The Changing Contours of Urdu Poetry

, Walks and Talks

To Quli Qutub Shah, fifth ruler of the Qutub Shahi dynasty of Golconda from 1580-1612 goes the distinction of being the Father of Urdu poetry in India. He is the first poet to have a published diwan “Kulliyat e Quli Qutub Shah”.
He used words from Dakkani and Sanskrit in his poems, called Tadbhava.

Piya baaj piyaalaa piya jaaye naa
piya baaj yak til jiyaa jaaye naa

He was also a patron of arts and literature and encouraged men of arts. It was due to his pioneering work that Urdu got the status of a respectable language, as till then Persian was considered the language of choice for any literary work.

His work was continued by Wali Daccani (also called Wali Aurangabadi, Wali Gujarati)a mystic who along with some other men of letters was attracted to Aurangzeb’s court in Aurangabad.
To Wali Daccani goes the distinction of pioneering Urdu Ghazal and publishing a Diwan of ghazals.

His visit to Delhi in 1700 caused a stir amongst the poets who had hitherto been writing in Persian and the beauty and capacity of expression of his ghazals inspired them to write in Rekhta as Urdu was called then.

yaad karanaa har ghaDii us yaar kaa
hai vazifaa mujh dil-e-bimaar kaa

Kiya mujh ishq ne zaalim ko aab ahista ahista
Ke aatish gul ko karti hai gulaab ahista ahista

A century later Amir Minai also wrote
saraktii jaaye hai ruKh se naqaab aahista-aahista
nikaltaa aa rahaa hai aaftaab aahista-aahista

In the 18th century Urdu poetry saw great poets like Sauda, who became famous for his satire

badla tere sitam ka koii tujhse kya kare
apana hii tu farefta howe, Khuda kare

Khwaja Mir Dard , the mystic poet, who transcribed his mysticism into poetry
doston dekha tamasha yahan ka bas.
tum raho ab hum to apne ghar chale

And of course the incomparable Mir Taqi Mir who was called Khuda e Sukhan ( God of poetry). Mir wrote in simple words and more frequently in the short beher ( metre)

nazuki uske lab ki kya kahiye

pankhadi ik gulaab ki si hai
Ibtadaa’e ishq hai rota hai kya,
Aage aage dekhiye hota hai kya

Ulti ho gayi sab tadbeerei’n kuchh na dawa ne kaam kiya
Dekha iss beemari e dil ne aakhir kaam tamaam kiya

The 19th century saw the zenith of Urdu poetry in Delhi with poets like Ghalib, Zauq, Momin, Bahadur Shah Zafar , Shefta, and Azurda.

Many have said that had Ghalib written in English he would have been more popular than Shakespeare today such was the power of his poetry.
Barrister Dr. Abdur Rehman Bijnori writes :There are only two divinely revealed books in India – the Holy Vedas and the Diwan-e-Ghalib.

Hazaaron khwahishe’n aisi ki har khwahish pe dam nikle
Bahut nikle mere armaan phir bhi kam nikle
His love poems are the most oft quoted in the sub continent today
Koi mere dil se poochhe, tere teer E neem kash ko

Yeh khalish kahaaN se hoti, jo jigar ke paar hota

The poetry of this period was centred on love with special emphasis of the poet’s sufferings in unrequited love. The Beloved was more often than not was the beautiful but ‘sang-dil’ (stone hearted) lady who did not really care about her lover’s feelings.

Tere waa’de par jiye ham to yeh jaan jhhooT jaana
Ke khushi se marr naa jaate jo aitebaar hota

The language used was very Persianised, full of similes and metaphors and not so easy to understand for those who were not aware of the sub text.

Naqsh fariyadi hai kis shokhi e tahreer ka
Kaagazi hain pairahan har paikar e tasveer kaa

Reference is made here by Ghalib to the Persian custom where the appellant/ plaintiff wore a dress made of paper when appearing in Court.
There were elaborate mushairas (soirees) arranged where these poets would recite their latest ghazals and there would be a buzz in the streets of Delhi after that. The arrangement of theses mushairas was a very elaborate and sensitive issue. Seating of the poets was paramount as wrong arrangement could hurt their sensibilities.
The amount of praise and applause given had to be just so! too much would seem a mockery, too little an insult.

1857 and the aftermath brought the curtain down on this era. The British exiled the Mughal Emperor and came down with a heavy hand on the Muslim nobility, who had traditionally patronized and supported the poets. This led to the decline of the Delhi School of Poetry.
Sir Saiyed’s Aligarh Movement was marked by an emphasis on western education, an attempt to give back prestige and glory to the dispossessed Muslim community. This gave birth to a new school of poetry which was spearheaded by Altaf Hussain Hali. Adopting the pen name of Hali ( the contemporary) he wrote the epic poem Musaddas e Madd o Jazr e islam (An elegiac poem on the Ebb and Tide of Islam), on the request of Sir Saiyed. It is also known as Musaddas-e-Hali. Hali was one of the first poets to raise his voice for freedom from British rule.
His poem Hub e Watan emphasised the virtues of patriotism and became very popular with children.
Teri ek musht e khaak ke badle

Luu’n naa hargis agar bahisht mile

The word sher’r itself is derived from the Arabic meaning “of wisdom and hence the she’r, shae’ri and mushae’ra all representing intelligence, reasoning, knowledge, and consciousness according to Sarfaraz Niazi and this was epitomized by Brij Narain Chakbast who described life in this masterful verse:

Zindagi Kya Hai, Anasir Mein Zahoore Tarteeb

Maut Kya Hai Inhi Ajza Ka Pareshan Hona

The 20th century was dominated by two great but totally different Urdu poets, Allama Iqbal and Akbar Allahabadi. Both had different concerns and used their pen to influence their generation.
While Iqbal exhorted the Muslims to rise above their circumstances, to develop their individuality as a step towards self-awareness and growth.

Khudi ko kar buland itna ke har taqdeer se pahle

Khuda bande se khud poche bata teri raza kya hai

Akbar Allahabadi used satire to challenge the emphasis on western values and mindless aping of the west.
chhoD ‘literature’ ko apnii, ‘history’ ko bhuul jaa 

sheKh-o-masjid se ta’alluq tark kar ‘school’ jaa

chaar din kii zindagii hai koft se kyaa faayadaa 

khaa ‘double-roti’ ‘clerky’ kar Khushii se phuul jaa

This new phase in Urdu poetry culminated in the Progressive Writers Movement with a complete shift in protagonist. Stalwarts of poetry such as Majaz, Kaifi Azmi, Sahir, Faiz, Makhdoom Moinuddin,Amrita Pritam, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Ali Sardar Jafri and many others changed the contours of poetry once again.

No longer was the emphasis on the Beloved .The focus shifted to Gham e Dauran (sorrows of the material world) as opposed to Gham e Jaana’n (sorrows of the Lover) . The poets wrote on the oppression of the imperialists, capitalists and dictators.

They played a very crucial role on India’s freedom struggle with Hasrat Mohani giving India its enduring slogan “Inqilaab Zindabad”.
These poets faced imprisonment, hardships for the causes they believed in.
The ghazal now gave precedence to the nazm which unlike the ghazal maintained a flow of thought.
The parameters of language changed. The courtly, ornamental Urdu was replaced by simpler, easier to understand and more direct language. They were to avoid use of metaphors and similes to have a greater impact.Josh Malihabadi, shayar e inqilaab wrote
Kaam hai mera taghayyar, naam hai mera shabab

Mera naara, inqilaab o inqilaab o inqilaab

Poets were encouraged to talk of optimism and not write in a pessimistic vein.
The subjects were drawn from everyday life as in Ali Sardar Jafri’s nazm:
Kumhar ka chak chal raha hai
Surahiyan raqs kar rahi hain
Safed aata siyah chakki se raag bankar nikal raha hai
Sunahare choolhon mein aag ke phool khil rahe hain
Pateeliyan gunguna rahi hain…

Kaifi Azmi gave a new dimension to the Beloved. She was no longer an object to sigh for but the new age woman
uth meri jaan mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe
husn aur ishq ham aawaaz-o-humaahang haiN aaj

jis meiN jaltaa huuN usi aag meiN jalnaa hai tujhe

uth meri jaan mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe
Majaz exhorted women to join the struggle:
Tere maathe pe ye aanchal bahut hi khoob hai lekin
Tu is aanchal se ik parcham bana leti to achcha tha

The classical poets had been caught up in their own internal struggles whether with the Beloved or their own circumstances. There had been a touch of conceit to their obsession with their own mostly unrequited love. But no longer :

Faiz Ahmed Faiz gave the call
Aur bhi dukh hain zamaane mein mohabbat ke siwa
Rahatein aur bhi hain wasl ki raahat ke siwa
Mujhse pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang

Sahir Ludhianvi led the charge in poetry and films, bringing out the frustrations of the post independence generation whose dreams and aspirations were not being met.

Woh Subah kabhi tau aayegi written for the independence movement was used in the film with same name in 1958 as disillusionment started to set in.
In kaali sadiyon ke sar sey jab raat ka aanchal dhalkega

Jab dukh ke badal pighalengey jab sukh ka saagar jhalkegi

Jab ambar jhoom ke nachega jab dharati naghame gayegi

Woh subah kabhi to aayegi…

The collapse of Soviet Union and decline of communism led to the end of this movement.
But nothing remains in a vacuum and a new generation of Urdu poets emerged. For them love was one of the issues of their lives, perhaps mirroring the modern struggles of the modern youth. Communalism, employment, disillusionment with their elected representatives and rising prices were of greater concern.
The language they used was everyday Hindustani which could be understood by all and it covered almost every topic which touched an ordinary man’s daily life.

As Javed Akhtar writes
Lo dekh lo, ye ishq hai, ye vasl hai, ye hijr
Ab laut chaleñ aao, bahut kaam pada hai

Munawwar Rana one of the most prolific and popular poets critcised the growing politics of communalism
Tawaif ki tarah hukumat apni badkarion par

Mandir o masjid ka parda daal deti hai

Adam Gondvi did not mince words when he said
Hindu yaa Muslim ke ahsasaat ko mat chediye
apni kursi ke liye jazbaat ko mat chediye
Veda men jinka hawala hashiye par bhi nahi
Ve abhaage aastha vishwaas lekar kya Karen
Kaju bhune hain plate me whiskey gilaas me
utra hai Ram rajya vidhayak niwas mein
or the voice of every ordinary person
sau main sattar aadmi
filhaal jab nashaad haiN
dil pe rakh kar haath kahiye
desh kya azaad hai

In the times of censorship and sycophancy Wasim Barelwi writes
main ye nahi kehta ke mera sar na milega
lekin meri aankhon mein tujhe dar na milega

Bashir Badr writes simple but very evocative ghazals
Ujaale apni yaadon ke humare saath rahne do
na jane kis gali main zindagi ki sham ho jaye

mujhse bichadkar khush rahte ho
meri tarah tum bhi jhoote ho

Another trend that is going a long way in popularizing Urdu ghazals by using Hindi words which were easily understood and identifiable, used very effectively by Dushyant kumar
ho gayii phir parbat-sii pighalnii chaahiye
is himaalay se koii gangaa nikalnii chaahiye

The difference in the three phases of Urdu poetry can be seen in these four verses written by different poets in different eras which showcase their concerns, their preoccupations.

Ho raha hai jahan mein andher
Zulf ki phir sirishta daari hai

bahut mushkil hai duniyaa kaa sa.nvarnaa
tirii zulfon kaa pech-o-KHam nahiin hai

Saamne hai Zulfiqar bikhere
Kitne haseen hain andhere
Kaif Bhopali

Suljhane se ulajhti jaa rahi hun
Main apni Zulf ka bal ho gayi hun
Humiura Rahat

(This is inspired by a panel discussion in the 2nd Delhi Literature Festival on 9th Feb 2014, where I was also a panelist)
delhi lit2014

Comment List

  • Zoheb 11 / 04 / 2017 Reply

    Thank you for writing this beautiful article. I thoroughly enjoyed it and read every word or I should say every Naksh fariyadi.

    • ranasafvi 12 / 04 / 2017 Reply

      Thank you

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