Out from the margins

Scholar-Elect Sara Kazmi's research looks at the marginalisation of Punjabi as a formal language and how this perpetuates poverty.

The marginalisation of Punjabi in Pakistan has led to the marginalisation of a whole section of the population.

Sara Kazmi

Like many children in Pakistan, Sara Kazmi was educated in English. In 10th grade, she took part in the production of a play in classical 18th century Punjabi. It got her interested in the issue of language politics and it is an interest which has only grown over time.

Her PhD at the University of Cambridge, which she will start in the autumn, will focus on contemporary Punjabi writing’s search for a radical political subjectivity rooted in the lives and landscape of the people of Punjab.

At the root of her work is a desire to restore the status of Punjabi and to overturn the educational barriers that prevent the poorest from progressing in society. She says: “The marginalisation of Punjabi in Pakistan has led to the marginalisation of a whole section of the population."

Sara was born in the city of Sahiwal in Punjab and did her entire education in English. Urdu and English are the main languages of education in Pakistan, although most of the population, particularly the poorest, speak Punjabi at home. Despite her introduction to the country's linguistic politics at school, it was not until Sara went to university that she became more of an activist.

She studied European and South Asian History and Literature at Lahore University of Management Sciences, but was drawn towards performing. In her second year she joined the independent theatre troupe and literary group Sangat and started performing in Punjabi plays all over Pakistan, including in Lahore’s poorest areas as well as more rural areas. She also organised public discussions that explored the relationship between language, culture, politics and social change. “As a member of the upper middle class I was very cocooned. Through the performances we did, I suddenly saw how language differences and hierarchies were perpetuating poverty,” she says. She began to realise how language acted as a barrier to education for the poorest, putting them at a disadvantage in the education system. “It opened my eyes,” she says. 

“There is little awareness of the importance of our own culture,” says Sara. The problem has been compounded by the fact that Punjabi is now associated with the poorest and least educated and by claims that the language has not evolved sufficiently to suit contemporary needs. "A lot more campaigning is needed,” says Sara.

In her second year Sara also started to receive training in Indian classical music to enrich her performance of folk music. “I wanted to do more folk performances to give back to the tradition that enriched my own experiences as a performer,” she says.  She has continued that training over the past seven years.  During her course she took a year out to focus on theatre and Punjabi reading, given that Punjabi was not part of the curriculum. She kept studying Punjabi, becoming the first undergraduate student to do so at her college.

Regional language issues

After graduating in 2013, Sara applied to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Her master’s dissertation was a historical analysis of the Punjabi literary movement in 1970s Pakistan and she says she would like to eventually translate it into Punjabi and publish it in Pakistan.

Soas allowed her to focus on regional language issues. When she returned to Pakistan in 2014, she started teaching at an arts college.  Sara says those teaching Punjabi have to be very innovative, given that most people in Pakistan have not been brought up reading Punjabi. One of the key issues is to build confidence. Sara does this by getting students to read out loud, but she says ultimately it will be impossible to really promote Punjabi literacy until more work is published in the language. “People speak it a lot on an informal basis, but it needs to be formalised,” she says.

Since returning to Pakistan, Sara has also published some academic research on Punjabi poetry and the anti-colonial movement in the early 20th century and she has been volunteering with theatre groups.
She has very much enjoyed teaching and realised that if she wanted to continue along that path she needed a PhD.  After two years teaching she was also keen to be a student again so she applied to the University of Cambridge to study Criticism and Culture at Cambridge under Dr Priyamvada Gopal.

She hopes to continue performing Punjabi folk and classical music while at Cambridge.  She feels combining teaching and performance is where she can make the most significant contribution to society.  Over the summer before she arrives in Cambridge she will be recording footage of dying performance traditions in Pakistan in collaboration with another academic. The material will be archived online so that it is accessible to all in a user friendly way.  She hopes it will be open source so people can upload their own audio clips and recordings of rare art forms.  “We want it to be a digital platform for folk music and ballads, for poets and minstrels,” she says. “There will also be interviews with poets. A lot of these traditions are being lost as more and more young people leave the rural areas for the cities, but this is our history and it is important to retain it.”