When was the last time you went to a mushaira? The story of a dying tradition
India, the land of Mirza Ghalib and Amir Khusro, is looking for a suitable heir to preserve and expand its vast treasure of Sufi poetry, couplets, songs, and mushairas or public recitals of Urdu poetry.
There are several known candidates, but a suitable heir is somewhat missing. Because though we know of them, we rarely know much about them.
It’s not like we have never attended or seen a mushaira or that we are uncouth. We are anything but that. We quote Proust in our conversations, we have Manto on our bookshelves, and we frequent literature and poetry festivals (where we mostly click selfies). But we do not know what lihaaf means. Oh, wait, we do know. But we aren’t quite sure.
Welcome to the metropolitan India of 2016.
In a nation obsessed with Bigg Boss, where do mushairas stand? Mostly on their own, say the poets of today.
“The way shayari is done and perceived now has changed considerably. Not just that, the dressing style of the poets, their language, the understanding of the audience, all of it has undergone a major transformation,” Waseem Barelvi, one of the most recognised faces of Urdu poetry in modern India, says.
For the better? Not many would vouch for it.
The crisis of language
According to Barelvi, Urdu poetry is known for its brevity and suggestiveness. “We never give away everything. The essence of any poem/couplet is for the audience to understand and appreciate,” he says.
Iqbal Ashhar, another known face among poetic circles, agrees. “In earlier times, there was no language problem, no communication gap between the poet and his audience. People would not just understand but applaud the intricate wordplay—the metaphors, the symbolism, the teases. Now, we need to explain most of the words as we go along,” he says.
No recognition in cinema
There was a time not very long ago when the biggest of filmmakers had to wait for poets like Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi and Majrooh Sultanpuri to write for them. And whatever they wrote would be etched in stone. Not anymore.
“If a filmmaker asks us to remove a word, we have to, even if doing so kills the feel of the song. Most days we negotiate the words that we put on paper,” Ashhar says.
Lack of distinct style
Every poet has a distinct following that ascribes to their thought and writing style. Which is precisely why it is easy to differentiate between the works of a Mahadevi Verma and a Bashir Badr.
But now, with everyone becoming a performer, that line has significantly blurred. “Professionalism has taken over personal expression. The pressure to talk on current affairs and make political commentaries everywhere all the time has killed whatever individuality there was in the poets of today,” Ashhar says.
As the stage mirrors the society, it is unsurprisingly getting divided on the basis of language and religion.
Mushairas are getting increasingly Muslim and kavi sammelans Hindu, feels Ashhar, who clarifies that polarising literature on the basis of religion can do more harm than what we want to acknowledge.
In the shadows
Not every shayar gets to perform at national platforms. A vast majority of them is still struggling behind the stage, looking for an audience and a real opportunity, feel poets. Ashhar says struggling poets find it difficult to find decent remuneration. A lot of them do it just to be heard and as an image-building exercise. The seasonality of the job doesn’t help much either.
Malka Nasseem, one of the very few widely recognised woman shayars in the country, agrees. A housewife from Jaipur, she does shayari for passion and has written five books so far. “Though people enjoy listening to shayaris and ghazals, very few buy books to read them,” she says.
Not all’s bleak
With the recent rise in the number of art and literature festivals in the country, there is no dearth of platforms to perform for these poets.
“It really depends on how much of it you can do as there are at least three to four festivals or events happening across India on any given day,” Nasseem says.
There’s plenty of money too. Though it largely depends on the popularity of a poet, their experience, and the scale at which an event is organised, Nasseem says a poet of a decent standing gets around Rs 30,000 in a well-organised mushaira and around Rs 60,000 in a kavi sammelan.
Despite quite a few rough edges, poets are optimistic about the relevance of mushairas in an increasingly digitised and globalised world. They say reading or listening to Urdu poetry is an addiction that no rehab centre can cure.
The author tweets @sneha_bengani
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