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February 03, 2019


An image of Daagh Dehlvi pasted to a mirror in a Delhi barbershop. Daagh was born in Chandni Chowk, one of the oldest markets in the city. Much of his life was spent in the cities of Delhi and Rampur. However, as patronage for poets in Delhi declined, he moved to Hyderabad at the age of 59 and died there 15 years later | Photo from the book
An image of Daagh Dehlvi pasted to a mirror in a Delhi barbershop. Daagh was born in Chandni Chowk, one of the oldest markets in the city. Much of his life was spent in the cities of Delhi and Rampur. However, as patronage for poets in Delhi declined, he moved to Hyderabad at the age of 59 and died there 15 years later | Photo from the book

Delhi is matchless in many ways. For one thing, you can’t think of any other city in the subcontinent that has inspired so many books. However, the latest, Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets written by Saif Mahmood, is unique in the sense that the city’s history — during and immediately after the Mughal period — is narrated through the lives and works of classical Urdu poets.

Mahmood, a barrister and aficionado of Urdu poetry, selects eight poets whose roots were entrenched in Delhi even when they were forced to move to other cities — Hyderabad, Lucknow, Rampur and, in one extremely tragic case, Rangoon. Wherever they went, though, ‘Dilli’ was where their hearts were ensconced.

The senior-most of these great eight, Mirza Mohammad Rafi Sauda, was the Malik-ul-Shoara [Poet Laureate] at the Mughal court and, according to the author of the book, had the opportunity to see the reign of 10 rulers. This makes it seem as though Sauda lived a long life, but the fact was that some of these ascendants to the throne reigned for not more than a few months. Hence I refrain from using the word ‘emperors’ for after Aurangzeb, those who came to power were too weak to be referred to as anything other than ‘rulers’.

History through eight classical Urdu poets whose hearts remained ensconced in ‘Dilli’ even when they were forced to move to other cities

Sauda witnessed some of the most devastating times in Delhi’s history. One, when the invading Persian king Nadir Shah unleashed carnage on the city. This spree of destruction lasted until the reigning Mughal, Mohammad Shah Rangeela — who was concerned more with poetry, music and dance than the affairs of state — accepted defeat and handed the invader jewels from the royal treasury, including the Kohinoor diamond and the Takht-i-Taoos [Peacock Throne]. Then there was the siege of the city by the Marathas. When Shah’s successor Ahmed Shah Abdali invaded Delhi, he let loose another long spell of plunder. “This, then, was the climate in which Sauda matured as a poet,” asserts Mahmood.

While Delhi was being plundered, the second of the first three great poets, Khwaja Mir Dard — sandwiched between Sauda and Mir Taqi Mir — was living as a dervish in a Sufi monastery, which is perhaps why critics tend to brand him as a Sufi poet even though his verses were studded with romance and sensuality. He spread the message of love and brotherhood through his works. Dard was quite affluent, which was why he didn’t visit any court or pen the panegyric poetry known as qaseeda to which even Mir and Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib had to resort to, though at times their sense of self-respect forced them to retrace their steps. Dard’s fascination for music led him to believe in and practise samaa [trance] as a symbol of dedication in the Sufi style.

Dard’s contemporary, merely a year junior, was Mir, whose greatness was acknowledged by Ghalib, who said Mir’s poetry was no less lovely than the beauty of Kashmir: “Jis ka divan kum uz gulshan-i-Kashmir nahin.” Mir was born in Agra and spent his early life paying off the debts of his father. He left for Delhi when he was not yet a teenager. The strength of his verse lay in his use of simple Urdu (or Rekhta, as it was called). Mahmood quotes the well-known Pakistani critic Jameel Jalibi who insisted that Mir “brought the Urdu language out of the royal court and made it stand on the staircase of Jamia Masjid.” Like Ghalib and Dagh Dehlvi, Mir remains a favourite with singing stalwarts. Proof, if proof be needed, is evident in the poems given at the end of the chapter. From Begum Akhtar to Iqbal Bano to Mehdi Hasan and Lata Mangeshkar, many great singers, not to speak of second-rate vocalists, have lent their voices to Mir’s invaluable verses.

When Mir passed away in 1810 in Lucknow, where he had gone in search of greener pastures, his most illustrious successor, Ghalib, was only 17 years old. However, Ghalib soon came to tower above his contemporaries and was destined to appear as a colossal figure among all Urdu poets of the subcontinent. In his chapter on Ghalib, Mahmood also eulogises the poet’s contribution to language and styles of correspondence. A sizeable part of Beloved Delhi is quite rightly devoted to Chacha Ghalib, as he was, and still is, called.

Ghalib’s contemporary, Momin Khan Momin, whose poems were garbed in simple language, portrayed high thinking. Paying him tribute, Ghalib said he would be more than happy to barter his entire divan [collection of verse] for Momin’s one couplet: “Tum mere paas hotey ho goya/ Jab koi doosra nahi hota.” Mahmood rightly points out how the strength and beauty of the two-liner defy translation, although a literal conversion to English would read, ‘You are with me/ When there is no one else’.

The occasional impishness of Momin’s poetry is best reflected in this one couplet: “Kya jaane kya likha that usay izterab mein/ Qasid ki laash aayi hai khat ke jawaab mein” [God knows what I wrote to her in my restless state/ In reply, she has sent me the poor messenger’s dead body].

The next poet Mahmood writes of is Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal ruler and in this chapter, the author brings to light the controversy created by the 20th century poet Jan Nisar Akhtar who claimed that Zafar’s well-known ghazal ‘Na Kisi Ki Aankh Ka Noor Hoon, Na Kisi Ke Dil Ka Qarar Hoon [I am neither the light of anyone’s eyes, nor the solace of anyone’s heart] was written by Akhtar’s father, Muztar Khairabadi. This ghazal has been sung by many singers, which is true of some of Zafar’s other ghazals too.

Arguably, Zafar’s most pathos-laden ghazal was written during his last days in Rangoon, where he was banished by the colonial powers: ‘Lagta Nahin Hai Jee Mera Ujjre Diyar Mein’ [My mind is not at rest in this ruined place]. When he warbles “Do gaz zameen bhi na mili koo-i-yaar mein”, Zafar laments that he is deprived of even limited space for burial. This is when Zafar pines for Delhi most intensely.

The next chapter is on Shaikh Muhammad Ibrahim Zauq, Poet Laureate and mentor of Zafar. Zauq was jealous of Ghalib’s stature and did not leave any opportunity to cast aspersions on the great poet who was destined to be Zafar’s ustad and be appointed as Poet Laureate. Zauq was lucky to have died three years before Delhi fell victim to devastation. Dagh Dehlvi, the most quotable Urdu poet of the era after Ghalib, is the subject of yet another readable chapter.

Mahmood traces the lanes of old Delhi where these poets lived; these lanes have been photographed imaginatively by Anant Raina, and so is the case with the image of Jamia Masjid captured by Subinoy Das.

In conclusion, one is tempted to quote from the Foreword where leading literary critic and historian Rakhshanda Jalil opines, “A book such as this was waiting to be written.”

The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities

Beloved Delhi: A
Mughal City and Her
Greatest Poets
By Saif Mahmood
Speaking Tiger, India
ISBN: 978-9388070546

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 3rd, 2019