KARACHI, April 24: It was an evening that made many gasp for more as poetess Zehra Nigah, in her typically endearing form of communication, spoke on the relatively lesser known women Urdu poets followed by her own journey in the realm of poetry during a talk organised by the Aga Khan University at the AKU auditorium on Wednesday.

Ms Nigah admitted that it was difficult for her to express herself in prose. However, the essay that she read out on women poets brimmed with profundity and had the sensitiveness required for the subject. She said nature did not distinguish between man and woman; it was society that placed them in such brackets. While studying the history of women poets, poetry written by princesses or those coming from affluent families could be chanced upon; but not much written by the average woman had been discovered.

Interestingly, she said, verses composed by those belonging to the bazaar-i-husn (the red light area) was readily available, which was perhaps why righteous families did not encourage their women to write poetry.

Ms Nigah conjectured that women must be writing poetry from time immemorial. While she agreed that a great many genres of literature were attributed to the likes of Hazrat Amir Khusrau and the Sufis, it was possible that women had to do with the emergence of these genres because what they experienced on a daily basis had enough fodder for poetry. She told the gathering that eminent poet Mir Taqi Mir’s daughter was a poetess and quoted her couplet:

Abr chhaya hai meinh barasta hai Baat kerne ko jee tarasta hai (The clouds have gathered, it’s raining I wish there was someone to speak with)

Ms Nigah said the longing in the second line might have resulted from the fact that the poetess never became known as a creative person. She carried on with the argument while talking about how men started writing reekhti and how characters like Umrao Jan kept poetry’s flame alive. She articulated that after every war one of the first things that the victor did was that it exerted its residual power on women of the defeated nation. She said in the 1857 war, Indian women adopted different measures to save their girls from British forces. Some girls in order to avoid the situation went into the jungles and returned only when the situation improved a little. But upon their return, she added, they had three choices: one, to become mendicants; two, be become the nawab’s courtesans; three, to join the red light area.

Ms Nigah said at the chowk they received all kinds of training; Umrao Jan was part of that chain of individuals. Nobody could stop them from writing poetry; in day time they’d composed verses and in the evening sang them during a mujra (dance) performance. She informed the audience that in a 1956 edition of the literary journal Nuqoosh, poems of those poetesses were published whose names were followed by the word tawaif. Time moved on and things changed. She also mentioned among others the name of Mah Laqa Bai Chanda who after Asif Jah fell for her and did a great many philanthropic works.

Recalling her journey to become a poetess, Ms Nigah said she had begun writing couplets at the age of eight and when she grew a little older questions were raised. Some thought if she wrote a ghazal, people would inquire about its subject matter and might cause her problems, including that of finding a suitable husband. But at that point in time, her mother and maternal grandmother encouraged her and egged her on to write poetry. In her early days, she was influenced by Ada Jaffrey. Jigar taught her how to behave at a mushaira while Faiz made her realize that great poets had a heart of gold.

Ms Nigah said once she started taking part in mushairas (poetry sittings) including the one in Lahore where she outshone Jigar Moradabadi, it instilled confidence in her. She started getting published in quality magazines such as Mah-i-Nau, Nuqoosh and Savera. She claimed that she was happy that she could pave the way for poetesses such as Shabnam Shakil, Parveen Shakir and Shahida Hasan.

Concluding her paper, Ms Nigah said poetry was nothing but the message of love (paigham-i-muhabbat). While she accepted that there was no woman poet that could measure up to the likes of Ghalib and Mir, there was Qurutulain Tahira whose voice echoed in Iqbal’s ears. She ended her talk quoting Ibn-i-Arabi, “God loves man and man loves woman.”Once the lecture was over, the audience requested Ms Nigah to recite her poems that she did.


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