How Sanjiv Saraf, a Delhi-based entrepreneur, is serving Urdu by taking the magic of its language and poetry to tens of thousands of non-Urdu speakers and young people in India and beyond through his online portal named Rekhta. Safi Jannaty meets the man behind the mission as Rekhta makes its international debut in Dubai this month
Safi Jannaty | Caravan Daily
AT a time when Urdu finds itself increasingly marginalised and written off in the land of its birth, one man has dedicated himself to the celebration and promotion of the language that is admired for its magical poetry and inherent aesthetic quality. Rekhta.org, founded by Sanjiv Saraf, has in no time become synonymous with all things Urdu; it has started what appears to be a movement and revolution to celebrate and showcase the language in all its splendour and ethereal beauty.
Urdu is one of the few modern languages that grew and flourished across South Asia and beyond in no time. It rubs shoulders with much older languages when it comes to the richness of literature and philosophical thought. It is endowed with a rich repertoire of literary works covering almost all genres that languages have produced across the globe.
Sadly, the Partition of India stymied its progress as Urdu scholars, writers and poets lost direct and easy access to the readers across the borders and vice versa. Besides, as the English language, owing to its universal acceptability in trade and commerce, started holding its sway over other native and regional languages, Urdu too fell behind. Especially, in the land to which it owes its origin, Urdu has been wittingly or unwittingly marginalised due to a variety of reasons.
Today, it has reached a stage where its study and knowledge seemingly bring little commercial and professional dividends or recognition. No wonder, even the regions and communities, which had produced world-class authors, writers, critics and poets were forced to abandon the language.
It was in these depressing times that Saraf appeared on the scene as a saviour despite hailing from a non-Urdu speaking community. It’s his love and passion for Urdu that has brought back the focus on the language and the need to promote it professionally.
A highly successful entrepreneur and businessman, Saraf represents hundreds of thousand non-Urdu speakers who acknowledge the intrinsic value of the language and he epitomises their craving and love for Urdu. His brainchild, Rekhta.org equals hundreds of extremely well organised and well-maintained libraries of international standards.
Caravan Daily caught up with Saraf to get a deeper insight into his love for Urdu and the drive behind his pioneering endeavour, Rekhta. Recalling fond memories of his childhood, Saraf explained that ghazals sung by Mehdi Hasan, Iqbal Bano, Ghulam Ali and other greats whom his father used to endlessly listen to generate the interest in him for the Urdu language which in his own words ‘has an unmatched expressiveness and its lyrical beauty is undeniable’.
Ghalib happened to be Saraf’s favourite poet. “For every situation or mood, there is a Ghalib couplet. His poetry is very appropriate for describing any situation or for any expression. He speaks for everybody,” Saraf asserted. He recalls Prof Gopichand Narang who once said that thanks to merely 1800 couplets, which fit in a book of fewer than 100 pages, Ghalib rubs shoulders with the greats of not only Urdu literature but also world literature boasting tomes spread over thousands of pages.
Some endeavours see the light of the day from the word ‘go’ and Rekhta happens to be one such project. The creative website leaves not only a lover of the language but a casual visitor amazed over the manner in which the portal has been designed and the huge structured content that is easy to navigate.
Collections of hundreds of well-known and lesser-known Urdu writers, scholar and poets available anywhere in the world have been organised on the portal in a very neat, user-friendly and imaginative manner.
What distinguishes the portal from hundreds of other portals is the ingenuity that has gone into the design and structure, which seems to intelligently read the reader’s mind and not vice versa. For instance, while browsing over a ghazal of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, if one wishes to listen to that ghazal, one would find there and then an option to play an audio or a video.
Looking for a couplet or a ghazal with a particular theme or the word of your choice? Sure, it is right here. Not just the instant ability to read and understand poems in Urdu, Devanagari and English scripts, but also the authenticity of the translation makes the portal truly special and user-friendly.
It is difficult to count the areas Rekhta has covered and ways in which it has innovated and adapted in its drive to preserve and promote Urdu, besides satiating the desire of both the connoisseurs of the language and the ones who wish to relish the gems hidden in its treasure through English or Hindi languages.
All these features of the portal owe their origins to difficulties faced by the founder who said, “During the learning phase, I realised there weren’t many resources available on the Internet for Urdu. The online content was insufficient, unreliable and mostly in the Urdu script which made me conscious of the fact that there could be millions of people like me who love Urdu but are unable to access the content. It was this thought that gave birth to the idea of Rekhta. In 2013, Rekhta Foundation was set up with the objective of preserving Urdu poetry and literature. A great number of people, from all over the world, are able to gain free access to the Urdu content through our website http://www.rekhta.org.”
Dismissing the pessimism of the naysayers over the future of Urdu, Saraf says: “We cannot even begin to count how many Urdu words we use in our day to day lives. There are thousands of words, which we use without even realising that they are Urdu words. So, this clearly shows that Urdu is very much alive. I feel that, firstly, people should learn to speak and understand Urdu and later if they want to learn the script, they can do that. It was only because Urdu was so close to my heart that I went ahead and learnt its script. No one told me to do.”
Rekhta also comes to the rescue of those who are interested to learn the script to feel closer to the language and extract the nectar in its original form. Their initiative ‘Rekhta Urdu Learning Programs – RULP’ has attracted over 30,000 people, mostly young men and women who have registered themselves and are in different stages of learning.
Rekhta also helps writers to have their works displayed and sold through international online portals like Amazon.com.
The success of Rekhta.org resulted in the team organising literary festival called, Jashn-e-Rekhta, which attracts a huge number of Urdu lovers from all over the world every year. These events also provide a venue and platform for the Urdu scholars, writers and poets to get in direct touch with the audience and present their works and thought as well as let the new generation get an insight into the heritage and rich treasure. This pioneering venture has inspired and encouraged several renowned media channels to organize such events focusing on Urdu and other regional languages.
The first annual festival Jashn-e-Rekhta in 2015 in which the team expected not more than 2,000 people attracted over 18,000 lovers of the language and the number kept rising year after year to swell up to 150,000 last year forcing Rekhta to book a stadium.
“We also organise Mushairas and other musical evenings, known as ‘Shaam-e-Sher’ and ‘Shaam-e-Rekhta’ in many cities. Recently, in December 2018, we hosted ‘Shaam-e-Rekhta’ in New York for the first time,” says Saraf.
These literary festivals have helped the lovers of the Urdu language reconnect and the reverberations echoed through the conventional and social media augur well for the language. The fact that 80 percent of the attendees and visitors happened to be in the younger age groups should gladden the hearts of Urdu lovers and reassure them that the language is too charming and appealing to perish any time soon.
This year Rekhta is all set to makes its international debut in Dubai, from February 28 to March 2, 2019. Saraf says: “After receiving a lot of requests and overwhelming appreciation from all quarters, we are planning to host Jashn-e-Rekhta in Dubai this year at the Zabeel Park. It will be a three-day event where the Sufi musical/ghazal programmes, as well as a number of regular features like conversations with authors and panel discussions, will be held.” Given the success rate of previous events and the presence of a huge number of Urdu-speaking people in the Gulf region, Rekhta’s Dubai event is also expected to be a huge draw.
Safi Jannaty is Contributing Editor of Caravan Daily.