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The monarchs of poetry, the poetry of monarchs: Zafar and Akhtar
Sunday November 16, 2014 10:19 AM, Vikas Datta, IANS

Nature, or maybe mysterious fate has a way of evening out things. Take these two hapless monarchs, nearly contemporaries, who had the misfortune of being at the helm when political and social conditions were loaded against them, their power and dominions were being steadily encroached upon by a rising colonial power, they were powerless against the ignominy of seeing accomplishments of their illustrious forebears come to naught and their eventual fate was dethronement and a death in exile. But still, Badshah Mirza Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Muhammad Bahadur Shah 'Zafar', the last of the Mughals, and Nawab Abul Mansoor Mirza Muhammed Wajid Ali Shah 'Akhtar', the last ruler of Avadh, do not languish in obscurity but have become immortal for their literary accomplishments.

While Zafar (1775-1862) is renowned for his melancholy-tinged ghazals, which are imbued with a sense of despair even when he is writing about love, Wajid Ali Shah (1822-87) was an all-round aesthete, leaving his mark not only on poetry, but music (especially thumris), dance (mainly kathak) and drama, including the first-ever Urdu play ("Indar Sabha") which freely drew on and synthesised the Hindu mythological tradition and the stock devices of the dastaans.

Both had the fortune of presiding over a time when the Urdu language was coming into its own. Zafar's own era could boast of the greatest names of Urdu poetry. Besides his own illustrious poetic preceptor, Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim 'Zauq', there was the predominant Mirza Assadullah Khan 'Ghalib', the debonair Hakim Momin Khan 'Momin', Mufti Sadruddin Khan 'Azurda', Mir Mehdi 'Majruh', Lala Balmukand 'Johar' and so many others. Wajid Ali Shah's court was no less but there poets also had to contend with musicians, dancers and actors.

Zafar was no mean poet himself. Some of his ghazals have become classics - especially due to their soulful rendition by masters like Mehdi Hasan like the plaintive complaint of an overawed lover: "Baat karni mujhe mushkil kabhi aisi to na thi/Jaisi ab hai teri mahfil kabhi aisi to na thi" and/or being featured in old classic films like "Mirza Ghalib" or "Lal Qila" or the TV serial on Mirza Ghalib.

There is his oft quoted couplet, which served as his epitaph after his death in far-off Rangoon: "Kitana hai badnaseeb 'Zafar' dafn ke liye/Do gaz zameen bhi na mili kuu-e-yaar mein". But this can be better appreciated as a culmination of the ghazal of which it is the 'maqta' (end couplet). It goes: "Lagta nahi hai ji meraa ujde dayaar mein/Kis ki bani hai aalam-e-naa-payedaar mein (I don't find myself content in this despoiled land/Who is the one who has managed to be successful in an unfriendly world?)"

It is difficult not to be moved by the pathos it evokes, especially when he mourns: "Keh do in hasraton se kahin aur jaa basen/Itni jagah kahan hai dil-e-dagdaar mein (Tell these desires to go and nest somewhere else/There is no space in this mottled heart)".

And then: "Umr-e-daraaz maang kar laaye the chaar din/Do arzoo mein kat gaye do intezaar mein (We had sought a long life - of four days/Two passed in admiration and two in wait)."

There is the Badshah's bittersweet recrimination at his lot in life in another ghazal. "Ya mujhe afsar-e-shaha na banaya hota/Ya mera taj gadaya na banaya hota (Either You should have not imbued me with royal stature/Or else You should not have made my crown that of a beggar's)."

The last Nawab of Avadh was no less brilliant in penning lyrics. One of his thumri compositions, "Babul mora naihar chhooto jaaye", has become a classic of Indian culture, after its rendition by the celebrated K.L. Saigal in the film "Street Singer".

But he was equally adept in ghazals, which are more playful and even sensual in nature than of his titular overlord. Take "Garmiyan shokhiyaan kis shaan se ham dekhte hai/Kya hi nadaaniyan nadaan se ham dekhte hai" or "Suna hai kuch to un ka par is ko kya kahiye/Zabaan-e-khalq ko naqqara-e-Khuda kahiye" or even "'Akhtar' qalaam-e-fikr ke bhi ashk hai jaari/Kya haal likhun apne dil-e-zaar-o-hazin ka".

But then, the glittering era came to end with a rapacious British eager to grab the rich province for themselves, and eventually Wajid Ali Shah had to bid farewell to his dominions, his fairytale city and loyal subjects with "Dar-o-deewar pe hasrat se nazar karte hai/Khush raho ahl-e-vatan ham to safar karte hai."

Of the two, it is Zafar who has proved to be a more enduring poet, especially with insightful observations like "Na thi haal ki jab hame apni khabar, rahe dekhte auron ke aib-o-hunar/Padhi apni buraiyon pe jo nazar, to nigaah mein koi bura na raha".

And "Zafar aadmi us ko na jaaniyega ho voh kaisa hi sahib-e-fahm-o-zaka/Jise aish mein yaad-e-Khuda na rahi, jise taish mein khauf-e-Khuda na raha".

As a rule of thumb for discerning people, this gentle admonition can scarcely be bettered!

(Vikas Datta is a Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at


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