Poetry and patronage

30 Nov 2016


THE year 1856 was a significant one in the history of the subcontinent, not for what had occurred during its days, weeks and months but for what had not yet occurred. As is well known, the War of Independence and its attendant expositions of hatreds, the resentments of the colonised and the subjugating intentions of the colonisers, had not yet occurred.

It was in this year that the poet Mirza Ghalib wrote a qasidah for Queen Victoria, the woman who would in a few more blinks of history be crowned empress of India. He sent the qasidah to the queen in London via Lord Ellenborough.

In exchange, Ghalib received a bureaucratic letter advising him to convey the letter via the “proper administrative procedures”. In Ghalib’s case this would be via the administrator in India. He complied with the instruction and resent the qasidah for the queen via the proper channels.

Pakistan has failed to understand the crucial role played by cultural production in constructing lived realities.

As Ghalib scholar Frances Pritchett has documented in her book on Urdu poetry, he also included a polite letter along with the poem. In the letter, the man who would be the age’s most renowned poet reminded the queen of the long-established and well-known duty of sovereigns to poets. The former royalty of the subcontinent had rewarded their poets and well-wishers by “filling their mouths with pearls, and granting them villages and recompense”. In keeping with tradition, he asked that the queen bestow upon him the title of ‘Mihr-Khwan’, present him with a robe of honour and “a few crumbs from her bounteous table”.

Ghalib eagerly awaited a response to his missive to the queen but history slaughtered hope; before he received one, the war of 1857 broke out.

According to Pritchett’s history of Urdu poetry, Ghalib’s request was neither unique nor novel. Ghalib’s famous forbear, Ameer Khusro, had written a similar letter, featuring a similar argument to his own patrons. History, perhaps, was kinder then, not so ruthlessly pitted against poetry.

Ghalib never did receive his title, nor was he able to escape poverty; his poetry persevered regardless, his couplets falling from tongues centuries into the future. He may never have received the pension he requested from the British but he did receive, in posterity, the sort of immortality reserved only for the truly exceptional.

The possibility or promise of future fame, however, does not feed famished families. At the time that Ghalib wrote his letter to Queen Victoria, the idea of patronage for poets and artists was one that was familiar and even integral to court society. Ghalib was a member of an aristocratic family but dwindling finances and the influence of the British had led him to be dependent largely on a pension inherited from an uncle who had passed away.

His entreaty to the queen, therefore, was not a mark of submission but rather born of an earnest belief that the British did not subsidise art and poetry in the subcontinent because they were either not aware of the tradition or unaware of the advantage of a court poet, of “having a slave like Ghalib whose song has all the power of fire”.

While post-colonial societies such as Pakistan and elsewhere have taken much interest in considering the reversibility of colonial interruptions, been eager to harken back to the era of imagined religious poetry, wincing at the language of the colonisers or the habits or customs they left behind, there has been no interest in resurrecting the tradition that Ghalib referred to in his missive.

If the British responded to Ghalib with bureaucratic blather, the destiny of post-colonial would-be Ghalibs is even bleaker. Not only are the arts, poetry and literature considered unworthy of investment by the state whose creation was supposed to be a step in the direction of regaining Muslim glory, they are, in fact, considered wasteful and even immoral pastimes.

The British were uninterested in sustaining patronage because they favoured their own forms of cultural production, the sonnets and songs of their own land. It would make no sense to invest in the cultural production of a culture whose elimination or sidelining was crucial to the project of colonial dominance. All of this was painfully clear following the War of Independence, which in addition to being bloody and dispiriting also marked the end of Muslim cultural production.

So deadly was that defeat that even a century and a half later, there has been no recovery. States such as Pakistan that may look to the past of poetry still read and heard and sung, nevertheless fail to understand the crucial role played by cultural production — art, poetry and literature — in constructing the imaginative and lived realities of nations. The consequence is a wan and warped society, subsisting on scraps of cultural production past, a society whose penurious poets can only very feebly hold up the mirrors of provocation, whose artists must do everything and anything other than create art.

The consequence is grim: a scene of desolation where the truly talented can expect no support, must busy themselves with peddling electronics, designing websites, painting billboards, coining advertising slogans.

In this bereft world there is little hope for talent to be recognised or rewarded. Instead, the category of artist and writer is reserved for the insipid progeny of patrons of old. While the talented try to survive, the children of the wealthy pretend to be talented, are cheered on by their parents, by the other children of the similarly situated.

Those who constitute the system cannot truly criticise its inequity, let alone compose the sort of songs of fire that lay bare its perversions. With state patronage dead and buried, art is robbed of any revolutionary potential, culture is left stagnant, and poetry reduced to a single song of silent suffering.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2016