Couplets Therapy

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Poet meets performer meets wild audiences. Rishi majumder takes a guided tour of an international mushaira in the indian capital

Live poets society (L to R) Shakeel Azmi from Mumbai, Anjum Rehbar from Bhopal and Sarwat Zahra Zaidi from Dubai
Photo: Naveesh Tejpal

SHER IS an Urdu couplet and a mushaira is a symposium of Urdu poets. At the centre of any good sher, lies irony. A similiar irony lay in the 11th edition of the annual Jashn-e-Bahar Mushaira renowned for the far-flung countries it gathers its poets from. Last week, Delhi audiences heard shers from London, New York, Jeddah, Kabul, even Beijing.

At the venue — Delhi Public School, Mathura Road — rotating fans with in-built water sprinklers, sprinkled rose water first and then plain water on the sunstruck audiences resplendent either in traditional clothes or designerwear. A make-shift white ornamental trellised fence sat pretty, in front of 21 seated poets. The irony at the centre? The backdrop of the stage where the poets sat, where ministers Farooq Abdullah and Salman Khurshid pronounced Urdu shouldn’t be treated as a Muslim language but as an Indian one, was a huge cloth print of a mural by MF Husain, prime patron for the mushaira and famously stuck in exile.

At the centre of any good mushaira, lies its audience. “The chasteness of Urdu has reduced,” says Aparna Srivastava Reddy who has convened thismushaira for some years now. “Most couplets at mushairas nowadays can be understood by anyone.” Which is why such mushairas attract the casually dressed minority of the 1,500-strong audience — they don’t know Urdu well, but can understand this poetry. The casual listeners matched the wellversed in racuous shouts. And so the voices of audience came across as one – in their “waah waahs” (very good), their “bas karos” (stop) and “ghar jaos” (go home).

The proactive audience also decided how long a poet could perform. So Iqbal Ashar, from Delhi, was allowed to sing his Taj Mahal even though it went on for a while. And when Mumbai’s Shakeel Azmi was asked by the organisers to finish fast, he appealed to the audience to let him read more of his “shorter verses”. They relented.

Ribbing was the order of the day. An elderly Delhi poet, Amir Ahmad Mumkin, who recited SMS shayari in a waspish voice, was introduced by moderator Mansoor Usmani thus: “He’s so old that when he begins performing, you might well say‘Namumkin’ (impossible)”. On being jeered and dismissed, Mumkin dealt a parting shot at the audience: “Jee chaahta hai unhein goli maar doon… mera sher to sunaa nahin, apna saat sunaa gaya (I wish I could shoot him… He didn’t listen to my couplet, but recited seven of his).” Some poets hit back. When new poems were exhorted from Bollywood lyricist Javed Akhtar, he replied: “First understand what I’ve written so far. Then I’ll pen new ones. It isn’t easy.”

WHILE GOOD poetry did score its points, great delivery often compensated. Munnawar Rana, from Kolkata, for instance, was one of the most popular poets. His verse runs straight: “Ajeeb duniya hai ki titli ki paron ko noch leti hai, ajeeb titli hai ki nuchne par bhi roya nahin karti (It’s a strange world that crushes the wings of a butterfly. It’s a strange butterfly that doesn’t cry out at being crushed).” But it is Rana’s powerful, almost Demosthenesian oratory that makes him loved.

A winning combination of content and delivery came from Pakistan’s Fatima Hassan. She made many a burqaclad listener grin and applaud as she fashioned feminism for the good Muslim girl. In one of her award-winning couplets the oppressed woman is analogous to a boat and patriarchy, a boatman: “Kashti ko sikhayee hai, mallah ne do baatein/ toofaan se guzar jaana, saahil par thahar jaana.” (The boat has been taught two things by the boatman: cross the storm, and stop at the shore). This year, for the first time, the mushaira had a Nepali poet — Khwaja Moazzam Shah. His poetry, extolling the virtues of peace and love, was too tame to enthrall. On the other hand, Ashfaq Hussain Zaidi, an Urdu scholar from Toronto, met with great approval: “Dard se koi taaluq, naa ilaaqa-e-gham se, sirf lafzon ke barasne se ghazal nahin hoti (No relationship with pain, nor with sorrow, Just the cascading of words does not make a ghazal).”

These diverse nationalities represent the Urdu diaspora, which has spread the language far — and thin. It is one reason why Urdu poetry has largely dissolved into colloqualisms and discarded complex and ‘chaste’ vocabulary. At the mushaira, the ethnicities each brought forth their own politics, transcending the given theme – ‘Aman-o- Dosti’ (Peace and Friendship). Feminism was a recurrent theme from Pakistan. So was the Partition, and the plight of refugees. “Musaafir saath barson se abhi tak ghar nahin pahunche. Kahin par bhi nahin pahunche (Travellers for 60 years, they still haven’t reached home. They haven’t reached anywhere),” by Asghar Nadeem Syed of Lahore, hung quietly over the suddenly silent audience, before the first “Kya baat hai”.

Poet Amir Ahmad Mumkin was introduced thus: ‘He’s so old that when he performs, you may say ‘Namumkin’ — impossible’

Kolkata’s Rana demonstrated a clear leftist bent, reminiscent of the times of the Progressive Writer’s Group (PWG) when Urdu was a language adopted by the communists. But a true winner, rousing its listeners to uproar, came from Khushbir Singh Shaad, a Sikh shayar from Lucknow. He recited a nazm (poem), in the presence of a Congress minister, that could not but have reminded one of the Sikh riots: “Ye tera taaj nahin hai, hamaari pagdi hai, ye sar ke saath hi utregi, ye sarka hissa hai (This isn’t your crown, it’s our turban. It will only come off when the head does).”

The last poet was Dr Shahryar and it was with him this mushaira audience proved that it could do more than cheer or boo. It could also respect. Doyen of Urdu literature and lyricist for Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan, he read plainly and simply, without any affectation. The ‘waahs’ were uttered in amazed whispers, not shouts. It is the stately Dr Shahryar who explains, “There is a difference between mushaira and adab (literature and culture). Some poets at mushairas will hardly get published. Yet they are there because they are fine performers. A mushaira must be enjoyed for what it is — a performer’s gathering. A couplet from him? “Dekh hum phir jalaa rahe hain chiraag, ai hawaa, haunslaa nikaal apna (Look, we’re lighting the candle again. Dear wind, we hope you’re up to the challenge).”

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