Lahore in Urdu poetry

07 Jan 2018

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Every metropolis seems to have been enshrined into two images. The first one is created out of big city’s old, grandiose buildings, citadels, forts, tombs, mosques, churches, gardens, roads, rivers etc which is usually preserved by historians. The second one is an ensemble of numerous accounts, descriptions and narrations made by poets, travellers and story writers. Historian’s eyes capture barren yet factual features of a city, while poets’ and fiction writers’ imagination hunt for lively ethos of the life of a city. These two images might appear contrasting, but are not necessarily contradictory; rather they can supplement each other in a bid to paint the full picture of a metropolis.

In almost all books, historical account of Lahore begins in the following words: “The original foundation of Lahore or Loh-awar (from the Sanskrit word awar or fort) was attributed to Lav or Loh, one of the sons of legendry Rama. It was ruled by Hindu kings, Mughal emperors, Sikhs monarchs and British sovereigns”. This brief introduction seems to account for the variegated historical heritage of Lahore. However, how Pakistani rulers have ruined this historic city in the name of development is yet to be recorded in history books. They seem determined to entirely change-- and spoil---the architectural landscape of Lahore.

Milton, 17th century great English poet, mentions Lahore in Paradise Last. He counts Lahore among those seven cities Adam saw from the hill of paradise. Narrating movingly his sentimental journey to Lahore, Pran Nevile quotes a line from another celebrated British poet, Thomas Moore’s Lala Rookh: an Oriental Romance (written in 1817) that describes Lahore as a place of enchantment: “brilliant displays of life and pageantry among the palaces and gilded minarets of Lahore made the city altogether like a place of enchantment”. In Urdu poetry the image of Lahore as a city of enchantment began appearing a bit later. Lahore emerged as a new metropolitan centre of Urdu poetry in the last quarter of 19th century. Dr G W Leitner, a committed orientalist, founder of Oriental College and first principal of Government College Lahore, established Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in Punjab, popularly known as Anjuman-e-Punjab in January 1865. A number of literati belonging mostly to North India joined this Anjuman, including Muhammad Hussain Azad, Altaf Hussain Hali, Molvi Muqarrab Ali, Pandit Krishan Lal Talib et al. It was the new kind of mushairas (poetry gatherings) held between 1874 and1875 under the auspices of Anjuman that laid the basis of new school of Urdu poetry. The poets participating in these mushairas were obliged to recite nazm, usually written in the form of Masnavi, on a specified topic, contrary to the earlier tradition of mushaira where poets used to be free to recite their ghazal(s).

Hafiz Mehmood Shirani, an Urdu and Persian scholar, tried to prove in his book Punjab Mein Urdu (published in 1928) that Punjab is the origin of Urdu language and it was Punjabi which is the legitimate mother of Urdu. Many Urdu scholars still holds this thesis true. But the trajectory of Urdu poetry tells quite another story. Deccan became the first centre of Urdu poetry where first Divan of Urdu Ghazal (by Sultan Quli Qutub Shah) was produced. Caravan of Urdu poetry then moved to Delhi in 18th century which arrived in Lahore in late 19th century. In Deccan, Delhi and Lucknow Urdu poetry flourished under the patronage of Muslim Nawabs, Rajas, and Kings while the new school of Urdu poetry in Lahore owed its very existence to the colonial policies of the British which were embedded in reform instead of patronage. From then on poets, writers and artistes have kept pouring in Lahore. How Lahore was replacing older centres of culture and literature likes of Oudh and Delhi has been described by Akhtar Shirani, son of Hafiz Mehmmod Shirani and most popular poet of early 20th century.

(For how long the brilliancy of the Oudh’s evening will be celebrated, /O moving moon! come to turn Lahore’s evening into morning. / Gomati has seen the spring of lustre of cheek / now Ravi’s surface should be edified into a mirror.)

So it is not surprising that almost all the distinguished poets of 20th century Urdu literature belong to Punjab or they settled in Lahore before and after the partition. Allama Iqbal, Zafar Ali Khan, Hafeez Jalandhari, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi, Noon Meem Rashid, Majeed Amjad, Meeraji, Nasir Kazmi, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Habib Jalib, Wazir Agha, Munir Niazi, Shohrat Bokhari, Zafar Iqbal, Zahid Daar, Muhammad Salimur Rahman, Anjum Roomani, Kishwar Naheed, Aslam Ansari, Amjad Islam Amjad, Ghulam Hussain Sajid, Abbas Tabish are just few shining stars of the galaxy of Punjab’s Urdu poets. Though we find less common among these poets as far as their themes and styles are concerned, they exhibit love and unflinching appreciation for the enchanting culture, bustles of life, grandeur of buildings, diverse cultural traits and landscape of Lahore.

How Lahore attracted poets, especially after the Partition, across the sub-continent is passionately described by Nasir Kazmi in an unforgettable couplet:

(O city of Lahore, may your liveliness perpetuate forever/ The breeze of your streets allured me to be settled here.)

Once Urdu poets used to adore the captivating splendour of rivers of Narbada, Ganges and Gomati, but in the 20th century Urdu poetry the river Ravi starts appearing as a much-loved river. Allam Iqbal wrote a splendid poem, titled Kinar-e-Ravi (on the bank of Ravi). Standing on a bank of Ravi, Iqbal comes to realise that silent rhythm of river is mysteriously connected to the songs human heart sing in loneliness. In this poem, river Ravi emerges on one side as a guardian of Lahore and on the other symbolises eternity. In a way Iqbal seems to be suggesting the eternity of enchantment of Lahore too.

Lost in its own silent rhythm, the Ravi sings its song.

In its undulating flow I see the reflections in my heart—

The willows, the world, in worship of God Life flows on this river of eternity Man is not born this way; doesn’t perish this way Undefeated, life slips beyond the horizon,

But does not end there.

(Translated by Parizad. N Sidhwa)

Allama Iqbal’s poem is inundated with deep philosophical reflection, while Hafeez Jalandhari in his poem Taoba Nama (Of Repentance) illustrates the mundane yet captivating beauty of the Ravi. Interestingly, both poets have sought to capture the elusive scenic elegance of Lahore’s evening on the shore of Ravi.

(Alas, the Ravi we come across in Iqbal’s and Hafeez’ poem exists no more. It has metamorphosed into a small dirty watercourse.)

In search of beauty, an ultimate purpose of things and their destiny, poet’s imagination keeps strolling in the mysterious world of past, present and future. Sometimes it contrasts past with present and vice versa. Writing on Lahore Urdu poets have contrasted its yore of past with the despondency that engulfs it in present moment.

Majeed Amjad also mentions Ravi in his famous poem Maqbara-e-Jahangir (Tomb of Jahangir). Its tone is melancholic. It describes morosely the indifference visitors of the tomb show towards the maker of history. Jahangir added a lot to the splendour of Lahore by embellishing the fort standing on eastern shore of Ravi and loved to be buried on the western bank of the river near the eternal abode of his beloved Nur Jahan, but Majeed Amjid’s poem makes us feel how desolately casement of tomb oversees the barren Ravi and how modern, developed Lahore has eclipsed its past glories.

The same melancholy seems to be embedded in Tilok Chand Mahroom’s Nur Jahan Ka Mazaar (Tomb of Nur Jahan).

Cities are like human psyche; both have brighter and darker sides. Where Urdu poets have vehemently portrayed the allures, bustles, dazzles and radiance of cultural life of Lahore, they have revealed the murky aspects of their beloved city too. Shohrat Bokhari says:

(Once Lahore used to be heart of lovers;/ it has now become like the city of Kufa.)

The same theme is reproduced, though in more emphatic yet simple way, by Saif Zulfi.

(Lahore has become a weird city. It grows close to Kufa.)

Kufa is a symbol of treachery and treason in Islamic history. Lahore’s glories, liveliness, bustle, opportunities tempt people to come over here but its aggressively competitive environment disappoints many. They vent out their disappointment by declaring Lahore as Kufa.

Religious fanatics have more than once hit Lahore, ruining its plural, tolerant culture. In this context Shoaib Bin Aziz prays:

(O my Lord! may your Mecca keep thriving, / have a glance on my Lahore also)

Ali Sardar Jafri, the Indian progressive Urdu poet, wrote also unforgettable lines describing Lahore as a messenger of piece. In his poem Dosti ka Haath (hand of friendship), he states that if fragrance of the gardens of Lahore and the shining morning of Banaras are brought together, they can end the enmity between Pakistan and India.

(The writer is a critic and short story writer of Urdu.)