Saeed Naqvi | When it comes to politeness, culture, is South now ahead of North?

The Asian Age.  | Saeed Naqvi

Opinion, Columnists

Not only is there no evidence of Urdu promoted except under the Nizam, there are prodigious works in Malayalam or Tamil by Muslim scholars

There was no urge to impose a culture, as in the north, but to adapt to local cultures as a means for expanding trade. (AA File Image)

Just when we were boarding the Delhi flight after a stint in Bengaluru during the recent elections, my wife posed a whimsical question: did I share her view that the South was more “polite and cultured”?

I consider myself privileged to have been installed as regional editor of Indian Express from 1979 to 1984, based in Chennai. I supervised editions in Bengaluru, Vijayawada, Hyderabad and Kochi and all in between. In Kerala, the main bureau was just a stone throw from E.M.S. Namboodiripad’s house, which gave me easy access to one of the finest political minds I ever met. Foreign correspondent James Cameron’s advice made so much sense after every conversation with EMS: “When I travel to a country to cover a major event, I first visit the local Communist Party office where the background to the story has been analysed ahead of others. All I need to do is to sift out the ideology and I have the outlines of a first-rate situation report in my notebook.”

At the Thiruvananthapuram bureau or the publishing centre in Kochi, the editorial staff worked with extraordinary diligence on days when a top Kathakali artist like Kalamandalam Hyderali was performing. Extra work was put in earlier so that the journalists were free for the show.

My colleagues knew the katha (story), nritya (dance) and natya (drama) like the back of their hands. The culture sustained by Urdu as central to what was known as our “Ganga-Jamuni” tehzeeb, was disrupted by Partition and a scramble for Western education as the guarantor for bread on our tables. The South was spared these travails.

Partition or the primacy of English for jobs created no turbulence in Kerala. Muslims came to Kerala not as rulers from Central Asia but as traders from Arabia. There was no urge to impose a culture, as in the north, but to adapt to local cultures as a means for expanding trade. It was because of this enthusiastic acceptance of Malayalam that resulted in Muslims excelling in poetry, literature and all performing arts, like cinema, in which Prem Nazir entered the Guinness Book for acing in a record 750 films.

Considering that M.G. Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu and N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh built lasting political careers based on cinematic charisma, why did Prem Nazir not end up dominating Kerala politics? Little reflection provided the answer: the Kerala voter was too politicised by an expansive and deep Communist movement and too educated due to the Church’s influence.

It’s not commonly known that Kerala’s first mosque was built in 629 AD, three years before Prophet Mohammad’s death, making it among the earliest mosques anywhere. It was built by a Hindu nobleman, Cheraman Perumal. He was simply filling a need: increasing number of Arab traders needed a place of worship.

Not only is there no evidence of Urdu being promoted except under the Nizam of Hyderabad’s vast reach, there are numerous incidents of prodigious works in Malayalam or Tamil by Muslim scholars like Justice Ismail in Chennai, who was seen as the sole authority on Kamba Ramayanam. He was the single source for scholarship on the subject.

Likewise, to C.N. Maulana of Kerala goes the credit for breaking a taboo imposed by the clergy: God’s language is Arabic and the Quran can therefore not be translated. It was this kind of rigidity that Urdu poet Yaas Yagana Changezi had debunked: “Samajh mein kuchch naheen ata/ Parhe jaane se kya hasil/ Namazon mein hain kuchch/ Maani to pardesi zubaan kyon ho?” (If there is to be meaning to your prayers, why should prayers be in a foreign language?) 

In my appreciation of the South, my friend, the remarkable cartoonist Abu Abraham, played no mean role across many conversations we had. His angry outburst on one occasion surprised me because a joke I told him had “smacked of uneducated, North Indian prejudice”.

I had just returned from JNU’s first convocation addressed by Balraj Sahni, film actor and a leading member of the Progressive Movement. The speed with which All India Radio was incorporating “difficult” Hindi in its news bulletins had elicited a quip from Sahni’s Bollywood friend, the comedian Johnny Walker. 

Ab yeh naheen kehna chahiye ki aap Hindi mein samachar suniye” Sahni quoted Johnny Walker, “balki yeh kehna chahiye ki ab samachar mein Hindi suniye”. (Newsreaders should now say “listen to Hindi in the news” instead of “news in Hindi”.) 

Abu was livid. “You North Indians must know that a more sanskritised Hindi is that much more intelligible to us.”

That all Indian languages, with the solitary exception of Tamil, have some proportion of Sanskrit, helped me understand cultural variations in India that much more. I cannot claim to have understood anything of the great trinity of Carnatic music -- Thyagaraja, Syama Sastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar -- but I became sufficiently acquainted with the form of their verse. I even visited the great veena player S. Balachander for advice on elementary Carnatic sangeet. 

One day the door of my third-floor Mount Road office opened and in walked Balachander in a state of high agitation. Vocalist Semmangudi, he alleged, had the patronage of the Travancore Palace. So what? I asked. He is lobbying in Madras (Chennai) to elevate musician prince Swathi Thirunal to the level of the great trinity. He wants Thirunal’s photograph alongside the great trinity in the Music Academy, virtually headquarters of all the performing arts in South India. Beads of perspiration covered his forehead. “This will happen over my dead body”, he said. He lifted both hands and brought them down on my table with such force that the glass top splintered.

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