Dr. Afroz Taj, professor of South Asian Languages and Cultures at UNC Chapel Hill, is a writer, poet, singer, and community leader. He has authored 3 books and a cyber-book. He produces a widely popular weekly radio program called Geet Bazaar that has thousands of listeners. He has been teaching university level Hindi and Urdu since 1983. He came to the Triangle area in 1995 to establish a pioneering program of teaching Hindi-Urdu through interactive videoconferencing for UNC and NCSU. His research interests include Hindi-Urdu poetry and poetics, Indian drama and musical theater, and the Indian cinema. Originally from Kasganj, Uttar Pradesh (near Mathura and Aligarh), he did his undergraduate and graduate studies from Aligarh Muslim University, and his Ph.D. from Jawaharlal Nehru University, while he was at the University of Virginia. He is doing a great job in bringing the South Asian community together. Here is ApnaTriangle interview with Dr. Afroz Taj.
Satish: When did you come to the US?
Dr. Afroz Taj: I came to the US in 1981 to study at the University of Michigan. I was also a teaching assistant at Michigan. I then went to University of Virginia to finish my PhD and to teach Hindi-Urdu. I came to Raleigh in 1995 to teach in NC State. Now, I am a professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Satish: When did you get involved with Hindi-Urdu poetry and literature?
Dr. Afroz Taj: When I was in 6th grade, I started writing geet (songs). I composed music for my songs and sang them myself. I still sing many of those songs on stage. My mother was a poet and my mother's brothers were also poets. I was a science student in school. My mother’s advice was 'Since you write poetry you should pursue the study of literature and culture.' When I was at Aligarh Muslim University, I composed “Naghma-e-Aligarh,” an ode to the university. The University adopted the song as second University anthem. I mostly write ghazals these days.
Satish: You have pioneered teaching Hindi-Urdu through videoconferencing. Please tell us more about it.
Dr. Afroz Taj: When I was in Delhi, I worked for Door Darshan and provided programs in All India Radio. When they hired me at NC State they wanted me to teach in 3 different universities at the same time. Luckily I could draw upon my broadcasting experience and I quickly learned how to teach to and through the cameras. I taught through videoconferencing in both NC state and UNC for about 9 years. Last year, I taught students in 4 different universities. Next year, we will be including University of New Orleans and few other Universities. Teaching language through videoconferencing is a challenge since a lot of different media are involved, however it is working wonderfully.
Satish: Please tell us about your cyber book 'A Door Into Hindi.'
Dr. Afroz Taj: 'A Door Into Hindi' is an interactive, multimedia elementary Hindi learning website. It has 24 video lessons with the film texts scrolling at the bottom of the screen. It also includes extensive notes on grammar and culture. Students can learn at their own schedule and at their own pace. I approached US Department of Education with the concept and was provided a half a million dollar grant. This ‘book’ is available on the Internet for free. Students all over the globe are learning Hindi-Urdu using this website. I am very happy that it is being used so widely. Almost every day I get questions, comments and letters of appreciation from people in Australia, Brazil, Japan, China, and many other countries.
I am currently working on a second project to transform these highly successful Hindi lessons into Urdu. I regard Hindi and Urdu as essentially the same language except for the different scripts. The US Department of Education has provided another grant for this new project, ‘Darvazah: A Door Into Urdu.”
Satish: The films in 'A Door Into Hindi' include scenes of everyday places like bazaars and tea shops. What was the thinking behind this?
Dr. Afroz Taj: I like to teach Indian culture along with the language. I wanted to bring the Indian culture to my students. You cannot teach the real culture by shooting in a studio. But shooting ‘on location’ was hard. For example, at first we were not allowed to film in the Taj Mahal. We had to shoot on the other side of the Jamuna river. John (Caldwell) convinced the authorities to allow us to film inside Taj Mahal. Even Bollywood films are not allowed to film in Taj Mahal. But I wanted my students to learn Hindi-Urdu in the busy streets, the Himalayas, and the Taj Mahal without having to travel all the way to South Asia.
Satish: Please tell us about your programs aimed at bringing the South Asian community together.
Dr. Afroz Taj: We do many things to bring the community together. The major efforts are:
1. We host a radio program, Geet Bazaar, every Sunday from 10 AM to 12 noon. There are thousands of listeners of Geet Bazaar around the world. It started as an on-campus thing and has grown into a community-wide event.
2. Urdu Majlis is an Urdu literary society that meets every month. Local poets recite their poetry and we discuss the works of a selected poet or writer. We have been doing this for almost 11 years.
3. I arrange programs by at least four major artists in the Triangle every year. We just brought in Munni Begum on the 13th of February.
In addition, I am public programming director of the Center for South Asia Studies. The Center includes professors from Duke, UNC and NC State who teach and do research about South Asia. The Center provides funds and facilities for many community activities.
Satish: One of your missions is to bring the community together through language and culture. How are you meeting this mission?
Dr. Afroz Taj: It is not just me; many others are trying to bring the South Asian community together. We have been successful in creating a good atmosphere. In 1995, there was no Chatham square. Today, we have a place where everyone comes together. Earlier, there were few cultural activities. Now, there are many. It is an ongoing work. When I organize any cultural or literary program I make an effort to attract an audience from diverse backgrounds in order to further this mission of bringing people together. I also try to attend all kinds of programs myself to connect with different segments of the South Asian community.
Satish: Bollywood is commercialized and I often hear that they do not use a pure language and use English excessively? What do you think?
Dr. Afroz Taj: Movies are commercialized because they have to earn money. However, they are helping the language. It doesn’t matter that they are not using “pure” language. No language is a pure language these days. If Bollywood uses Urdu, Persian, Arabic, or English vocabulary along with Hindi, it means the language is getting richer, not impure. As I said before, Hindi and Urdu are essentially the same language. They are written in different scripts, however the grammar, the syntax, the word order is identical, as well as 90% of the basic vocabulary. It’s a question of flavors: if we use more Persian or Arabic vocabulary, people call it Urdu, and if we use more Sanskrit vocabulary, people call it Hindi. And the choice of script doesn’t change the language. You can write any Indian language in the Roman alphabet, but it doesn’t become English.
Meanwhile, English is seeping into every language. English is like water, if there is a crack or gap in communication, it seeps in and gets used. But, English is not the world’s most spoken language; the most spoken language is Mandarin Chinese. The second most spoken language is Hindi-Urdu. In fact English is the fourth most-spoken language, behind Spanish.
Satish: Geet Bazaar is a very lively program. What prompted you to start Geet Bazaar?
Dr. Afroz Taj: My background is radio and my personal mission is to promote the arts – that’s what I enjoy. We wanted to bring the South Asian community together. Through Geet Bazaar, we are reaching living rooms of many South Asians. I like to think the program has an educational mission also. We have a lot of non-South Asian fans too, and all our listeners get to hear music they might not have heard before along with the old favorites.
Satish: How can we hear Geet Bazaar?
Dr. Afroz Taj: You can hear Geet Bazaar on 88.1 FM in most of eastern North Carolina every Sunday from 10 AM to 12 Noon. You can also hear it anywhere around the globe on http://www.wknc.org/.
Geet Bazaar is a request-based program and every week we get emails from India, Pakistan, Turkey, and beyond. Our mission is ektaa (unity):
Ka’abe se gharaz hai na Kashi se vaasta
Hum dhoondne nikle hain mohabbat ka raasta
We are not attached to any religion
We set out to seek the path of Love
We play requests any South Asian language: Hindi, Urdu, Bangla, Nepali, Telugu, Tamil and others. We try to play music from as many South Asian countries as possible. We like to choose songs that have a message that transcends political boundaries. I believe Geet Bazaar has helped in bringing people from all South Asian countries together.
Satish: What are the common things that bring South Asians together?
Dr. Afroz Taj: I believe the main things that are common among South Asians are -
1. Race - We are all the same race and share many of the same cultural traditions, even while celebrating the incredible diversity across the subcontinent.
2. The Indian cinema and the music industry are bringing us together. It is doing a great job.
3. Hindi-Urdu is the lingua franca of India as well as Pakistan. We can even go to Nepal and still communicate to some extent using Hindi-Urdu.
Speaking of diversity, I thought that I knew India well until I visited South India in last summer. I had missed one of the best parts of India. I visited Kanya Kumari in Tamil Nadu and many other cities in Kerala and Karnataka.
Satish: Please tell us about your TV show Taj Connection.
Dr. Afroz Taj: We started Taj Connection about 2 years ago. Our concept in Taj Connection is to interview an important person either from the local community or a celebrity, and play songs connected to the interview. We are on the air in Raleigh and Chapel Hill. We have slowed down since we do not have sponsorship yet in Cary and Durham, but we are working on starting up in Cary in the near future.
Satish: Please tell us about 'Religions of India Field Trip' that you do every year?
Dr. Afroz Taj: We do this twice a year. At first it was for my Hindi-Urdu students, but for many years it’s been open to everyone. We start from the Radio station on a Sunday after Geet Bazaar. We first go to the Durham Gurudwara. We observe their religious ceremony and have lunch there. We then go to the Hindu Bhavan and meet Sharmaji or one of the other priests. We introduce all the gods and have a question & answer session. We then go to Islamic Center of Raleigh for a presentation about Islam and a question & answer session. So we visit three major religious centers in a single afternoon and it is a great experience.
Satish: Your voice mail is very unique and my son became your fan after hearing it. You are not just a Hasya Kavi but also include fun in your other activities.
Dr. Afroz Taj: Life is so short. I like to be happy. We are lucky that we are smiling and laughing. And with that laughter, there should also be a lesson. We include both learning and fun in Geet Bazaar. By nature, I am a happy person and I like to make people happy.
Satish: Please tell us about the work that you are most proud of?
Dr. Afroz Taj: I’m most proud of the way that we in the North Carolina, the South Asian community have managed to overcome our differences and live and work productively together, while sharing the richness of our cultures. Of course I don’t take credit for it myself, but I like to think I contribute in a significant way.
Satish: What do you want to do next?
Dr. Afroz Taj: My third book was published recently on the 19th century play ‘Indar Sabha.’ It is called ‘The Court of Indra and the Rebirth of North Indian Drama’ and it is about the Urdu musical theater. I am working on my fourth book now about the Parsi Theater. Also, I want to complete and launch 'Darvazah: A Door Into Urdu' before May. Lastly, I am putting together a collection of my Urdu poetry to be published under the title 'Hujoom'.
Dr. Afroz Taj has authored the following books -
- A Door Into Hindi (cyber-book)
- Tanhaiyan, Ankahi, and Ahsaas Companion
- Urdu Through Hindi: Nastaliq with the help of Devanagari
- The Court of Indra and the Rebirth of North Indian Drama
- Forthcoming: Darvazah: A Door Into Urdu
- Geet Bazaar - http://www.wknc.org/music/music.php?id=24
- Taj connection - http://tajconnection.blogspot.com/
- A Door Into Hindi - http://taj.chass.ncsu.edu/
- A Door Into Urdu - http://www.marriala.net/test/urdu-demo/lessons/
- NC Center for South Asian Studies - http://www.jhfc.duke.edu/csas/index.php