Sharing the Beauty of Urdu Poetry 

Submitted by Jacob Beckert on
Urdu Poetry, courtesy Princeton University Library

For more than a decade, UW history professor Purnima Dhavan and Asian languages and literature professor Heidi Pauwels have been collaborating on a book project titled Urdu’s Origins Revisited: Vali Dakhani’s Reception in Multilingual South Asia.

Focusing on the 18th century poet Vali Dakhani, the book explores a moment during the 1720s and 30s when his poetry exploded in popularity, with groups across India reading and writing responses to his poems. This phenomenon sheds light on the cross-cultural and cross-linguistic interactions of the time and the intercommunal exchanges taking place in India through the reading and performing of poetry from different communities. This examination of the popularity of Vali Dakhani’s poems also shows how Urdu, a language often associated with elite Muslims, transcended class and religious divides; a lesson particularly important in modern India where religious and linguistic divisions have increasingly become a source of conflict. 

The collaboration on this project began when Pauwels, whose background is in literature, approached Dhavan, a specialist in South Asian history, to help her understand the history of some poems by Vali she was looking at. Dhavan knew little about these but asked Pauwels to give her two weeks to do some research. She came back with several Persian texts related to the poem. After reading these together they decided  write an article together. They soon realized that there were far too many sources and far too interesting of a history for just one article, and, thus, the project evolved into a book.

Over the years, the two have taken whatever moment they could find to work together on this collaboration. They’ve had to work around busy teaching schedules, travel, and other research, not to mention a global pandemic. “My child was born shortly before we started this project, now we’re finishing it up and she’s fourteen years old,” says Dhavan with a chuckle. Now, thanks to a collaboration grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Dhavan and Pauwels have, for the first time, time to devote solely to recording this history and bringing their book to completion. 

The collaboration between these two colleagues extends beyond a book, the two will collaborate with Prof. Jameel Ahmad in Asian Languages and Literature  on episodes for a podcast series on Urdu poetry. Urdu poetry has a worldwide fanbase, but many can’t read the Arabic script in which Urdu is written. Dr. Jameel Ahmad will usesome of the history they’ve uncovered as well as read aloud the poems that have been influential to their study–helping introduce a new global audience to these historic poems.