Review: Urdu Poetry’s Seamless Journey

By Anees Ayesha
(Translated and Introduced by Zafar Anjum)
Kitaab International Ptv. Ltd., 10 Anson Road # 26-04
International Plaza, Singapore – 079903
Year 2013, 247pp, Singaporean Dollar25
Paperback (ISBN 978-981-07-8055-5)

Review by Asif Anwar Alig

While Urdu became victim of prejudices in its birthplace – India, it brimmed in the far off regions. An original Urdu work of Anees Ayesha, Urdu Poetry: An Introduction is an English translation by Singapore based author Zafar Anjum. Presenting the knowhow of Urdu poetry to Singaporean readers, it is a valuable addition to literature on Urdu poetry for those willing to learn Urdu poetry’s distinct features or stages of development.

Prejudices have relentlessly shrunk Urdu in its country of birth. But it has advanced worldwide in many forms, especially by translations to give strong message. Anjum’s translation is an archetypal effort for English readers to learn the richness of Urdu poetry. This book briefs Urdu’s role from its inception to shaping Indian societies and cultures since the 17th century to the colonial British period and its challenges while encouraging nationalistic revolutions and spreading the message of Islam.

This book introduces multiple forms of Urdu poetry through highlighting its pivotal role to nourish cultures – socio-religious and revolutionary movements to Sufism. Contributions of prominent poets in the subcontinent are credible introductions which turn this book into a summarised encyclopaedia.

Anees Ayesha writes in Foreword – “A poet’s vision depends on views expressed with simplicity, indifference, critical tone or related formats applied. It must project life’s agonies and happiness instead of mere showcasing emotions or temperaments or by correlating society’s happenings.” By giving brief introduction of Urdu poetry from inception to growth, this book introduces poets and their compositions besides contexts of poetic compositions. Urdu poetry achieved a zenith of success through projecting composite Indian culture, writes Zafar Anjum in the book’s introduction.

Urdu poetry had golden period once Abul Hasan Yamin ud-Din Khusro (1253-1325) or Amir Khusro’s mesmerising poems arrived. Amir Khusro’s closeness with eminent Sufi Saint of Chisti order Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia (1238-1325) influenced to project Sufi culture in poetry of epoch-making folk-song compositions expressed in complete simplicity. Inseparable relationship of Urdu and the country’s political scene since the 17th century showcased a homogenous culture and so did it inspire creative and intellectual capabilities that made Urdu another linguistic movement.

The book narrates emergence of Urdu poetry in the southern part of India through Wali Dakkani (1667-1707). He composed amazing poems to take Urdu to a zenith of success through focus on the moral issues in ghazals instead of earlier limitations to confine conversations with women. His projection of ethical conducts, wisdom or mysticism brought manifold transformations like Siraj did. The same trend was reflected in Delhi later on once it became the hub of Urdu poetry.

Mirza Mohammad Rafi Sauda (1713-1781) was born in Delhi. His forefathers were from Kabul. It was a period when Delhi emerged into a centre of peace, knowledge, wisdom and culture without facing jingoism. Linguistic progression was rampant in its civilized society. Khwaja Mir Dard (1721-1785) left irrefutable impact like Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810) in Delhi in 1740. Mir and Dard enunciated anxiety, depression and social pessimism with poetry. Mir migrated from Akbarabad (now Agra) and witnessed mighty Mughal Empire’s disintegration. His poetry had positive frame of gloom and feelings of despondency. Consciousness of life in Mir’s compositions with masterful hold over the medium to express thoughts makes him ‘King of Urdu Ghazals’.

Umadti aati hain aaj yun aankhein / Jaise dariya kahin ubalte hain (Today tears flood the eyes / As if rivers are boiling over). Maut ek mandgi ka waqfa hai / Yaani aage challen-ge dam lekar (Death is an interval of languidness / That is, after resting a little, we will move forward).

Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1797-1869) projected an entirely new trend in Urdu poetry. His anthology has ample metaphors and symbols. His poetry projects the tragic downfall of Mughal Empire and his own experience of migrating from Agra to Delhi and three-year interlude in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and rest agonies. Muhammad Allama Iqbal (1877-1938) brought agonies of aimless unorganised Muslims. Urdu had exceptional progress in the 18th century when political upheavals caused decline of popularity of Persian. In the meantime, Urdu bridged a linguistic gap.

In espousing Lucknow School, this book gives detailed information on notable poets and poetry whose focus was mainly on themes of beauty and love. Pomposity and artificiality was part and parcel of lifestyle in Lucknow. Such elements were vivid in poetry. Lucknow’s Urdu poetry had physiognomic elements, costume and ornament projections besides showcasing feminine attitudes. It was the key reason that poetry described lips, teeth, hair, waist or arms as primary themes.

Shaikh Ghulam Humdani Mus-hafi (1750-1824) was born in Amroha. He reached Delhi in 1776 but settled down in Lucknow thereafter to compose finest poems. Likewise, Insha-Allah Khan ‘Insha’ (1756-1817) from Murshidabad had humble beginning in Delhi but its devastation forced him to migrate to Lucknow. Khwaja Haider Ali ‘Aatish’ (1778-1848) from Faizabad settled down in Lucknow and made it his permanent home. Sheikh Imam Bakhsh ‘Nasikh’ (1771-1838) from Faizabad settled down in Lucknow instead. Lucknow School of Poetry was incomplete without Mir Babbar Ali ‘Anees’ (1802-1874) who composed excellent marsias (elegies) in Urdu. They were themed at humility and human behaviour. He considered even least significant human traits or talents crucial.

Kabhi bura nahin jaana kisi ko apne siwa / Har ek zarre ko hum aftaab samjhe hain (I never thought ill of anyone but of myself / Every speck of dust I took for the sun).

Other notable figure in Lucknow School whose marsia still remains unmatched is Mirza Salaamat Ali ‘Dabir’ (1803–1875). Born in Delhi, Dabir shifted to Lucknow in his childhood.

Urdu’s genius Nawab Mirza Khan Daagh (Daagh Dehlvi) was born in Delhi in 1831. He shifted to Rampur while his city of birth devastated post-1857 mutiny. Nawab of Rampur welcomed him but he had to leave that place due to Nawab’s premature death. He travelled to Ajmer, Agra and Mathura for settlement but all went in vain. Finally, he approached Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Mahboob Ali Khan and stayed there until death in 1905. His compositions reflect social perils.

Panipat-born Altaf Hussain Hali (1837–1914) gave Urdu poetry new direction with nationalistic themes. His compositions redefined ghazal and nazm traditions by ending complexities. Such moral and natural poetic themes brought new renaissance. Mohammad Hussain Azad (1830–1910), Allamah Shibli Nomani (1857–1914), Akbar Allahabadi (1846-1921), et al gave newer direction to Urdu poetry with its distinctness; so did Iqbal bring more glory.

Contribution of Momin Khan Momin (1800–1851), Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim Zauq (1789–1854) and Mughal King cum poet Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775–1862) impeccably transformed Urdu poetry. Their poems spoke volumes of transitions in the Indian societies from civilization’s declines to ponderings. Urdu ghazals took patriotism themes thereafter. Syed Fazal-ul-Hasan Hasrat Mohani (1875–1951) and Shaukat Ali Khan ‘Fani Badayuni’ (1879–1961) projected patriotism. Focus on mortality, meaninglessness, fatalism and concentration on human endeavours found room. Sheikh Mohammad Sikandar Jigar or Jigar Muradabadi (1890–1960) and Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911–1984) added more value to such themes.

This book concisely defines the contributions of all such towering legends of Urdu poetry since its evolution to growth for centuries. Exemplary contribution of Urdu to the social, cultural and literary uplift of Indian subcontinent has been meticulously espoused in this collection.

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First published in Radiance Weekly, New Delhi (22/2/2015)