From palaces to people: Urdu mushaira reaches out

New Delhi: Dispelling fears of its demise, the `mushaira` (Urdu poetry recital) has made a comeback in Delhi, symbolically completing a journey from the durbars of the rich and famous to the public places.

In "Dehli ki Aakhri Shama", Urdu essayist Mirza Farhatullah Beg describes an imaginary mushaira, featuring all the prominent poets of the time like Ghalib, Zauq and Momin, in 1850s Delhi, beginning after the evening prayers and continuing till dawn with the "shayars" (poets) reciting when the "shama" (lamp) was placed before them.

The tradition of Urdu `shayari` in the capital dates back the 17th century, and got a fillip in the mid-18th century during the reign of Bahadur Shah II, himself a noted poet writing under the name of `Zafar`.

The Ghalib Memorial Movement, which is trying to revive the literary legacy of Delhi`s most celebrated poet, Dec 26 held `Yaadgaar-e-Ghalib` with the same ambience at the India Islamic Centre to mark his 214th birth anniversary.

"The venue was packed with youngsters," danseuse Uma Sharma, who has been leading the Ghalib Memorial Movement for the last 14 years, told IANS.

Sharma said the mushaira was very much alive but it was more "of a public literary soiree enjoyed by the middle class" rather than private gatherings in elite homes, as happened in late 19th and early 20th centuries.

She said that the DCM Shriram Industries organises the popular Shankar Shad mushaira every year and the government hosts one before Republic Day.

This year, the 47th Shankar Shad mushaira brought together renowned poets like Javed Akhtar, Shahryaar, Zahira Nigah, Waseem Barelvi and Zakia Waseem Ghazal.

"In the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, mushaira was the only avenue of entertainment and creativity in the upper classes. But over the years it has come out of homes to public spaces. We are trying to revive the culture as more people want to understand and appreciate the culture of old Delhi," Suresh Goel, the director-general of Indian Council for Cultural Relations, told IANS.

"Every year, a mushaira is an integral part of Ghalib`s anniversary celebrations, which are promoted by ICCR with voluntary platforms," he said.

The rise of a new crop of young poets has given a new lease of life to the tradition.

"At least seven young poets from east Delhi have been writing good poetry. One of them is Sharf Nanparvi, who not only writes, but also organises mushairas to encourage young poets," Safdar Hussain Khan, vice president of India Islamic Centre, told IANS.

Older generation of poets like Gulzar Delhvi, whose forefathers taught Urdu to emperor Shah Jahan, also encourage young poets.

"The India Islamic Centre offers free space for mushairas to promote the culture. The tradition has seen a new revival in the last two decades, finding new segments of takers among the non-Muslims too, many of whom are studying Urdu," Khan said.

Others call for the mushaira to be re-fashioned with the times.

"Mushaira has to be tied up with the language of Urdu and its revival. What is stopping us from reading Urdu?" Urdu writer Rakhshanda Jalil, who manages the blog Hindustani Awaaz, told IANS.

She claimed mushairas were deliberately perpetuated as a Islamic tradition by hosting them in venues like Chandni Chowk and Urdu Academy.

"Let us get out of it by hosting mushairas at public spaces where it can be accessible to all," she said.

Jodhpur-based Urdu poet Sheen Kaaf Nizam blames television and the culture of sponsorship for the decline in the popularity of mushairas.

"Anyone can sponsor a mushaira and invite poets of their choice, promoting coteries. Add to it television, which takes the young audience away from poetry with instant entertainment," Nizam told IANS.

At a recent discourse titled `The Death of the Mushaira`, writers and poets tied the fall in popularity with declining language standards.

"The quality of `shayari` in Urdu has declined because very few people understand the language and shayars can get away with anything. The standard of mushaira, as a result, has fallen," said M. Sadiq, a former professor of Urdu at Delhi University and a poet himself.

However, he said that institutions Urdu Academy, the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language, the Ghalib Academy and Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu were promoting Urdu poetry with language classes and reading sessions.