The Incomparable Festival
By Mir Ali Yar “Jan Sahib”
Translated by Shad Naveed
Edited and with an Introduction by Razak Khan
Penguin Random House, India
ISBN: 978-0670093823
95pp.

The princely state of Rampur was known as a centre of literature, music and the arts in undivided India. Its rich heritage emerges with great clarity in The Incomparable Festival by Mir Ali Yar, who wrote under the takhallus [pen name] ‘Jan Sahib’.

Translated from Urdu into English by Shad Naveed and edited by Razak Khan, this spectacular 19th century poem provides important insights into South Asia’s cultural and literary history, through its celebration of Rampur’s fabled six-day festival called Jashn-i-Benazir.

This annual festival was initiated in 1866 by Rampur’s Nawab Kalb-i-Ali Khan to promote trade, literature and the arts and was immortalised in Jan Sahib’s long mussaddas [a poem built of six hemistitch stanzas] which he wrote circa 1867-68 with the title ‘Mussaddas Thaniyaat-i-Jashn-i-Benazir’.

The English translation begins with an informed introduction by Dr Razak Khan, author of Minority Pasts: Locality, Emotions and Belonging in Princely Rampur. Khan refers to Jan Sahib’s poem as a “quintessential text” that evokes the “literary centrality” of princely Rampur and has great historical significance because it is written in Rekhti, a “genre of poetry in Urdu from late mediaeval northern India” that was written by men, in the language of women.

A translation into English of a spectacular 19th century poem provides important insights in South Asia’s cultural and literary history

Jan Sahib (1818-86) fled Lucknow after the devastation of the 1857 ghadar [rebellion] and settled in Rampur, whose nawab became his patron. Many other writers and performers from post-1857 Lucknow and Delhi received a similar welcome, including such eminent figures as poets Daagh Dehlvi and Ameer Minai, daastaangoh Hakim Asghar Ali and others who feature in The Incomparable Festival. The nawab’s support to a famous Rekhti poet also meant that the “dying art was preserved through the nascent print culture and the Rampur library.”

Khan refers to Jan Sahib as one of the two leading writers of Rekhti, but says that his oeuvre expanded Rekhti from “women’s domestic speech describing their habitats and sentiments” by his inclusion of many other aspects of life. As such, The Incomparable Festival “blurs the genre boundaries between poetry and fiction, history and life history by versifying details about elite personages, distinguished artists, commoners and subalterns grouped together in the carnivalesque space of the royal festival.”

The poem “acquires partly the features of the life-writing genre, or tazkira, in which [Jan Sahib] describes the qualities of male, female and transvestite performers, entertainers, musicians, dancers.” In turn, this “transplants culture beyond the princely court in the bazaar that sprang around the royal celebration (jashn).” Khan also notes that the “latter space was increasingly criticised by the emergent middle-class reformist print culture in colonial India.”

With his thought-provoking analysis on Rekhti as a literary form and its significance and place in Urdu poetry, Khan sets out to rectify the elisions which have led to Rekhti being regarded as an inferior genre. He comments on Rekhti’s ability to “map hybridity of space, speech and subjectivity” and raise important questions on caste, class, gender and the “histories of patronage and integration.”

He also points out the different poetic styles and influences that have shaped The Incomparable Festival, which is “positioned as an ode (qasida)” to Jan Sahib’s patron, Nawab Kalb-i-Ali Khan. In keeping with the conventional Rekhti form, “the overt tone is of a lower class woman speaker addressing an older woman” — “buwa” translated into English as “aunty”.

The poem’s narrator speaks of the moonlight, the nightingale and the scenic garden as crowds gather and illustrious craftsmen from England, Kashmir and the world over display their artistry. All this is built into praise for his highness at the royal palace. The royal court has a finely decorated new mansion, too, “Where only the English sahibs for breakfast are ever invited” and the joys of the festival are such that “all of London’s parks and mansions no longer do they miss!”

Praises for the festival, its joys and blessings are welded into felicitations addressed to the Nawab of Rampur, who is compared to Solomon, Jamshed and Hercules. There are separate pavilions where writers, calligraphers and performers present their genres. The revellers are dressed in their finest, in raiment of silk and ornaments of gold:

The canopies, marquees and tents cannot be counted
Dew-catchers and a thousand pavilions in thousands are erected.

“Ladies-in-veils” sit in screened tents, but the narrator inhabits the open space of the festival, as do many of the other women she describes.

Metaphorical references to tulips, jasmine, hyacinths, lilies and marigolds are built in, as are promises of spring and celebrations of the Parsi festival of Nauroz and the Hindu festival of Holi. The sights and sounds of bubbling fountains, mongoose-and-snake fights, dancing bears, performing monkeys, puppeteers, tabla players, women jugglers and boys and girls dancing are judiciously welded in, as are descriptions of the market itself, whose stalls offer up sweetmeats, freshly made food, exquisite jewellery, embroidery, rare brocades and muslins and damasks and much more.

Razak Khan comments on the “mixing of styles and social distinctions” in Rekhti that raise “questions of class and labour which are central to Jan Sahib’s ethnographic lens” and draws attention to Jan Sahib’s portrayal of marginalised caste-and-occupational groups:

Scrubbed and clean the sweepresses from the locality make an entry
Should anyone accost them they reply ‘Do not even try!’
They walk on display, balancing their toes, very spry

Khan points out that, within the festival, the presence of sweeper women “is defined not just by their caste occupation, but also by a resistance that goes with their emergence in that space.” The colonial state’s assertion of sharp social divisions are subverted by Jan Sahib’s portrayal of “caste hierarchies in the shared space of the market and its music”:

Washerman, butcher and water-bearer in Awadhi are singing
While their epic Aalha the Rajputs are reciting
On one side the drummers their tambourines are beating
The lowest of the low, butchers and grocers are they entertaining

The sound of the tabla, the musical scale, the voices of the women rise to the skies and put the cuckoo and nightingale to shame. Only the best musicians are employed by the Nawab. The name of each is accompanied by a poetic description of their skill, whether they sing khayaal, dhrupad or qawwali, or whether they are masters of the sarangi, sitar, shehnaai or rabaab, or tabla, or pakhawaj.

All this is interwoven with the wonder of the female performers — dancers, singers and wealthy independent courtesans — who are also named and extolled. There are vivid descriptions of brilliant boy-dancers, too. Jan Sahib’s portrayal of women performers “allows us to map the complex and changing landscape of courtesans in the post-1857 period” — an era that saw traditional structures of patronage be undermined by a changing political economy that sharpened caste hierarchies.

There is praise for writers and storytellers:

Famous among the poets is Munshi Ameer
Whose teacher is Munshi Muzaffar Ali Asheer
Jalal and Zaki are poets without a peer
All four are the sun, all four complete the lunar sphere
His highness holds this quartet in very high esteem
As they write verses and odes in a steady stream

Nawab Mirza Khan, best known by his takhallus Daagh, is well known for his association with Rampur’s court and is duly praised:

Nawab Mirza is among the poets from Delhi
An enlightened mind, an ornament of light, aunty!
He uses the pseudonym ‘the scar’ in his ghazals
At the poets’ assembling, he is the shining lamp, veritable

Razak Khan gives considerable space to the portrayal of storytellers, poets and the different poetic forms that enable Jan Sahib to “elaborate on the speech and subjectivities present at the festival.” He refers to Jan Sahib’s portrayal of such famous daastaangohs as Hakim Ali Asghar Khan, who “contributed immensely to the preservation of the daastaan-telling tradition in Rampur, including Daastaan Tilism-i-Hoshruba and qissas [such as] Qissa Roshan Jamal.”

Descriptions of matchless marsiyagoh [elegists] and sozkhwaan [reciters of dirges] lead up to Jan Sahib himself. His name is incorporated in the very last stanza, which showers blessings upon his patron and culminates thus:

By God, this has been an excellent festive assembly
O ‘Jan’, what power do you have to write its eulogy?
A million events remain, which could not be versified
Those themes, despite everything, remain unversified

A befitting ending to a fascinating work of great historical significance that captures Jan Sahib’s skilled use of Rekhti and recreates a distant world little known today.

The reviewer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 7th, 2023

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