Dakhni proverbs, dying references to Deccan culture, are being preserved, recorded by one Urdu professor

Chorī se pūrī diye to, chobā na’ī kar ko chillā’ī kate

(When given a stolen puri, yelling that there’s no chobā, traditional puri stuffing made specially for Muharram)

This is a Dakhni saying from peninsular India, a colorful way to call someone ungrateful and unappreciative. The saying manages to convey a certain depth of meaning, far beyond the sum of its individual words, and is part of a larger oral tradition in Dakhni.

A language of the Deccan

Dakhni is an Indo-Aryan language spoken by most of the Deccan’s Muslims, from Ambur to Aurangabad, originally transplanted from faraway Delhi in the 14th century through Alauddin Khilji’s Deccan campaigns. It could once boast of a thriving literary tradition with a considerably large canon, thanks to royal patronage at the courts of the Deccan Sultanates, particularly at Bijapur, Golkonda, and Bidar.

This tradition flourished in the 1500s, and many sultans themselves wrote poetry in Dakhni, including Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah of Golkonda, the founder of Hyderabad.

With the advent of Mughal military presence in the region, the Deccan Sultanates found themselves under constant attack from the North, falling to Mughal forces one by one. Since these capitals were also the centers of Dakhni literary culture, these conquests meant that Dakhni literature no longer enjoyed royal patronage, sending it into a steep decline — an illustrative example of how cultural forces are often ultimately subservient to political developments and are linked to power struggles.

With the defeat of the Deccan Sultanates, this tradition of courtly Dakhni literature came to an unceremonious close. The language itself was mostly relegated to homes and the street, a position it has not recovered from since. Today, its speakers use North Indian-based Standard Urdu for written and formal purposes, forming a linguistic state called diglossia, where a speaker community speaks a “low” (L) variety of a language in day-to-day life, while deferring to the usage of a prestigious “high” (H) variety for formal contexts. In this particular context, Dakhni is the community’s low variety, and Standard Urdu the high variety.

Unwritten language varieties that are often seen as non-standard dialects of a written language face additional pressure from the standardised registers their speakers use for written purposes. In the case of Dakhni, this pressure comes from Standard Urdu, a standard based on the dialect of Delhi and therefore markedly different from the Deccan’s variant.

 Dakhni proverbs, dying references to Deccan culture, are being preserved, recorded by one Urdu professor

Dakhni proverbs arranged alphabetically, with Standard Urdu explanations. Entries under nūn (ن)

Proverbs, an embodiment of culture and lifestyles

Proverbs are arguably one of the longest lived as well as most accessible forms of oral literature. Containing within itself in one pithy statement what would otherwise need wordier exposition, a proverb can also express the traditional cultural norms of its speaker community through the comparisons and analogies it employs.

Dakhni proverbs, for example, abound in references to local dishes, agriculture, festivals (especially Muharram), and traditional Deccan life, among other themes.

By extension, it follows that the loss of these lifestyles can also result in the dying out of the proverbs themselves, as the cultural milieu they embody no longer exists. Many proverbs that reference older methods of agriculture, for example, have lost their relevance as modern, automated methods have replaced them.

Preserving a dying literary element

Zabiulla, an assistant professor of Urdu at Bengaluru’s Maharani’s College, originally from the former Bahamani capital of Bidar, decided to do his part to help preserve Dakhni’s rich oral tradition. Worried by what he saw as a decline in the active usage of these proverbs and the loss of uniquely Dakhni vocabularly, Zabiulla felt the only way to preserve them was to write them down. Even if the proverbs themselves die out completely, says Zabiulla, future generations should be able to read and understand them from records, especially children.

To that end, he gathered, recorded, compiled, and analysed a collection of such sayings. Published in Urdu under the title Daknī Kahāvatẽ (Dakhni sayings), Zabiulla’s collection presents readers with a vast, diverse selection of proverbs used by speakers across the Deccan. The various sayings are categorised by theme — there are 11 — and indexed alphabetically, with an introduction that covers the history of Dakhni literature. Each proverb is followed by a longer explanation written in Standard Urdu, making the book accessible beyond the Deccan itself.

In fact, many sayings are characteristically Dakhni in vocabulary and style, meaning that someone only familiar with Standard Urdu will not be able to understand them.

The book comes with an appendix that contains a glossary of these unique words and phrases, with their equivalents in Standard Urdu. Writing the book took him two years, a process that involved much research on the very roots of the literature and the importance of orality in pre-modern Indian literature.

Looking for a language inside homes and on streets

Since this was an independent project with no government funding, Zabiulla had to think of ways in which to do his fieldwork. To start with, Zabiulla dove into classical Dakhni works from the Deccan Sultanate period — especially Mullah Wajhi’s Sabras written in Golkonda and Nizami Bidari’s Kadam Rāo Padam Rāo written in Bidar — to form the foundation of his research, with Sabras in particular proving to be a veritable gold mine of such sayings.

The collection itself draws from a broad sweep of sources, and how they were collected is an interesting tale in itself. The next step was to approach native speakers across the Deccan for more sayings. He enlisted fellow Urdu teachers and professors to contribute, followed by an ingenious method of collection: Zabiulla would go from Urdu school to Urdu school and task children with collecting at least five such sayings from their grandparents, offering rewards for students who collected the most.

He was even assisted by a bus conductor with KSRTC, the Karnataka state government’s transport corporation, Zakir. As Zakir’s bus traversed the Deccan every day, he came into contact with Dakhni speakers from across the region. Noting down sayings they used, Zakir would then send use them to Zabiulla as voice notes or handwritten notes over WhatsApp.

After going through his collection of sayings and weeding out ones that involved swear words (since the collection was intended for children too) Zabiulla had a total of 1200 proverbs to work with. 550 of these were then used in the final book, and Zabiulla plans to publish the rest later.


Dakhni - Standard Urdu glossary, with Standard Urdu meanings for uniquely Dakhni words

Linguistic distinctiveness

From a linguistic perspective, this collection of proverbs is also significant in that the proverbs it contains preserve the language variety’s unique vocabulary and grammar, distinct from Standard Urdu’s. This is especially relevant given that native speakers of Dakhni rarely use it for writing as a result of its diglossia.

In fact, oral traditions are in a way the only uniquely Dakhni forms of expression left.

Even a cursory look at the proverbs drives home how distinct their language is.

For example, the proverbs feature word forms quite different from their Standard Urdu counterparts (bhū instead of bahū, “daughter-in-law”, hattī instead of hāthī, “elephant”), words that have been lost in North India, Persian words not used in Standard Urdu (maskā, “butter”) as well as — interestingly enough — borrowings from Sanskrit (kāl, “time, era”) and local Dravidian languages (annā, “older brother”, kās, “a form of money”) that do not feature in the North.

Most importantly, they also feature many words and grammatical features that characterise Dakhni’s independent linguistic development, since it came to be spoken in peninsular India, including the iconic nakko for 'don’t', kate for 'if one says' used for forming quotations, and the -ch suffix widely used to emphasise words (most likely borrowed from Marathi). These grammatical features and many more are borrowed from the region’s other languages, and many ultimately have their roots in the Dravidian language family.

While many of these words still feature in spoken Dakhni, many others were primarily used in its literary register and may not be in everyday use.

Passing on Dakhni to future generations

It’s clear that Dakhni’s oral tradition carries with it a unique facet of the Deccan’s literary history. At the same time, it’s hard to ignore the very signs of decline that drove Zabiulla to undertake this project in the first place. English medium education and modernisation have accelerated the erosion of Dakhni’s literary traditions, he feels. To this can be added the general shift away from oral traditions towards written, printed ones, where standardised literary varieties are privileged — in this case Standard Urdu.

Zabiulla feels the book’s contents should be supplied and taught to young Dakhni speakers at schools as part of their Urdu curriculum, to ensure that they retain familiarity with their literary heritage from a young age. Government bodies like local Urdu academies tasked with the development of Urdu and Dakhni should also do their part and fund such projects and initiatives dedicated to Dakhni’s preservation and promotion.

As India’s shift away from oral literature intensifies, it becomes imperative for us to look at our traditions even closer and unlearn our biases for written literature.


Karthik Malli is a freelance journalist who writes on the intersection between language, history, and culture

Updated Date: Jun 21, 2019 10:55:12 IST