In October 2019 I started a project to create alphabet flashcards in Urdu using lino blocks. I had an idea for the letter ل – laam – which makes a lllll sound and I thought I’d start at the beginning and keep the ل for later. It took a year to complete – I find that the Urdu language is very complex, it’s not easy to find a noun for every letter, or even to visualise the noun. Some letters in the Urdu alphabet are resting sounds, they usually end a syllable and try working that into a flashcard! On this page I share my progress of the cards, which have featured in John Pedder’s growing 1/many movement and scored me my first museum commission.
Museum of London – Multilingual London – 2020
I was planning to show my flashcards at the Museum of London’s Multilingual London festival in April 2020. It was first postponed to the autumn during the time of plague and now it is virtual. While I was planning to showcase the cards during a family oriented workshop, I’m now just showcasing my cards on the festival’s website in a flat lay stop motion animation. Multilingual London is a collaboration between SOAS University of London and the Museum of London and is part of the ‘Multilingual locals, significant geographies: a new approach to world literature’ project. My flashcards feature in a video which celebrates the many voices in London of those who speak both English and Urdu. You can can watch it here: http://mulosige.soas.ac.uk/activities/multilingual-london-festival/
It has become important to me to create a visual story of the language, one that is as colourful as the land it comes from, and engages the audience in a way that truly reflects the spirit of the language. This project is a love letter to all the words in Urdu.
In the beginning there was the word
Traditional qaida (an alphabet book that children use to learn the language in school) use the انار – anaar – pomegranate – to introduce the first letter of the Urdu alphabet. I started this project wanting to reimagine the language for a generation of people who, like myself, were born and brought up in a country where Urdu isn’t spoken and who, maybe like me, were derided for their ethnic heritage. So, instead of starting with anaar, I used the aam – mango. In reimagining the language through these flashcards, I was inspired by the bright colours of those mid-century alphabet posters that now appear on Etsy shops and eBay listings.
This was always going to be a labour of love for me, a chance to reconnect with and feel proud of a language that has its roots in the royal courts of India. It is a lyrical language, of poetry and love. The word urdu comes from a Turkish work to hoard, so I’ve been told, and in true hoarding fashion, Urdu is a hoard of Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hindi. The alphabet is adopted from Persian and Arabic.
The words I chose aren’t conventional words to appear in flashcards. زبردست – zabardast – literally means devastating, but it is used to imply ‘awesome’ or ‘most excellent’. It also comes with a hand movement which features in my flashcards.
On my Etsy site, at the moment, I offer these cards individually, or in sets of three or five. Direct links below. I’m working out how to print these together as a poster and to create my own qaida – a little book of letters for those of us who want to learn the language.
I have taken part in every 1/many campaign since October 2019. Every print, sent to anyone who requests one, features words in Urdu. I love the idea of sending Urdu prints all over the world, and it constantly surprises me that people want these.
محببت – mohabat – love
There are many words for love in Urdu. For this postcard print, I chose the word mohabat purely for the aesthetics, it offers me two letters with nuqte (those dots that hover above and below letters), each letter enjoins the other, contributing to a continuous line flowing through the print.
Not all letters in the Urdu alphabet can be enjoined. The letters that make up the word Urdu are separate letters, purely by their placement against each other. The ا aleph is a solitary letter, by its own vertical structure it cannot join with any letters. In the first two letters of the word we see the ا aleph and the ر reh standing separate from each other, ار ur. This separation continues throughout providing independent letters with no continuous line.
The typography is something I could play with. Unlike other languages, the letters in Urdu form across and down the page from a higher point, ending at a lower point, and from right to left. Lined notebooks are really not helpful when writing in Urdu. I inverted the boat shape of the ت teh hoping for a graffiti style lettering. This print, in the monochrome black and white, is available to buy from my Etsy shop.