Delving into the roots of a language long forgotten; stepping back in time to understand an era gone by; taking help from academics to observe the evolution process of an entire culture The Urdu Project is all this and more. What began as a language preservation collective of South Asian artists, researchers and thinkers in 2017, evolved into a metaphor of plurality.
“The genesis of both Urdu and Hindi stems from numerous North Indian and Middle Eastern dialects. The conscious Persianisation (in the case of Urdu) and Sanskritisation (in the case of Hindi) have resulted in the creation of two distinct linguistic identities,” explains Prateek Shankar, co-director of the initiative.
In an effort to capture a stark view of the lives of Urdu’s marginalised practitioners, the team created the documentary, Guftagu. It follows the lives of four nonagenarian shayars (poets) and artists in Old Delhi, reminiscing about the past.
The final product is now available on their web platform. The team is now gearing up to showcase a prototype of their next installation project, Galli-Guldasta, at the upcoming Futura Tropica exhibition in Bengaluru.
Cursorily, Guftagu explores the inherent romanticism of Urdu culture. However, delve deeper and you find it explores nuances of discourse and exchange scattered across Delhi’s history as well as in the evolution of the Urdu language.
Elaborating on how the documentary evolved, Shankar a visual artist trained as an architect—says, “We first carried out an extensive literature review in order to understand the genesis and evolution of the language. This, alongside field research and interviews with academics as well as local calligraphers allowed us to build an academic framework, locating the language within the history of the Indian subcontinent.”
Building on this academic foundation, the team gathered organic stories from the lived experience of the speakers of the language. The final outcome presents the characters’ lives, their memories and their conversations.
Now, with the support of the Eyebeam Institute, New York, the team is developing the next phases of the project—the ‘Ganga Jamuna Market’ a pop-up market.
It will be operating out of the boot of a car, envisioning collaboration between the creators and migrant communities, consolidating their oral histories into a dynamic evolution.
The project seeks to create a space for dialogue with respect to issues of urban identity in post-Partition India.
“The conversations gathered will feed into our larger multimedia web installation—Galli-Guldasta. Adapted from Twilight in Delhi, a novel by late Indian/Pakistani scholar Ahmed Ali, and Angaaray, a collection of short stories by the Progressive Writers Movement, the project visualises Delhi’s conflicted identity,” Shankar says.
The first layer of this visualisation, set in different time periods, plots the lived experience of the characters. Within the map are nestled a cornucopia of stories—in the form of text, animation, videos, and comics.
The team is in the process of raising funds to bring the installation to life. You can help them at milaap.org/fundraisers/support-the-urdu-project