Decline of Delhi’s Urdu Bazaar

From literary haven to struggling marketplace

Society

May 29, 2024

/ By / New Delhi

Decline of Delhi’s Urdu Bazaar

Delhi’s Urdu Bazaar stands as a poignant testament to a bygone era

In the heart of Delhi, Urdu Bazaar, once vibrant with literary fervour, now faces a continuous decline, reflected even in its fading signboards.

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For Urdu, a language that once flourished in the courts and bazaars of India, this decline is not merely a linguistic shift but a cultural and historical transformation. One of the indicators of this change is the fading glory of Delhi’s Urdu Bazaar, a place that was once the vibrant heart of Urdu literary and cultural life. Nestled opposite the Jama Masjid, it was once a bustling hub for Delhi’s literary community. Now, a sense of quiet doom prevails.

Amidst the fading echoes of literary grandeur of the national capital, Delhi’s Urdu Bazaar stands as a poignant testament to a bygone era. Once vibrant with the allure of Urdu poetry and prose, it now witnesses a steady decline in prominence. Even the faded signboards of this historic market betray the language’s waning influence.

Most shops open only after midday, waiting for customers. The booksellers, sip tea and watch tourist buses pass by, waiting for a passionate reader to browse their collections.

Just about 40 years ago, nearly 80 bookstores lined the street from Jagat Cinema to the entrance of Matia Mahal Road. Today, barely six remain. The air of the area, once filled with discussions of Ghalib and Faiz’s poetry, is now thick with the aroma of sizzling kebabs. The booksellers acknowledge the decline in business as most of these bookstores were replaced by kebab and chicken restaurants, while others were forced to shut down as the market conditions turned unfavourable. Lot of these stores took shift from Urdu literature to religious text for their survival and yet a handful persist, adapting to the changing conditions to protect their history and family heritage.

“Reflecting on the changing dynamics of my business, I recall a time when I exclusively sold Urdu literature. However, with the proximity of Jama Masjid, I recognised a shift in demand. To adapt, I began including religious books in my inventory. This decision proved to be more profitable, as there was a higher likelihood of customers seeking religious texts,” Abdul Kasim, a book seller near Jama Masjid, tells Media India Group.

“Urdu literature remains close to my heart and expanding to religious books has become a necessity to sustain my business. The evolving preferences of my customers have guided this transition, ensuring the survival of my bookstore in these challenging times,’’ he adds.

The booksellers, sip tea and watch tourist buses pass by, waiting for a passionate reader to browse their collections

The booksellers, sip tea and watch tourist buses pass by, waiting for a passionate reader to browse their collections

Today, Delhi’s Urdu Bazaar bears little resemblance to its former self. Many bookstores have closed, and the footfall has dwindled. The younger generation, increasingly drawn to English and Hindi for practical reasons, shows less interest in learning and preserving Urdu. Modernisation and changing economic realities have also played a role, with digital media overshadowing traditional print culture.

“The spirit of the bazaar has faded. There was a time when we could not keep up with the demand for new books. Now, we are struggling to survive,” Rizwan Ahmad a salesman at Zulfikar Book Depot, tells Media India Group.

“As a book lover, I have witnessed the decline of Urdu Bazar firsthand. Once a haven for literature enthusiasts, it now caters primarily to religious book seekers. The eclectic collection of literature, architecture, history, and poetry has dwindled, replaced by rows of religious texts. Gone are the days when prestigious Urdu journals adorned the shelves, now only 4-5 Kutub Khanas or libraries and old book stores are left and also get very few costumers and they are also toying with the idea of either selling their space or giving it to some kababwala to earn a quick buck,”  Mohammad Taki, a librarian tells Media India Group.

Urdu Bazaar traces its origin back to the Mughal Era, when it stretched from Chandni Chowk right up to Jama Masjid. The actual market was destroyed in an aftermath of the rebellion of 1857. Mirza Ghalib, who is one of the legends of Urdu and Persian literature, had lamented about the destruction of Urdu Bazaar. He used to say that the British had not just destroyed the Bazaar but the language as well.

Urdu Bazaar was not only about Kutub Khanas. It hosted the life and soul of political activities of walled city as well. The Indian National Congress, Samajwadi Party and Communist Party of India had their offices here. BJP had its office in Ajmeri Gate though. Mir Mushtaq Ahmad, socialist and freedom fighter and MO Farooqi, the general secretary of CPI, were often found there talking with their comrades. Later, they would sit in some Kutub Khana for chit-chat. The best thing about the shops of Urdu Bazaar was that they also sold second-hand books at throwaway prices. That was also a huge attraction for the readers.

“Visiting Urdu Bazaar on weekends used to be a cherished ritual. However, witnessing its gradual disappearance is truly disheartening. There was a time when all the notable poets and writers of the city used to visit Urdu Bazaar. The situation is not the same but there are professors and teachers from different universities who are still frequent in Urdu Bazaar,” Gaurav Sharma, a student of Delhi University, tells Media India Group.

He adds that in the fading echoes of Delhi’s Urdu Bazaar, we witness not just a decline in language but a loss of cultural heritage. As the shadows of modernity loom large, the struggle to preserve this historic bastion of literature reflects a broader challenge in safeguarding our collective past amidst the tide of change, says Sharma.

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