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DAWN - Features; November 18, 2008

November 18, 2008


Mushaira: still a cultural institution or a means of entertainment?

By Rauf Parekh

Though I rarely watch TV, when I do, the idiot box does offer me some food for thought. I don’t mean the monster that devours your most precious time has become so sophisticated that it can actually prompt some intellectual brainstorming. Rather, I mean the hocus-pocus, too, sometimes can make you ponder over certain issues. Lately, for instance, an Urdu TV channel from India has been beaming an Urdu mushaira. An interesting feature of it, that made me think a lot, was the ability of some poets to sing in a professional manner. The women poets were far more adept at singing than their male counterparts. They could easily pass for professional singers, but I doubt they would be taken as poets of even minor merits by a serious-minded critic.

No offence is intended, and male chauvinism aside, the women who usually ‘brighten up’ mushairas with their ‘worthy’ presence and singings, are mostly young and good-looking, not known as poets though. Rumour has it that the ‘thought-provoking’ poetry of most of the female poets is a result of the mental gymnastics of their male ‘patrons’. Notwithstanding the standard or merits of their poetry, they are brought to mushairas for entertaining the audience. The ‘troupe’ of poets proceeding to other countries -- especially where culture-starved diaspora lives -- must include some entertainers.

And, for your kind information, the organisers and promoters of mushairas demand of the local agents to bring some ‘new faces’ every time. This is one of the reasons why you won’t see the same female poets coming to our country or going over to India again. They rarely visit the same country twice. And they are not even heard of again, let alone grooming into a better poet. They are more of a singer and entertainer than a poet. (Let me make this absolutely clear that the comments made in the foregoing have nothing to do with major women poets who attend mushairas only on the basis of their superb poetry.)

Mushaira has a long history and certain traditional characteristics. India, Arabia and Iran had the tradition of mushaira. Ameer Khusrau in the foreword to his Ghurat-ul-Kamal describes a mushaira attended by princes and other eminent personalities of the city. Mughal king Babar in his Babarnama describes a sitting where a Persian poet was quoted during the course of the conversation and how he had asked his courtiers to compose poetry on the same pattern and extempore. Persian poetry in India reached its pinnacle during the Mughal era as Mughal kings patronised it. Later, a rivalry between local poets and Iranian poets paved the way for Urdu mushairas and Khwaja Mir Dard and Mir Taqi Mir began holding Urdu mushairas at their places.

Ali Jawad Zaidi in his book Tareekh-i-Mushaira wrote that Urdu mushaira had become so popular in Delhi that Lal Qala, or the Red Fort, the royal residence, became a venue for such events. Shah Alam Sani, one of the successors to Aurangzeb Alamgir, was the first to hold an Urdu mushaira there. The trend caught on and the courtiers and nobles followed suit. The public, too, began holding mushairas.

Mushaira used to be a cultural event, with its own etiquettes and decorum. It would also serve as a testing ground for the abilities and talent of the poets. The poets, poetry buffs and critics attended mushairas to evaluate the standard of poetry, rhetoric and prosody. Not only the use of language or the contents of poetry were subject to meeting certain standards, but the mannerism, the delivery and traditions too counted a lot. Even appreciating – saying ‘Wah, wah’ and ‘Subhanallah’ – had limits and rules, though unwritten. With the proliferation of mushairas, these standards fell and, according to Mirza Farhatullah Baig, noticing slightly bad manners of the audience in the ‘divan-i-aam’, or the general court, Bahadur Shah Zafar stopped holding mushairas there.

In the 20th century, the holding of mushairas became a prestige point. Big industrial units such as textile mills used to hold mushairas. Even Dawn once held a mushaira which was described by Majeed Lahori in his humour column as an ‘Azeem-ud-Dawn’ mushaira.

In olden days, repeating the lines of couplets after the poet was an integral part of the manners and traditions. It was known as ‘misra uthana’, or repeating the line loudly. It was meant as a sign of courtesy shown for the poet and it also showed encouragement. And since there was no public address system in those days, ‘misra uthana’ also served the purpose of conveying it to the audience sitting at the back of the gathering. The lack of it showed uncouthness and some poets even refused to recite on several occasions in the absence of such courtesy.

Now ‘misra uthana’ is a dead art. Very few do it. If at all, they recite it the way the line loses its metre. A large part of the audience knows little about it or has little interest in poetry. All they want is entertainment. They are there for a good evening – some good laughs and, if possible, some good hooting. I once attended a mushaira where the audience were clapping. Disgusting! The members of the younger generation were even whistling and uttering catcalls. A poet of the Mughal era would have committed suicide on observing such a vulgar and unrefined gesture.

Mushaira was part of a culture that stressed certain etiquettes, traditions and refinement. It was an opportunity for the younger generations to learn a lot, not only the language or the craft of poetry but manners and decorum as well. Mushaira was in fact a cultural institution.

Now everything has changed. Mushaira has a wider audience and through the electronic media it may be watched by millions at a time. The audience, their taste, their understanding of poetry and their attitude – all have undergone a sea change. A major factor is now its commercial aspect and the opportunity for publicity that mushaira offers. Sometimes the audience have to buy tickets to enter the venue and they want their money’s worth in the shape of entertainment.

Clapping mars the cultural atmosphere of a mushaira. Intentional singing, too, is something uncharacteristic of the tradition. At least singing, and that too by unknown, good-looking, young women posing as poets, should be banned at mushairas.