A large illustrated “U” heralds you on the left side of the room as you enter, in beautiful shades of soft purple, orange, pink and blue. As you are drawn towards it you notice the little details, beautiful graphics - a moving Ghalib’s bust, floating letters, sufi dancers. These are the visuals that pop into soulful artist Mohammad Azad’s mind when he thinks of the word “Urdu”. Self-described as a Muslim who grew up in a predominantly Hindu environment, he tells us that the typographical treatment in the architecture signifies the selfless protection Urdu will offer to other languages to save them from extinction. “I’ve used English alphabets, Hindi Akshars and Urdu lettering in the piece. The size of the letters, in my mind represents how near to extinction the state of each language is currently,” he explains. But he hopes for change.
You pause a minute and the next projected piece pops up, an elegant, ahead-of-its-time calligraphy piece by the much revered Delhi-based artist Qamar Dagar. She loves how the Urdu script allows her to play around with its alphabets, that she sees as abstract forms. “Urdu is as fluid, musical and dignified while listening to, as it is extremely beautiful while writing it,” she lilts. Creating calligraphy work is a process, she elaborates. “When we play around by augmenting, shortening or generally designing alphabets or writing them in a linear way or creative way, we enhance our own ability to go beyond the usual and monotonous,” This is what she hopes for the future of the language.
The slide shifts to Furqan Jawed’s slightly darker piece- entitled “Ghar-e-beghar” (Homeless in Homeland) which raises questions about the future of Urdu in relation to it's current political and social scenario. “To envisage the language's beauty 50 years from now, one cannot restrict themselves to only the aesthetic appeal of the language but also acknowledge its current feeble scenario. If the state of the language isn't a concern now, we can be prepared to see it die a natural death in it's birth-land or become just another relic in museums,” says Furqan.
You can view all the art pieces on the Design Fabric website here.
You turn to the far end of the room, where on the main screen is playing a 15 minute film, on loop. The visuals - exquisite calligraphy, the ghalibs, their homes, their streets, their places of work, their beautiful art form. Shot by Vikas Maurya, edited by Poulomi Roy and Sanket Avlani, the film takes you through our travels in Tonk, Rajastan where we attempted to uncover the process, lives and story behind the Urdu calligraphers who live there. It is a small glimpse into our experience with legends Anis Siddiqui, Khursheed Rehman, Waseem Ahmed, Qamar Dagar and Zafar Raza Khan, who are each working to keep a beautiful dying tradition alive. It is a detailed conversation with them, observing each of their processes, work and lives.
As the film ends and you look around the dark room you find yourself drawn to a series of beautiful photographs on your right. Each showcases the photographer’s interpretation of a beautiful Urdu poem by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, titled “Before you Came”. Aun Raza, born and brought up in Pakistan, now based between Italy, Austria and Canada, travels extensively across countries for his work to places like Uzbekistan, Cuba and Romania to name just a few. The interpretation for his moving contribution to this series is drawn from one beautiful line in the poem - ab jo aa'e ho to Thahro.
Aman Makkar lends his voice to the series with a set of three sepia toned photographs featuring model Carol Humtsoe. Farhan Hussain, meanwhile, calls his piece ‘Marham’ and captions it - “Only love can heal what love has scarred. Ishq ke ghaav ko sirf mohabbat ka Marham hi sukoon deta ha.” (Urdu caption by Sumedha Dogra)
Aashim Tyagi, taken in by the in by the idea that the world becomes obscure when one falls in love, is inspired by the lines from the poem that read "As for the sky, the road, the cup of wine: / one was my tear-drenched shirt, / the other an aching nerve, / the third a mirror that never reflected the same thing." The melancholy of the poem is depicted in outstanding and startlingly different ways by iconic and prolific photographers Jatin Kampani and Prashant Godbole, whose amazing contributions round off the series leaving you moved and touched. You can view the entire series on the Design Fabric website here.
In a way this exhibit also travels beyond this space - the beautiful black box at the G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture - and across seas to Pakistan, where firebrand personality Sanki King (often referred to as the Banksy of Pakistan) creates his work.
For the Exhibit, Sanki King and Mumbai based Urdu Calligraphy Artist/Graphic Designer Zeenat Kulavoor with several accolades to her name, joined hands on a collaborative mural project spanning across two countries. Using their own unique styles and perspectives, these artists have a conversation with each other through the Urdu script and a total of 4 wall murals - 2 in Bombay and 2 in Karachi. They call this project the #PehleAap movement. You see beautiful photographs shot by Shaikh Danial, Sidharth Paurana, Sanjana Nanodkar and Zeenat Kulavoor of these 4 murals projected on the walls at The Urdu Exhibit.
Sanki King’s murals were both painted in an area called North Nazimabad, where he resides. “This area used to be the center of the city when Karachi was the capital after partition, before the capital moved to Islamabad in the 1960s. Saddar area was then named the new center of the city,” he tells us. Zeenat’s murals are painted within the Laxmi Mills compound in Lower Parel very close to the Exhibit, so you can actually see them in person as you walk out.
Zeenat began the mural conversation with her first mural “Pehle Aap” painted as a sign of respect to Sanki King to begin the conversation. Her second mural was inspired by a poem by the late Muqtida Hasan Nida Fazli titled ‘Yahaan bhi hai wahaan bhi’.
The inspiration for both of Sanki King’s murals comes from one of his favorite poems called "Ab hamain inqilaab chahye hai" (Now we need revolution) by Jaun Elia. “Most of the poem is filled with grief & sorrow about the state of the two countries, and Jaun constantly points out that these two brothers need to come closer and love each other again; for this he suggests that a revolution has become a necessity,” he explains.
Zeenat’s graphic design background reflects in the style of her murals which are well thought out and executed precisely. Sanki King’s unique style of effortless flowing of the brushes and paint across the wall is such a pleasure to view, and while each are on another end of the spectrum, the pieces connect together. Both the artists discussing their process via the internet has been an experience to be a part of. You can read an interview with the two artists on the Design Fabric website here.
They announce an open call to other artists based anywhere to join in and continue the mural conversation in their own cities and create the #PehleAap movement, to do their part in keeping this beautiful dying language alive and to bring artist communities together.
With this you have completed viewing the exhibit and you spend some time at Port, the cafe space to enjoy the food and complimentary beer from White Owl before the evening’s performances began.
First up is Hussain Hadry, a performance poet, lyricist and screenwriter who has been featured in several events held by Kommune, LallanTop, Radio Nasha, Radio City and The Poetry Club. His spoken word poems, Hindustani Musalmaan and Lat, were among the first Hindi-Urdu poems to be appreciated in the spoken word arena put in a video format on the internet.
He sets the mood for the evening by looking at the standing crowd of about 70 people and addressing them with "Achchha aap sab log khade hi rahenge? Maine aajtak khadi hui audience dekhi nahin actually," At which the audience begins to settle themselves comfortably on the floor to begin an evening of intimate spoken performances and heartfelt words.
“Urdu is my most favourite language when it comes to reading poetry, and I wish more people would read it,” says Hussain. Mostly, he writes poems and songs in Hindi-Urdu, absed on his observations on life and people around him. "Kisi ki daad ho naa ho, mubaarakbaad ho naa ho, main khud ke vaaste likhta hoon mujhko kaun rokega" is just one of the many memorable lines from his performance this evening.
Hadry is followed by Alif, a beautiful fusion of contemporary music and poetry with ethnic sound. Formed in 2008, Alif songs are based on Kashmiri Urdu poetry, and their heartfelt performance made the evening very special. Their sound is an amalgamation of ethnic flavours and rock blends which is beautifully crafted with contemporary Kashmiri Urdu poetry.
The frontman and songwriter of Alif, Mohammad Muneem Nazir hails from Srinagar, Kashmir. He carries a part of Kashmir with him wherever he goes or performs by symbolically wearing a traditional Kashmiri shawl and Pheran. He tells us this when he engages the crowd in conversation and discussions in between songs, making us alternately ponder and be immersed in the music. He is joined on stage by bandmembers Hardik Vaghela on the keys, Karan Chitra Deshmukh (whose Game of Thrones tabla cover you may have seen), on percussions and producer Aman Moroney.
They perform their most popular number “Like a Sufi” - India's first Sufi Rap which is a collaboration with MC Kash. You can hear more on their newly released album “Sufayed”. The crowd enjoys each song Alif performs, with no one wanting to leave and their performance extending well into the night.
As everyone gets up to finally call it a night, you come a full circle and something catches your eye. It’s Yusuf Zamani’s futuristic art piece with a positive outlook on the future of this great, beautiful language. He sees us 50 years from now, seated in front of our technology using the script to access our social media platforms and web browsing. It is an optimistic viewpoint, to see the language adapting into the most popular mode of communication of the future.
Will the language live to tell this tale? Only time will tell.
If you would like to commission the ghalibs for any projects, or continue the #pehleaap movement, do get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photographs by Lasoonlive and G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture