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A benefactor named Sanjiv Saraf

Jashne Rekhta festival in New Delhi

A benefactor named Sanjiv Saraf

My recent visit to India was at the invitation of an organisation called Rekhta Foundation. Rekhta? In India? In Modi-land? You might well ask. The blurb that accompanied the invitation said “Jashne-Rekhta is a festival celebrating the quintessential spirit of Urdu — its inclusive ethos and creative richness. Some of Urdu’s finest poets, authors and artists will converge to bring alive its lyrical beauty and resonating eloquence”.

It was such a pleasant surprise to see that it actually did celebrate the creative richness of Urdu. In a vibrant and festive ambience, the Jashn engaged, enlightened and entertained not only those who were Urdu-ites but a large number of others who could neither read nor write Urdu.

The credit for staging such a stupendous event goes to one man, Sanjiv Saraf, an engineer by profession and a highly successful industrialist. Saraf, born in Rajasthan, fell in love with Urdu some ten years ago. He was not familiar with Urdu rasm-ul-khat (script) and so he began to study it. Indeed, he made his life’s mission to learn the language and is now so well-versed in it that he speaks it with the fluency of one born into it.

The first task he undertook was to set up a Foundation whose primary concern was to restore Urdu’s lost literature. In the 19th century the largest number of Urdu books were printed by that great patron of Urdu, Munshi Naval Kishore. Unfortunately, many of them were in a sad state owing to neglect. Without regard to expense, the Foundation set about restoring them. It has also salvaged thousands of verses, and rare manuscripts.

In a dignified inauguration ceremony Sanjiv Saraf outlined the history of the Foundation in a short, pithy speech. This was followed by a rather prolonged singing session by a lady who had been engaged to sing Sufi music. What she sang instead, slightly off-key, was an Indian film producer’s idea of sufi songs.


The Jashn was held in India International Centre’s vast compound in New Delhi. The corps de garde did a splendid job in making sure that every session began on time and at the right venue. The team of volunteers (all belonging to Saraf’s empire) who looked after the visiting dignitaries from abroad showed remarkable courtesy and patience in carrying out their assignments. The gentleman assigned to me was one of his special assistants, a spry, tall man called Surbamanyam Mani, who wears a trimmed white beard and a Brahmin’s red lines on his forehead. He hails from Kerala but speaks Delhi-ite Hindi/Urdu without any difficulty “Business ka koi time ab Saraf Sahib ke pass nahin hai” (Saraf Sahib has no time for his corporate affairs), he told me with a smile, “ab tu sirf rekhta rekhta” (he now devotes all his time to rekhta).

It was heartening to see that every event — a symposium, a musical performance, a scholarly dissertation, a recitation or a documentary, drew a packed house.

Sanjiv Saraf is a handsome, fifty six years old, neatly-dressed, self-effacing man who looks much younger than his age. He sought no limelight but remained in the shadows, quietly seeing to it that every activity goes on smoothly and that nothing untoward happens.


It was heartening to see that every event — a symposium, a musical performance, a scholarly dissertation, a recitation or a documentary, drew a packed house. In many sessions there weren’t enough chairs and yet scores of people stood without a murmur and listened with respectful attention. The huge attendance at the Festival, spread over two days, (from morning to late evening) surprised even the organisers.

I certainly did not expect such a turn-out. There were engineers, doctors, clerks, students, housewives, actors, shop-keepers, all having one thing in common — a love for Urdu. I was stopped again and again on my way to my dressing room by many eager Indians who informed me that they couldn’t read or write Urdu but had heard my recordings and had come from places as far as Chandigarh, Nagpur and Lucknow, to listen to me in person. It touched me deeply.

What made the Jashn special, wholesome and popular was that the hosts did not, at any stage, beat their own drums. It was a perfectly organised affair with no hitches or hiccups, no entrance fee, and no badmazgee (bad taste in the mouth) without which I have never seen any three day mela in the subcontinent. I am not suggesting that Urdu will now blossom in India, but the spark created by a benefactor named Sanjiv Saraf is not likely to fizzle out.

* * * * *

Another rather controvertible flare was ignited during the week I was in Delhi. Justice Markandey Katju, a former Chairman of the Press Council of India, known for his blog posts, postulated that Gandhi was a British agent because he was openly Hindu, economically regressive and because of his Satyagrah, which he describes as a harmless, nonsensical channel, diverted the freedom movement from true revolution. As a result, he did great harm to India.

The blog, posted on his Facebook, says that by constantly injecting religion into politics continuously for several decades, Gandhi furthered the British policy of divide and rule.

Mr. Katju writes that he has based his theory on the Mahatma’s public speeches and writings. As far back as 1921, Gandhi wrote in Young India: “I am a Sanatani Hindu. I believe in varnashram dharma. What effect will these speeches and writings have on an orthodox Muslim mind? It would surely drive him towards a Muslim organisation like the Muslim league, and it did.”

As an outspoken man, Mr. Katju has every right to express his views but he must have had a good reason for dubbing Gandhi as a British agent. Was it simply to shock millions of Indians who worship Gandhi as the father of nation? He admits that his post is bound to draw a lot of flack. One political analyst has written that his only reason in making such an outburst must have been to draw flak. “Just as popularity can give someone a high, so can the publicity that comes from shock value.”

Is Mr. Katju, then, a liberal who believes that religion must not be injected into politics? He is obviously of the view that Gandhi’s tactics delayed India’s independence considerably.

An interesting foot-note about his tirade is that he certainly is not in favour of India having any kind of dialogue with her neighbour, Pakistan. Recently, he denounced “India’s pointless decision of sending its foreign secretary to Pakistan because “Pakistan is a fake artificial entity”. He refuses to call Pakistan a country because it is about to disappear. The Hindutva clan must have applauded his sentiments but in the eyes of many Indians who feel that a rapprochement between the two neighbouring countries is the only sensible way forward, Katju is a crackpot.

Zia Mohyeddin

The author is the president and CEO of National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA)

One comment

  • (My recent visit to India was at the invitation of an organisation called Rekhta Foundation. Rekhta? In India? In Modi-land? You might well ask.)
    A stupid person might well ask such a question.
    Urdu belongs to India. It was born in the Indo-Gangetic valley. It has been imported by Pakistan. Only 7% to 8% speak Urdu in Pakistan (source:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Pakistan). Majority are Punjabi speaking who have such little self respect that they prefer Urdu to their own mother tongue!

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