Sanjiv Saraf first built a global company and then moved on to build Rekhta, for the love of Urdu Poetry

5th Mar 2016
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Urdu is an 800-year-old language, with a tahzeeb that is rich in eloquence and emotional depth. Due to the patronage it enjoyed among art lovers, Urdu has evolved with a unique ability to convey complex emotions and experiences in small and finely crafted couplets. We, the lovers of the language, do take great pride in this. However, over the past few decades, Urdu, like every other Indian language, has faced the challenges of a globalised world, where English has become the ubiquitous language of trade, science, entertainment, and technology. With little digital presence, vernacular languages are shrinking fast, and dangerously.

Sanjiv Saraf
Sanjiv Saraf

Urdu, however, is currently undergoing a unique resurgence in India. And the readers and lovers of the language will probably agree. Thanks to the long lost art of storytelling that the Dastangos are currently reviving, or role played by Rekhta, a unique and interactive platform for Urdu Poetry run by the Rekhta Foundation. These initiatives are welcome, although the work at hand is far from done.

Javed Akhtar during Jashn-e-Rekhta
Javed Akhtar during Jashn-e-Rekhta

Rekhta is unique in many ways. With over 1,700 poets, and 35,000 ghazals, nazms, and shers interactively available in Roman, Devanagari, and Urdu scripts, Rekhta has over the past three years emerged the largest online repository of Urdu Poetry. Factor in the 4,300 audio poems, 4,100 videos, 17,000 e-books, and massive language festivals; and it’s a literary kranti in the making.

Rekhta finds an audience among all age groups. The website is particularly popular among school and college goers, who belong to an age we can all remember, when we couldn’t help but fall in love. And couplets like these help our dreams and fantasies take flight –

ishq ne Ghalib nikamma kar diya
warna hum bhi aadmi the kaam ke
(Ghalib, a worthless person, this love has made of me
Otherwise a man of substance I once used to be)

There is also a strong reader base among the older audience, who have witnessed the decline and neglect of Urdu in their lifetime. Rekhta gives them a sense of pride and nostalgia as Urdu’s charming cadence and lyricism carries them gently into a world that exists only in the abstract dimensions of poetry, aesthetics, and tradition. Life finds new meaning when they muse over couplets like –

hazaron khwahishen aisi ki har khwahish pe dam nikle
bahut nikle mere arman lekin phir bhi kam nikle
(Thousands of desires, each worth dying for
Many I have realized, yet I yearn for more)

And then, there is everyone in between - working professionals seeking respite from their hectic day; teachers, academicians, scholars, idealists, and writers who can’t help but flock to poetry whenever they seek the emotional depth and passion only such verse can deliver; and men and women from all walks of life who indulge in Rekhta’s vast repository of poetry.

yourstory-sanjiv-saraf-2
The one man behind this massive resurgence is Sanjiv Saraf, whose own story is nothing short of poetic. An IIT-Kharagpur alumnus, Sanjiv started up back in the 80s and built Polyplex, a global business venture from scratch. Today, Polyplex Corporation is the world's fourth-largest producer of thin polyester film, and has manufacturing facilities in India, Thailand, and Turkey.

Sanjeev, however, was never a typical businessman. Growth and valuation were not his only concerns. Having successfully built a name and brand, he slowly started engaging with Urdu poetry, where every day was a new learning experience. He realised that although we do use Urdu words in our day-to-day conversations, the language as a whole is steadily on the decline. Lack of fundamental knowledge and reading materials were furthering this decline.

“Once I had established Polyplex, I had the time and desire to start up all over again and build something unique and meaningful. Right from my childhood, I used to be in awe of the Urdu language, primarily due to its unmatched expressiveness and diction. I learnt Urdu and wanted to make the language accessible to more people in my country. This is when I decided to start Rekhta.”

The name Rekhta is derived from the language that existed during the 17th and 18th century, which finds its roots in Khadi Boli. Rekhta means 'mixed' implying that it contained both Persian and Hindi. Over the past three years, Sanjiv and his team have been able to preserve Urdu text and literature, and make them publicly available for free. With support from scholars, academicians, and writers, Rekhta has been able to prepare interactive study materials for those willing to learn Urdu.

Nandita Das during Jashn-e-Rekhta
Nandita Das during Jashn-e-Rekhta

Rekhta is today a massive and constantly growing archive of Urdu Literature. A quick click on each word reveals its meaning, making the experience more responsive and interactive. With audio and videos of these poems recorded by professional RJs, actors, and often the poets themselves, Rekhta adds an air of authenticity to the whole experience. What’s more, the website even has sections on easy poetry and popular ghazals and nazms to engage newcomers. It doesn’t come as a surprise therefore that Rekhta today engages readers from over 160 countries.

Having completed the digitisation of the complete works of two great Urdu poets – Mir Taqi Mir and Mirza Ghalib – and the short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto, Rekhta has also introduced Rekhti, a unique genre of Urdu poetry adopted by male poets, which employs women’s special idioms, mannerisms and accents to describe the affairs of a woman with a woman, a woman with a man, detailing their sensual desires and sexual urges. Rekhti is generally written in ghazal form, and was a product of the socio-cultural and literary ambience in 19th century Lucknow. Rekhta has also started a programme to provide young and upcoming poets a platform to showcase their compositions.

Jashn-e-Rekhta
Jashn-e-Rekhta

Sanjiv and his team have also been organising Jashn-e-Rekhta, a unique festival celebrating the Urdu language, where performances, panel discussions, and interactive sessions are all brought under one roof. Jashn-e-Rekhta made its debut in 2015 and attracted over 15,000 Urdu lovers from across the sub-continent. Over 60 poets, artists, novelists, litterateurs, journalists, and lyricists from India and Pakistan participated in the festival to take the audience on a journey of exploration of Urdu and its many-splendored facets. With 75 celebrities from across the world and thousands of participants, this year’s festival, which was conducted recently, has only furthered the horizons of the ambitious initiative.

The journey of Rekhta is far from over. Rekhta Foundation is currently working on multiple projects which are aimed at different age and demographic groups with the objective of making Urdu an accessible language. Sanjiv wants Rekhta as a resource to continue growing. He plans to involve scholars, students, and other lovers of the language and build an ecosystem where users from all spheres of life visit Rekhta, and fall in love with the lyrical beauty and eloquence of Urdu. Sanjiv signs off, saying -

"I don't know where we will go from here. I am glad we have come this far. We just want to keep working with Urdu and enjoy what we do. We want to keep building our platform, and celebrate the language and it's culture. There are many projects in our pipeline. We have larger dreams, but even a lifetime is not enough for that."
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