Take Urdu out of Delhi’s conversations, and the city will be a wordless ghost. Urdu has been one of Delhi’s official languages for fifteen years now, but its written form, in the Perso-Arabic script, is no longer the lingua franca of its power-brokers, bazaar shoppers or poet-lovers. Before Mirza Ghalib winces in his grave, here’s a beginner’s guide to your alif, bey and pey.
Where To Learn (Mumbai Folks, Plenty of Online Courses In Here Too):
Urdu Academy: This government institute offers 100% free certificate courses in Urdu language at each of its ten centres around Delhi. Applications open around July every year, and classes are held from Monday to Thursday, from 6-7pm. Learn more here, or call 011-23863858 or 011-23863697.
Note: Urdu Academy also regularly holds mushairas and cultural events through the city. More important note: Each time you phone the Academy’s office with an Urdu-related query, you will be invited over for chai.
Jamia Millia Islamia: This distance-learning course is for old-fashioned romantics: the admission and course process involve a visit to the post-office and writing letters in Urdu to your teacher(!). The centre allows learners to choose between English and Hindi as their medium of instruction, and can help with a flexible timeline over two years. Admissions are open through the year. Learn more here. Course Fee: Rs 110 (Fee: Rs 100+ a ten-rupee postal stamp)
Indira Gandhi National Open University: IGNOU offers 6-month certificate-courses at centres around Delhi for Rs 1000/- a pop. Applications open twice in a calendar year. The format has back-to-school vibes: conditions for minimum-attendance, examinations, et al. Learn more here, or call 011-29536441 or 011-29532175.
Ghalib Academy: Started by Hakim Abdul Hameed of the Hamdard group (the makers of Rooh Afza), Ghalib Academy in Nizamuddin West, right by the dargah, is itself a shrine of sorts for Urdu learners. Ghalib Academy’s language courses are run by IGNOU and the Urdu Academy; but for enthusiasts who can’t abide by strict course structures, Ghalib Academy’s staff has a generous offer. Mr Aqil Ahmad, secretary, promises to teach Urdu at any time if at least five learners show up, and class timings can be discussed as per students’ convenience. No points for guessing that all this generosity comes free of cost. Learn more here or call 011-24351098.
Zabaan Language Centre: Head to this popular Kailash Colony school to learn basic reading and writing in Urdu through short, five-week courses. Its one-and-a-half-hour group-learning classes are held on Saturdays -- an ideal weekend pursuit -- and the lovely teachers will also be able to work out special packages and private classes. Rs 2,950 for five-week group classes, Rs 1,391 per hour for individual classes. Learn more here or call 011-40564840.
National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language: Through 30 centres in Delhi, NCPUL, a government body, runs a one-year certificate course in Urdu language. If you’re reading this outside the capital, NCPUL’s learning centres are also available in twenty five states across the country and via an online class. The course is free. Learn more here, check out the online course here. Call 011-49539000.
Rekhta: Best known for its annual Urdu festival, Jashn-e-Rekhta, this organisation now also teaches the language. Started by Urdu enthusiast Sanjiv Saraf, Rekhta offers a three-week beginner’s course in ‘rasm-ul-khat’, or writing and reading. The thirty hours of the course are split up into two-hour classes on all weekday evenings (5-7 pm), held at their centre in Noida. There are add-ons, too: a basic calligraphy class, and a masterclass in the appreciation of Urdu poetry. The course costs Rs 4,000. Learn more here. PS. They also offer a free online course, ‘Aamozish,’ which you can check out here.
Where To Go:
Urdu Bazaar: This market near Jama Masjid in Old Delhi could not be more aptly named. Come here and visit Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, Kutub Khana Aziza, Kutub Khana Rashidia, Zulfiqar Book Depot and Maktaba Jamia -- to start with.
Before you head up to Al-Jawahar, don’t miss catching one of the old-time calligraphers creating art with the alif-bey in its nooks and crannies. Urdu Bazaar, near Jama Masjid, old Delhi.
Ghalib Ki Haveli: Urdu’s chacha-jaan lived here in the last decade of his life, and his little abode still inspires reverence. Even though only a small part of Ghalib’s erstwhile haveli remains, here you can see a display of his books; the clothes and utensils of his time; and trivia about his life pasted on the walls of his house. Come when the daylight hits it just so you can almost spot Ghalib himself out of the corner of your eye, seated under one of the arches and pouring his heart out through pen and ink. Gali Qasim Jaan, Ballimaran, old Delhi.
The grave of Ghalib: Whitewashed and gleaming, this resting place in Nizamuddin is the raison d’etre of Ghalib Academy, which you should visit even if you aren’t a student. With a museum on Ghalib, an auditorium where there’s always a mushaira or other suitably exciting event on, and people always eager to chat with you about (and in) Urdu, the academy and this spot is modern Delhi’s aadaab to the ustaad. Plot No-168/1, Nizamuddin West, call 011-24351098.
Urdu Ghar: A treasure-house for most things Urdu. Not as widely known by its full name, ‘Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu (Hind), Delhi’ the Urdu Ghar hosts cultural events, and is a bower of love for bookworms. Its library has an impressive collection of books, especially archival books and manuscripts; the Anjuman has itself published scores of books of Urdu literature. 212, Rouse Avenue, Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Marg. Learn more here or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
CAFÉ (Centre for Art and Free expression): CAFÉ, located in Jamia Nagar, hosts all forms of artistic expression, and Urdu is not its sole area of focus, but a wah-wah must be reserved for CAFÉ’s participation in ‘tamsili mushairas’: enactments of Urdu-poetry recitations of shaayars long dead. This style of recitation is said to have roots in nearby Jamia Millia Islamia. Barge in one of these days and don’t be surprised if you hear Ahmad Faraz deliver a playful couplet in there. 183/92 Ghaffar Manzil Colony, (Street No.5) Jamia Nagar, call 9811604487. Learn more here.
Ghalib Institute (Aiwan-e-Ghalib): No, we’re not done with places named after the Mirza. This one, located in central Delhi, is a holistic centre for Urdu – complete with museum, research centre, vast auditorium, and a library with an inviting collection of over twenty-five thousand books of all the giants of Urdu literature. Literature in Persian -- one of Urdu’s beautiful parents -- is also available in abundance here. 1, Mata Sundri Ln, Press Enclave, call 011-23232583, learn more here.
Iqbal Academy India: Iqbal Academy, run by the Islamic charity Zakat Foundation, is wholly focussed on the Urdu writings of Allama Iqbal, whose ‘Saarey Jahaan Se Achcha’ you learned as a child in school. Fill up this form on their website for much more: it will get you invitations to all their events and keep you up to date on all the scholarly gossip around Iqbal. CISRS House, 14, Jangpura B, Mathura Road, call 011-24375195-6. Learn more here.
St. Stephens College’s Urdu department: Fuchhas who know Urdu and mean to study it as an optional language are welcomed into the beating heart of Anglophone India. Out of 50 seats in this course, six are reserved for applicants who have studied Urdu till Class X or XII. Learn more here, call 011-27667271
Amrit Book Company: This CP bookstore has a promising collection of Urdu poetry and fiction-writing. Mohsin, their bibliophile sales assistant, is the person to know, but wait before you barge forth with an introduction: he may be in the midst of an animated recital of Urdu poetry. But ask him for a Parveen Shakir, and he will get you a tempting collection of women shaayars’ poetry along with it. Stand helpless with a Sahir Ludhianvi book in each hand, and Mohsin may be counted on to employ the most impressive reasoning to help you choose the right one. 21 N, Connaught Circus, Opposite Scindia House, Connaught Place. Call 011-23317331.
Oxford Bookstore: After a few early jaams at one of the watering holes around, head to Oxford Bookstore to clear your head with a cup of tea and browse its hidden shelf of Urdu lit. You might be on your own here as far as selection goes, but if you know what you’re seeking, you’re sorted. N 81, Connaught Place, call 011-4919 2092
Mukim’s bookstall: If you go around namaaz-time, the nearby cigarette-seller might be watching over this stall. But, wait on for Mukim to emerge from the Moti Masjid next door, and he will carefully produce your requested book from the precariously high piles here, featuring all-time faves Faiz, Iqbal and Ghalib, as well as many compilations of the life-work of other poets. There are books that help you learn Urdu script on your own through the Roman or Devnagri scripts. If you come across as immensely desirous of learning Urdu, Mukim might even offer to teach you himself. (Outside) 10-B, Connaught Place, call +91 9968163973.
People to Know:
Note: By no means exhaustive!
Rana Safvi: The writer, translator, and Twitter star is a champion of Urdu, a historian, and a very Dilli soul. Follow her at @iamrana and her Delhi history account at @DilliKiRanaiyan, where she also posts news of her city heritage walks. Read one of her books before you go! See also her #shair project, @shairoftheday.
Rakshanda Jalil: Adab, tehzeeb, translation and literary history: read Rakshanda Jalil to immerse yourself in the elegance of her mind. Start with her blog, or leap straight to the books: treat yourself to the one on Rashid Jahan, a firebrand writer of modern Urdu literature.
Farhat Ehsas: Not just Delhi’s but one of India’s most popular shaayars. He’s currently involved with Rekhta (see above), and helped make going to a mushaira as normal as going to a mall for 21st-century Delhi. His ghazals and shaayari are neatly curated on Rekhta’s app and website.
Poonam Girdhani, Fouzia, and Ankit Chadha: Girdhani and Chadha have helped shatter the post-partition myth of Urdu being a Muslim language, while Fouzia is an artist of acclaim, and probably the first woman daastango in India. All three practise the art of daastangoi, Urdu storytelling that uses intonations, role-playing, and upper-body movements to perform while seated. They usually perform as a team, so you’ll get to see at least two out of the three at most Delhi performances. Watch Fouzia in one of her daastangoi performances here; and really, do watch Chadha and Girdhani perform a daastangoi on Alice in Wonderland.
RJ Sayema: If you’ve lived in Delhi a while, it is quite likely that you are familiar with a calming voice playing you old Hindi music on ‘Purani Jeans,’ Radio Mirchi’s night show. Her impeccable command over Urdu is also a sweet throwback to a time when the language wasn’t sliced into two. She now presents Meethi Mirchi, Monday-Saturday, noon-3pm.
Ishq Urdu: Started by artist Nasheet Shadani, Ishq Urdu is the place to go for charmingly designed memes, slides with Urdu poetry and Hindi movie dialogues, and pop-quizzes on the language. They’re also friendly and highly responsive. On Facebook and Instagram.
Artykite: Artykite uses Urdu poetry in Roman and Devnagri scripts, meant to be read by millennials who aren’t familiar with Urdu script. Founder-artist Saniuddin Khan also offers merch with portraits of Urdu poets and their poetry, rendered on notebooks, lamps, coffee mugs and so on. Artykite sells through stalls at city festivals and through their website. See more here or call 9911713351.
Parwaz: You do not have to be an artist to appreciate poetry, and you do not have to be a scholar to love Urdu: so say IT professional Priyanka Bhaskar, and ex-advertising person, Prerak Vyas, who run this venture that organises regular baithaks (and yes, also sell merchandise). For details, email email@example.com or call 9810011955. See more here.
Also mark your calendars for:
Jashn-e-Rekhta and Jashn-e-Adab, annual Urdu festivals. But then, some Urdu and its celebration is always happening in Delhi.
Akshita Nagpal is a multimedia journalist based in New Delhi. Her work has appeared in Scroll, The Caravan, The Wire, and The Hindu.
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