The fading culture of ‘mushairas’

The poetry produced these days is simpler than before but that is still not filling the halls for mushairas or encouraging book sales

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media

Kartikey Sehgal

Read the following couplet– it should be easy to understand if you speak Hindi or Urdu: “Ghar se masjid hai bahut duur chalo yuuñ kar leñ Kis rote hue bachche ko hañsy jaae”. It’s written by Nida Fazli, probably the leading Urdu poet of our times. He passed away last year in Mumbai.

Although he was an Urdu poet, the couplet above does not use pure Urdu words. For instance, the Urdu word for child is tifl, and makaan and baet are used for ‘home’. The couplet uses the Hindi words ghar for home and bachche for children.

Similarly, the oft used word, dil, is from Urdu. Even the priests of Iskcon use it regularly in their sermons. This interchangeability has become commonplace. In effect, most of us speak and write neither Hindi nor Urdu. We use Hindustani (loosely, the language of Hindustan or India).

It is this interchangeability, this application of simple words in poems, that helps the poets draw an audience for their mushairas (gathering where poets recite their works).

Fazli, in fact was known for his Hindustani as well for his simplicity, as can be evidenced from a very popular song he wrote for the film Sarfarosh: Hosh walon ko khabar kya bekhudi kya cheez Hai / Ishq kije phir samajhiye zindagi kya cheez hai.

Another poet, Abdul Ahad Saaz, was the featured poet in the Annual Mushaira of Nehru Centre, Mumbai. He was the final poet of the evening, an honour usually reserved for senior poets. This also tempts the audience to stay back till the end of the show. He is certain that Hindustani is the language of the masses. Its usage in poetry brings in listeners to mushairas and readers to the bookstores. Indeed, speakers of chaste Urdu and Hindi seem to be diminishing.

Poets, too, are being remembered for their simpler works. Consider the case of the poet Iqbal. He was popular, and contentious, during the last stage of India’s freedom struggle. He is generally regarded as a very fine poet, and hailed in some literary circles as one of the finest. He is best known today not for his tougher Urdu poems, but for the simpler Saare Jahan se achcha, Hindustan hamara.

And it’s not that Urdu and Hindi are tough -- the patience to learn a language has lessened. This is also the case with English. I find the word ‘seldom’ rarely used in daily conversations. ‘Sometimes’ and ‘rarely’ are popular replacements. In time to come, ‘seldom’ may belong to the set of tough English words. Whereas ‘hungry’ is an accepted modern English word, its meaning pointing to the anger caused due to hunger.

It’s not that Urdu and Hindi are tough. The patience to learn a language has lessened

Words are being invented. The languages are undergoing changes. So the masses are not required to refer to the old. They are going to brand words and expressions they don’t understand as ‘tough’.

The word falak will find its place in poetry, and a person in hurry, wanting to refer to the sky as just that, without the inventiveness that comes from patience and love for language, will simply say aasman.

And yayavar may have been popular once to describe a wanderer, it’s not heard of much today. For the present day speaker it could well be a difficult word. Words, per se, are not difficult. They become so when they are not in use. And currently they present a major challenge to poets and poetry. Already, the poetry in mushairas is simpler than before. That is still not filling halls and encouraging book sales.

The prestigious Nehru Centre mushaira used to have people outside the main gates, eagerly coaxing the guards to be let in. This year anybody could walk in. Poet Saaz agrees that for the last four years, at least, the audience has dropped out. In fact, it would interest an observer that chunks of audience come for specific poets or genres, not for the overall poetic culture.

Therefore, it may even appear divided. Some appreciate the serious and even heavy poetry, while others, many others, wait for the funny and humorous ones which often draw the best applause. This was the case in a mushaira hosted recently by Maharashtra College, Mumbai.

Some poets asked the front rows of the audience to appreciate them, just as the back row masses were doing. These front rows’ members, placed there for their education and achievements, possibly found the poetry facile and uninspiring, and were not heartfelt in their response. And the back row audience had its loudest cheers reserved for naughtier poetry relating to love and relationships. The serious yet simple poets conveying some insight got a mixed response -- some from the educated lot in the front rows and some from the lesser educated (in general) back rows’ audience. And a few poets had to request for applause.

Furthermore, I asked the audience, among them the poorer and lesser educated people, their views on poetry. I gathered that they appreciate the poets that use simple words -- indeed they are appreciative -- but would pay little to attend their shows or buy their books.

There are WhatsApp groups for poetry in any case. ‘Wahan rubaru hote rehta hai, payment ka fayda kya’. And the poetry in these groups, while simple to understand, lacks any depth or enquiry, which may be called as the characteristics of any poem, and which are present in every poem quoted in this story.

Simple Hindustani alone, then, is not sufficient to help good Hindustani poetry survive and grow. It is telling that one of the speakers of the Maharashtra College mushaira had to urge the people: Please educate your children. Else the good culture will vanish. Let them read well. There is no alternative to that!”

This article was updated at 3 pm on June 18 to correct grammatical mistakes

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Published: 9 Jun 2018, 3:57 PM