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Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Last Mushaira of Delhi

Imagine that you are sitting, not in the Auditorium of the India International Centre but in the haveli of Mubarakunnisa Begum in Hauz Qazi. Outside, the gali, kucha and bazaar of Dehli are abuzz with excitement. Word has spread about the mushaira that is about to take place. The greatest poets of this age are about to come together -- a bit like a rare astronomical alignment. This haveli where you sit, which once housed a printing press, has been cleared of its clutter and transformed into a magical space filled with the dazzling light from countless candles, lamps, lanterns. Expensive woolen carpets, gaotakhiyas and cushions are scattered on the spotless white chandni-covered farsh. Burnished huqqas, polished peekdan, khaasdan and paandan await the honoured guests. The mingled scent of musk, amber and kiyora delights the senses. The stage is set for the last mushaira of Delhi. The date is 14th of Rajab, the year 1845.

But there is something that you and I know, something that the poets who will shortly be seated here on this stage have no inkling of. It is this shared knowledge that makes us at once privileged and poignant. For we know that there are dark clouds gathering on the not-so-distant horizon and the shadows are lengthening. We know that a way of life is about to come to an end. We know that the ghadar of 1857 shall change things irrevocably. But the poets seated here are serenely unconcerned. Tonight it matters little to them that their Badshah’s empire extends no further than the shabby grandeur of the Quila-e Moalla. Or that the British Resident is tightening his hold imperceptibly over not just Delhi but all of Hindustan. Or, for that matter, that their beloved Dehli is on the verge of being eclipsed by the far more glamorous and wealthier cities of Lucknow and Hyderabad. Tonight they have come to savour what the best and brightest among them have to offer.

For just as the candle burns brightest at dawn before being snuffed out, so did the city of Delhi just before it was ravaged by the Mutiny. And it is this city poised on the brink of disaster, its culture, its poets and above all its language, the zaban-e-Dehli, threatened by extinction that Farhatullah Beg captures in his book, Dehli Ki Aakhri Shama. Born in 1883 Farhatullah Beg felt sufficiently close in time to attempt a fictional-historical account of what might have been the last mushaira of its kind held in Delhi. Rather ingeniously he makes the narrator a certain Maulvi Karimuddin Maghfoor who actually wrote a florid account of a mushaira that is said to have taken place in 1845. “My name is Karimuddin. I am a native of Panipat,” begins Farhatullah Beg’s narrative. “As the mullah heads for the masjid, so scholars flocked to Delhi,” he says. Like so many others, Maulvi Karimuddin too came to Delhi with stars in his eyes, set up a printing press but when that floundered decided to organize a mushaira, publish its proceedings and make some money. What follows is entirely conjecture on the part of a man who has the gift of a brilliant imagination but certainly no proof that a mushaira, said to be the last of its kind, was held at a particular place on a particular date where a certain number of poets were present who recited a particular set of ghazals.

Fact and fiction blend seamlessly in a narrative that is not only a highly entertaining account of  historical personages and their distinctive literary styles but is also a valuable document of a society, its morals and manners. Farhatullah Beg’s book transports us to an age when everyone – from the Mughal emperor Bahadurshah Zafar to the poorest beggar – cherished and adored Urdu. Polished and perfected by Delhi Ustads such as Mir, Sauda and Dard, it shone like burnished gold by the time of Karimuddin’s mushaira. And like gold it could be fashioned into exquisitely delicate qhazals that could be light as gossamer yet fulsome with metaphysical import. The Mughal emperors and salatin, many of whom fancied themselves as the arbiters of good taste, often wrote tolerably good poetry themselves and organized mushairas in the Diwan-e-Aam. Later, as they became steadily more impoverished mushairas and mehfils came to be organized in different parts of the city such as Ghaziuddin Khan’s madarssa and the homes of the nobility.

Farhatullah Beg’s book has a vivid account of the development of not just the Urdu ghazal but the Urdu language itself. His narrative is studded with lively pen portraits of the ustads Zauq, Ghalib, Momin, Dagh, Sheftah, Azurdah as well as their shagirds who were popular figures on the mushaira circuit, such as: the French army captain Alexander Heatherley Azad who always came to Delhi whenever he heard of a mushaira being organized; hakim Sakhanand Raqam who was an ardent devotee of Momin; and the colourful Nazneen who wrote in the women’s dialect rekhti, using women’s idiom and slang and recited with great coquetry and coy playfulness wearing an odhni. The masters of rekhta would listen in stony silence as the crowd went into raptures over Nazneen’s histrionics. Then there was the mystical Tashnah who arrived at mushairas not only drunk but also completely undressed. Tonight, he will absent-mindedly snuff out the shama placed before him before reading a ghazal that carries the only portent of disaster in its refrain of the nothingness that awaits.  Tashnah and Zauq will sound the only note of sadness in this assembly that is otherwise complacent in its sense of wellbeing. Of the 59 poets assembled by Farhatullah Beg in his imaginary mushaira, I have chosen only 11, the twelfth being the royal emissary who reads the Emperor’s ghazal.

A mushaira such as this would usually begin after the Isha prayer, say about nine or ten and go on till dawn. The patron, in this case Mirza Arif, would welcome the poets and tactfully handle the ticklish issues of  seating the poets and the order in which they would be invited to recite according to a complicated system governed by etiquette, seniority and affiliation. Touchy and temperamental, the poets could take offense at the smallest misdemeanour; it could well be the daad or ovation given sparingly or too well!  The readings would be interspersed with wit and repartee, both personal and poetic. Ordinarily, the patron would announce the Tarah or rhyme pattern at the time of extending the invitation. Our mushaira today is be-tarah and thus free from the vexing issue that caused many squabbles to break out among rival literary camps. As you will see shortly, a lighted shama will be placed before each poet, beginning with the younger and less-known ones and ending with Zauq, the emperor’s ustad. The ustads shall lavish generous praise on their own shagird as well as genuinely talented younger poets such as Dagh but remain silent when they wish to show either disapproval or disappointment. Mirza Fakhru, the presiding poet in today’s mushaira, is not just the emperor’s son and representative and a fine poet himself but also a deeply religious man. He says the Fateha before lighting the shama. As the last poet, Ustad Zauq, is reading his qata, the call for Fajir prayer is heard, and the mushaira ends with the assembly once again raising its hand in prayer.

(Dilli Ki Aakhri Shama was introduced and directed by me at the IIC, New Delhi, 23 March 2007)