Monday, April 18, 2011

Henry Higgins And Lucknow’s Clear Speech

Henry Higgins And Lucknow’s Clear Speech
Saeed Naqvi

“Language most reveals a man; speak that I may see thee”. Says Ben Johnson. Can you spot a man from Lucknow on this basis? You could in the 60s.

Professor of Phonetics, Henry Higgins, takes up a unique challenge. Higgins believes impeccable speech determines class. With his phonetic skills he will be able to coach a bedraggled Eliza Doolittle to pass off as a duchess. He will transform her slanted “raain in Spaain” into “rain in Spain”. With Higgins’s persistence, Eliza develops the speech which superficially elevates her class. But only superficially.

You can take Eliza out of her squalor but the culture which that squalor breeds cannot be expelled from Eliza. At a critical moment, the “real” Eliza reveals her true self; she reverts to her cockney accent.

But why am I talking about Henry Higgins? The subject came up during a discussion on Urdu diction, a discussion which generally leads to the late, lamented Lucknow!

It is clear as daylight that Urdu varies in intonations, region to region. This is so because it picks up words and accents in the region where it is spoken.

Urdu’s first poet with his own collection of verse, Quli Qutub Shah, builder of Charminar, has a clear Telugu lilt in his diction. On many occasions “Q” becomes “kh” and so on.

The occasional Avadhi or Lucknowi tone one hears in Hyderabad is largely an importation. The senior bureaucracy around the Nizam’s court was imported from among the Saiyyids of Avadh – Bilgramis and Jungs, for instance.

In Punjab too, where the synthesis of various dialects with Persian and Arabic predates the Deccan, the spoken Urdu has an unmistakable Punjabi stamp.

Two of the greatest poets of Urdu in the 20th century, Iqbal and Faiz, happen to be Punjabis. But their eminence as poets does not by any means place them on the highest pedestal of Urdu diction. Mastery of diction, the intricate filigree of sound, arrangement of words, their cadence, in brief, the craft of Urdu, remained a close preserve of Lucknow and its Avadh environs.

It is generally not recognized that Urdu speech, its phonetic magic, was at its urbane best with Kashmiri Pandits, followed by a limited number of Kayasthas. The adjective “Urbane” has been used advisedly in this context: Kashmiri Pandits had no rural colloquialisms in their speech.

Since Lucknow was in some instances a camp town for Avadh’s rural elite, there was an automatic accrual of a certain rural lyric in their speech.

As the name suggests, Josh Malihabadi was from Malihabad, a Qasbah about 20 kms from Lucknow. Josh epitomizes Lucknow but his diction does not remain untouched by the flavour of Malihabad countryside.

How would Henry Higgins evaluate Faiz and Josh as speakers of Urdu as she is spoke? His class characterization would not work. In their respective environments of Lahore and Lucknow, both represented elites.

In the eloquence and magic of Urdu sound, Josh would dominate because he embodied Lucknow speech. I am talking only of the spoken word, mind you.

The remarkable fact about Lucknow speech was that it operated on principles way beyond Henry Higgins’ class framework. Ofcourse Lucknow was class ridden; it was quintessentially feudal. But good speech cut across class barriers. Stories of the horse carriage or the tongawallah’s suble satire at the miserly passenger are not apocryphal.

“After a day in your scintillating service, what recompense?”
“One rupee”
“Softy, Sir, the horse understands.”

The spell that this speech cast on Bollywood was enormous. Actors like Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Ashok Kumar rooted in linguistic cultures as varied as Pushto and Bengali, had to speak the “Lucknow speech” to be accepted as romantic heroes. Crash course would not do as in the case of Eliza Doolittle. Assimilation of Ganga-Jamni or composite culture which Urdu represented ensured a permanent displacement of an earlier linguistic entity by a new one.

Bollywood is a burgeoning industry and yet no hero can break into it unless he follows that singular law of romance: speech from Lucknow or Avadh. This explains Amitabh Bachchan’s continued success – his diction.

Without offending my Hindi purists, it is a combination of Urdu and Bollywood which has welded the nation into the acceptable Hindustani, the very essence of our composite culture.

When BBC Hindi Service was launched in the 50s, do you know the man chosen to head the service?

Aale Hasan, a thoroughbred representative of the composite culture which is both Urdu and Hindi – and its epicenter is Lucknow.

Yes, it does feel nice when Urdu/Hindi speakers anywhere ask with barely disguised admiration: “are you from Lucknow?”

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