Zafar's Poetry: Rebellion and Pain by Shubha Tiwari SignUp

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Zafar's Poetry: Rebellion and Pain
by Prof. Shubha Tiwari Bookmark and Share

The last monarch of India, Bahadur Shah Zafar was a gentle soul. He could not fight the British. He could not rise to the occasion. He was spoiled. He was used to a life of utter luxury. He failed to champion the cause of the freedom struggle of 1857. All these and many more legitimate allegations cannot wipe off the fact that Zafar was a patriot. He hated the British rule. He craved for restoring India's honour. He simply loved India. As we go through the poems written by Zafar and his contemporaries, we find that these great Urdu poets were genuine patriots. Their poetry breathes the simmering anger, despair and revolt against the British rule. Their's is a story of helplessness of simple souls before the cunningness and brutality of the more mechanized and organized lot. 

Zafar and his contemporaries were quite different from the British. They lived in a  world of honour, generosity, poetic replies, and beauty. The British had the sole aim of exploiting India. They eyed the riches of this nation. Their army was mechanized. Their sense of business was strong. The British had not come to India for listening shers, ghazals and quitaats. What we find here is a complete contrast of approach between the two forces. What Mangal Pandey and Laxmi Bai had, was instant valour. But even that did not work with the British. Bahadur Shah Zafar was not good at arms. But it does not mean that he was not patriotic. His heart cried for India. The concept of the physical entity called India was taking a definite shape during those days. Zafar was one of the first champions of this idea of Indianhood. 

Once, someone taunted Zafar by saying :

Dumdamein Mein Dum Nahin Khair Maango Jaan Ki
Aey Zafar Thandi Hui Shamsheer Hindustan Ki

(Your fort is crumbling down, pray for your life.
  The Indian sword, O Zafar, has lost its sheen and might

Zafar replied back:

Gajiyon Bein Boo Rahegi Jab Tak Imaan Ki
Tab To London Tak Chalegi Teg Hindustan Ki

(So long as the soldiers retain their faith and pride
The Indian sword will not relent till it humbles
(London's might);

The British naturally targetted Zafar. He had to pay a heavy price for his espousal of the first war of India's Independence. In this war, he not only lost his empire but his sons and nephews as well. Zafar has penned the Birish rampage effectively in this poem:

Ye Riyaya E Hind Tabah Hui Kahun Kya Jo In Par Jafa Hui
Jise Dekha Hakiye Waqt Ne Kaha Ye To Kabile Dar Hui

(The Indian people were brought to ruin by the ruling lords
They thought him fit for the gallows, anyone they came across

The concept of the physical entity called India was being formed around 1857. Although each ruler was confined and attached  to his/ her own little kingdom, still, a wave of common culture and heritage ran through the country. Wherever the British ruled was identified as India. The British did not rule China at that particular juncture, therefore that region and other surrounding areas were out of the general consciousness regarding the concept of India. It was a unique point in the history of India when the idea of modern nation-state was being established. Nationality, nationhood and patriotism were new concepts in the sense that earlier people knew that they had to be loyal to their local ruler and that was all. All that was required was solidarity with the local zamindar, talukedar or king. In this steady growth of the ideal of India, Delhi occupied an important place. The city of Delhi was being recognized as the centre of political activities in India.
Attachment with Delhi became a symbol of attachment with the nation. It reflected the first post-colonial protests of the Indian mind. London versus Delhi, 'firangi' versus 'desi' - the conflict symbolized revolt of the Indians. The Urdu poets eulogized Delhi in their poems. The poems centered around the city of Delhi, the concept of Delhi hood and the people of Delhi are not simple praise for the city; they stand for India's voice against the Biritish.

Zafar again and again expresses his ire against the rising British excesses on Indian soil:

Na Tha Shahr Dilli Ye Tha Chaman Vaale Sab Tarah Ka Tha Yahan Aman
So Khitab Iska Lut Gaya Fakat Ab To Ujda Dayar Hai

(Delhi was a garden city with plenteous peace replete.
Denuded of its status grand, it is now a wasted health

Momin writes in a different vein. In the following lines, he articulates the conditions of despair and hopelessness in Delhi:

Naakamiyon Ka Yeh Gila Yeh Shukr Hai
Shauk E Visaal O Andoh E Hijra Nahin Raha
Kis Kaam Ke Rahe Jo Kisi Se Raha Na Kaam
Sar Hai Magar Garoor Ka Samaan Nahin Raha
Momim Ye Laf E Ulfat E Takwa Hai Kyon Magar
Dilli Mein Koyee Dushmanein Firang Nahin Raha

(I now acclaim and now denounce my failures and defeats.
The Zest of union, grief of severance, both have taken leave.
What's the use of your existence, if you lead a life detached.
You have the head but no reason to be proud of yourself.
Why do you feel proud, Momin of your love of pious ways,
you cannot find one anti-British now on the streels of Delhi

Similarly, Zauq's love for Delhi is worth quoting:

Ahle Johar Ko Vatan Mein Rahne Deta Gar Falaq
Laal Kyon Is Rang Se Aata Badkashan Chod Kar
In Dino Garche Deccan Mein Hai Badi Kadre Sukhan
Kaun Jaaye Zauk Dilli Ki Galiyan Chod Kar

Could talent live at home and thrive,
why should the badakhshaan ruby wander world-wide,
Albeit in Deccan, Zauq, the Muse commands respect,
who would quit the lanes of Delhi and suffer exile?

In one of his quitaats, Zafar cries for Delhi:

Nahin Haal E Dilli Sunane Ke Kaabil
Ye Kissa Hai Rone Roolane Ke Kaabil
Ujaade Luteron Nein Voh Mahal Iske
Jo The Dekhne Aur Dikhane Ke Kaabil
Na Ghar Hai Na Dar Hai Raha Ek Zafar Hai
Fakat Haal E Dilli Sunane Ke Kaabil

Not worth narrating is Delhi's tale,
It will make us weep and wail;
Such palaces have the raiders razed
which were a sight to see and praise.
None is left to tell this tale,
Except Zafar, the unfortunate!

All the poets of this generation, Zafar, Ghalib, Zauq and Momin, cherished a deep love for the country in their hearts. K.C. Kanda, a Zafar scholar, says,

'..........Zafar was a patriot and a patron of arts, who had given a new shape to the poetical and political culture of the day. Though, because of his temperamental docility and circumstantial compulsions he could not boldly champion the cause of the 1857 revolt, yet he was, for all practical purposes, a symbol of rebellion and a rallying point for the discontented Indian people raring to cast off the yoke that, they knew, was getting slowly but surely tightened around their necks. In the heart of hearts, Zafar was a rebel and a true patriot. [1]

Zafar again and again cries against the slavery of the British:

O Aa Gaye Is Mahale Teera Rang Mein
Kaide Hayaat Se Hai Voh Kaide Firang Mein

(He who is an inmate of this place dark,
Is a prisoner of the British just for this fault

These lines depict Zafar's own imprisonment. He is a slave just because he is an inhabitant of the place. He very well understood the loot of India. The cruelty of the British finds expression in his poetry.

Jahan Veerana Hai Pahle Aabaad Yahan Ghar The
Shaghaal Aab Hain Jahan Baste Kabhi Baste Bashar Yahan The

(There where you see the wilds, bustling towns did once thrive
where jackals prowl and roar, men and women lived in pride

The jackals here are the British. Reading these poems, one forms a sharp image of the British: Cunning, cruel and calculated.

Self-respect was the trade mark of these poets. They were scholars. They shunned British jobs. Kanda tells,'...Momin was averse to seeking personal favours through flattery or sham praise... he had also declined (like Ghalib) the poet of a professor at Delhi College....(2) This Delhi College  later took the shape of Delhi University. We, with our 21st century eyes, cannot easily see as to why these great scholars and poets declined professorship. But for them, it was slavery and worse still, slavery of the British. They lived in their own world. Unfortunately they could not die in their own world. The famous lines of Zafar echo:

Kitna Hai Badnaseeb Zafar Dafan Ke Liye
Do Gaz Zameen Bhi Na Mili Ku E Yaar Mein

(How unlucky is Zafar, mark! for his burial place.
He couldn't find two yards of ground in his lovers street

This love's street is India. In fact, the whole of this poem is an Indian's cry to reach back his motherland. The last days of Zafar at  Rangoon filled his poems with unfathomable pain. He feels restless at an alien land:

Lagta Nahin Hai Dil Mera Ujde Dayaar Mein
Kiski Bani Hai Aalamein Na Paedaar Mein

(I feel ill-at-ease on this wasted heath,
who is this ephemeral world has ever found relief
In fact, it is very easy for any country to admire  its victorious heroes. Those who took the sword like Laxmi Bai or Mangal Pandey or those who finally won freedom like Nehru and Gandhi are national heroes and very correctly so. But it takes tremendous amount of courage and confidence to accept our fallen heroes. To realize that he last monarch of India was not a warrior but nevertheless a great Indian is desirable and even rewarding. Zafar and his contemporaries played their role in spreading national awareness. They suffered at the hand of  the British. They preserved Indianhood in their hearts. From this point in the history of India, the British understood that they would need to divide this country on religious grounds if they had to rule her. The birth of the concept of nationhood was unfortunately coupled with the birth of the policy of 'divide and rule' which later resulted in India's Independence as well as her partition

1. Kanda, K.C. 2007. Bahadur Shah Zafar and his Contemporaries. New Delhi. Sterling publishers Pvt. Ltd.3.
2.  ______________.9.

The Urdu couplets have been collected over the years from a number of newspapers and magazines as well as books as Masterpieces of Patriotic Urdu Poetry (Sterling pub.) and Master Couplets of Urdu Poetry (Sterling pub). 

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July 31,2011
More by : Prof. Shubha Tiwari
Views: 37500      Comments: 4

Comments on this Poem Article

Comment Dr. Bhat, my sincere thanks for your interest in my article. I accept your comments. My only humble suggestion is that please do not mix historical evaluation with what is sheer poetry. And yes, I'm hopelessly a 'vaishnav jan' or better, I try to be a 'vaishnav jan' and I'm moved by 'peer parai'.

Prof. Shubha Tiwari
08/08/2011 00:00 AM

Comment I am afraid you misunderstood my comment. I think Zafar was a great poet and his poetry is remarkable. He fulfills the words of Shelley's "Skylark".

We look before and after
And pine for what is not
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught
Our sweetest songs are
Those tell of saddest thought

It doesn't matter that one of the major instigators of his best and later poetry were his unhappiness, frustration and even self pity. He still deserves admiration for his creative talent, but one cannot give him a pass for patriotism and love of India. There he is a miserable failure, merely mouthing platitudes. Similarly, one salutes the bravery of the Rani of Jhansi, but she was no nationalist, just a queen and mother trying to retain her kingdom for herself and her heir. As to having empathy or "Sahaanubhuti" towards a writer or poet or a label of patriot, it is not a bad idea in general, but hinders critical evaluation on the basis of merit. It is like the US policy of giving a purple heart decoration to every wounded soldier even if the wounds are from paring vegetables and self inflicted by sheer accident. Anyway, I can't fault you, if you are a meticulous follower of "Vaishnava Jana to teney rey kahiyey".

gaurang bhatt
08/07/2011 00:00 AM

Comment Bharat Muni in his 'Natya Sastra' has given certain qualities of a reader/play-watcher/ art appreciator. One has to be a 'sahridaya' reader. You are applying external yardsticks to poetry. Right from Bahadur Shah Zafar to Paulo Coelho to Kiran Desai, while reading a work you have to dissolve yourself in the vision of the artist. I don't think there's anything wrong in admiring Zafar's poetry.

Life can be caught in its true colors in ares of grey, not black and white. I'm extremely wary of taking confrontationist positions. I love to understand the point of view of others.

Prof. Shubha Tiwari
08/04/2011 00:00 AM

Comment Professor Tiwari, You are an intelligent, well read and educated Indian, and yet to my surprise and lament, you fall victim to the widely prevalent Indian national character weakness of blind hero worship. There is no doubt that Zafar was a great poet and basically a good and kind man, but he was not a great patriot and

Your own words at the beginning contradict your later conclusions.
"He could not fight the British. He could not rise to the occasion. He was spoiled. He was used to a life of utter luxury. He failed to champion the cause of the freedom struggle of 1857."

Some other words from Wikipedia---
"On May 11th the regiments that had rebelled at Lucknow the previous day reached Delhi and asked for a formal audience. On the 12th, it was granted, and he was petitioned. While it is questionable that he did so unforced, and eyewitness described how the mutineers treated him with contempt, he never-the-less gave his assent issued the following decree----".

"As the Indian rebellion of 1857 spread, Sepoy regiments seized Delhi. Seeking a figure that could unite all Indians, Hindu and Muslim alike, most rebelling Indian kings and the Indian regiments accepted Zafar as the Emperor of India.,[8] under whom the smaller Indian kingdoms would unite until the British were defeated. Zafar was the least threatening and least ambitious of monarchs, and the legacy of the Mughal Empire was more acceptable a uniting force to most allied kings than the domination of any other Indian kingdom.

When the victory of the British became certain, Zafar took refuge at Humayun's Tomb, in an area that was then at the outskirts of Delhi, and hid there. British forces led by Major William Hodson surrounded the tomb and compelled his surrender on 20 September 1857. The next day British officer William Hodson shot his sons Mirza Mughal, Mirza Khizr Sultan, and grandson Mirza Abu Bakr under his own authority at the Khooni Darwaza (the bloody gate) near Delhi Gate. On hearing the news Zafar reacted with shocked silence while his wife Zeenat Mahal was content as she believed her son was now Zafar's heir."

Thus once again he proved himself a coward. He remained self absorbed in self-pity and thus the immortal words of three of his ghazals --
1) Umr-e-daraaz se maang kar layey they chaar din (A lifespan of four days got by beseeching
Do arzooo men kat gayey, do intezaar men (I spent two in hoping and two in waiting)
2) Na kisiki aankh kaa noor hun (Not a light of any eye)
Nas kisikey dil kaa karaar hun (Nor any heart's thud)
Jo kisike kaam na aa sakey (Useless to anyone
Main wo musht-e-gubaar hun (I am a fistful of mud)
3) Mere Surkh lahoo se naa jaane kitney haathon men mehdi lagi
My red blood served as henna for the innumerable hands
Shahr me jis din qatl huay id manai logonen
My slaughter became the feast of sacrifice.

He did not die like King Leonidas of Sparta with an epitaph, "Stranger, go tell the Spartans that we lie here in obedience to their orders." He hid in Humayun's tomb as the war or mutiny was being lost and lived to see the severed heads of his sons presented to him by Major Hodson.

The first duty of any ruler is not to worry about only his own wealth, power and safety. Leaders like Zafar, Mubarak, Obama in the deficit and debt battle, Nehru in 1962 China war, Manmohan Singh in Pakistani terrorist attacks, or Dalai Lama in 1950s Chinese takeover of Tibet, had neglected being prepared to protect their country and citizens. One doesn't depend on what ought to be, like Nehru, but what is, like Mao. The Dalai Lamas never worried about the people of Tibet, just about their privileged status and the Potala. Zafar and even the Rani of Jhansi were really concerned about their own kingdom or the loss of it and personal slights, and the mutiny or independence war was as much religious as political, because of the cow or pig fat in new cartridges. The Sikhs did not join and fought with the British to avenge the earlier defeat of the Sikh armies by Hindu and Muslim soldiers with whom the British defeated the Sikhs. The reason why Zafar was put up as the titular figurehead of the mutiny is because he was a powerless compromised weakling with delusions of grandeur, like Britain under Blair and Cameron in the Iraq and Libya wars, and because the Hindu rulers could not stand the idea of fighting under and on the side of any other Hindu leader they were envious of. That is why Ghazni, Ghori, Timur, Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah Abdalli raided India and the Marathas lost the final battle of Panipat over 150 years ago. And don't use the argument of Dharma and such nonsense because in unethical deviousness and amoral crass realpolitik, Chanakya in his Arthashastra outdid Machiavelli nearly 2000 years earlier.
Zafar's Mughal ancestors and predecessors (after Aurangzeb) were weak and loved wine, women and poetry and Shah Alam Second gave away the right of collecting federal taxes to the East India Company, which is why it was known in Bengal as "Company Sirkaar". Below from Wikipedia ---
"After the grant of the Diwani of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa by the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II to the British East India Company in 1765 and the appointment of Hastings by the East India Company as their first Governor General of Bengal in 1771, the Nawabs were deprived of any real power, and finally in 1793, when the nizamat (governorship) was also taken away from them, they remained as the mere pensioners of the British East India Company. In 1880, Mansur Ali Khan, the last Nawab of Bengal was forced to relinquish his title. His son, Nawab Sayyid Hassan Ali Mirza Khan Bahadur, who succeeded him, was given the lesser title of Nawab of Murshidabad by the British. Hassan's descendants continued the title until 1969 when the last Nawab of the dynasty died; since then the title has been in dispute."

Again, not wishing to be misinterpreted, with respect for knowledge but upset at undeserved hero worship and sweeping unpleasant facts below the carpet for the sake of pleasant nostalgia (an innate software glitch of all human memory apparatus),all the best to you,
gaurang bhatt

gaurang bhatt
08/02/2011 00:00 AM

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