U.Va. Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures Holds Conference on Urdu, World's Fourth-Most-Spoken Language

September 08, 2008

September 8, 2008 — To increase understanding of the Urdu language, its literature and the culture and society that developed it, the University of Virginia Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures will host "UrduFest: Contemporary and Historical Facets of Urdu and its Literature."

The conference, to be held Sept. 12 through 14, brings together Urdu scholars from around the world to discuss various aspects of Urdu language and culture.

Although Urdu is unfamiliar to most in the West, it is the fourth most common language in the world with 60 million to 80 million native speakers. It is the national language of Pakistan and one of the 23 official languages of India. It is a repository of the cultural heritage of these and other South Asian countries where it is spoken.

Urdu has its origins in a family of languages consisting primarily of Persian and Sanskrit with some Arabic and Turkish. Although Urdu shares many similarities with Hindi, its socio-political underpinnings are different. It developed in 13th-century Muslim courts and is written right to left. Although the dialogue of Bollywood films from India is in Hindi, the song lyrics heard in these films are often in Urdu.

Urdu is also spoken in many parts of India where there are a large number of Muslims, and can be heard in North American cities with large numbers of Pakistani and Indian immigrants, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto and Montréal.

"At a time when Pakistan and India are increasingly in the news, this conference offers an opportunity to learn more about one of the subcontinent's key literary and cultural traditions, to offset the dearth of knowledge about the region," said Geeta Patel, U.Va. associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literature and one of the conference organizers. "Some of the panels and readings provide an in-depth look at the rich and nuanced history of Urdu literature; others open out onto the lively and exciting terrain of contemporary discussions on gender and politics.

"We also are very fortunate to have Shamsur Rehman Faruqi, the preeminent scholar of Urdu, who will read from his fiction and poetry and engage with us on some of the more pertinent topics of the day."

Faruqi, a world-renowned Urdu critic, poet and novelist who has nurtured students and authors of Urdu literature since the 1950s, will kick off the conference with "A Modest Plea: Please Could We Have a Proper History of Urdu Literature?" His talk is scheduled for Sept. 12 at 6:30 p.m. in the Harrison Auditorium.

Four panel discussions will take place Sept. 13 in the Byrd Seminar Room at the Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library.

The first will be devoted to "Urdu Language and Literature in India and Pakistan Today" and will include presentations on "Temporality in Pakistan Modernism" by Sean Pue, assistant professor of Hindi language and South Asian literature and culture at Michigan State University; and "Crossovers: Urdu and Hindi, Intra-textual and Intra-cultural Convergence," by Mehr Farooqi, U.Va. assistant professor and an expert in the literary cultures of South Asia.

The second panel will focus on "Women and Writing in Urdu Literature." This session includes "Female Writers' Self-Representations in Urdu Autobiographies," by Tanveer Anjum, professor of English, IQRA University, Karachi, Pakistan; "No Ladies Department in Literature, Please: Qurratulain Hyder's Experiences as a Writing Woman," by Christina Oesterheld, University of Heidelberg; and "Zay Kay Sheen, Aligarh's Pardah-Nashin Poet," by Gail Minault, professor in the South Asian Institute at the University of Texas.

The third panel discussion will focus on the 18th-century poet Mir Taqi Mir, who was an early leader, creating poetry in the language as it developed. It will be chaired by Alireza Korangy, chairman of the U.Va. Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures. This panel, "Why Mir Taqi Mir Continues to Fascinate Alireza Korangy," includes "Mir in Fact and Fiction" by C.M. Naim, professor emeritus of Urdu studies at the University of Chicago; and "Mir as Suffering Curmudgeon: The History of a Hatchet Job," by Francis Pritchett, professor of modern Indic languages, Columbia University.

Panel four will focus on "Politics, Religion and Urdu Literature in South Asia." Barbara Metcalf, University of Michigan, will talk about "Urdu and the Madrasa in British India and After," followed by Aditya Behl (University of Pennsylvania), "On the Shahrashob: Urbanism, Urbanity and Urdu Poetry."

Discussions will follow each panel.

Saturday's events will conclude with an Evening of Mushaira, a gathering of writers to read and recite poetry and fiction in public that is common in the South Asian subcontinent. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Muhammad Mahfooz Khan, Syed Muhammad Ashraf, Khalid Jawed and Tanveer Anjum will participate in this event, which will take place in the Harrison Auditorium from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.   

The conference is free and open to the public. Registration is required.

For details about the conference and to register, visit www.virginia.edu/mesa/UrduFest.html, or contact the U.Va. Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at 434-982-2304 or mesa@virgnia.edu.