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Poetry in Persian

September 04, 2016


In spite of the fact that Persian had been our literary, official, religious and cultural language for centuries, the status and importance of this language in the subcontinent in the days gone by are often underrated.

Some of the great Persian literary works were produced in the subcontinent. A large number of religious works, historical treatises, literary texts and lexicographic works were also written in Persian, not only during the Mughal era, but even before that period. Aside from a few early Persian dictionaries, almost all of the latter-day authentic Persian lexicographic works were the product of the subcontinent. Heinrich Blochmann (1838-1878), the renowned German scholar of Persian language and literature wrote that “the sources which are absolutely required for the compilation of a reliable dictionary of the Persian language are the following ten … ” The sources he goes on to cite are all dictionaries of the Persian language, of which only one — Majma’-ul-Furs, compiled by Muhammad Qasim Suroori Kashani in the 17th century — was written in Iran, all the remaining nine were compiled in the Pak-India subcontinent.

Sadly, the decline of Persian in the subcontinent, which began with the arrival of European colonialists, reached such lengths in the latter half of the 20th century that anyone composing poetry in Persian was looked upon as eccentric. Even in the early 20th century, the preference of readers had suffered a tangible lapse and publishers usually shied away from publishing a Persian work for fear of a poor market response. As a result, many Persian poetic works, some of them quite exceptional, could not be published. A collection of Persian poetry by Ameer Meenai (1829-1900) was one such excellent work.

The first-ever publication of Ameer Meenai’s Persian divan in its entirety comes about 115 years after the poet’s death

Luckily, Ameer Meenai’s grandson, Israel Ahmed Meenai, has inherited his grandfather’s rare books, documents and manuscripts, as well as his penchant for literature. He has been trying to publish his grandfather’s Urdu and Persian works which for one reason or another went out of print or could not see the light of day. So far, he has been successful in publishing some reprints and some first editions of Ameer Meenai’s works. The latest addition to the published works of Ameer Meenai is the Persian divan, edited by Dr Tehseen Firaqi, a scholar known for his acumen in varied literary realms, including command over the Persian language.

With Dr Firaqi’s meticulous editing and an erudite foreword, the University of Punjab’s Persian Department has published Ameer Meenai’s Divan-i-Farsi. It is certain that the manuscript of Ameer Meenai’s Persian divan had been penned during the poet’s lifetime as the eulogistic foreword written by Maulvi Muhammad Faseeh-uz-Zaman bears the date of 1880, notes Dr Firaqi. But there is evidence to safely assume that Ameer Meenai had been adding new verses to it from time to time, even after 1880, and almost the entire manuscript was penned anew, by a skilled calligrapher as put forth by Dr Firaqi, after the poet’s death, incorporating Meenai’s additions. But it was not published, even though selections from his Persian poetry had been included in some tazkiras (accounts of poets and their works) and some critical works, as he was reckoned to be a remarkable Persian poet of his times. This is the first-ever publication of Ameer Meenai’s Persian divan in its entirety. That the publication of the edited version took place about 115 years after the poet’s death is reflective of the status accorded to the Persian language in this region in the last 100 years or so, but, at the same time, it is a considerable feat for which both Dr Firaqi and the Punjab University deserve kudos. But it would not have been possible had generations of the Meenai family not treasured it so dearly and not perfectly preserved it.

Ameer Meenai’s Persian divan, published last year, includes qaseedas (panegyric ode), ruba’iyat (quatrain), manqabat (praise in verse, especially of saints) and marsias (elegy), but the major portion consists of ghazals. A detailed list of contents, arranged alphabetically according to the last letter of the first poetic line of each ghazal — and pieces composed in other genres — has been given, as is the traditional way of enlisting the verses in a divan. Appendices include some unique samples of Ameer Meenai’s poetry, such as verses in which only those letters or words have been used that have a dot (nuqta) or dots either above or beneath them. Similarly, some verses are in the form known as ghair manqoota, which only uses letters and words where no dot is needed. Then, there are verses called manqoota, in which every letter (not word) has one or more dots.

Also, there are verses that have a chronogram, in which letters represent numerical values, thus revealing the year in which some event took place. These verses may seem strange or ostentatious today, but it was a trend in those days that many poets had to follow to establish their command over prosody, lexicon and poetic art. The appendices also have the foreword written by Faseeh-uz-Zaman Khan in 1880 — and its facsimile as well.

In his 50-page, scholarly foreword, Dr Firaqi has captured the essence of several issues: Persian literature in the subcontinent; Ameer Meenai’s personality and his life, times and works; attributes of Meenai’s Urdu and Persian poetry, and details regarding the manuscript that he has edited.

Dr Firaqi’s foreword is a research work unto itself. He has briefly described the history of Persian literature in the subcontinent and has mentioned a long list of prose writers and poets from the subcontinent who have left indelible marks on the history of Persian literature and language, whose importance and impact even native Iranians cannot deny, such as Ameer Khusrau, Mullah Abdul Qadir Badauni, Bedil Azimabadi, Ghani Kashmiri, Nemat Khan Aali, Sialkoti Mal Varasta, Tekchand Bahar, Khushal Khan Khattak, Ghalib, Shibli Nomani, Iqbal and Giram, to name but a few.

Ameer Meenai’s year of birth is usually given as 1828, but this is incorrect. Recent research studies that probed the matter minutely have proved that Ameer Meenai was born in Lucknow on Feb 22, 1829, a fact also mentioned by Dr Firaqi. Ameer Meenai was a polymath. He was a poet, prose writer, lexicographer, linguist, astrologer, Sufi and musicologist. In addition, he knew Islamic law, studied medicine, learnt philosophy and practised jafr, a branch of occult science, a kind of cleromancy based on the rolling of dice. He knew many languages quite well and wrote in three: Urdu, Persian and Arabic.

Ameer Meenai penned some 50 books, but only 17 of them, including the one under review, could be published. Different scholars are working on at least four of the remaining manuscripts. When these works are published, Meenai’s stature will only be enhanced. But what has been published so far proves that Ameer Meenai was one of the great Urdu poets of the post-1857 era. He was a fine prose writer and a good lexicographer. What the publication of his Persian divan and Dr Firaqi’s foreword confirm is that he was also a remarkable Persian poet. His Persian poetry, as put by Firaqi, not only shows his command over the Persian language, but his extensive reading too. Meenai had profoundly studied the maestros of Persian poetry like Ameer Khusro, Hafiz of Shiraz, Bedil, Nazeeri and Ghalib as is evident from his ghazals composed in the same poetic metres and rhyming schemes. But his art is quite distinct from these classical poets; Meenai has a style of his own which beautifully blends core themes (such as love) of Sufi thought and is peppered with rhetorical qualities.

The book includes a brief introduction, written in Persian by Dr Muhammad Nasir, highlighting the life and works of Ameer Meenai. The publication of Ameer Meenai’s divan is a good omen and is confirmation of the revived interest in languages and literatures that we are witnessing in Pakistani universities today.

The reviewer is a former chief editor of the Urdu Dictionary Board who currently teaches Urdu at the University of Karachi.

By Ameer Meenai, edited by Tehseen Firaqi
Department of Persian, Oriental College, Punjab University, Lahore

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 4th, 2016