Mughal Delhi's Romance With Urdu Poetry

A 300-year-old chronicle, told by Purani Dilli and its illustrious poets, talks about one of the most beautiful languages ever known to humankind, Urdu
19th century view of Chandni Chowk in Shahjahanabad
19th century view of Chandni Chowk in Shahjahanabad

Delhi is not a city; she is a phenomenon lurking in the shadow of stories woven around her ethereal past. Her chaotic streets, polluted air, and aggressive inhabitants—all form an integral part of the marvel we know as Delhi. Intrinsically intertwined with her ethereal present is her violent history, a history of massacre and carnage. Struggling to breathe under her angry fusillade is a timeworn megalopolis teeming with poetry and literature—the Delhi of the fabled 'Seven Cities,' the Delhi of Mir and Ghalib. It was Mir who said...

Dil-o-Dilli dono agar hain kharaab

Pa kuchh lutf is ujde ghar mein bhi hain

My heart and my Delhi, though both are ruined

There's some delight in this wrecked house too

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while the Mughal empire was in spectacular decline, Delhi was playing capital to a parallel empire—the empire of Urdu poetry.

By the time Aurangzeb died in 1707, after having ruled for almost 50 years, Delhi had become the center of art and poetry. It was home to some eminent Persian poets who had established their own syncretic style called Sabk-e-Hindi (Indian style). In or around 1700, Wali Dakhani, believed to be the father of the Urdu ghazal, arrived in Delhi. Derisively called 'Rekhta' (or assortment), his language was considered unfit for poetic discourse, which, till then, was monopolized by Persian. But Wali's expression was so powerful that it ended up setting the tone for what would soon develop as the Urdu ghazal. The name Urdu was first used for this language by the poet Ghulam Hamdani 'Mushafi' (d.1824) in the 1780s.

Albatta, Rekhta mein hai 'Musahafi' ko dawa.

Yaani ke hai zabaandaan Urdu ki voh zabaan ka

Mushafi does claim expertise in Rekhta 

Which means he's a whiz of the Urdu language

It is generally believed that the language came to be called Urdu because it was born in the army camps of Delhi as a language that borrowed words from different languages used by soldiers from all across Hindustan. Noted critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, however, slams this claim. He maintains that the word Urdu refers to the language spoken by the inhabitants of Urdu-e-Moalla-e-Shahjahanabad (exalted city of Shahjahanabad). Whatever the origins of the name, Urdu had, by the early nineteenth century, become the lingua franca of Delhi. It was spoken by everyone, from the king down to the fakir on the streets. Boasting unique idioms and inimitable figures of speech, it had become a way of life. The city's courtesans, who were women of independent means, often widely read and remarkably self-possessed, enriched the language with their own vocabulary and mannerisms. Mushafi famously remarked...

Ae 'Mushafi' tu inse mohabbat na kijiyo

Zaalim ghazab hi hoti hain yeh


O Mushafi Don't ever fall in love 

With them

These damsels of Delhi are bloody cruel

It was customary for Urdu poets to adopt a nom de plume or takhallus. One of the first Urdu poets of Delhi was Shaikh Zuhuruddin (1699–1792), who adopted the takhallus 'Hatim' and is, thus, known as Shaikh Zuhuruddin 'Hatim.' He was followed, in the eighteenth century, by Mirza Mohammad Rafi 'Sauda,' Khwaja Mir 'Dard' and Mir Taqi 'Mir,' and in the following century by Shaikh Mohammad Ibrahim 'Zauq,' Momin Khan 'Momin,' Mufti Sadruddin 'Aazurdah,' Mirza Khan 'Dagh' Dehlvi and the grand bard of Delhi, Mirza Asadullah Khan 'Ghalib.' Of course, there were others too, and many of the later Mughal emperors themselves were poets. Shah Alam II took the takhallus 'Aftab,' and Bahadur Shah called himself 'Zafar.' The elite would organize mushairas that soon became an important platform, offering poets a secular space to showcase their poetic talent and vent their anger and frustration on political, social, and economic affairs. To this day, the mushaira continues to occupy a central position in Urdu poetry across the world.

Mughal rule continued for 150 years after Aurangzeb’s death, but it was a long saga of decline, chaos, corruption, invasions, and tragedy. This led to the birth of a new genre for the Urdu poet to lament the loss of the city’s soul, shehr-aashob, or sheher-e-aashob, literally 'misfortunes of the city.'

Bahadur Shah Zafar
Bahadur Shah Zafar

Meanwhile, the British East India Company had firmly established its presence in Delhi and had begun curtailing the Mughal power. Delhi’s elite soon began to cultivate English officials and traders. Young officers would be invited to lavish poetry evenings by prominent Dilliwalas. Some even took to formally learning the language and trying their hand at poetry. Ironically, this was happening as Mughal Delhi, the grand theatre of Urdu poetry, was losing its eminence. By the time the frail 62-year-old Bahadur Shah Zafar ascended the throne in September 1837, the Mughal Empire’s grandeur had completely faded. The inheritor of a powerless throne, Zafar turned his attention to art and literature and soon assembled a galaxy of great poets in his court.

Then came the revolt of 1857, and Delhi changed forever. As Mughal power was usurped by the British, thousands were killed. A large number of poets and scholars fled the city. The two major poets who survived the holocaust were Ghalib, who was over sixty by then, and Dagh, who was in his mid-twenties. While Dagh later migrated to Rampur and then relocated to Hyderabad, Ghalib continued living in the city until he died in 1869. Both were distraught and heartbroken. Zafar's sons were killed, and he was exiled to Burma, where he died, longing for a grave in Delhi

Kitna hai badnaseeb 'Zafar' dafn ke liye

Do gaz zameen bhi na mili koo-e-yaar mein

How unfortunate is Zafar, that for his burial

He's denied even two yards of earth next to his beloved

This is how an era came to an end a bloody end. Delhi's indestructible spirit has haunted poets  for  generations  some have written out of love, others in awe and bewilderment. In the following years, Delhi became home to many more Urdu poets. Their story remains to be told, but we will keep it for another time. After all, Dagh had said

Nahin khel ae 'Dagh' yaaron se keh do

Ke aati hai Urdu zubaan aate-aate

It is no child's play, O Dagh, go tell them

It takes some doing to master the

Urdu language

Saif Mahmood is an advocate of the Supreme Court of India and a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Beloved Delhi A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets

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