Griffith A. Chaussee / Middle Eastern & South Asian Languages & Cultures

It is axiomatic (or at least is supposed to be) that foreign language instruction cannot be divorced from cultural instruction, i.e. that teaching a foreign language to students must involve teaching those students about the cultural environment within which that target language is spoken currently, and has been spoken historically. But in the case of Hindi and Urdu—which share a grammar and a basic vocabulary but differ in script and literary heritage—this project of cultural instruction is not entirely straightforward, given that over the past hundred years or so Hindi has come to be seen as the language of Hindus in northern South Asia, and Urdu the language of Muslims. While it is true that Hindi is written the Devanagari script and looks toward Sanskrit for much of its cultural underpinnings, and that Urdu is written in the Nastaliq script and looks toward Persian and Arabic for much of its cultural authenticity, it is nevertheless also true that until the Hindu-Muslim religious communalism that emerged from the nationalist politics of South Asia toward the end of the 19th century, Hindi and Urdu were not generally not viewed by the populations which spoke them as separate languages that served as divisive cultural markers. Rather, they were seen simply as names for linguistic registers which existed along a single continuum of composite cultural affiliation. Unfortunately, the partition of the South Asian subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947 greatly exacerbated the politically motivated cultural divide between Hindi and Urdu; the sad fact today is that much of the shared composite culture out of which Hindi and Urdu grew is willfully ignored.

Upon my arrival at U.Va. in 1997 as a Lecturer of Hindi and Urdu, the first-year Hindi class I inherited was just that: an elementary-level language class devoted only to the Hindi side of the linguistic continuum. But with the blessing of my department I made the conscious decision to revamp the curriculum to include active instruction in Urdu as well, showing my students as often as possible various aspects of the composite culture out of which these two registers emerged.

My Dream Idea, then, is to explore with my first-year students some significant elements of north India’s composite culture, both historical and contemporary, with the goal of helping them see for themselves the intertwining of values and themes which Hindi and Urdu both share. I would like to screen three Hindi-Urdu films over the course of the fall 2013 semester: Jodha-Akbar (2008), the story of the Muslim Mughal emperor Akbar the great and the Hindu princess Jodhabai who would later become his wife; Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), the story of three brothers separated at birth who then grew up in Hindu, Muslim, and Christian homes, respectively; and Pyaasa (1957), the story of a young socially conscious Hindu poet who composes his poetry in Urdu and struggles for recognition. I propose screening these films in the Kaleidoscope Room of Newcomb Hall, and to have a catered Indian dinner provided after the screening during which we will be able to discuss the film we just saw.
In keeping with the commitment to show my students that the most productive aspects of Indian culture derive from a historical impulse to share and include, rather than to divide and exclude, the highlight of my Dream Idea grant would involve taking my first-year Hindi-Urdu class (approximately 20 students) to an exhibition entitled “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” at the Smithsonian’s Freer/Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C. This exhibition runs from October 19, 2013 to January 26, 2014, and is precisely the kind of investigation into composite Indian culture in which I seek to involve my students. According to the Galleries’ website,

Through masterpieces of Indian sculpture and painting, Yoga: The Art of Transformation explores yoga’s goals; its Hindu as well as Buddhist, Jain, and Sufi manifestations; its means of transforming body and consciousness; and its profound philosophical foundations. The first exhibition to present this leitmotif of Indian visual culture, it also examines the roles that yogis and yoginis played in Indian society over two thousand years.

Highlights include … ten folios from the first illustrated compilation of asanas (yogic postures), made for a Mughal emperor in 1602, which have never before been exhibited together ….

With the further generosity of the Mead Foundation, I would like to cap this visit to the Yoga exhibition by having an Indian dinner with my students at an appropriate Washington Indian restaurant.

Cost: I estimate that the movie showings will cost $300 ($100 per event) to cover dinner and refreshments for 20 students. We will need $1200 to cover the charter bus round trip to Washington, D.C., and another $500 ($25 per student, 20 students total) to cover the Indian dinner after the Yoga exhibition.