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Sanjiv Saraf: A saviour of languages

By setting up Rekhta Foundation, a not-for-profit, businessman Sanjiv Saraf has played a pivotal role in the revival of Urdu in the past decade

Anubhuti Matta
Published: Mar 8, 2023 10:50:38 AM IST
Updated: Mar 8, 2023 11:06:58 AM IST

Sanjiv Saraf, Founder and chairman, Polyplex CorporationSanjiv Saraf, Founder and chairman, Polyplex Corporation
Tell me two songs you can think of,” asks a very soft-spoken Sanjiv Saraf over a call from Dubai. ‘Pal pal dil ke paas’ from Blackmail, and ‘Lag ja gale’ from Woh Kaun Thi, I say.

“You see, the word ‘dil’ is Urdu. In Hindi, it’ll be hriday. In the second song, mulaaqaat is Urdu, haseen raat is also Urdu. Subah is Urdu, shaam is Urdu. You won’t hear songs with Hindi lyrics using hriday, pratahkaal for morning, sandhyakaal for evening instead.” He adds, “Urdu has always been and is our own language.”

For Saraf, 64, Urdu has been at the centre of his attention in the past decade, through Rekhta Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation established by him to help preserve and promote Urdu literature.

Looking Back

Born in Nagpur, the IIT-Kharagpur alumnus says that while growing up, there was always a sense of language, but it was all in the air. “You heard the strains of poetry with Begum Akhtar, Mehdi Hassan, Farida Khanum, and later on Jagjit Singh. However, apart from a vague familiarity, there was not much interaction with poetry itself,” he says.

It was in college that he immersed himself in studying it a bit more. “There’s so much of romance, it’s such a sweet language. When you’re young, Urdu poetry is very attractive,” he jokes.

However, the relationship with the language of Love Longing Loss was short-lived. After graduating, in 1980, Saraf joined the family business related to metallurgy and mining in the city of Bhadrak, Odisha. But he realised that it wasn’t his cup of tea. “You don’t get the full experience, there are too many people involved,” he says. 

After working there for four years, he set up his own business, Polyplex, to manufacture PET films for packaging, in 1986. After the initial few tough years during License Raj, Polyplex’s first plant was set up in 1988 in Uttarakhand’s Khatima.

“By 1992, we were alright, and we haven’t looked back since then,” says Saraf. The business grew in India first, went overseas to Thailand, and within a year, doubled its capacity there. Then it moved to Turkey and expanded its presence to North America.

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Passion Project

By 2012, Saraf felt that he had had enough of the business. He stepped away from it, and today he is on the board as chairman of the company and a principal shareholder. “I actually wanted to do something for my soul,” he says. “I was always attracted to Urdu. It was time to go back to what I loved.”

So, at 53, he started learning the script, and in the process realised that there is a huge gap in trying to access a language that has its roots in India, because it’s difficult to read it. “I saw there was a paucity of reliable content on the web. It was so sad that we were deprived of our rich and beautiful heritage,” he says.

Sanjiv Saraf, Founder and chairman, Polyplex CorporationAt that point, he decided to start small and set up a website, Rekhta, with just 40 to 50 poets and their works. “Web is the best platform for spreading anything. There are no boundaries, no time zones, no visa requirements,” he laughs. “But it became so viral that one thing led to another. We kept adding content and people.”

What started out as an effort by him and his then executive assistant has now expanded to a project managed by more than 200 people. The website features works of 5,800-plus poets, and has 58,000-plus ghazals and nazms, and close to 30,000 shers (couplets). It boasts 25 million-plus users, and 22 million unique visitors annually.

To make it a seamless and interactive experience, the website also added meanings of Urdu words in both Devanagri and English scripts. “The idea was to be so user-friendly that no one has to sit with a dictionary. And today we are the world’s largest trilingual dictionary,” he adds.

While the team was looking for content, they realised it was difficult for people to find it and access it. A large part is still in the libraries of universities, and there is also a dearth of new books being published. Hence, Rekhta started scanning and digitising content. Close to two lakh books, or 58 million pages, have been scanned and preserved so far.

Sanjiv Saraf, Founder and chairman, Polyplex Corporation“This has become a major resource, not only for readers, but also for universities that have a South Asian language department. We have become a teaching supplement for names like Harvard University, The University of Chicago, Columbia University and more.” He adds, “The saying now goes like, what you can’t get anywhere else, you’ll find it on Rekhta and what you find on Rekhta, you can’t find it anywhere else.”

Also, since the works of some poets like Mirza Ghalib, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Iqbal are available in Devanagari, other poets don’t get the exposure they deserve. So, Rekhta started a publication division and has printed over 120 titles to date.

Considering that the language is so rich and lends itself to so many forms such as ghazals, qawwalis, dastangoi and drama, Saraf thought it needed to be presented in a form that is immersive and three-dimensional. So, in 2015, he launched Jashn-E-Rekhta, a three-day festival organised annually in New Delhi. It hosts ghazals, sufi music, qawwali, panel discussions, mushaira and poetry recitations, along with a book bazaar, food festival and shopping. “In the first year, we expected a maximum of 2,000 people. But there were 18,000 visitors; it was extremely overwhelming,” says Saraf.

Over the years, the most popular names and performers have been a part of the festival, including lyricist and poet Javed Akhtar, actors Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Shabana Azmi, and singers Hariharan, Shilpa Rao, and more.

In 2022, when the festival opened its doors after two years, thanks to Covid-19, more than three lakh people thronged the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium in New Delhi, where it was held. The aim is to expand the festival to other cities in India, and outside India, especially to Dubai where there is a large population from the subcontinent, and to London.

“Our next big thrust is going to be audio-visual because that’s where the world is moving towards. Attention spans are getting shorter, so that’s how we’ll have to think about presenting content.” 

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A Patron of Culture

Saraf says none of Rekhta’s projects make money. “What I see is that people get access to art and culture. That’s the more important part.”

Apart from the expenditure on Jashn-E-Rekhta, $1.7 million, including imputed costs, is being spent annually towards Rekhta, he says; 80 percent of this comes from him through his company’s CSR activity, and the rest through CSR from other companies, via donations, and YouTube realisations.

Over the years, he has also received support from friends and patrons of culture. Ashish Dhawan, founding chairperson of Ashoka University, has been one of the early supporters of Rekhta. “What pulled me into this project is his [Saraf] passion, the distinctiveness of the cause, and the scale. You know it is going to touch lives and keep people connected to their culture.”

Sanjiv Saraf, Founder and chairman, Polyplex Corporation

The aim for the long run would be to make it self-sufficient, Saraf says. “Because of how we are growing, the requirements are also going to be substantially larger. I think it may be time that people who are benefiting from it should make small contributions, because my constant worry is what after me.”

Looking back at how far it has come, Saraf says one of the major reasons for Rekhta’s success is the richness and beauty of the language. But he adds he has been mindful of not including religious and political content. “Unka jo farz hai, woh ahl-e-siyaasat jaane, mera paigaam mohabbat hai jahan tak pohonche. What people in politics have to do, they know, all I know is that my message is love, wherever it may reach,” he says, reciting a sher by Jigar Moradabadi to explain that the intent of the foundation is to spread love, and get people to understand the diverse culture they are born into.

Despite forming a large community of Urdu lovers around the world, and touching lives of millions, philanthropist is not the word Saraf associates himself with. “This is a passion project, and benefiting a community that respects culture gives me immense joy.”

However, he wishes there are more efforts undertaken towards preserving culture as part of philanthropic initiatives. “I agree it may not be life-saving like working towards alleviating hunger or poverty, but culture is a critical component of one’s identity,” Saraf says. “There needs to be some sort of institutionalisation of funding of such projects. After all, culture has always required patrons.”

Sanjiv Saraf, Founder and chairman, Polyplex Corporation

As far as Rekhta is concerned, there is always so much to do and explore. “We realise there’s something new to offer every day. We only have to see where this goes next.”

But is that going to be possible?

There’s an Arabic saying to explain that the best, says Saraf: “May God increase your expenses, He will also provide for it.”

(This story appears in the 10 March, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)