of decades before Tughlaq, had already brought some Hindawi/Urdu speakers to this region. In any case, a result of these incursions, a population that spoke this northern tongue came to be in the Deccan. Even though Tughlaq later changed his mind and moved the capital back to Delhi, the language remained. In time, it interacted with the other tongues of the region and began to change. Over the next century, Dakhani, as this tongue came to be called, began evolving independently from its northern counterpart.

Towards the end of Tughlaq’s rule, his southern dominions asserted their independence and in 1347, Hasan Bahamani became the ruler at Gulbarga. The establishment of the Bahamani Sultanate in the areas that comprised southern Maharashtra, northern Karnataka and parts of Telangana, established this tongue in the region. Sufi saint and scholar Khwaja Banda Nawaj (1321-1422), who moved to Gulbarga in 1398 on the invitation of the local ruler, composed a Sufi tract, Miraj-al Ashiqin in Dakhani. He was the first Sufi to use this vernacular, which was later used by many other Sufi saints of the region in later centuries.

Another early work was Fakhr-I Din Nizami’s Kadam Rao, Padam Rao, said to have been composed around 1420-1430 CE. While full of words derived from many South Indian languages and also Sanskrit, the syntax of the poem is clearly Urdu. Other Sufis, like Shah Miranji Shams al-Ushshaq (d. 1499) and his successors, also used Dakhani.

Later, the Bahamani state split and four new states at Ahmednagar (1460-1633), Bijapur (1460-1686), Bidar (1487-1619) and Golconda (1512-1687) came into being. Dakhani flourished in these princely courts and soon developed a distinct identity. The Mughal Empire, particularly under Aurangzeb, eventually consumed these independent kingdoms. After Aurangzeb’s time, the Mughal viceroy Asif Jah I declared his sovereignty in 1724 and created his own dynasty. Hyderabad, the capital of this new kingdom which comprised areas in present-day Maharashtra, Karnataka and Telangana, became Dakhani’s recognized centre. Over the next few centuries, Dakhani evolved a distinct literature which shared important similarities with the Urdu literature of northern India even as it accommodated important differences. Muhammad Kuli Kutub Shah (1571-1611), Wali Dakhani (1668-1741) and a number of others contributed to creating a distinct Dakhani canon.

After independence, the position of Urdu vis-à-vis Hindi has noticeably altered, mostly to Urdu’s disadvantage. This has adversely affected the development of the language in India. In the case of Dakhani, with the demise of the Hyderabad princely state and the formation of Andhra Pradesh (now Andhra Pradesh and Telangana) with more emphasis on Telugu, it too has struggled to keep its head above water. The old northern disdain for Dakhani hasn’t helped its cause either. Still, it has continued to produce fine literature, especially in the humorous tradition as manifested in the poetry of Sulaiman Khateeb and Ghouse Mohiuddin Ahmed, also known as Khamakha. Three films made in the last decade, Angrez (parts 1 and 2) and Hyderabad Nawabs have reignited interest in the language.

Among the finest attempts to document Dakhani and give the language its true place, beyond the Mehmood-influenced view of it as mere comic relief, is a recent documentary (yet unfinished) entitled A Tongue Untied: The Story of Dakhani by Mumbai-based filmmaker Gautam Pemmaraju. A work that both historicizes the language and explores its living, thriving traditions of speech, literature and culture, the documentary has mapped the language across its various regions and captured priceless moments with some of its most important literary figures. Gautam Pemmaraju has also written on the language and its writers extensively—in effect, creating an important archive on the language and its history.

At its core, Dakhani is a unique amalgam of northern and southern flavours, and a truly representative product of the Subcontinent’s linguistic diversity.

Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm and a freelance writer. Views are personal.

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