Friday, June 17, 2011

Delhi - Those Times and Lives - 9 (Final)

(Final excerpt from The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple)

Nevertheless, in 1852, at the height of the career of Zauq and Ghalib, the biggest draw was not the courtesans but the mushairas of the poets, especially those held in the courtyard of the old Delhi College just outside Ajmeri Gate, or in the house of Mufti Sadruddin Azurda.
Photo from internet
Farhatullah Baig's Delhi ki akhri shama (The Last Musha'irah of Delhi) is a fictionalised but well-informed account of what purports to be one of the last great mushairas held in Zafar's Delhi. Around the illuminated courtyard of the haveli of Mubarak Begum, the widowed bibi of Sir David Ochterlony, sit several poet-princes of the royal house, as well as forty other Delhi poets, including Azurda, Momin, Zauq, Azad, Dagh, Sahbi, Shefta, Mir, a celebrated wrestler named Yal and Ghalib himself. There was also a last White Mughal, Alex Heatherly, 'one of the great poets of the Urdu language,' according to one critic, who was related to the Skinners and so a cousin of Elizabeth Wagentrieber.
Photo by Mukul
The courtyard has been filled so as to raise it to the level of the plinth of the house. On the wooden plans were spread cotton rugs. There was a profusion of chandeliers, candelabra, wall lamps, hanging lamps and Chinese lanterns so that house was converted into a veritable dome of light....From the centre of the roof were hung row upon row of jasmine garlands...the whole house was fragrant with musk, amber and aloes...Arranged in a row, at short intervals along the carpet, were the huqqas, burnished and brightly polished...
The seating pattern was arranged so that those assigned places on the right of the presiding poet had connections with the Lucknow court, and on the left were seated the Delhi masters and their pupils. All those who came from the fort held quails in their hand as the craze for quail and cock fighting was very strong at that time.."
The often extremely complex metre and rhyme patterns would be set well in advance; many of the participants would know each other well, and a spirit of friendly competition would be encouraged. The hookahs would be passed around, as would paan and sweets. The the president - in this case Mirza Fakhru - would say the Bismillah.
At this proclamation there would be pin-drop silence. The guests from the court put away their quails in their quail pouches and disposed of them behind the bolsters. The servants removed the water pipes and in their place put down spittoons, the khasdans with betel leaf and trays with aromatic spices in front of each guest. In the meantime the personal representative of the king arrived from the court with the king's ghazal, accompanied by several heralds...He sought permission to read the ghazal. Mirza Fakhru nodded his assent...
From this point the poets began their recitation, passing couplets backwards and forwards, half-singing, half-reciting, applauding and wah-wah-ing those they admired for their witty or subtle nuances, leaving those less accomplished to sink in leaden silence. The versifying would continue until dawn, when it would be the turn of Zauq and Ghalib to bring the night to its climax. But long before that, from the north, would come the distant sound of the morning bugle. Two miles away, in the British cantonments, a very different day was beginning.

In 1852, the British and Mughals found themselves in an uneasy equilibrium: at once opposed yet in balance, living lives in parallel...

End of the series.

Also in the series:

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