The ‘Jashn-e-Riwaz’ advertisement which was pulled down by FabIndia after a Twitter backlash is not just symptomatic of growing intolerance and the lack of understanding of the syncretic fabric of India, but also has a deeper semantic problem. Words, language and culture are intertwined inextricably. If the people, including the corporations and their creative directors, have little knowledge of the language, things can backfire badly.

The problem with the coinage of the term – Jashn e Rivaz – is twofold. First, the word for tradition or custom in Urdu is Rivaj and not Rivaz – it does not have the ‘z’ sound. It is a small phonological distinction and is often ignored in practice especially because it does not exist in Devanagari as a sound. However, when used in a major marketing campaign, the word should be correctly spelt. It is always Rivaj and there can be no exception to that. This omission (or wrong sound and spelling) only points to the ignorance of the copywriter and of those who approve of the content. It is neither professional nor wise to use a language with improper and unsound knowledge.

The second issue is with the grammar – the coinage of the phrase Jashn-e-Riwaz make little sense. How can you celebrate (jashn) a custom (rivaj)? There is an existent phrase in Urdu for Diwali which is beautifully called Jashn-e-Chiraghan (the celebration of lights). In case it was not for Diwali, as claimed by FabIndia spokesman, even then a marketing slogan for new festive clothing line cannot be a forced slogan, pretending, at best, to sound poetic but ending up only being perfunctory.

The language of advertising is powerful and can be evocative and memorable. The most significant jingles or copy are those that hit the mind and the heart together. In India, campaigns have often used Urdu words, and this advertisement is no exception. But it is not enough to know a few sounds and some common words to be writing in any language. Writers could consult with Urdu experts who really do know the vocabulary and grammar and can help in making usage correct.

What should have been a tedious critique of the ill-conceived marketing campaign by a respected clothing brand has ended up becoming a slugfest about usage of languages, tradition and religion which it never should have been. Afterall, the intention of the campaign was to bring attention to the beautiful clothes using evocative language. Sadly, it was a half-hearted and ill-informed attempt.

Urdu – the language of poetry

Urdu poetry still evokes more beauty, nostalgia and romance than any other. Whether the film industry or the independent music industry, lyrics are laden with Urdu. The rhyme, and effervescence of expression in free verse in Urdu is often far more sublime and lends itself easily to music. No doubt, even the copyrighters in marketing agencies realize the easy charm of using Urdu in their messaging. Problem is few really do understand, study and know the language well enough.

In India people may not put down Urdu as their mother tongue, but it developed and was born in India and for hundreds of years has been part of its cultural kaleidoscope of languages. It is one of the official languages recognized by the government of India. Hindi borrows heavily from Urdu and vice versa. Urdu and Hindi are also considered to be textbook examples of digraphia—a linguistic situation in which varieties of the same language are written in different scripts (Rizwan Ahmad, 2011). Urdu has traditionally been written in the Arabic script, whereas Hindi in Devnagari. However, many readers of Urdu now read it in the Devnagiri script and that distinction is also fading in India.

A common quip in sociolinguistics says that “a language is a dialect with an army and navy”. It is the British linguist John Gilchrist who worked on the etymology of Hindustani and classified words from Sanskrit and Indic languages into Hindi and those from Persian and Arabic into Urdu vocabulary – thus probably creating the semiotics and religious distinction. Judith Irwine and Susan Gal (2000) wrote that ‘speakers (and hearers) often rationalize and create linguistic ideologies that purport to explain the source and meaning of linguistic differences.’

The popularity of Urdu poets such as Javed Akhtar, Rahat Indori and Gulzar is testament to the fact that there is an existing and growing fan base for it. The phenomenal success of ‘Rekhta’ an online portal dedicated to Urdu and its massively popular annual festival ‘Jashn-e-Rekhta’ doesn’t just celebrate Urdu but the language of iconic poets this country has produced like Ghalib and Mir, of authors extraordinaries like Manto and Premchand– and of Sahir, Majhrooh or Kaifi – whose songs are part of our collective consciousness and bring both romance and revolution to mind.

Vineeta Dwivedi is a Faculty for Communication at Bhavan’s S P Jain Institute of Management and Research. Views are personal.

The opinions expressed are the author's own.