The great leveller: How Urdu blossomed in the 19th century

How Urdu blossomed in the 19th century when the king, the poet and the common man articulated their thoughts in the rich language

January 07, 2019 08:03 am | Updated 08:04 am IST

Delhi and Urdu have been entwined in an all-embracing affair right from the time of Aurangzeb, when poets of “Zaban-e-Goya” or the language par excellence began to emerge, though the initial foundation was laid by Amir Khusrau in the mid-13th century, when he advocated Hindavi, a mixture of the local idiom, Persian and Arabic. After a long journey of nearly six centuries, Urdu flowered in the 19th century when, to quote littérateur Rakshanda Jalil, “Everybody from the king down to the impoverished vagrant singing in the koochas and bazaars was smitten with poetry”. Even the koonjars who sold vegetables were infected by the scenario and sing-songed their wares with “latkas” or jingo rhymes like “Laila-ki-pasliyan” (the ideal Persian beloved’s ribs) and “Majnu-ki-ugliyan” (fingers of her passionate lover). All this is brought out beautifully in Saif Mahmood’s recently-released book, “Beloved Delhi”.

Then came the First War of Independence in 1857 and the twilight of the Mughals, who were the enthusiastic patrons of Urdu, with Bahadur Shah Zafar himself emerging as a shair of pessimistic verse that portrayed both his plight and that of the shabby grandeur of the once exalted “Qila-e-Mualla” into which his kingdom had shrunk after its capture by the British East India Company. That annus horribilis became so volatile that the poets could only decry the cataclysmic events that had changed their lives and the fortunes of their city forever. This was naturally reflected in heart-wrenching verse.

But even before that, says Rakshanda, “there existed a body of poetry known as Sher-Ashobor or misfortunes of Delhi on the social decline and in turmoil, portrayed by Jafar Zaatalli (1658-1713), encompassing virtually the entire reign of Aurangzeb. Zaatelli’s criticism of the decadent Mughals angered Emperor Farrukhsiyar so much that he sentenced him to death. The crumbling social order later found an echo in the works of Hatim, Sauda and Mir Taqi Mir, the best chroniclers of the plight of Delhi in verse.

They were in a way carrying on the traditional journey of Hindavi of Khusrau out of Delhi – “From battlefields, camps, shrines, marketplaces and work sites to night-shelters or caravanserais”, where the weary traveller could find both refuge, with board and lodging, and an outlet for his merchandise. The poets who epitomised this owed a debt of gratitude to Amir Khusrau, the best known exponent of Hindavi that unfortunately got divided into Hindi and Urdu. Both shair and sufi used Ram as a synonym for God, which was also adopted by Nanak and Kabir and made Daadoo Dayal, the 16th Century Bhakti poet of Gujarat exclaim, “He who doesn’t oppress or consume what is prohibited is a Momin (Believer) and will go to heaven”.

Genesis of qawwali

One side-product of Khusrau’s Hindavi was the birth of qawwali, derived from the word “Qaul” of Hazrat Muhammad and adopted at the khanqahs of the sufis – the Chistis, Suhrawardis, Naqsbandis and Qadris - that affected Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti’s chief disciple, Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki’s spiritual heir, Baba Fareed so much that he took great pains to popularise it in Punjab, after that it spread throughout Hindustan and now abroad too.

Braj was the language most widely spoken in the long-time Mughal capital Agra before Delhi became the seat of the empire with Persian as the court language at both places. “But it was a voice from the Deccan that changed this radically. The man who brought this about was Wali Dakhni, who came to Delhi in 1700 AD while Aurangzeb was still on the throne. Delhi was at that time home to several eminent poets of Persian, Hatim, Abroo, Arzoo and Bedil among them, who swore by the Persian poetry of Saadi, Hafiz, Jami, Khaqani and Urfi. It was in this milieu that Wali Dakhni introduced his poetry, written in Dakhani, called Rekhta (language of the marketplace) that became Urdu as we know it today. Mir and Hatim who mostly wrote in Persian earlier, took to Rekhta too. Incidentally, the mazar of Wali Dakhni was razed during the Gujarat riots of 2002 and a road built on the site overnight as though that could diminish the enormous literary contribution of Wali.

In 1713 was born Mohammad Rafi Sauda, who has come to be known as Mughal Delhi’s first classical Urdu poet. The city’s Urdu, however, had an atypical flavour, different from its Awadhi or Deccani sisters. Before Sauda it was Sheikh Zahuruddin (1699-1792), later known by his takhalus (pen-name) Hatim, who patronised the new trend. He was followed, besides Sauda, by Mir Dard, Mir Taqi Mir, Zauq, Ghalib, Momin and Nawab Mirza Daagh Dehlvi, the Casanova of Urdu poetry. Daagh later migrated to Rampur and then to Hyderabad, where he died in 1905 at the age of 74, making his pupil Benjamin Montrose “Muztar”, an Indo-Scot, cry out in anguish : “Ek Daagh tha so who bhi tau Muztar guzar gaya/Baqi bacha hai kuan ab Hindostan mein”.

Adopting simple diction

Daagh, commented Pandit Anand Mohan Zutshi, better known as Gulzar Dehlvi, was the one who made Ghalib what he was. Initially, Ghalib used to write difficult verse that did not find much admirers but then he noticed the popularity of Daagh because of his simple diction and adopted the same style. Incidentally, Daagh’s mother, Wazir Khanum, alias Chhoti Begum, “who had an eye for men”, married Marston Blake, an English officer at the age of 16 and had two children from him. Blake was unfortunately killed in a riot in Jaipur in early 1880.

The begum’s later admirers were the Nawab of Loharu, Nawab Shamsuddin Khan of Firozepore Jhirka and the British Resident at the Mughal court, William Fraser. She married Shamsuddin Khan, who fathered Nawab Mirza Khan Daagh Dehlvi. Shamsuddin was later hanged for complicity in the murder of Fraser, while Wazir Khanum wed her third husband, Turab Ali. She finally married Mirza Fakru, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s son and died after him in 1879, leaving Daagh disconsolate.

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