By Raziuddin Aquil
November 09, 2014
Some of the finest masterpieces of classical Hindi literature of the medieval period have been produced by Muslim writers on themes relating to Islam and Muslim cultural practices in the Indian environment. Medieval Islamic association with Arabic and Persian languages has justifiably been recognised in literary and intellectual histories, but the emergence of a vast and fascinating corpus of Indic vernacular literature and its association with Islam in medieval India has not been adequately appreciated. Of a variety of Indian languages, in which a whole range of literary compositions emerged by 15th-16th centuries, Hindvi, or simply Hindi, was not only understood and spoken in large parts of the subcontinent, but it also saw considerable literary productions.
Though Islamic theoretical and political discussions could still be accessed in Arabic and Persian, Sufis and other Muslim holy men were being heard, already in 13th and 14th centuries, speaking languages such as Punjabi and Bengali, besides what is now identified as Hindi/Urdu. Of particular significance is the composition of a huge body of Sufi poetry of love, Premakhyan, in Awadhi dialect of medieval Hindi. Beginning with Mulla Daud's Chandayan as early as 14th century and reaching its climax with Malik Muhammad Jaisi's Padmavat in the 16th century, with a large number of other scintillating examples in between and after, this literature could captivate Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Jaisi's voluminous text also appropriated almost the entire Awadhi version of Ram-Katha then circulating in the public domain.
Thirty years later, this was indeed the inspiration for Tulsidas to garner all the glories with his Awadhi text par excellence, Ramcharit Manas. Smarting under their own pedantry of classical Sanskrit, the pundits of Benaras had scoffed at Tulsidas for what they thought was a perversion of sorts, but the latter had the satisfaction not only of seeing its wide circulation amongst a large public devoted to Ram-Bhakti, but also had patrons in powerful Mughal Mansabdars. Tulsidas and his work could easily fit the cultural taste of stalwarts like Todarmal and Man Singh. The biggest patron of Awadhi and Braj corpus of Hindi, both Bhakti (devotional) and Riti (erotic courtly) variety, was Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan, a multilingual polyglot, with considerable political clout as a foster son of Emperor Akbar.
Hindi was, indeed, the lingua franca in Mughal India. The Mughal court being located at the centre of Braj Mandal, the dialect of the region, Braj, came to occupy an important place as the language of the court. Modern historians of Mughal India have conventionally portrayed Persian as the language of power and dominance, but, as literary historian, Allison Busch has put, Hindi is hidden in plain view of those who are obsessed with Persian in medieval India as they are with English in modern times. It is naïve to imagine that such influential Mughal officials and cultural personalities as Todarmal, Birbal, Man Singh, Tansen and Surdas transacted their private and public business only in Persian.
Much as a certain degree of Persianisation happened in many fields over five-six centuries, it will be absurd to assume that people in the bazaars of Jaunpur or even in Agra and Delhi, would speak Persian — the status of the language was somewhat like English today, a language of the power-elite and international discursive engagements. One doubts very much, however, whether even someone like Akbar would speak to the visiting foreign dignitaries in Persian (the official language of the empire) or in Turkish (his mother tongue). While Abul Fazl, his brother Faizi, and Abdur Rahim could engage with the visitors in their languages, Akbar himself could be comfortable in Hindustani by — whether in quiet contemplation or when emotionally overwhelmed. After all, the first recorded example of a common Hindi expletive, Gandu, is attributed to Akbar, by none other than his favourite ideologue Abul Fazl. This matter may be left here for now; a proper history of obscenities in medieval India is still awaited.
Before the 19th century colonial divide, it was possible for leading Muslim intellectuals and theologians in Delhi to call their language Hindi and even translate the Holy Quran in that language. At that time, the Persianised language of poetry was called Rekhta, or mixed language, and the more deeply rooted (theth) language of prose was referred to as Hindi.
The imposition of Sanskritised Hindi in Devnagiri script for Hindus and Persianised-Arabicised Urdu in Persian script for Muslims had not come about yet. Still, when a history of Hindi literature is written, even the most prejudiced authors are unable to completely bypass the Awadhi Premakhyan or altogether ignore the seminal Mughal contribution to the growth of Braj corpus. On the other hand, the Urdu field, now identified with Muslims alone, is still learning to come to terms with a tradition torn asunder.