Asar-us-Sanadid by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, New Delhi, Urdu Akademi, 2006 (reprint), Rs. 230, ISBN: 81-7121-128-3
Dehli ki Akhri Shama by Mirza Farhatullah beg, edited by Salahuddin, New Delhi, Urdu Akademi, 2009 (reprint), Rs. 45, ISBN: 81-7121-060-0
For the middle of the nineteenth century, it could be well said: ‘Those were the best of times; those were the worst of times.’ One way of life was coming to an inexorable end; the other was still waiting to be born. The Rebellion of 1857, considered by many as the First War of Independence, did not merely mark the end of a way of life; it also, in a sense, marked a departure in a way of seeing things. While the Muslim response(s) to the events of 1857, the effect on Muslims in general and Muslim intelligentsia in particular and the changes ushered in their life and literature as a direct result of this cataclysmic event have been studied by scholars and historians, perhaps no one can fully enunciate the effect of these changes than those who lived who through these trying times and were directly affected by these events. Also, given the close relationship between social reality and literary texts, it is important to re-visit and re-examine the literature(s) produced during times of great social upheaval. Doing so can provide a far more nuanced understanding of historical events than official records and documents. The two books under review are, therefore, important and useful.
The first, Asar-us Sanadid (meaning ‘remains of the past’) was originally written in 1847 and subsequently revised and published by the Asiatic Society in 1862. In its first edition, the six hundred pages of text were illustrated with over a hundred lithographic illustrations. It listed not just the monuments that lay scattered across the many ‘Delhis’, but also described the city’s fairs, festivals, and included a lengthy account of the city’s vibrant cultural life. Compiled at real physical risk to life and limb (for its compilation required the venerable and lugubriously well-built Sir Syed to be dexterously raised and lowered by an ingenious pulley), the four-volume work can be regarded as a lasting monument not only to the author’s industry but also to his sense of culture and history and his realization, well ahead of his times, of the need to record and preserve the monuments of Delhi and their inscriptions. The first edition also contained a large section on the sufis, men of learning, and poets and artists of contemporary Delhi. Divided under ten headings, it also included a listing of 118 eminent citizens of Delhi. Its French translation by Garcin de Tassy was brought out in 1861. Its second edition in 1854 deleted the cultural references and retained only the descriptions of the historical monuments, translations of the epitaphs and plaques as well as measurements and architectural details of the actual building and some pen portraits. Scholars such as David Lelyveld and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi have remarked upon this curious deletion from the second edition and attributed it to Syed Ahmad’s pragmatic re-assessment of the significance of ‘culture’ in the life of Indian Muslims. It is noteworthy that Syed Ahmad undertook this ‘reassessment’ well before the Uprising. C. M. Naim, in ‘Syed Ahmad and His Two Books called Asar-al-Sanadid’ published in Modern Asian Studies, views the two versions as two separate books.
What we have with us is the revised second edition: its first chapter contains brief descriptions of the monuments of Delhi; the second has descriptions of the construction of forts and palaces in the various cities of Delhi; the third about the different kinds of building activity undertaken by the various emperors and nobility of Delhi; the last is about the people of Shahjahanabad – noblemen, poets, writers, scholars, hakims. To my mind, it is the last chapter that is the most evocative, brimful as it is with delightful pen portraits of real people. It brings to life a city and a whole way of life that is gone forever.
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Like the candle that 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 wrote a florid account of a mushaira that is said to have taken place in 1841. “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 (fictional) 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. In Beg’s account, he absent-mindedly snuffs 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 sound the only note of sadness in this assembly of greats that is otherwise complacent in its sense of wellbeing.
A mushaira such as the one described by Beg (comprising 59 poets) usually began after the Isha prayer, say about nine or ten and went on till dawn. The patron, in this case Mirza Arif, welcomed the poets and tactfully handled 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. Beg’s mushaira is be-tarah and thus free from the vexing issue that caused many squabbles to break out among rival literary camps. A lit shama would be placed before each poet, beginning with the younger and less-known ones and ending with Zauq, the emperor’s ustad. The ustads lavished generous praise on their own shagird as well as genuinely talented younger poets such as Dagh but remained silent when they wished to show either disapproval or disappointment. Mirza Fakhru, the presiding poet in Beg’s mushaira, was not just the emperor’s son and representative but a fine poet himself. As the last poet, Ustad Zauq, begins reading his qata, the call for Fajir prayer is heard, and the mushaira ends with the assembly once again raising its hand in prayer. Thus ends Beg’s account of what has come to be called the last mushaira of Delhi for never has the city witnessed such a coming together of great poets.