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13th Annual U-M Pakistan Conference | Undoing Linguistic Hegemony: Rethinking Belonging and Identity Through and Beyond Urdu

This conference examines language use in Pakistan. With an eye towards native linguistic diversity that has challenged colonial-nationalist notions of monolingualism, the 13th Annual Conference on Pakistan seeks to disentangle the relationships between national, regional, and local languages. Historically, studies on languages in Pakistan have highlighted the statewide recognition of Urdu, contesting regionalism established by Punjabi, pre-British Raj Persian courtly and literary works, and, recently, the social status of English in the globalized world. Significantly less attention has been drawn to Pakistan's linguistic pluralism. Drawing upon the groundwork initially established by Tariq Rahman, this conference will serve as a gateway to enrich and complicate the relationships between languages and the ligatures of the state, social movements, literature, devotion, and performance. Using multidisciplinary, multitemporal frameworks to elucidate these relationships, we seek to generate a lively discussion unpacking the language hegemonies associated with Pakistan and their current places within the multilingual spaces that its citizens inhabit. While engaging primarily with Pakistan, we aim to open dialogues that celebrate linguistic diversity across South Asia and its diasporas, particularly as the marks of globalization reveal the everlasting relevance of language recognition and support.

Made possible with the generous support of the Title VI grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Cosponsored by the Department of History of Art, the U-M Residential College, Arab and Muslim American Studies, the Department of History, the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and the American Institute of Pakistan Studies.


10- 10:05 am:-Matthew Hull, Director of Center for South Asian Studies

10:05-10:15 am: Caity Marentette and Asa Willoughby

10:15- 11:15 am:- Panel 1: Literatures and Scripts

Abeera Kamran: Lithograph to Laptop: Navigating the Digital Landscape of Urdu and Lahori Nastaʿlīq

Urdu is almost exclusively written in the complex Perso-Arabic script style of Lahori Nastaʿlīq. Urdu readers have a marked preference for this script style, which embodies perceptions of national (Pakistani) and communal (Muslim) identity. While Lahori Nastaʿlīq displays sophistication in printed matter, typesetting and reading Lahori Nastaʿlīq online is difficult due to insufficient design and technological support for the script, evidenced by Urdu being printed primarily through handwritten lithography, until as late as 1981. This presentation analyses the ideologically charged relationship between Urdu and Lahori Nastaʿlīq and argues that despite the state support Urdu enjoys, it remains an insecure language given the difficulty of writing and reading Nastaʿlīq online. This presentation examines how various past and present typesetting and printing technologies have supported Lahori Nastaʿlīq. It opens with an examination of the formal characteristics of the script style that inhibited its replication in metal or wood type, as well as early digital software. It records the unresolved challenges for rendering Lahori Nastaʿlīq with web technologies as live, searchable HTML text. Text on websites and apps displays a range of typographic failures that impede reading: irregular font sizing, broken words, nuqtas (diacritical marks) colliding into each other, and cramped line heights. This script style renders so poorly online that communities are forced to romanise Urdu or share images of text. Such practices threaten Urdu’s reading culture and disenfranchise Urdu users across the world from communicating with each other online. Importantly, they impede research relying on texts reproduced in Nastaʿlīq. Other regional languages, such as Punjabi, Pashto and Kashmiri, that use Lahori Nastaʿlīq, are as a result also digitally insecure. The presentation closes with a report on the author’s current work to address this challenge.

Zain Mian: Whose Zubān is it Anyway? Tracing Urdu Belonging in Late Colonial Lahore

Across the 17 th to 19 th centuries, Urdu literary culture was closely associated with urban centers such as Delhi and Lucknow. The language’s intimate links with these marākiz configured Urduas the property of select speakers known as the ahl-e zubān. Beginning in the 20 th century, however, residents of other cities, most notably Lahore, began to claim Urdu as a Punjabi and Indian language. With their city now a literary and educational hub, Lahori writers looked to expand the ambit of Urdu beyond its traditional conception as a Dehlavi language. As multiple generations of writers now exhibited a specifically Punjabi Urdu consciousness, their desire to install Lahore as a new literary center reflected a fundamental reconfiguration of Urdu into a malleable national language that could be deployed by its various speakers across the country however they saw fit. My talk traces this transformation by attending to the city as a significant scale of literary and linguistic belonging. It considers how multilingualism was historically negotiated not just outside but through Urdu.

11:15- 11:30- Coffee Break

11:30- 12:30 am:- Panel 2: Language and Media

Brian Bond : Transborder Affections: Sindhi Media and Islamic Learning on India’s Western Border

The petty smuggling of Pakistani cassettes across India’s western border during the 1980s and ‘90s profoundly changed Muslim music-making in Kachchh, Gujarat, prompting musicians to abandon the region’s local interreligious musical repertoire and adopt a storytelling-infused form of kāfī song from southern Sindh. In tandem with cross-border Pakistani radio, cassettes of Sindhi-language Sufi songs refreshed and sustained Kachchhi Muslims’ historical links with Sindh at a time when legal cross-border travel was becoming increasingly difficult in the wake of the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars. The impacts of Pakistani media in Kachchh were not limited to the realm of musical style but were entangled with linguistic shifts, Hindu nationalist discourses concerning Indian Muslims’ national loyalty, and interreligious relations. Drawing on fieldwork with musicians in India and Pakistan between 2014 and 2022, this presentation examines the epistemic, linguistic, affective, and devotional affordances of Pakistani media for rural Muslim communities in this western Indian borderland, showing how cassettes engendered novel forms of affectively charged Islamic learning. Tracing the Indian state’s attempts to block Pakistani media transmissions, and the circumvention of these efforts by those who maintain transborder affections, I reflect on the social, epistemic, and political significance of Kachchhi Muslims’ northward musical and linguistic orientation.

Gwendolyn Kirk:  Cinema and Multilingualism in Pakistan

Throughout the history of the Pakistani nation-state, both language and cinema have served as sites of ideological contestation, continually negotiated and renegotiated between filmmakers, audiences, and larger aesthetic and cultural hegemonic forces. Locating Pakistani cinema in the larger networks of film production and reception stretching all the way to the pre-Partition era, this paper argues that the question of language is fundamental to understanding the Pakistani state’s ambivalent and at times even hostile relationship with cinema. Language of course has been a key factor in many of Pakistan’s major internal conflicts, perhaps none more so than the 1952 Bangla Language Movement and the subsequent 1971 independence of Bangladesh. At the same time, the power of cinema to represent ethnic and linguistic struggles and solidarities has both been a key factor in its popularity as well as a source of anxiety for the Urdu (and English) cultural hegemony.

This paper therefore explores the evolving relationship between language, identity, and representation on Pakistani screens since the late 1940s. It argues that language has been a key factor, albeit underemphasized in scholarship, in the development of Pakistani cinema culture. In addition to considering how languages and ethnolinguistic identities are represented in cinema over time, this paper maps how language ideologies closely mirror received discourse on film aesthetics, particularly the elite responses to Punjabi and Pashto cultural production as it rose in volume in the 1970s and on. Finally, I explore how New Pakistani Cinema (NPC), a new film industry markedly different in its technologies, aesthetics, infrastructures, themes, and networks of production, has strategically co opted multilingual and multiethnic identities while consolidating itself behind a liberal, urban, Urdu-ized identity. At the same time the rise of social media, smartphones, and digital streaming platforms such as YouTube have created new opportunities for film production in languages not well represented in mainstream cinema, such as Balochi, and produced spaces for speakers of those languages to engage with global cinematic cultures.

12:30- 1:30 pm:- Lunch

1:30- 2:30 pm:- Poetry Recitation :

Abdul Bhat: Poetry recitation interspersed with conversation. Since the poetry reading will not be a conventional paper presentation and thus not have an abstract, I am providing here the title: "At the Zenith of Separation (Bar sar-i hijr): An Urdu Poetry Reading"

2:30- 2:45 pm:- Coffee Break

2:45- 3:45 pm:-  Panel 3: Diaspora

Virinder Kalra : Amongst the Interstices: The British South Asian Vernacular Literary Formation

South Asian diasporic fiction is an established field of cultural and literary studies, but hitherto has only considered English language writing, neglecting a canon of vernacular literature. Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali and Gujarati literature began appearing in British produced magazines and newspapers from the 1960s. I coin the term British South Asian vernacular literary formation as a way to explore the literary output, infrastructure of publication and distribution as well as the biographies of writers that express themselves in Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati. Urdu plays a particularly unique role in the literary gatherings, the mushaira (poetry assembly) which were common across urban Britain from the 1960s onwards. As a lingua franca of the literary class Urdu enabled those whose first spoken languages were Punjabi, Gujarati and Bengali to engage within the form of Ghazal writing. The concept of the vernacular formation draws on historical studies of literature in South Asia, where the establishment of a community formed around literary texts takes place through the shared practices of producing, circulating, performing, reading, and listening to vernacular literary texts producing a community of language (Mir, 2010). This is a particularly poignant parallel given the labelling of South Asian languages as community languages by the state, where ‘community’ itself was expected to only temporarily exist before melting into the mainstream pot of Britishness. The kind of belonging that the literary formation implies is less about a participation built on an ascribed belonging but rather on active participation through writing, reading and performance. This perspective neatly dovetails with the understandings of diasporic groups which focus on culture as a process rather than a property, an ever becoming rather than a static trap, caught between cultures (Hall, 1994). In delineating the Urdu literary formation this paper will explore the role of the state (as a provider of funding for arts and spaces of performance) as well as the political economy of publication and circulation of texts within the transnational space being created by migrant communities.

3:45- 4:00 pm:- Coffee Break

4:00- 5:00 pm :- Response to the Conference- Elena Bashir