Love is the loveliest of human emotions; it is the most colorful and tender of them all. Human heart is its native place where love in utter privacy, far from reason, grows its delicate tendrils and sprays. Through various phases and varying moods, love acquires powerful intensity in its birthplace demanding expression.
Language is the most readily available medium of expression which can give voice to love delicately and subtly, with fidelity and freshness. But then the language of love must be as privy to the heart as is the emotion of love; it must be alive with passionate vigor peculiar to love. Thus there must be a symbiosis between the heart and the language that speaks its private feelings. From this viewpoint, the language of love-songs can provide a very sensitive and objective measure of nature and quality of love articulated and expressed through it.
No sensible man is likely to dispute the truth of these simple and general statements. They are empirical and they can be easily verified, or falsified, which is the same thing, really.
However, one conclusion that these major premises necessarily lead to is at variance with an undeniable feature of popular love songs sung in Hindi films. The conclusion I am referring to is that the ‘love-tongue’ of a people cannot be other than their native tongue, which is intimate with the heart of the people. But the material feature of the love-songs in Hindi movies, which even a casual listener cannot fail to notice, is the use of ‘love-words’ borrowed from Arabic to articulate and communicate love. These songs give one the feeling that love is not love that is not spoken of in Arabic words.
For these love-songs, love is muhabbat . A lover is either mahboob or Mahbooba depending on the sex of the lover. The former refers to the male lover, and the latter to the female lover. Or else love is ishk, and the beloved is maashooka, of course. One of the terms of endearment used for the male lover in these love-songs is sanam, which means ‘idol’, and the other one is saajan. Hindi appears to have innovated the term sajani to refer to the woman lover; it pairs off neatly with saajan, and it follows the grammatical pattern of deriving feminine nouns from masculine nouns in Hindi. The denotation of saajan calls for some comments at this point. In Arabic the dictionary meaning of saajan is ‘prisoner’, ‘captive’. In the songs the word is used, metaphorically, to refer to ‘a prisoner of love’. This metaphorical extension of the meaning saajan seems to be in keeping with the poetic conventions in Arabic itself. Notice the following:
To be sure, there is a similar sounding good old Hindi word, which may be transcribed as sajjan meaing a true man, a man of integrity, a moral man. But surely love songs sing of prisoners of love rather than people of moral virtues. With the literary convention of Arabic love lyrics in mind it does not seem very far-fetched to interpret saajan/sajani of Hindi love-songs as borrowed from Arabic with their Arabic meanings.
Of course, the lovers are beautiful people; the male lover is hasiin ‘beautiful’, while the female lover is hasiina. They have beauty husn. Indeed, lovers find every part of the visible world, duniya charged with beauty. In the love-songs they sing of hasiin fiza or of hasiin shamaa and hasiin zamaanaa. The value that governs their love-relation is wafaa; ‘fidelity, loyalty’ to each other. Their love-songs are prone to lament bitterly the slightest possible deviation from it. Infidelity is their ultimate sorrow. Of course, there is the sorrow gam of separation furqa(t), but it can be for a short while and can be borne, but not the ultimate sorrow produced by the loss of wafaa.
We can cite many more examples of such Arabic words borrowed into Hindi which have come to constitute the idiom of love crafted so charmingly in Hindi film songs. However, our aim at the moment is not detailed documentation; our aim is to state simply what is perhaps plain to all who enjoy these songs that nagma may not be sung, and gazal remain unborn without these Arabic loans.
Some Arabic knowing readers might have observed that Arabic words borrowed into Hindi, and as recorded here, are not exactly the same as they know them to be in their native habitat. They are right and their observation is just and undeniable. But I should point out that there are two processes responsible for the difference between them; one of them is a general process that operates in the case of every word borrowed into any language from any other, and the other is a specific process peculiar to Arabic words borrowed into Hindi in particular. The general process is inevitable; it accounts for modification, large or small, phonological, grammatical or semantic, of the loan words as they adjust themselves and adapt to the genius of the host language. In the case of Arabic words borrowed into Hindi, the general process of adaptation and assimilation is mediated through the Persian language. That is, most Arabic loans have entered Hindi through Persian: in other words, they have undergone two sets of modifications in two stages; the first modifications were introduced by Persian and the second by Hindi, and later than the Persian modifications. However, there is strong linguistic evidence to support the hypothesis that a sizable number of Arabic words were borrowed into Hindi unmediated through Persian. That is , mediated or not, Arabic loan-words in Hindi have undergone a variety of modifications; moreover, such modifications are inescapable. These general observations can bear some elaboration, but this does not seem to be the right occasion to elaborate them or illustrate them; we shall rest content with their simple statement here.
However, there are some other interesting aspects of this subject that deserve mention, if not a detailed description at this stage. One of them relates to the question whether these borrowed Arabic words filled any real communicative needs of the speakers of the borrowing language or not. In other words, the question is; is it possible to assert categorically that without these Arabic words the love-idiom of Hindi film lyrics would not exist at all, or if exist would be inadequately expressive of love. The answer is in the negative, for the meaning, if not the form of every Arabic word existed from before in Hindi, and exists even now. If even then the love-idiom of Hindi film lyrics cannot get off the ground without these borrowed Arabic words, the explanation has to be sought in Indian history, not in Hindi semantics. There was a time in Indian history when the rich and the cultured, the privileged and the sophisticated, considered those love-lyrics elegant, charming and worth listening to which were articulated in and through Arabic words processed through the Persian language. And this tradition, hundreds of years old, continues even today through the powerful medium of cinematography. It seems that even today listeners of Hindi film love lyrics can afford the luxury of cultivating and enjoying more than on love-idiom and a variety of love lyrics not possible for other linguistic groups.
What is really intriguing is that most listeners of Hindi love lyrics of films seem quite ignorant of the meaning, however defined, of the borrowed Arabic words and yet appear to be genuinely affected by them. The most striking example of this phenomenon can be gathered from the fact that when they propose love to their lovers, these listeners tend to do it in terms of the love-idiom crafted through Arado-Persian loan words.
Finally, it is possible to account for their behavior by assuming that what they respond to is the charm of a style rather than the content of the message, the presumed elegance of a little understood love-idiom intrinsic to a culture that not only has a long past, but endures even today in India. But what really ensures the living presence of this elegant style of fugitive charms is the abiding reality of the love-idiom Arabic loan words have given birth to.
(This article was first published in Yemen Times on August 23rd 1999)