Lifestyle & Culture, The Mughals in India

For the Love of Poetry: Mughals & Mushairas

Urdu is arguably the most romantic language of the Indian subcontinent. Acoustically, it is light and lilting, delicate on the ears and sophisticated even in simple sentence constructions. When expressed with skill in Urdu, the complexity and nuance of an emotion deepens. It is the language of love and poetry. That my late grandfather could speak, read and write in Urdu was and remains a matter of pride for me. Unfortunately, very few native speakers of the language remain in present-day India, a far cry from the 18th century when it was the national language of the region.

Urdu Shairi & the Ghazal

Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775 – 1862)

Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775 – 1862)

Urdu poetry or shairi as we recognize it today took its final decisive shape in the 17th century when Urdu was declared the official language of the Mughal court. The following decades witnessed a phenomenal rise in Urdu poetry and ushered in the age of legends such as Ghalib, Zauq and Mir.

Urdu shairi is based on a system of measure, and has a very rigid form. There are several types of Urdu shairi, one of which is the hugely popular ghazalGhazal literally means “to talk to/about women”. Traditionally, ghazals mainly deal with the topic of love – more specifically, unattainable love. The poet is the distraught, spurned lover who tries to gain the affection of an aloof, disdainful, sometimes cruel beloved. Each verse of a ghazal is a complex but complete description of the topic. It requires great skill on the part of the poet to reduce the most complex of emotions into the fewest of words while maintaining sophistication of thought and word.

Kahan woh maha jabeen aur hum, kahan who wasal ki raaten,
Magar hum ne kabhi tha ek yeh bhi khwaab saa dekha,
Zafar ki sair is gulshan mein hum ne par kisi gul mein,
Na kuchh ulfat ki boo paai, na kuchh rang-e-wafa dekha.
Whither I, whither my moon, and whither those nights of love?
But to see such a dream had once been my fate;
Although, I (Zafar) combed the garden, I didn’t see one bloom,
Not one lively scent of love, not one streak of faith.
– Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775 – 1862)

Mushaira: The Poetic Symposium

Zafar Khan and his brother in the company of poets and scholars in a garden. c. 1640-50/

Zafar Khan and his brother in the company of poets and scholars in a garden.
c. 1640-50

The proliferation of media outlets and rapidity of communications today would be shocking to the public of late 18th century India, when newspapers and modes of communication were limited to the local-run Delhi Urdu Akhbar and the British-run Delhi Gazette. Over time, Urdu poetry evolved to become a more intimate and personal way of responding to the social and political tribulations of the period.

The commonest form of poetry recital was a mushaira, or a poetic symposium, where poets would gather to read their compositions crafted in accordance to a strict metrical pattern, agreed upon beforehand, even while meeting a certain loftiness of thought.

The intensity of the mushairas that developed in Delhi were legendary, helping popularise Urdu as a language of poetry in the Mughal court. A culture was built around taking lessons in poetry writing; it even became fashionable for royalty to learn Urdu shairi. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor of India, was an accomplished poet in his own right. He had a habit of setting his court difficult poetic tasks, such as the challenging art of tazmin – the adding of an extra line to the couplet so as to turn it into a three-liner without losing the sense of rhythm.

Zafar also received his own pupils for composition and helped correct their verses. The court diary records him as taking “A khasburdar and a female – Piram Jan – as pupils in poetic composition.” From her name, Piram Jan appears to be a courtesan, and the fact that Zafar publically tutored courtesans is interesting evidence of the high social status that better courtesans enjoyed in Mughal Delhi, and the degree to which many of them were renowned for their poetic talents.

The novel was made into a movie starring Rekha. Umrao Jaan, 1981

The 1899 novel Umrao Jan Ada was made into a Bollywood movie starring Rekha. (Umrao Jaan, 1981)

In what is widely considered Urdu’s first novel, writer Mirza Hadi Ruswa tells the story of a cultured courtesan-poetess named Umrao Jaan. The novel, titled Umrao Jan Ada, was published in 1899 and presents a lavish portrayal of mid-19th century Lucknow’s decadent society and the mushairas of the time. In fact, the narrator of the novel meets Umrao Jaan at a mushaira, where she first coquettishly hides behind a purdah (curtain) and invisibly calls out her praise with wah-wahs. Later, Umrao Jan emerges and, at the request and subsequent delight of the crowd present, recites the following lines:

Galat andaaz hii sahii voh nazar
Kyun mere haal par nahii hotii
Ay adaa ham kabhii nah maanenge
Dil ko dil kii khabar nahii hotii
Even if that gaze is brazen,
Why does it not rest upon me?
Oh Ada, we shall never concur-
A heart knows nothing about a heart.

In Farhatullah Baig’s The Last Mushai’rah of Delhi, Baig presents a fictionalised but well-informed account of how enchanting a Mughal mushaira must have been:

The courtyard has been filled so as to raise it to the level of the plinth of the house. On the wooden planks were spread cotton rugs. There was a profusion of chandeliers, candelabra, wall lamps, hanging lamps and Chinese lanterns so that the house was converted into a veritable dome of light… From the centre of the roof were hung row upon row of jasmine garlands… the whole house was fragrant with musk, amber and aloes… Arranged in a row, at short intervals along the carpet, were the huqqas, burnished and brightly polished…
The seating pattern was arranged so that those assigned places on the right of the presiding poet had connections with the Lucknow court, and on the left were seated the Delhi masters and their pupils.

Hookahs, paan and sweets would be passed around. A spirit of friendly competition and camaraderie would emerge. After the Bismillah was proclaimed, the personal representative of the Emperor arrived from the court with the Emperor’s own ghazal. Verses and couplets were passed back and forth, one inspiring the other, and while the others shouted their approval with wah-wahs, lesser skilled poets grew silent and reticent. The recital would continue till dawn, and climax with the mushaira’s most accomplished poet reciting his verses.

Hazaaron khwahishen aisi ke har khwahish pe dam nikle
Bahut niklay mere armaan, lekin phir bhi kam nikle
A thousand desires like these, each desire enough to consume me,
Many wishes have been fulfilled, yet many more still remain.
– Mirza Ghalib (1797 –1869)

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