The modern-day mushaira is doing its bit to keep alive a literary tradition

The flicker of the ceremonial lamp is in constant danger of dying in the gentle breeze, reminding me of a little couplet heard at a poetic soiree a little more than a decade ago. “Hum ne roshan chiragh kar diya, ab hawaon ki zimmedari hai…” Here, at the Shankar-Shad Mushaira, part of Delhi’s tradition for over 50 years, male poets from India and Pakistan, grey around the sideburns, and women, graceful and fragrant, wait in eager anticipation for the poetic soiree. Bolsters in spotless-white ghilaf are carefully laid out for the discerning to soak in every word of the poetry that occasionally revives days of romanticism but more often mocks the world of inequities. The word, ‘ghilaf’, incidentally, was retrieved from the mothballs by ace lyricist-poet Gulzar with his song in Vishal Bharadwaj’s Omkara. It was a rare instance of a film doing its bit for Urdu poetry.

Otherwise, that role has been the sole preserve of mushairas, poetry recitals with a unique tradition of starting with the weakest poets after sundown and ending with the best a little before sunrise. Cinema has travelled far away from the days of H.S. Rawail’s Mere Mehboob, the 1963 film that had the hero reciting the choicest of Urdu couplets, and mushairas have filled the vacuum most suitably. And in their unsung ways, kept the flicker of Urdu burning.

Mushairas have had their share of wit, repartee and rivalry. In the days long gone by, we had a constant tussle between the much-hailed Ghalib and the lesser known Momin. Ghalib had once offered his entire diwan in exchange for one couplet of Momin! In more recent times, the exchanges have been less dramatic. Many poets, like Shahryar, who passed away recently, and Josh Malihabadi, whose death anniversary was observed last month, carved out a reputation with the profundity of their works. Never the best of orators, their recognition came from their fiery subjects.

Then there have been others, the likes of Bashir Badar and Munnawar Rana, who are loved for their flourish, their presentation, that the meaning of their words that strikes one only after a couple of moments. Not to forget the inimitable Hafeez Jullundhuri some summers ago. Though he opted to stay in Pakistan, he was much loved in Urdu circles in India too. His melody and rhythm in presenting “Abhi to main jawaan hun” is not forgotten.

Veteran Malikzada Mansoor, no mean poet, has happily taken to being a compere, letting others soak in the limelight. In recent times, mushairas have got a new kiss of life. Proceeding at a smooth, almost imperceptible pace, the All India Urdu Mushaira demolishes many stereotypes about Chennai lacking Urdu connoisseurs. And the age-old Republic Day recitals, despite diminishing quality exponents, have not lacked fans in Delhi, Lucknow, Hyderabad and Bangalore. In Delhi, Kamna Prasad has added a useful soiree by inviting some really good Pakistani poets to share the dais with their Indian counterparts in Jashn-e-Bahar. With Kamna at the helm, an element of feminism does creep in, but who is complaining.

Today, Urdu may be short on official patronage, but it is not any less loved. As a poet said, “Har koi mujhe chahta hai, jaanta koi nahin, main bhi is mulk mein Urdu ki tarah rehta hun”. The couplet is representative of Urdu literature. It is well loved, much cherished, but it is in silent decline. Mushairas, though no longer the unblemished literary dialogues they once were, are doing their bit to keep alive a literary tradition. Despite an occasional populist streak, they have done yeoman service to Urdu which, even today, has more than 50 million speakers, and occupies the sixth position among the Scheduled Languages, after Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi and Tamil, and above Gujarati, Kannada and Malayalam. It’s time to cheer the mushaira.