Urdu at LUMS: An Interview with Dr. Ahmad Bilal

This article was published in LDS’ Volume 2 Issue 3 (print edition) dated April, 2018.

Dr. Ahmad Bilal Awan is currently an Assistant Professor at School of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) at LUMS. He did his Ph.D. from GC University with his dissertation and research analysis on philosophical subjects in Urdu. He did his Post-doctoral research from University of Virginia on Scripture, Philosophy, and higher poetry.

Q1. What are the vision and goals of Gurmani Centre and what kind of initiatives has it taken to ensure their implementation?

Since its inception, LUMS student body consisted of two main streams: one with O/A level background and one with the F.sc background (another smaller stream amongst them being of NOP students). Till 2015, O/A level students refrained from taking Urdu intensive courses due to a perception that they are at a inherent disadvantage. This disadvantage was constructed in the form of a language barrier since they didn’t have a strict Urdu curriculum. This structure was challenged in fall 2015 by the then administrator of Gurmani Center M.s Yasmin Hameed, whose goal was to devise a course tailored for O/A level students. This course, “The Art of Rreading and Writing Urdu”, was brought in place to bridge the gap between these two streams. Gradually, the course gained momentum and only after a semester there arose a need to make two separate sections. Additionally, there was a need to place interviews so that those truly seeking to improve their Urdu language skills could take the course. Before this course, approximately 80% of the students in Urdu language courses came with an O/A level background, but after this course, this percentage gradually reduced to 50% – indicating that students in general were drawn towards the course. The demand for this course was (and is) so high that there is a great possibility of a third section being filled up as well. He called this demand ‘’unrealized.’’ Hence, this course worked as a bridge between the two major streams that existed in LUMS by reducing the language barrier due to a gradual improvement in the writing skills. But, he further added, that courses such as these are only the tip of an iceberg, and there is a huge iceberg waiting to be discovered. Another course was designed by Gurmani Centre called, ‘’An eco-critical study of selected Urdu poems.’’ It employed a modern literary theory ‘’eco-criticism’’ which addresses the environmental degradation due to industrialization with its focus. This theory is a very recent addition in Urdu literature. Hence, the poems were re-read in this light. Numerous poems from 50s/60s were interpreted in this manner such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Majeed Akhtar, and Akhtar-Ul-Iman. Dr. Awan stated that Gurmani Centre’s aims include designing such courses which combine aspects from different disciplines and research methodologies such as English and Modern Research methods to interpret the Urdu Literature and present it to the world in a new light. Lastly, he stated that he felt a lack of regular faculty as most of the Urdu language professors are adjuncts. This, according to him, reduces student-faculty interaction, which is more rampant in other more in-demand majors.

Q2. Why should a natural science student, for instance, study literature? What can he/she expect out of it?

Dr. Ahmed Bilal stated that the inability to speak Urdu was most often taken as a status symbol, i.e. a hierarchy of languages existed in the minds of students which was inherited from top English-medium grammar schools; however, there has been a change as students have increasingly come to realize that this lack of skill is actually a loss. He recalled instances of students who admitted to be ashamed of their distance from something that is so intrinsic to their self and society. Hence, on one level, literature is the channel via which one can connect with one’s culture even in a liberal environment like that of LUMS, which has centralized to a lack of awareness of rich Urdu literature. Majors like Anthropology/ Political Science/ Economics/ law etc., without adequate understanding of Urdu, when going for research, realize that they don’t have enough skills to converse easily with the locals.

Q3. What kind of courses are introduced to fulfill the said aims? How do you observe their perception towards the changing literature?

Talking about the course again, Dr. Bilal narrated an in-depth analysis of its structure. He claimed that the course starts off with easy prose, which includes essays and columns. It, then, works its way with short stories and eventually leads to higher literature. Short stories are linked to South Asian culture with an aim to develop an interest in localized literature. For Dr. Ahmad, this gives students a different perspective that allows them to discover their culture which they are unable to trace in the English literature. It’s more difficult to relate to Western Literature, he said. Literature provides different lenses to view the world, especially works as an eye-opener for students from SSE and SDSB. This gives them a chance to flourish love and ownership for their culture. It is a process of self-discovery. There is a growing sense of realization as things such as culture and tradition are increasingly being valued. The environment needs to tailor and provide the appropriate environment for that realization.

Q4. What further contributions the Gurmani Centre can make?

For Dr. Ahmed, one of the most crucial impacts that Urdu literature has is the discovery of their cultural roots. There is a greater and growing acceptance of Urdu in the O/A level stream. This not only benefits the students, but it’s a two-way process as their increasing expertise also benefits the Urdu language.  O/A Level students have critical abilities and knowledge of a certain type that equips them to analyze texts in different lights, i.e. the language gets a completely new interpretation. The research tools and the analytical abilities broaden the horizons of Urdu language. Praising students from LUMS, he stated that they not only relate their present knowledge from different disciplines but also bring fresh perspectives by producing pieces that are publishable. The modern literary theory is properly employed, and modern research thematic tools are utilized. This enriches the dimensions of Urdu and will, ultimately, lead to qualified teachers and hence, better-equipped students – developing a benign cycle. Demonstrating hope, Dr. Ahmad said that Urdu will eventually be able to entertain well-equipped students. He further stated, with much optimism and hope, that LUMS Gurmani Centre will become a pivot for the revival of Urdu language in Pakistan. Dr. Bilal talked about an Urdu which is well-connected and well-aware of all the modern knowledge claims and does its best to incorporate them for its own advancement. The future of Urdu at LUMS is bright, and this is the result of the vision of Syed Baber Ali who advocated Urdu language in an institution which is pre-dominantly business oriented.

by: Musharfa Shah

 

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