A Muse Beyond Time: Delhi in Urdu Poetry

8 minute read

Delhi has, in essence, been the lynchpin of the entity that is Hindustan. It has been the capital since before India started being invaded by different foreign powers, and consequently, its streets and air reek of history and its vagaries. The generations of poets living in these streets have immortalized them in their creations. Indeed, the tribulations of changing rulers, invasions, sackings, and the simultaneously changing equations of the city among its people have been described movingly in the oeuvres of various poets down the centuries.

No discussion about Delhi and Urdu poetry can be started without the mention of the poet who is perhaps the biggest romancer of this city, Mir Taqi Mir, who used to go by his takhallus1 ‘Mir’. Mir lived and wrote in the 18th century, and called Delhi his home, even though he was born in Agra and died in Lucknow. He lived in Delhi for about half a century, in the heart of the Old City, and his love for the city is visible in his poetry, at times subtle, and at others explicit, praising its walls, its people and its charm. It can be seen  in the following couplet -

“Dilli ke naa thay kooche auraaq-e-musavvar thay,

Jo shakl nazar aayi tasveer nazar aayi”

(These are not the streets of Delhi but the canvas of an artist, every sight/face I see is like a painting)

Mir, it is often rumored, was a man with a high opinion of himself, someone who knew exactly how good he and his poetry were. He was patronized by lords and rajahs, but he was too proud to compose his poetry praising them, and more often than not he broke ties with them over issues of self respect, over which, it is said, he never compromised. All in all, he led a life of seclusion, and his poetry would lead us to believe Delhi often took the place of his mashooqa, his beloved, rather than a woman. But sadly, his love affair with this city came to a sorry end after Ahmed Shah Abdali’s continued invasions of Delhi, in the course of which the city was completely razed to the ground. The plundering of his beloved Dilli, along with a loss of patronage from the royals forced Mir to migrate to Lucknow, on the invitation of the then Nawab of Lucknow Asaf-ud-Daulah, which was fast emerging as a centre of Urdu poetry. In this city of nawabs and tehzeeb, cultured etiquette, Mir’s plain and poor garb was often poked fun of. A famous legend has it that when Mir entered the durbar at Lucknow for the first time, he was ridiculed for his almost penurious appearance, and upon being asked where he came from, he said the lines which, today, every Urdu poetry enthusiast knows like the back of their hands –

Kya bood-o-baash poochhte ho poorab ke saakino

Humko gareeb jaan ke has has pukaar ke

Dilli jo ek sheher tha aalam-e-intekhaab mein

Rehte thay mutakhib hi jahaan rozgaar ke

Usko falak ne loot ke barbaad kar diya

Hum rehnewaalein hain uss ujade dayyaar kay

(Delhi, that chosen city of the world, where only those of privileged professions resided, that city that the heavens have looted and laid waste, I am the inhabitant of that destroyed garden)

Mir, ultimately, fell out from the Nawab of Lucknow as well and, unable to find a steady patron, fell into penury. He died in Lucknow, unable to visit his beloved city once more.

In the 19th century, Mirza Ghalib and Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq were in their prime as poets, and were interestingly rivals, famous for taking potshots at each other through their poetry. Zauq was the poet laureate in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who himself was a notable poet. Zauq’s most famous lines about Delhi g o-

“Humne maana ke dakkan mein hai bahut qadr-e-sukhan

Kaun jaaye Zauq par Dilli ki galiyaan chhod kar”

(I agree that there is a lot of respect for poetry in the Deccan, but who wants to leave these beloved streets of Dilli?)

Ghalib succeeded Zauq as court poet, and was witness to the Revolt of 1857 and the end of the Mughal dynasty, the end of an era - a way of life as people knew it, one might say. Ghalib’s vast oeuvre includes shayari and ghazals that reflect the life and times of Delhi and its people during and after the revolt. Ghalib writes about Delhi -

“Ek roz apni rooh se poochha ke dilli kya hai, to yun jawaab mein keh gayi, ye duniya maano jism hai aur Dilli uski jaan.”

(One day I asked my soul that what is Delhi. The answer that came was that if the world is a human body, then Delhi is its heart.)

For Zafar, however, Delhi emerged as a muse out of a need to oppose the British invasion in the only way he could - words. Delhi signified his homeland for him, and hence Zafar wrote numerous compositions extolling Delhi for what it was and lamenting what it has become under the foreign occupancy. Zafar’s poetry and those of other poets of his time like Ghalib, Zauq and Momin became a rallying point for the people’s discontent.

In one of his poignant compositions, a qita’a2, Zafar cries for his beloved city –

‘‘Nahin haal-e-Dilli sunaane ke kaabil, ye kissa hai rone aur rulaane ke kaabil, ujaade looteron ne wo mehel iske, jo thay dekhne aur dikhaane ke kaabil, naa ghar hai naa dar hai raha ek Zafar hai, fakat haal-e-Dilli sunaane ke kaabil.’’

(The condition of Delhi is not worth narrating, Delhi’s story is fit for making one cry. Vandals have uprooted its castles, which were worth seeing and appreciating. There are no homes, no temples, nothing. Only Zafar remains, to sing the woes of Delhi)

The most touching of his poetry is written when he was sentenced to saza-e-kaala-paani3 at Rangoon, where he ultimately died, away from his homeland -

“Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar dafan ke liye,

Do gaz zameen bhi na mili ku-e-yaar mein”

(How unlucky are you, Zafar, for your burial, you could not even get a couple of yards of land in your beloved’s street)

The beloved, here, is Delhi.

A city, in addition to being a physical space, is also a metaphor for the lives that go on within it. The idea of Delhi as a city, it being a seat of culture and high learning, has been articulated in countless ways by countless poets of the Urdu-Hindustani language. This city, however, has faint, if at all, remembrance of these greats. The tomb of poet laureate Zauq was discovered under a public urinal in Paharganj and has been poorly renovated. Ghalib’s house in Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk was, until a few years ago, a coal storage. Momin’s grave is situated in the parking lot of Maulana Azad Medical College, forgotten. Of Mir, there is no trace of him having ever called Delhi his home.  The only consolation is that physical markers aside, these poets and their words still stay with us, and will always be a defining factor in the identity of the city called Dilli.

Notes-

  1. Takhallus: an Urdu word for nom de plume. A takhallus was often employed by many poets, and it was a word that had a common meaning, because it was customary to incorporate the takhallus in the last sher (couplet) of a ghazal

  2. Qita’a (Also spelled Qita and Qata): A piece of poetry that is a part of a longer form like the ghazal but can also be read independently. 

  3. Saza-e-kala-paani: Refers to the sentencing of a convict in British India to the Cellular Jail in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the convict being isolated from the mainland and made to live out his/her life in isolation. According to Indian belief, crossing the ‘kaala paani’ (literally, black waters), referring to the seas surrounding the Indian peninsula, will result in loss of your social identity, and therefore the isolation becomes not only physical, but also becomes grounded in identity. 

Leave a Comment