The Language: Urdu
Urdu, a common language developed in the Indian subcontinent as a result of a cultural and linguistic synthesis, was brought to Guyana by South Asian Muslims from the subcontinent where its history goes further. After the Mughal invasion of India, the mingling of Arabic, Turkic, Persian and Sanskrit languages developed into a new `camp’ language called Urdu. The word `Ordu’ or Urdu, which is Turkish in origin, means `camp’ and is mostly associated with an army camp. It was towards the end of the Mughal rule in India that Urdu language was given a national status. The language was nurtured at three centres in India: the Deccan, Delhi and Lucknow. Once Urdu was adopted as the medium of literary expression by the writers in these metropolises, its development was rapid, and it soon replaced Persian as the court language and principal language of Muslim India.(n9) However, in the 1930s Urdu suffered reverses with the resurgence of Hindu nationalism in India. A new people’s language was developed replacing the Persian script with the Devangari script and it was called Hindi.
Urdu, distinguished from Hindi by its Persian script and vocabulary, is today the national language of Pakistan and one of the official languages of India. It is one of the most popular spoken languages of South Asia, and has acquired a wide distribution in other parts of the world, notably the UK, where it is regarded as the major cultural language by most subcontinent Muslims.
In Guyana today, Urdu is popular among the Indo-Guyanese who watch films and listen to music from the Bombay film industry. Contributing to its role as the chief vehicle of Muslim culture in South Asia is its important secular literature and poetry, which is closely based on Persian models. However, Urdu is taking a backstage in Guyana due to English language proliferation and the Muslim orthodox movement leading to a focus on Arabic.
Only one Islamic organization in Guyana today, the United Sad’r Islamic Anjuman (which is also the oldest surviving Islamic organization in Guyana), offers Urdu in its instructional programme for teaching the qasida (hymns that sing praises to God and the Prophet). They regularly hold qasida competitions throughout the country and award prizes to encourage participation. Qasida is part of the `Indo-Iranian’ legacy. It is an attempt by the Anjuman to preserve the uniqueness of Guyana’s Muslim heritage. Though the students were generally told that they were learning Arabic, it was Urdu that was being taught.
Having migrated to New York, an ustad (teacher) from a village in Guyana remarked to the author `the Arabic here is different than that which I was teaching at the madrasah in Guyana’. Little did he realize that it was Urdu and not Arabic that he was teaching back in Guyana. Some are embarrassed to say that they were teaching Urdu while calling it Arabic. This is one of many stories that echo throughout Guyana.
One remembers hearing the so called Arabic alphabet: `alif, be, pe, se, jim che, he… zabar’, and `pesh ‘. In Arabic there is no `pe’, `che’, `zabar’, and `pesh’. After familiarizing oneself with Urdu, one realizes that it was Urdu that was being taught in Guyana. Ahmad Khan a trustee of the Queenstown Jama Masjid says that for most Guyanese Muslims their mother tongue was Urdu.(n10) However, by 1950 Urdu started fading with the introduction of Islamic texts in English and it has now almost disappeared.(n11) According to Pat Dial, a Guyanese historian, during the early twentieth century Urdu and Arabic were taught in the madrasah annex of the Jama Masjid and the young were introduced to the Namaz. In those early years, far more people spoke Urdu than English.(n12)