INTELLECTUAL snobbery has always been an integral part of Urdu’s literary psyche. Standards set by highbrows would not accept any writer or poet who did not write of an imaginary world and in an ornate style, especially the ones who portrayed common lives or wrote for common people.
Nazeer Akberabadi (1735-1830), a great poet of Urdu, committed all literary sins of his day at the same time: he wrote of common people, for common people and that too in a parlance spoken and understood by common people. Hence, he was either ignored by critics and literary historians or was referred to rather disparagingly. For instance, Mustafa Khan Shaifta in his Gulshan-i-Bekhaar, a tazkira in Persian published in 1252 Hijri/1836-7 AD, wrote that Nazeer’s couplets are recited by “vulgar people”. He was indirectly referring to Nazeer’s lewd verses that were popular among common people, which angered Qutbuddin Baatin, a disciple of Nazeer’s and he penned Gulistan-i-Bekhizaan, severely criticising poets from Delhi and praising poets from Agra, especially Nazeer.
Muhammad Husain Azad in Aab-i-Hayat (1880) praised Nazeer in a tongue-in-cheek style, actually deriding those who compared Nazeer with Mir Taqi Mir. Though Altaf Husain Hali appreciated Nazeer, it was not without reservations. Hali wrote that Nazeer Akberabadi has used a vocabulary larger than Anees’s, but unlike Anees, Nazeer is not considered an authority by some ahl-i-zaban (native speakers) as far as the use of words and idioms is concerned.
But S. W. Fallon (1817-1880) an orientalist and lexicographer recognised Nazeer’s poetic genius. His A New Hindustani-English Dictionary (1879) is among a few early authentic Urdu-English dictionaries. One of the reasons for appreciating Nazeer was that Fallon was looking for words, phrases, idioms and proverbs from the dialects of Urdu as well as standard language to make his dictionary more inclusive and comprehensive. His sources included even folklore, rustic songs, swear words, curses, riddles, lewd phrases, colloquial expressions and vocabulary used by people in street. Local varieties of flora and fauna and local rites and festivities too were under scope of his work, making it a treasure trove of cultural heritage.
Fallon found in Nazeer’s poetry many of the ingredients he was looking for. Thus he wrote in his preface: “In the written literature [of Urdu] by far the largest number of extracts have been made form Nazir, the only true Hindustani poet according to European standard of true poetry and the poet whom native word-worship will not allow to be a poet at all”. What Fallon stressed in his preface was the fact that Nazeer was the poet of people and wrote their language, the real language, something Fallon was fond of. As he writes: “Nazir is the only poet whose verses have made their way to the people. His verses are recited and sung in every street and lane, especially in his native town of Agra; and missionaries who are familiar with his poems, quote him and Kabir with marked effect in their preaching.”
Why would a Christian missionary preaching in the streets of colonial India in 19th century quote Nazir and Kabir? Keep in mind that the majority of audience in the street belonged to other faiths such as Islam and Hinduism. The answer: Nazir was basically a Sufi and believed in humanity above all. Kabir (1398-1518) was the Sufi-like sage poet of Urdu/ Hindi exhorting humanity and humbleness. Also, they both used the language common people spoke, so it was far more effective to communicate using popular poetry of Nazeer and Kabir. Dictionary-making too requires such traits.
On the other hand, Ameer Meenai (1829-1900), a poet and lexicographer of Urdu, wrote — in a letter to a scholar while discussing illustrative citations reproduced in dictionary — that “Nazeer Akberabadi’s poetry was not useful, even for a single word”. This shows the attitude of the elitist intellectuals of Urdu even after publication of Fallon’s dictionary. In fact, Nazeer’s poetry can serve as a great source of Urdu words rarely found in dictionaries.
Luckily, some critics and progressive writers re-evaluated Nazeer’s works and said he was a true poet. Faiz Ahmed Faiz in his Meezaan (1965), a collection of critical essays, wrote that Nazeer was different in that he preached the importance of temporal while Sufis and poets of Urdu had always stressed the spiritual and moral values. Nazeer’s topics are concerned with everyday life and he narrates them in everyday parlance. Thirdly, adds Faiz, unlike some great poets of Urdu, Nazeer is not pessimistic since he sings of common people who have never given in despite their harsh lives.
Nazeer Akberabadi was a great poet of Urdu who was ultimately recognised as a maestro, albeit a bit too late. Thomas William Beale in his Miftah-ut-Tawarikh (1872), a Persian work recording historical events and dates of birth and death, has mentioned that Nazeer Akberabadi died on Aug 16, 1830, and was buried at Agra, a town where people adored him.
Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2023