Poets, scholars, and intellectuals are sometimes not recognised by their contemporaries either because of their unconventional ideas, their social status or their ethnic and religious identity. However, a time comes when historians rediscover them and bring their person and ideas to light.
Nazir Akbarabadi (d.1830) is included among the poets ignored by their contemporaries despite their popular poetry. Mohammad Hussain Azad (d.1910) did not mention him in Aab-i-Hayat, a commentary on Urdu poetry and his best known work. Nawab Mustafa Khan Shaifta (d.1869) remarked that Nazir
Akbarabadi’s language was that of the common man. It indicates how the ashrafia or the aristocracy differentiated itself from the common people on the basis of language which was heavily Persianised. Generally, the people would speak simple language with Hindi vocabulary. An example is Nazir Akbarabadi’s poem Banjara (a community of nomads who sold grain to traders in the city), the language of this poem is simple with Hindi vocabulary which was easily understood by the common people.
Nazir Akbarabadi’s personality and poetry was discovered during the modern period in an age of democracy when he was recognised as the poet of the people because his language was neither Persianised or Arabicised like that of the aristocracy. He was different in many respects from his contemporaries. It was customary in his time that the poets, historians and scholars would always be patronised either by the rulers or the nobility. It was considered undignified to earn their livelihood by adopting a profession. We have the example of Mirza Ghalib, who refused the professorship at Dehli College and preferred to remain unemployed and continued his efforts for the renewal of his pension. After the decline of the Mughal dynasty, when the Mughal court was not in a position to patronise poets, they left Dehli and wandered from one state to the other in search of patronage.
With his distinctive humanist sensibility, Nazir Akbarabadi stood apart from other poets of his time
When the Mughal court came to an end, Zaheer Dehlvi, first went to the State of Tonk after 1857, and then to Hyderabad Deccan looking for patronage. Awadh, Deccan, Rampur, Murshidabad and some other states provided patronage to poets. Nazir Akbarabadi did not rely on royal or aristocratic patronage. He adopted the teaching profession and lived a simple life without any ambitions to achieve a higher social status. Therefore, he did not leave Agra and spent his life teaching, socialising with common people, participating in festivals, ceremonies and understanding the suffering and pain of poor and deprived segment of the society in his poetry. We find poems on the topic of bread (Roti), money (Paisa), and on the festivals of Holi and Diwali. It shows the composite culture of the Indian society where Hindus and Muslims lived together without any religious discrimination.
However, in his poem Aadmi Nama, a masterpiece by Nazir Akbarabadi, he reduces and demolishes all differences created by the society. The basic idea of the poem is equality in the society after ending family pride, cast, colour, wealth, religion and sects. According to him, basically all men are children of Adam (Aadmi) whether they are rich or poor, or have a high or low status in life. He emphasises that in whatever situation he is, be it eating, singing, weeping or reading, writing or toiling and working, he is nothing but a human being. He snatches away the masks which hide the reality and expose the artificiality and hypocrisy of people. When everybody has the same status of being a human being, one should understand the idea and end discrimination in the society and create equality, peace and harmony.
Nazir Akbarabadi and the poets of his time wrote extensively on the political, social and economic crises of the cities (Sheher ashob) because of the decadence and degeneration of their times. Nazir Akbarabadi also wrote a poem on Agra, which was once the capital city of the Mughal emperors. It decayed and lost its past glory. Taj Mahal and its beauty became distorted by the untended growth of bushes and trees along the building and the lack of maintenance. In his poem, he laments the condition of the common people, such as artisans, workers, shopkeepers, and even prostitutes, who were living in abject poverty. The poem graphically portrays the condition of the common people, who suffered in absence of any government and ruler to take care of the inhabitants of the city.
Nazir Akbarabadi’s poetry is a mine of information about the 18th century north India which had once been the centre of the ruling classes, famous for its wealth and prosperity. Historians should use it as a source of a social history where more emphasis was given to the common people than the aristocracy.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 10th, 2016