Rampur's Urdu Poetry Is About Power cuts, Sensuality and Quirky Nawabs

In this conservative town, poets explore romance, sexuality, prevalent orthodoxy and exploitation by erstwhile nawabs through humour.

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14 January 2019, 7:40am

In UP's Rampur, poets explore romance, sexuality, prevalent orthodoxy and exploitation by erstwhile nawabs through humour.

In 2006, Ahadullah Khan received a parcel from one of the country’s largest recording companies Venus. It held six cassettes and a cheque of Rs 2,000. His joy knew no bounds when he learnt his poem Tapte Sehra had been made into a song and included in an album by Bollywood singer Altaf Raja. “I had once met the singer and gifted him a book of my poems. It came as a shock, albeit a good one,” says Khan, sitting behind a stack of old Urdu books, at his wooden desk in Raza Library, an erstwhile nawab’s court that’s now been turned into a large repository of Urdu literature in Uttar Pradesh’s Rampur.

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Ahadullah Khan outside the Raza library.

He proceeds to recite his poetry, inspired by the popular Hindi song in the classic film Silsila.

Kabhi kabhi mere dil me khyal aata hai
Gar mere haathon me lage hote par
Main udke kisi roz unke ghar jata
Jo dil me gubaar tha, wo shayad chant jata
Pata ke dekha to hota mujhe, main pat jata
Hamare rehne ka hota, alag andaaz
Hawa me chalte train, sadak pe chalte jahaz”

(Often a thought comes to my mind/heart
If there were wings attached to my hand
Some day, I would go flying to her home
The Dust on my heart would go away
Had you tried, I would've been wooed
We might have lived in a different world
There’d be trains in skies, and ships on roads)

Khan’s poetry evokes the disappointment of not being able to share his shayari (poetry) with a larger audience. According to him, his lack of audience is largely due to the popularity of fakkadbazi (vulgarity) in the name of humour poetry. Khan is 57 and set to retire from his position as a library attendant. He is a reluctant poet of miza or mazahiya shayari in a town that has been traditionally associated with this dying craft. It’s a particular form of verse where the poets write nuanced and humorous (often raunchy) rhymes. It’s unusual for this conservative, Muslim-majority town, especially with themes often exploring issues like sexuality, the uglier aspects of traditional society, exploitation by once-ruling nawabs, as well as everyday issues faced by the common man.

The purpose of a comic poet is to make the audience forget their pain, “warna duniya toi gham se bhari hai (otherwise the world is too full of sorrow),” says Khan. His pseudonym is Azar Nomani, inspired from Prophet Ibrahim’s grandfather, who was a sculptor and an idol worshipper—something very much frowned upon in Islam. “When people raise questions, I tell them even poetry is a kind of sangatarashi (sculpting).”

One of Khan’s poem Bijlinama talks about the aftermath of a power outage (regular in these parts of the country) on people's lives. “I wanted to write how electricity has begun to govern people’s happiness,” he says, proceeding to recite his shayari.

Jidhar bhi dekhiye, phaili hui udasi hai
Nahi hai bijli to, har cheez badmaza si hai
Na laddoon me maza hai, na barfiyon me maza,
Na kurbaton me maza hai, na doorion me maza
Nahi hai bijli to ho gaye hain saare food kharab,
Ghar me puhunche to hai aheliya ka mood kharab

(Wherever you see, sadness engulfs the air
When there is no power, everything is tasteless
The taste has gone out of ladoos and barfis
Nor is there fun in affections, neither in there longing
With no electricity, all the foods are rotten
On reaching home, the beloved’s mood is of desolation)

Azhar Inayati is arguably the most respected contemporary Urdu poet in Rampur, and is a disciple of the legendary Mahshar Inayati, one of the most prominent poets who represents Rampur's style of poetry. He is regularly invited for events in the US, UK, UAE and other countries with large Indian populations, as well as national festivals like Jashn-e-Rekhta. He’s also a popular Youtuber and easily noticeable in Rampur scooting around on an old Vespa. When we met him at his home, he was busy with the wedding of a relative.

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Azhar Inayati is arguably the most respected contemporary Urdu poet of Rampur.

“Urdu poetry came to Rampur along with the first nawabs. It was started by a court poet Qayam Chanopuri. It later emerged as the third biggest school of poetry in India with stalwarts like Hilal Rizvi, Ustad Rampuri, Betuk Rampuri, Shad Arfi, etc leading the movement,” says Inayati, as he sits with us after wrapping up his zuhr (afternoon) prayers. “Though it flourished under the nawab's tutelage, it didn’t stop poets from taking digs at the nawabs themselves and their sycophants.” He gives us an example.

Unke matdar zamane me, jaise kutte kasaiqaane me,
kyunki aalishaan kasshane me hai,
isliye jhak marna bhi unke farmane me hai

(Their fans are like dogs, standing outside the slaughterhouse
And because they have luxurious homes
The Wastage of time is also in their mandate)

According to Inayati, the role of a poet is to use the the words as an instrument to bring about reformation in society, through satire and reflection. “You are an artist moulding words in the shape of a poem,” he adds, before parting with one of his verses about the predicament of a poet:

Khudkhushi ke liye thoda sa kaafi hai magar
Zinda rehne ke liye zyada zeher piya jata hai

(A little is enough to take away your life
One has to drink more poison to survive)

Shah Fazilat, 65, is master of tanz (satire), exploring the medium in several books, articles and poetry he’s written over the years. He has served as the editor of a monthly Urdu magazine Beesvi Sadi, and has written scripts for Doordarshan, Balaji Telefilms, and worked with Bollywood personalities like Farooq Sheikh and Saira Bano. His novel Uyi Allah was adapted into a comedy series for Doordarshan. Enjoying a quiet life in the PWD colony of Rampur, he uses his play of words to critique problems amongst the Muslim clergy along with the clout of moulvis (Muslim doctors of law).

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Shah Fazilat is master of tanz (satire), exploring the medium in his several books, articles and poetry.

“I recently wrote a satire on the misuse of loudspeakers during Ramadan in a local Urdu paper. 10-12 mulle peeche pad gaye mere (many mullahs took offence),” says Fazilat, while showing off a row of trophies stacked against his wall. He recently wrote a satire on the increase of service tax. In it, a man is amused by people around him charging a tax for every possible service or help, however inconsequential. It ends when he comes home, takes his wife’s hand in his, and she demands a tax for expressing love. “When I tell her that I just bought her three [salwar] suits last month, she replies that that was before the tax came into effect.”

Fazilat thinks Rampur is a place where almost everyone has a subtle sense of humour, and poetry isn’t something restricted by class. “It’s said that if you say a sher (couplet), don’t be surprised if a beggar completes it.” He feels satire is poisonous—it cleans society through shock. “I believe only those who have seen sadness in their lives have the capacity to make others laugh.”

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The Raza library used to be a nawab's court and is today one of the largest repositories of Urdu literature.

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