Annual of Urdu Studies, v. 7, 1990 p. 111.


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Kathryn Hansen

URDU FOLKLORE AND THE QISSA

A Review Article of Frances W. Pritchett's Marvelous Encounters: Folk Romance in Urdu and Hindi

While folklore studies have been in the forefront of South Asian scholarship for the last ten or more years, almost no attention has been devoted to the question of Urdu folklore, or more properly folk literature, since we are mainly concerned with verbal art here. The question has several parts: Is there an Urdu folklore? How is it to be defined? Was it important in the past? If it was then but isn't now, what caused its disappearance? And perhaps most importantly, why haven't we thought much about it? Initial reflection on these matters suggests two angles: ways in which the situation in Urdu has resembled that of the other South Asian vernaculars, and ways in which Urdu's status is unique.

Historically, we find that the 19th century across India brought the emergence of the modern linguistic communities, the introduction of Western literary genres, and literary production for a new type of consumer. The urban elites under British tutelage developed a taste for European conventions of realistic representation, inventiveness, and reformist messages. Traditional literary forms came to be viewed as decadent, trite, and indecent; contexts for composition such as the court and salon gradually vanished. As part of the campaign for social cleansing, the elites sought to suppress popular culture, including folk literature, which had earlier been enjoyed by all classes. Lower-ranking communities retained their oral genres and even made use of new technologies like printing to disseminate them. But the academic establishment, compiling the regional literary legacies into canons and curricula for university consumption, largely excluded folklore, causing several generations of students to lose contact with their cultural roots. These conditions applied to Urdu literature as to Hindi and other languages entering modernity.

The trend continued until after independence. The nationalist movement in a sense required the sublimation of regional diversity in favor of unity, and its anti-colonial thrust demanded an ideology assimilating the local traditions to a universal and increasingly Sanskritic parent culture. This totalizing interpretation of Indian cultural history, which negates much of the Indo-Islamic achievement, continues to find influential adherents. However after 1947, regional interests surged, creating political and economic difficulties far from resolution in the sub-continent, but also stimulating interest in cultural differences. The anchalik or regional movement, for example, involved the incorporation of folklore elements and local dialects into

lSee for instance Kapila Vatsyayan's major study. Traditional Indian Theatre: Multiple Streams (New Delhi: National Book Trust,! 980).

Annual of Urdu Studies, #7 HI


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