The rise of Urdu impacted literary culture, poetic expression and patronage practices associated with Persian, marginalising its social and literary value in certain venues and Implementing it in others. The often linear presentation of the growth of Urdu in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century South Asia, however, favours the displacement of Persian as abrupt and complete, giving the impression that Persian literary culture declined and disappeared without a trace remaining. Such a view wishes to see the complex interplay between multiple languages in a shared literary environment as necessarily arcing towards the replacement of one by the other. It is a conception modelled on the romantic view of nationalism where monolingualism is an established feature of the modern nation-state.
As Francesca Orsini, an Italian scholar of South Asian literature, reminds us, careful attention must be paid to the particular configurations of multilingual practices and uses among different groups, places and genres in eighteenth- and
nineteenth-century India, rather than that we fall into the trap of generalisations, such as the phenomenon of vernacularisation or a theory of language substitution. The relationship between the register of Urdu and Persian literary tradition was indeed messy.
The origin and rise of Urdu, the circumstances and places where it developed and the genealogy of the name itself remain the subject of much controversy and debate. Contrary to the linear narrative of its development, as nationalist and colonial constructions posit, the emergence of Urdu is the outgrowth of a long series of overlapping and cross-cutting histories. Urdu’s emergence and use as a literary language can be related to far-flung phenomena spread across South Asia in the medieval and early modern periods, such as debates over its literary acceptability and new modes of patronage. Urdu’s rise to prominence can best be seen as the cumulative impact of these many disparate factors, occurring in fits and starts in both the Subcontinent’s north and south over several hundred years. Urdu’s emergence is as much the result of Sufis in early fifteenth-century Gujarat using proto-Urdu to reach a wider audience, and the dual linguistic pattern of Persian and Dakhani under operation at various courts, as it is the outcome of debates among poets and literati concerning its merits as a replacement for Persian in later centuries.
In the early eighteenth century, Rekhta – a mixture of Persian and Hindustani literary verse and a direct literary ancestor of Urdu – experienced its ‘first great flowering’, to borrow the words of Ralph Russell, a British scholar of Urdu literature. At this time, the language began to blossom as a court language, and later, more prominently, it began to blossom as a language of poetic expression. Over the next two centuries, political developments, sociological processes and community desires all coalesced to initiate a greater utilisation of the Urdu vernacular as a growing medium of expression. Its emergence challenged Persian in certain settings, but remained coexistent with it elsewhere.
The break-up of the Mughal empire was a defining moment in this regard. The rise of various successor states in the wake of the empire’s disintegration, along with new patronage opportunities at the court level and throughout society, had far-reaching impacts on Persian literary practice.
A shift, however, had already been under way with regard to Urdu and Persian at the Mughal court. Beginning around the reign of Shah ʿAlam II (1759-1806 CE), Rekhta (slowly coming to call itself ‘Urdu’) came to be used in the court of the Mughals. While Persian remained in place as the official language, the gentry in Delhi became less inclined to utilise it in their writings.
They increasingly viewed Persian as a language most readily associated with the royal patronage practices of a strained imperial centre.
The above is a lightly edited version of part of a chapter, ‘Persian Literary Historiography of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, from a book entitled, ‘Remapping Persian Literary History, 1700-1900’, written by Kevin L. Schwartz, published by Edinburgh University Press.