Shaher-e-Nigaraan

by: Muzaffar Ali

Culture is all about feeling, and it is only poets who have been able to encapsulate feelings that have been able to outlive their times and are true reflections of a culture.

Moinul Hasan Jazbi, a recent poet of Aligarh, puts across this very feeling:

Sarv o saman bhi mauj e naseeme sahar bhi hai / Ai gul tere chaman mein koi chashm tar bhi hai.

A beautiful garden abounds in tall cypress wafting in the morning breeze, birds singing, but the poet ask the flower, ‘Is there anyone who feels this beauty with moist eyes?’

I thought I would give finishing touches to this piece in the garden that is Lucknow. This morning at my house in Qaiserbagh – with no trees, just a lost bulbul making a nest in a rose creeper outside my window – I am confronted by newspapers brimming with concern and misinformation about this city. There is nowhere you can go to seek the truth and knowledge about this dying civilization.

The Lucknow Times stares at you with an article titled, ‘The Fine Art of Neglect’. It talks of Lucknow as a city of nawabs, not realizing that for the last 150 years there has been no nawab in the Awadh and during these years, culture, or whatever was left of it, has been nursed by its taluqdars. Mohammad Ali Shah is wrongly referred to as Mahmud Ali Shah. As one turns the pages one finds Kalbe Sadiq, one of the city’s most important pillars of learning, referred to as Kalbe Siddiqui, and there is mention of Muzaffar Ali’s lesser known film ‘Chilman’, which incidentally he never made.

Today we are a media-fed nation, nursed on misinformation and misplaced concerns. It is therefore all the more important to feel things deeply and reflect internally if one wishes to create a protective warmth around cultures. This can only be done through films, because we from Lucknow belong to a civilization of a dead language, Urdu.

Hai khayal e mahfile dostan kisi ajnabi ka hai ye bayan / Vo jahan na samjhe meri zabaan vahi qismaton se mila vatan

…bemoans the Urdu poet Raghupati Sahai Firaq Gorakhpuri.
In a congregation of friends,
even the aliens feel,
where none understand my language
is destined to be my land.

I now feel at a loss as to who can enrich me with this culture. Those who know even a little have either an agenda or are arrogant. The free flowing expression of feelings which I experienced even a decade back, are no more. And it was this very fear of losing footprints of time that made me make the films that I did.

For me film-making is a means to an end, the end being a balance of the human situation with aesthetics. This balance has always been disturbed when any form of exploitation sets in, be it social, cultural or economic.

Being rooted in a continuously evolving human situation is a never ending source of renewal of a creative force. This creative surge inwardly connects all art forms. For me as an artist, Awadh is the centre of my creative chemistry. Even if I work in other cultures or languages, the grace of Awadh stands me in good stead.

Lucknow for me was a vast expanse of Awadhian landscape as you entered and left the city, changing hues in different seasons and times of the day. It was no big city in which I grew up. You could enter from one end and come out at the other within ten or fifteen minutes. This expansive Awadhian landscape opened up through avenues of giant trees, many over two hundred years old. Today, for as much as an hour, there are none as you drive out of the city into the countryside. Trees within the city too have been chopped off, save in a few pockets here and there. Memories of the changing moods of nature have suddenly gone dry, with not even photographs to celebrate the past. These years that went into the making of our minds and feelings – the sense of silence, the spatial experience of the eyes – have all vanished. Ancient cultures invariably placed great emphasis on the importance of space to our well-being – and neglecting it seems to have led to confusion, conflict and general negativity in our modern society. Empty space began to irk uncivilized people, and so did silence.

Today, bodies are strewn all over the footpaths, hanging in awkward positions from rickshaws. Lucknow has lost its relationship with civilization and nature. Possibly the gory sight of bodies of Indians hanging from trees following the siege of Lucknow in 1857 has made people indifferent to these magnificent trees.

And from then on Lucknow was a birthplace of a new kind of poetry – the poetry of separation of Radha from her lover. What Wajid Ali Shah wrote as he was being exiled from his land of dreams remains unparalleled in the history of emotions:

dar o deewar pe hasrat se nazar karte hain
khush raho ahle watan ham to safar karte hain
hamne apne dile nazuk to jafa ko saunpa
Qaisari bagh jo hai usko saba ko saunpa.

Slowly this too was silenced; there were no listeners, no moaners; a new and deadly city was born as the old city was left to die a painful death. To date the beautiful old city of Lucknow with its narrow streets reels in filth and squalor, devoid even of any sewer lines to clean its gutters. The new colonial rulers avoided all contact with people of the old city and the people of the old city kept away from the language of their oppressors, thus leaving this wonderful city and its people way behind in the race for existence.

Over the years the same language that killed a culture has become the global lingua franca. Even as its knowledge helps unearth the many atrocities committed in 1857, it has become a challenge to understand Persian, Arabic and even Urdu. Yet, we are nowhere near the signs of bringing the past back to life. There are complex issues to be addressed. Maybe some grassroot films with a popular base can resuscitate pride, restore our lost dignity and values, which ironically have become a victim to mindless Hindi cinema. Another sad prey of this mindless-ness is the beauty of silence in which you could once hear birds calling to share the beauty of its garden.

Cultures as we would like to feel them will survive when we grow out of magnified visual ugliness and horrific amplified sounds. Cultures speak to the heart and any imposition through amplified sound as in modern India is a sure way of ringing in their death knell. Hindi films, Indian politics and religion are solely responsible for this mindless assault on our sensibility and whatever that remains of our acquired refinement. This is the curse of a free and modern India, an India fragmented into a new economic classification, which has no visible meeting point. How then can we expect any concern or feeling to emerge amongst people in this newly formed social order. Lucknow, like every other city of this country, is a victim of this malaise. Unfortunately, in the case of Lucknow there is a lot more to loose.

Vahshat ne vo bhi loot li dam bhar mein dosto
Jo muddaton mein ayi thi shaistagi hamein.

In a moment all was lost at the hands of insanity, the refinement acquired over centuries of evolution.

Beyond the magnificence of the Awadhian landscape, its unique Indo-Persian, European architecture, its very evolved gastronomic recipes, is the beauty of the language. Despite the external onslaught it remained preserved in the veils of the most exquisite feminine feudal culture the world has ever known, to the extent that even the male poets were drawn to writing in the feminine gender – a poetic form known as rekhti.

For me poetry became a way of feeling people and their times. It was a mother art, of expressing childhood fantasies, adventure and chivalry, valour and romance, sensuality and love, love and surrender. Poetry was a double-edged sword. It also killed the poet with the misplaced values and wrongly intentioned objectives. Fortunately, the poets of Awadh were wounded and passionate, therefore Awadh remained alive. These poets were rooted, earthy, sophisticated and spiritual.

Lucknow has been the city of both the written and spoken word – the language of day to day life, of humour and etiquette, of love and romance, of poetry and eulogy. Even the unlettered wrote poetry and spoke in velvet smooth tones. Today the city is confronted with cinema and television, with the language of politics and modern education. Political bigwigs from outside Awadh have devastated the delicate and vulnerable ethos of this city that has given its identity.

There was a time and place where everything beautiful came without any cost, like the wind and water, where art was created with passion, with an urge to share without commercial compensation, when people created a warmth and excitement for each other with everything within their means. Today people are helpless and alienated.

Taveel hone lagi hain isi liye ratein
Ki log sunte sunate nahin kahin bhi.

The poet Shahryar bemoans the length of endless nights, for no one tells stories any more. Lucknow was a centre of this art form, Daastaan Goi, and modern Aligarh, as I knew it, was a centre for reflecting on concerns for the evolution of a mindless modern India, devoid of any feelings, contributing to the loss of a language which evolved with great sophistication in Lucknow.

The world of story telling in poetic form that engulfs the mind, heart and soul is the Masnavi. Be it in the realm of chivalry and martial arts as in the Shahnameh of Firdausi, or a spiritual unfolding as in the Masnavi of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, or Khusrau or Nizami. The first Masnavi in Urdu was written by Mir Hasan – Benazir o Badr e Munir, soon followed by Pandit Daya Shankar Nasim’s Gulzar e Nasim, Mirza Shauq’s Bahar e Ishq and, Zahr e Ishq and Fareb e Ishq. The Masnavi was the equivalent of the world of moving images of today. Contemporary moving images have little to do with creating an active imagination while the Masnavi made people own and posses it, depending on their power to remember and recite or even through feeling with their heart. Zahr e Ishq was prohibited because of the kind of effect it had on young lovers. It is said that many committed suicide consumed by the passion and helplessness of the lovers in the Masnavi.

The marsiya was a form of recreating events with deep feelings that would move the audience to tears. Its poets had reached the pinnacle of their art form in making audiences emotionally charged. The martyrdom of Imam Husain, the grandson of the Prophet of Islam in the battle of Karbala, was the only subject of this sacred art form which prospered in the reign of the Awadh rulers who emanated from Khorasan and belonged to the Shia faith.

Mir Anis and Mirza Dabir took this art form to heights which cut across all boundaries of faith and religion, and as fate may have it, divided the city into followers or lovers of either Mir Anis or Mirza Dabir. Anis made recitation into an art form, known as marsiya khwani. With change of expression, with an underlining of a gesture, using the highs and lows of a human voice he could touch and rip the heart apart.

David Mathew in translating the marsiyas of Mir Anis says of the Urdu language, ‘Urdu is an Indian language which while readily absorbing grammatical structures and vocabulary from Arabic and Persian, possesses a vast number of synonyms. For words like “horse”, “sword”, “battle”, “desert”, etc. which naturally frequent the marsiya, more than half a dozen Urdu words might be found for each, and of course, they will be used by the poet wishing to display his linguistic virtuosity. English though a rich language, is in comparison often found wanting. This presents a great problem to the translator, who must make the best of what he has at his disposal.’

Enough, Anis! Your very limbs are quaking.
This monument you built with glory rings.
Such verses written while your hands were shaking / will fire the world and please the hearts of kings.
Their harvest is this gathering of mourning
the spring-like pleasure of autumn’s dawning.

It is only from a deep realization you find something you have lost. This is the only ray of hope on the firmament of the twilight of Awadh.

Cultures take centuries to evolve, but fade away faster than we think. Lucknow has been sighing for over a century and a half, but somehow it is only recently that modern communication and tourism has begun to question its sad state, through which nostalgia has begun to emerge larger than life, as a saviour of this fabled region.

The first war of independence in 1857, termed as a mutiny by the colonial rulers, and then independence designed to be coupled with the partition, subsequently leading to a communal resurgence followed by sharp caste division in politics, has left Lucknow bruised and battered.

But Lucknow has not left the gaze of those who think with the heart. Commentaries on its plight have found expression in words of modern poets though they may not belong to Lucknow. Shahryar wrote these words in the aftermath of the breaking of the Babri Mosque in 1993:

Har khawab ke makan ko mismaar kar diya hai / behtar dinon ka aana dushwaar kar diya hai.
Every abode of dreams has been shattered

The coming of better days made increasingly difficult.

The biggest loss came from the partition – a deep and silent loss which still echoes in the large vaulted roof of the Bara Imambara, in the slum-like but once grand palace of Qaiserbagh, the largest quadrangle in Asia. The big question that haunted my father, and I have inherited this concern, is how prominent Muslim taluqdars could ever dream of an integrated Awadh in a nation divided along communal lines. Did they think they would slice off their heritage and transplant it across the border? And whatever happened is the saddest moment in the history of civilization of the subcontinent.

Ever since, the cancer of communalism has continued to spread on this sacred soil of legends, masnavis, marsiyas andghazals. The very basis of the existence of our culture has been hacked off; the language – Urdu, the language of the heart, the language of love, the language of the soul, of imagination, humour and wit. This innocent language began to be associated with the cause of the partition, of a community and those taluqdars who became its icons and flag bearers. When we will emerge out this darkness is hard to say.

A modern poet of Aligarh, Rahi Masoom Raza, comes to our rescue and exhorts us:

Kisi shokh shola ru koi intekhab lao
Shab e gham guzarni hai koi aftab lao
kisi chehre kitabi ka sunao koi kissa
vahi lahjae tammana vahi aab o taab lao
ye chiragh jaise lamhe yuhin raegaan ne jaen
koi khaab dekh daalo koi inquilab lao.

Bring a match for that coquettish flaming face
bring the sun to the dark nights of despair.
Tell a story of a beauty found in books
bring the same endearing tone and lustre fair.
Don’t let these flickering moments go
Dream, and bring a change in the air.

As a film maker and as an artist I have begun to explore the process of reality and realization, history and reflection, current affairs and inferences. Lucknow is one such situation which needs reading between lines and motivating people to take certain positions which can retrieve the damage. It can only happen if one aims at the heart and focuses on grassroot grievances and their causes.

Poets, soldiers, saints and kings, Awadh has seen them take birth on its sacred soil, surviving vested interests and political upheavals, surfacing over and over again, and remaining alive in the hearts of their people. The Sufi way is the way of becoming invisible; of not knowing and being ignorant; of receiving and giving – the way of a woman; the way of Umrao Jaan, the way of saying and feeling and not being a burden.

The beauty of Awadh is that it expanded its arms to take everything heart-rending into its fold. The exploits and adventures of Lord Krishna were expressed in an operatic art form of the Rahas. Faiths were bridged when the king, Wajid Ali Shah, wrote and danced as Lord Krishna or a lovelorn yogi. He opened the gates of his Qaiserbagh palace with fairs and festivals and sabhas. Mian Amanat, a contemporary of Wajid Ali Shah, wrote the Indar Sabha.

Poets are the mirrors of society. They are dreamers of an ideal world, the romantics that bring about change. Unfortunately, the poets of Lucknow have been more subtle and laid back. As Mohammad Iqbal says, ‘Nations are born in the hearts of poets and die in the hands of politicians.’ There was no Faiz or Makhdoom or Iqbal to stir the passion for revolt, but the silent marsiya of the city has acquired the power of a huge emotional upsurge which can change the world.

awwal shab vo bazm ki raunaq shamma bhi thi parwana bhi / raat aakhir hote hote hote khatm tha yeh afsana bhi
daur e massarat Aarzoo apna itna zalzala aageen tha / hath se muhn tak aate aate choot chala paimana bhi.
– Aarzoo Lakhnavi

Thus Lucknow continues to live on in two ways; one through its past, and the other through a sensitive and creative reflection of what it has been through. Artists have expressed and continue to express all that Lucknow has been through in the past, the recent and not so recent. On the other hand, scholars who attempt to place Awadh in its right dialectical predicament, can only identify areas of exploitation and point out the imbalance in the human situation and take stock of ugliness – some reversible some irreversible, like the ancient chopped trees and communalized brains.

The biggest and most silent power that empowers Awadh today and creates a softness of the heart is none other than Haji Waris Ali Shah, the Sufi saint of the Chishti order who passed away in 1905. His inspiration has kept alive the poetry of the soul through poets like Bedam Shah Warsi and the entire genre of qawwali singing in Awadh. Who has as many Hindu disciples as Muslims. It is truly through this spiritual connection that the Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb (culture) is kept alive.

Credits : Muzaffar Ali. (Muzaffar Ali is a noted film maker, a painter, poet, designer amd many feathers in one cap. Born in an aristocratic family of Kotwara, he jas contributed a lot to the well-being of Lucknow and our company. He is look upon with great respect by the people of Lucknow and the state of Uttar Pradesh as a whole).