Review: Poetry of Belonging: Muslim Imaginings of India 1850-1950 by Ali Khan Mahmudabad
A book that is as much a scholarly read on the 19th century, as it is an oblique critique of the presentUpdated: Aug 06, 2020 15:30 IST
In an unusual attempt, Ali Khan Mahmudabad dissects the role of poetry – the musha’irah or the poetic symposium – in the formation of the north Indian Muslim identity. In this doctoral thesis, now an extraordinary work on the politics of identity in modern India, the author’s focus is on the period between 1850 and 1950, when the ideas of a nation state and homeland were still fluid.
Using poetry as an archive, “Poetry of Belonging: Muslim Imaginings of India 1850-1950” traces the history of the musha’irah, the site of poetic performance, as a way of understanding public spaces through the changing economic, social, political and technological contexts of the time.
Mahmudabad’s focus is on the potential of language in engaging the public sphere, but his work is not a commentary on the aesthetics or the quality of poetry. He does, however, acknowledge the power of a mediocre, albeit popular, couplet in today’s politically charged landscape, and quotes one too by Rahat Indori:
“Sab hi ka khoon hai shaamil yahan ki mitti mein/Kisi ke baap ka Hindustan thodi hai” (Everyone’s blood is a part of this earth/India is not anyone’s personal property).
Mahmudabad details the oldest documented musha’irahs – which in its earliest avatar was hosted in a circular, closed space. The ustad-shahgird (teacher-student) relationship was strong and the student got his shai’ri corrected by his teacher well in advance. Poetry recited in these forums was judged by fellow poets, who argued over technicalities of the metre and other nitty-gritties. The ghazal was the most popular form of sha’iri, with abstract notions of love and longing taking centre stage.
Poets had to be formally invited to the musha’irahs, they came in tongas and cars, dressed in their traditional best, achkans and shalwars, ate paan, rested against gao takias (pillows) and cheered (“daad”) their peers. A candle was lit to mark the start of the musha’irah by the nazim (conductor of ceremony), the junior poets recited first, and the best works and poets were saved for the last, the ritual culminating by the blowing out of the candle. Women were missing on this stage till the late 1940s.
The Muslim intelligentsia’s political choices and notions of identity were articulated in the musha’irah, which was constantly adapting to the evolving ideas of watan (homeland), quam (community) and millat (religious fraternity) in this politically charged period. However, unlike Jurgen Habermas’ “public sphere”, Mahmudabad points out that this stage wasn’t a bourgeois club. The musha’irah was open to all classes and castes, the only requisite being talent.
The content and form of the musha’irah changed gradually when two poets, Mohammad Hussain Azad and Altaf Hussain Hali, moved to Lahore after 1857 and launched Anjuman-e-Punjab, patronised by the colonisers, and instrumental in systematically phasing out the old style musha’irah, making way for the nazm.
Western concepts and ideas were introduced, English words were transliterated and co-opted into the Urdu language, and the old vocabulary and abstract idioms, intangibles such as love, longing and separation, were dropped. The divisive ideas of hubb-e-watani (patriotism), watan and hum watan became prominent in discourses, wedging the divide between the Hindus and Muslims.
The Hindi-Urdu language debate was intensified, assigning “citizenship” to languages, and amplifying differences between the two communities, till Urdu became a “Muslim language”, and the borrowing of metaphors from each other’s cultures became unnatural. In this context, the writer mentions legendary 17th century Punjabi poet Waris Shah who used “des, desh, watan and mulk” interchangeably. Many old school poets such as Dagh Dehlvi snubbed the imposition of these ideas and the new vocabulary, and continued to write the way they had.
The Muslim intelligentsia whose hearts beat for their watan, but also felt a strong connection to the ummah, the global Muslim identity, felt cornered. “It is this transition from a metaphysical, multi-layered, and multi-textured understanding of hubb-e-watani to a more material and, therefore, physically circumscribed understanding of hubb-e-watani, which had the potential to sow discord amongst Hindus and Muslims,” Mahmudabad writes.
Mahmudabad, an academic, columnist and public speaker, charts the evolution of the musha’irah with magnificent detail. “The very idea that words too could have citizenship illustrates in some ways the artificial manner in which ideas of nationality and nationhood were being grafted on to communities, cultures, and even languages,” he writes.
He draws from Svetlana Boym’s distinction between restorative and reflective nostalgia to examine how Muslims sought to reclaim or recreate lost authority - “’shahr ashob’ changed from being a lament of the city to a lament about the community, its entire culture, and even a civilization”.
The Progressive Writers’ Movement, launched in 1935, democratised the literary public sphere, making it informal and relaxed. The poetry was anti-capitalist, with a strong social and political message. As the popularity of the musha’irah peaked, the quality of poetry fell, with poets taking recourse to tarannum (melody) to cover up their lack of talent. Books were written to aid poets. Mahmudabad mentions Fan-e-Taqrir (The Art of Speaking), which was replete with diagrams teaching poets the general rules of movements - of the elbow, of the fingers, of the hand, and how to stand.
The journey hasn’t been easy for Muslims, ever since the British sowed and nurtured the seeds of communal hatred in colonial India. Post 2014, Muslim loyalty to their homeland has been under greater scrutiny, and their anxieties about their identity, ideas of belonging and citizenship have deepened. In this self-consciousness they continue to swing between extreme religiosity and a complete disconnect from all things Islam.
The book draws from scarcely used documents in multiple languages in which the writer is well versed. It is as much a scholarly read on the 19th century as it is an oblique critique of the present. It is futuristic in scope too. It deserves to be read; and demands a Part II.
Mahmudabad rests his case with a couplet by Mahbub, his illustrious great grandfather:
Nasheman ke liye tinke chunun ga phir gulistan mein
Jala hai ashiyan ab aaj se fursat hi fursat hai
(I will gather twigs once again from this garden to build my nest
For my home was set ablaze and I have all the time in the world.)
Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.