‘ Mushaira cul­ture is in the throes of a new awak­en­ing’

Dr Ali Khan Mahmudabad speaks to Rishita Roy Chowd­hury about the roots of mushaira cul­ture, and the role po­etry has played in the shap­ing of the Mus­lim iden­tity in In­dia.

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The soon to be pub­lished book delves into the sig­nif­i­cance of po­etry in iden­tity for­ma­tion and ex­pres­sion, the his­tory of the mushaira ( po­etic sym­po­sium), and what it means to be a Mus­lim in In­dia.

Q. Why do you think there was a need to­day for a book such as you’ve writ­ten, about how po­etry, pol­i­tics and re­li­gion have shaped the Mus­lim iden­tity in In­dia? A.

One of the most press­ing is­sues re­gard­ing Mus­lims across the world has to do with their re­la­tion­ship to the ummah or the global com­mu­nity of Mus­lims and their be­long­ing to a par­tic­u­lar coun­try. In­deed, this ques­tion only be­came im­por­tant dur­ing the pe­riod of im­pe­ri­al­ism and colo­nial­ism, be­cause ideas of the na­tion trav­elled to var­i­ous parts of the ex­tra-Euro­pean world. This set off a race in the mid to late 19th­cen­tury to lo­cate and de­fine the na­tion— its roots, boundaries, de­fin­i­tive fea­tures and unique­ness. The sub­ju­ga­tion by colo­nial and im­pe­rial pow­ers also catal­ysed a quest for re­con­fig­ur­ing and at times rad­i­cally al­ter­ing ex­is­tent modes of be­ing and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in or­der to try and catch up with Europe. My book looks at the pe­riod in which “na­tional iden­ti­ties” and the na­tion state were still im­per­cep­ti­ble points on the hori­zon. It there­fore seeks to high­light how cer­tain Mus­lims in North In­dia were grap­pling with ques­tions of be­long­ing and also about how they were re-imag­in­ing their idea of In­dia. I broadly ar­gue that the ad­vent of ideas to do with the mod­ern “state” and na­tion­al­ism catal­ysed changes that even­tu­ally made meta­phys­i­cal con­cep­tions of be­long­ing im­pos­si­ble, and in­stead de­manded a ma­te­rial de­mar­ca­tion of bor­ders and iden­ti­ties, and that it was this which even­tu­ally pre­cip­i­tated into a pol­i­tics that was in­her­ently di­vi­sive and po­lar­is­ing.

Q. How has the cul­ture of mushaira helped in de­vel­op­ing Mus­lim iden­tity? A.

The mushaira or po­etic sym­po­sium was an im­por­tant space which was coopted by the Bri­tish among oth­ers to try and bring about changes in what were seen as “he­do­nis­tic” lit­er­ary tastes. The ghazal was iden­ti­fied with back­ward­ness by the Bri­tish and they en­cour­aged the writ­ing of po­etry on “nat­u­ral” sub­jects. For in­stance the An­ju­man-e Pun­jab un­der the aegis of the Dr Leit­ner and Ma­jor Hol­royd spon­sored mushairas in 1874 in which they gave top­ics for the po­ets to en­gage with, in­clud­ing barkha rut and hubb-e watan or the rainy sea­son and pa­tri­o­tism. It is im­por­tant to state that the mushaira could be said to be an “Is­lam­i­cate” space but was by no means a Mus­lim space. The de­vel­op­ment of a dis­tinctly Mus­lim po­lit­i­cal iden­tity was some­thing that was the re­sult of the new ideas that be­came wide­spread in the ex­tra-Euro­pean world and the mushaira was one part of a much larger “pub­lic sphere” which played a role in the ar­tic­u­la­tion of cer­tain as­pects of this iden­tity. It is not so much that the cul­ture of the mushaira helped cre­ate or de­velop a Mus­lim iden­tity as it did a cos­mopoli­tan iden­tity.

Q. Can you briefly chart the his­tory of the for us? How did it de­velop over the years? A.

The mushaira is a dis­tinct part of an Indo-Is­lamic cul­ture that took root and grew in In­dia. Although de­tails of its pre­cise ori­gins can­not be iden­ti­fied, it de­vel­oped as a for­mal space dur­ing Mughal times and it is men­tioned in var­i­ous tazki­rahs or com­pen­dia of bi­ogra­phies of po­ets. The po­lit­i­cal de­cline of the Mughals was marked by a cul­tural ef­fer­ves­cence, which is linked to the fact that some­times com­mu­ni­ties and in­di­vid­u­als tend to be at their most cre­ative in times of de­cline and loss. This man­i­fested it­self in po­etry and the mushaira up un­til this point was a tech­ni­cal work­shop, where po­ets pri­mar­ily ad­dressed each other. Sub­se­quently this closed cir­cu­lar space opened up to­wards the end of the 19th cen­tury and we have ac­counts of how the colo­nial au­thor­i­ties sought to use this space to bring about changes in the lit­er­ary land­scape of In­dia. Part of this in­cluded the open­ing up of the mushaira to in­clude an au­di­ence of non-po­ets, and some crit­ics mark this mo­ment as the point from which the stan­dards of po­etry be­gan to grad­u­ally de­cline with tastes be­ing de­ter­mined by what was pop­u­lar. Later on var­i­ous kinds of mushairas were also con­sti­tuted. For ex­am­ple tam­seeli, or acted mushairas in which peo­ple would dress up as some of the great po­ets of by­gone times and re­cite their po­etry. There were also sarkari or nīm sarkari mushairas (of­fi­cial and demi-of­fi­cial) which were pa­tro­n­ised by the govern­ment or of­fi­cers. Im­me­di­ately af­ter Par­ti­tion the Shankar-Shad mushairas sought to use po­etry to try and build Indo-Pak ties. To­day there are mushairas from Dal­las to Dubai, and mus- hairas con­tinue to be spa­ces which act as bridges not only be­tween the past and present, but also be­tween com­mu­ni­ties. In­deed they are an in­ex­tri­ca­ble part of the cul­ture that trav­els with South Asians wher­ever they go.

Q. How cen­tral a role has po­etry played in the In­doIs­lamic her­itage, as ex­plored in your book? A.

The Qu­ran has a chap­ter called “The Po­ets”, in which God warns peo­ple of the power po­ets have to mis­lead them. Ar­guably this by it­self is tes­ta­ment to the power of po­etry. Po­etry and the spo­ken word have been of cru­cial im­por­tance in var­i­ous Is­lamic cul­tures and the ghazal as a po­etic form, which pre­dates Qu­ranic rev­e­la­tion, has trav­elled and made a dis­tinct mark in the lit­er­ary tra­di­tions of var­i­ous lan­guages and peo­ple. In In­dia, and I would ar­gue in most other parts of the world, it is po­etry that is per­haps the hall­mark and tes­ta­ment to the ge­nius of Is­lamic civil­i­sa­tion. Here Is­lamic should not be treated sim­ply as a re­li­gious marker but more broadly as a civil­i­sa­tional set of sym­bols, tropes and themes that in­flu­enced and were in­flu­enced by the cul­tures they en­coun­tered. Thus an Indo-Is­lamic her­itage de­vel­oped that was highly in­flu­enced by its sur­round­ings with­out, in my view, com­pro­mis­ing the es- sence of Is­lam’s fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples. In my book, I seek to high­light how cer­tain voices used po­etry as a medium through which to rene­go­ti­ate and re­con­fig­ure as­pects of their iden­ti­ties, iden­tity it­self be­ing a rel­a­tively new con­cept in the mod­ern sense, and I ar­gue that they were able to ad­dress ques­tions, such as that of ummah vs. na­tion, cre­atively and sen­si­tively. The time pe­riod was one in which the for­mal na­tion-state did not ex­ist and yet many of the ques­tions that con­tinue to an­i­mate po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions to­day were not only an­swered but in many cases also re­solved. Ul­ti­mately, for many of these peo­ple it was po­etry that was the true site of philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion­ing and de­bate.

Q. How did pol­i­tics and re­li­gion in their turn in­flu­ence the cul­ture of mushaira? A.

It is a cu­ri­ous thing that I was un­able to find any mushairas that were spon­sored by the Mus­lim League apart from purely re­li­gious ones. In a way, po­etry has al­ways been sub­ver­sive and the medium through which var­i­ous dog­mas have not only been ques­tioned but have been shown to be limited. Re­li­gion in a much broader sense has of course had an in­deli­ble ef­fect on the cul­ture of the mushaira. But this has been more to do with meta­phys­i­cal and mys­ti­cal themes rather than a set of “dos and don’ts” as it were. In other words, the aes­thetic as­pects of sa­cred tra­di­tion can­not be sep­a­rated from the cul­ture of the mushaira and so it would be fool­ish to see it purely as a re­li­gious, anti-re­li­gious or as a sec­u­lar space. Of course, like with ev­ery­thing else pol­i­tics also per­vaded and con­tin­ues to per­vade the cul­ture of the mushaira. It was per­haps keep­ing this in mind that in pre-In­de­pen­dence In­dia, the Congress Party, the Pro­gres­sive Writ­ers’ move­ment and even the colo­nial govern­ment pa­tro­n­ised and tried to use the mushaira to dis­sem­i­nate their mes­sage.

Q. Do you think mushaira cul­ture is van­ish­ing from con­tem­po­rary In­dia? A.

Far from it, I think the mushaira and in­deed the Urdu lan­guage is in the throes of a new awak­en­ing. San­jiv Saraf’s Rekhta; Rana Safvi’s shair; Javed Akhtar’s po­etry read­ings for Tata Sky; Sukhan, an ef­fort of Marathi stu­dents to ex­per­i­ment and bring Urdu to wider non-Urdu speak­ing au­di­ences; and many other such ef­forts are tes­ta­ment to the last­ing power of Urdu, and in­deed po­etry con­tin­ues to be cru­cial to po­lit­i­cal re­sis­tance.

Q. What were the chal­lenges in­volved in re­search­ing and fi­nally com­ing out with this book? A.

We live in a time when books, es­pe­cially those about the pe­riod be­tween 1850 and 1950, seek to pro­vide large and broad ar­gu­ments about how to un­der­stand the run- up to Par­ti­tion. All I try and do is high­light how im­por­tant pub­lic fig­ures from across sec­tar­ian lines sought to ad­dress the po­lit­i­cal ex­i­gen­cies of the time and in­deed how they, as in­di­vid­u­als, re­solved is­sues, of­ten through po­etry, is­sues we are still grap­pling with to­day. One dif­fi­culty had to do with mak­ing sure the book does not fall prey to the nor­ma­tive bi­na­ries that are so preva­lent when look­ing at the pol­i­tics of the time, while at the same time mak­ing sure that the rich com­plex­ity, not only of the works used but of the minds and per­son­al­i­ties of the au­thors, came through.

Dr Ali Khan Mahmudabad.

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