Call for Papers: Conference on the Popular Culture of Urdu to be held in New Delhi

Tasveer-e Urdu and the Centre for Indian Languages (SLLCS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi), plan to hold a two-day conference on the popular culture of Urdu language on 8-9 September 2017 in New Delhi. The organisers seek proposals of presentations that can lead to engaging discussions on the theme, outlined in the concept note shared below.

For submissions, a short abstract (not more than one page) should be sent in Urdu or English, with a short bio of the presenter’s past work, latest by 10 April 2017 to

Once the submitted abstract/concept is selected for participation, the selected submissions will have to send the full paper (5000 to 8000 words, in Urdu or English) by August 10, 2017.

For more details visit:

Concept Note:

While Urdu is typically celebrated as a language of romance and classical poetry by Ghalib, Mir, and Faiz etc., its lesser-acknowledged popular culture of movie songs, detective fiction, ghazal gayeki, poetry inscribed behind vehicles, mushairas, and qawwalis, has probably kept the language alive and kicking among the masses even as its more virtuous practitioners lament that Urdu is dying in India. So what are these popular forms that continue to thrive in the underbelly of classical Urdu and how different they are from its elite cultural life? More importantly, where does one draw a line between popular and classical in Urdu? Although some examples mentioned above are part of what we call ‘popular culture’, these were never really disconnected from what can be called ‘classical’. Urdu is not a monolithic entity in time and space – it has been changing over centuries in its vocabulary, usage, demographics and poetics. There have been multiple dilutions within Urdu that have redefined the notions of ‘Classical’ and ‘Popular’, not to mention the local or regional differences in Urdu’s use.

The literature of the bazaars (such as the slogans behind trucks and auto- rickshaws) is seen by the literary elite with scorn since much of it does not follow supposed literary norms or even ‘correct pronunciation’. But this disdain for the popular is not new – in its early years Urdu poetry itself was seen with scorn by the establishment of Persian literature. One of its earliest proponents, Amir Khusrau, may have composed verses in Urdu/Hindavi ‘to be distributed among his friends’, as he himself claims. But due to his better- preserved classical Persian verse, today’s scholars have difficulty accepting Khusrau as a poet of the masses. Similarly, when 18th century’s Nazeer Akbarabadi wrote playful poetry on folk themes in contrast to the classical idiom of Mir and Sauda, he was outcast as the poet of the bazaars. But this bilingualism also allowed poets like Khusrau, Ghalib and Iqbal etc. to make more heartfelt and earthy expression of emotions as compared to Persian which they were classically trained in. These artists were constantly shuttling between the two identities – the ‘high’ Urdu and the ‘low’ Braj, often the depth of their message not very different in the two.

Hence, it is difficult in many cases to draw a line between the classical and the popular in Urdu, since many Urdu poets (and their readers) have been crossing this line frequently. The fact that the poetry collections of Ghalib, Mir and Faiz printed in devanagri script probably sell more than the ones in Perso-Arabic script shows that the readers/audiences of Urdu are more eclectic than what the Urdu-wallas may like to believe. In another recent shift, the Urdu poetry has liberated itself from the burden of tradition, and has stepped outside the Urdu speaking class. Besides its recurrence on TV, cinema, and radio, it is equally popular on social media. The newly resurrected dastan-goi (Urdu storytelling) has become so fashionable that even corporate houses are supporting its performance. Thus, Urdu now seems to be entering unusual contexts, such as the cultural spaces of India’s English-speaking elite.

The pertinent question is: who should Urdu live for in India? While efforts are made to advance Urdu in areas like technical and vocational education to make it professionally viable for Urdu-wallas through patron institutions, this aspect of livelihood somehow gets branded with a communal identity and even exploited for Muslim vote-bank politics. So, is the other facet, the prevalence of Urdu in the popular culture irrespective of its users’ religious identity, a more natural, organic phenomenon that probably needs no official patronage, and should be encouraged to thrive? Should the Urdu-wallas restrict their language to their homes to preserve a dying tahzeeb (culture) or liberate it so that it plays with the street kids to get dirty but sturdier and robust for the future? And finally, who really are the Urdu-wallas of India, in the present context? Some of these questions need to be discussed while examining specific genres such as mushaira, qawwali, print culture, cinema, and other forms of popular culture.

Following are some of the areas where Urdu’s popular culture may still be seen alive or struggling. This list is in no particular order, and each of these may need to be explored/contextualised in the contemporary situation. You may suggest other relevant topics too.

  1. Urdu mushaira (poetry soiree) and its popularity among an eclectic audience
  2. Ghazal gayeki and its association with popular romance
  3. Notions of romance in Urdu public sphere
  4. Religious literature in Urdu (popular Islamic chapbooks, Hindu religious books)
  5. Religious performative arts (songs such as na’ts, qawwalis, nauha and marsias)
  6. New age Sufi music and Urdu
  7. Urdu in Bombay cinema (use of Urdu language in dialogues, songs; Muslim Socials)
  8. Urdu on radio, TV, official announcements
  9. Urdu in newspapers and advertisements – catering to a community?
  10. Urdu publishing industry: technology, market, aesthetics and politics
  11. Popular women’s magazines in Urdu
  12. Jasoosi (detective) novels and literature
  13. Urdu and folk literature; domestic/wedding songs, idioms (Is it popular or folk?)
  14. Calligraphy as popular art (also in religious, decorative and contemporary art)
  15. Urdu and computers; desktop Publishing (and its impact on traditional calligraphy)
  16. Use of Urdu in politics (parliament speeches, political campaigns, identity politics)
  17. Use of Urdu in official/government work; Civil Service exams in Urdu
  18. Reviving Urdu storytelling – dastan-goi
  19. Urdu-medium schools; madrasas
  20. Urdu announcements and street communication (graffiti, posters etc.)

For any queries, contact:

  • Convener: Prof. Mazhar Hussain, Centre for Indian Languages, JNU
  • Concept and Coordination: Yousuf Saeed, independent scholar, New Delhi (