Mushaira: Poetry, tradition & literary legacy

A fading symposium of Urdu poetry recitation


May 8, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Mushaira: Poetry, tradition & literary legacy

A mushaira being held at Jash-e Rekhta, annual event by Rekhta foundation, in Delhi (Image Credits: Rekhta Foundation)

Once extremely popular among elite classes, mushaira, a traditional way of Urdu poetry recitation, is losing its essence in India due to simplification, commercialisation and digitalisation of the artform.

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Ghar se masjid hai bahut door, chalo yun kar lein ki ek rote hue bachche ko hasaya jaye,” (Mosque is too far from home to offer prayers, instead, let’s make a crying child smile today), was written by late Uqtida Hasan Nida Fazli, popularly known as just ‘Nida Fazli’, a prominent Hindi and Urdu poet.

“This particular couplet is more relevant than ever today. In this pandemic time, staying home, not gathering and helping the needy is the best way to seek God’s blessings,” says Ali Khan Mehnudabad, a 40-year-old Urdu poet & singer from Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow. For him, Fazli, was the last thread that kept India tied to mushaira. He says he often recites the mentioned lines during his poetry sessions and asks his audiences to keep sabr (patience).

For Mehnudabad, a mushaira, an event where poets gather and recite Urdu poetry, is more than an occasion. He says he has grown up watching, listening to and following poets at mushairas which, he feels, is different from all other kinds of poetry events.

“I have always been fascinated with the way shayar (poets who write and recite Urdu poetry) performs. They mesmerise thousands who sit among the audience. The special thing about mushairas is that it is not an ordinary poetry event. There is a special kind of decoration, arrangement for performers to sit on floor, special musical instruments and many more things that are required to perform. One cannot just go and recite anything in the name of mushaira,” he explains.

Mushairas were also meant for an elite class of audiences, only those who could understand Urdu alfaaz (words) and andaaz (style). “Poets unlike these day, never used to explain what they meant through a particular couplet. It was for the audience to decipher and understand. Often, a single sentence had more than one meaning, and that was the beauty of mushairas in the past,” he adds. For example, he says that baet was used instead of ghar (home) or bazm was used instead of bheed (crowd).

Urdu poetry, after the 1980s, started becoming simpler. Mushairas reached common people and a new modernised form became popular. “While mushairas were meant to be in Urdu, but as it reached more and more people in India, poets began simplifying their language. They started using more commonly used terms so that it would reach more people,” says Mohammad Zafar, a 42-year-old shayar from Delhi. He says that while this made mushiaras more popular, the essence or purity of language faded away.

Mehnudabad agrees with Zafar and says that he feels mushairas have lost their sheen and Urdu poetry has lost its charm due to simplification of the language and half-baked knowledge of poetry among youngsters. “Mushairas are not the same anymore. In order to attract more audience, young Urdu poets have simplified the language too much. They mostly speak commonly-used Hindi words. More than preserving this culture, they wish to make a name for themselves quickly in the world of Urdu poetry,” he adds.

Both Mehnudabad and Zafar have been writing and reciting Urdu poetries for about two decades now but have struggled to find a loyal audience. “I have been writing and reciting Urdu poetries for 20 years, since I was in college. At least I had an audience back then, in the early 2000s, but as time passed, the number of people that appreciate Urdu has only decreased day by day,” says Zafar.

He goes on to say that unlike before, they are not given enough respect and do not receive appreciation from audiences. “Twenty years ago, people would never dare to interrupt a shayar or make noise or move in during a recitation, but now, most people are busy on their phone screens while we recite our work. They even interrupt us and sometimes start moving during a recitation that distracts us,” he explains.

As the poets complain of the fading mushaira culture in India, Rekhta Foundation, a Delhi based organisation has been working actively with the objective of promoting and disseminating Urdu literature, especially Urdu poetry to an audience beyond those conversant with the Urdu script. Rekhta also organises annual literary festivals, of which, mushairas are an important part.

One of the Rekhta members says that not just the audience of mushairas, but also the poets themselves have changed. He says that earlier, poets and musicians used to arrive at the venue an hour or two ago. They used to do a final riyaaz (practice) before the show and then only they performed. They would also go beyond the fixed time of the event according to the demand of the audience. “Nobody complained about the timings. Performers stayed, musicians stayed, organisers stayed and audience used to keep sitting, out of respect. These days, most poets do not cross the time limit and do not worry about how the audience responds or what their demand is as long as they get paid on time,” he adds.

Earlier some of the performers would demand for a specific attar (perfume) to be sprinkled through the hall, he says. “Shayars had their own demands. Before the show, they would call for a specific fragrance, special kinds of flowers and sometimes even made the organisers change the seating arrangements in the auditorium. And we happily did it, it was all worth it,” he adds.

However, he says those days are gone and especially due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, there have been no live shows for almost a year now. He hopes for a few young Urdu poets to bring back the golden days of mushairas. “We can only become a helpful tool in preserving this culture. It actually depends on the poets and audience ultimately. But I hope that we will soon see some shayars whose first priority is not shohrat (fame) but shayari (poetry),” he says.



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