Urdu and Persian Literature in Allahabad
by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
In the year 1778, a young man called Amiruddin Ahmad left his home in Ilahabad (Allahabad) and set out for Azimabad (Patna), Murshidabad, and finally Calcutta (Kolkata). His purpose was to meet with poets and gather accounts of poets with the view of writing a tazkira (Biographical Dictionary of Poets). His main motivation for compiling the Dictionary was his interest in Urdu and Persian poetry; and also, as he said later, to provide a corrective to some of the opinions expressed by the great Delhi poet Mir Muhammad Taqi Mir (1722-1810) who, in his own Dictionary (1752), the first ever of Urdu poets, had some nasty things to say about many well-known poets of Delhi.
Having been born around 1756, Amiruddin Ahmad, or Abul Hasan Amrullah Ilahabadi, as he later called himself, was barely 22 at the time when he went out into the world to collect material for his book. He is also known to have been in Banaras (Varanasi), Ghazipur, Farrukhabad, and Lakhnau (Lucknow); these last in 1780, and in company with his older brother and tutor, Maulvi Khairuddin Ilahabadi, a well-known scholar and poet of his time. Abul Hasan began writing his Biographical Dictionary in about 1779. He kept adding to it from time to time, finishing it in 1781. Called Tazkira-e Masarrat Afza (Delight-Enhancing Biographical Dictionary of Poets), the work became instantly popular, but its manuscripts became extremely scarce over time, and now only two copies of the manuscript are known to be extant. It was published for the first time in 1955-56 in a magazine by the great scholar Qazi Abdul Wadud (1896-1984), and has since been an important source of information and anecdotes about Urdu and Persian poets of Allahabad, Azimabad, Calcutta, and Delhi, and many smaller towns.
I devote so much space to Abul Hasan to show that Allahabadi writers and intellectuals in the eighteenth century were not just imitators of Delhi; they evinced a spirit of inquiry and independent thought, and preferred to gather information on their own, and make their own decisions. This will become more apparent as our narrative progresses.
The origins of Indo-Islamic literary culture in Allahabad may be traced to Shah Muhibbullah Ilahabadi (1587-1648), who wrote copiously in Persian and Arabic on abstruse Sufi subjects. He was a close follower of the great Andalusian Sufi, mystic, and poet Muhyiuddin Ibn-e Arabi (1165-1240), popularly known as Shaikh-e Akbar (the greatest master). Shah Muhibbullah himself was therefore always referred to as Shaikh-e Kabir (the great master). Ibn-e Arabi’s teaching was based on the idea of wahdat-ul wajud (the unity of being), and his pronouncements have sometimes caused discomfort to literalist or orthodox believers. Dara Shikoh (1615-1659) was an admirer of Shah Muhibbullah’s, and once he sent to Shah Muhibbulah a questionnaire on esoteric Sufi matters. Shah Muhibbullah replied in great detail. Both the letters are preserved in the extant voluminous correspondence of Shah Muhibbullah.
Aurangzeb, perhaps suspicious of the doctrine of wahdat-ul wajud as propounded by Shah Muhibbullah in one of his celebrated works called Taswiyah (Equalization), and also unhappy with the late Shaikh’s friendliness for Dara Shikoh, once summoned Sayyid Muhammad Qannauji, one of his courtiers and also a disciple of Shah Muhibbullah. The story goes that Aurangzeb commanded Qannauji to explain and interpret some of the Shaikh’s statements agreeably with the tenets of the sharia (Islamic Religious Law). If Qannauji failed to do so, Aurangzeb is reported to have said, he should publicly burn his Shaikh’s tract.
Sayyid Muhammad Qannauji reportedly answered that his Shaikh wrote those words after attaining a certain spiritual status which was too far above his own present state. Once he reached the station of the Shaikh, he said, he would satisfactorily explain and interpret the words of his Master. As for burning the work, Qannauji is reported to have said, there was plenty of fire in the Emperor’s kitchen and there was no need to use a poor man’s fire for the purpose. At this, Aurangzeb dropped the matter, though some 'ulama declared that Shah Muhibbullah, by virtue of his questionable views about Appearance and Reality, did not deserve to be called a Muslim.
Allahabad’s other great centre for Sufi thought, and Persian, and later also Urdu literarture, was founded by Shaikh Muhammad Afzal (1628-1712/14). Apart from writing prolifically in Persian and Arabic on esoteric as well as pedagogic subjects, Shah (the honorifics “Shah” and “Shaikh” are interchangeable; the Sufi culture in Allahabad and many eastern districts prefers “Shah”) Muhammad Afzal was a proficient poet in Persian. While Shah Muhibullah Ilahabadi and his followers were viewed with some hostility among a section of the people, Shah Muhammad Afzal seems to have enjoyed universal esteem, not excluding that of Aurangzeb himself, on whose orders the Subadar of Ilahabad constructed a beautiful mosque in 1677 for the use of the Shaikh and his followers and visitors. Later, and again at the Emperor’s command, the Subadar built in 1681 the Shaikh’s dwelling place (hospice, or khanqah in technical parlance). Both exist and are in use to this day.
Shah Muhammad Yahya (there is a neighborhood extant in Allahabad called Yahyaganj after his name) is better known as Shah Khubullah. He was a nephew of Shaikh Muhammad Afzal, and succeeded his uncle at the khanqah. Born in 1660, he died in 1731. He was a good poet in Persian, but his eminence as a man of letters was eclipsed by that of his second son, Shah Muhammad Fakhir Za’ir (1708-1750). Za’ir’s poetry commanded much prestige for being in the mode of Sa’di (1184-1291) and Hafiz (1325?-1398), the two greatest Iranian ghazal poets. His ruba’is also are well-known. Shah Khubullah’s eldest son Shah Muhammad Tahir (1698-1721) was primarily a scholar who also wrote poetry. Another of Shah Khubullah’s sons, Shah Muhammad Nasir Afzali (1710-1750), was a major Persian poet and was often described as a “second Nasir Ali”. Nasir Ali Sarhindi (d.1696) is widely regarded as a Persian poet who took the “Indian Style” of Persian poetry to new heights.
Shaikh Ali Hazin (1691-1766), an Iranian noblemen and distinguished poet, sought refuge in India (1733) after the Afghans seized power in Iran. Umdat ul-Mulk Amir Khan Anjam (d.1747), courtier, administrator, diplomat, musicologist, poet, patron of poets and a highly placed nobleman at Emperor Muhammad Shah’s court, patronized Ali Hazin, and was instrumental in getting him immense financial benefits from the Emperor. Unfortunately, Ali Hazin was not a person suited to accept favours with grace. He was vitriolic against India and Indians, and was particularly disdainful of Indian Persian poets. During his Subadarship of Allahabad, Umdat ul-Mulk promoted the arts and letters there, and befriended Muhammad Afzal Sabit (d.1737), a man of great learning and a distinguished poet.
Sabit and his son Muhammad Azim Sabat (1700-1748), also a poet, moved to Delhi along with Umdat-ul Mulk and took their place among the poets of Delhi. Shaikh Ali Hazin once made some severely censorious remarks about a verse of Sabit’s, and also alleged that Sabit had plagiarized the theme of his verse from an older Iranian poet. Word promptly got round to Sabat, who said that Hazin was a plagiarist himself. Sabit then produced within four days a tract in which he quoted five hundred verses of Ali Hazin and an equal number of verses from older poets, and stated that all five hundred of Ali Hazin’s were in fact plagiarisms from the latter five hundred. According to a contemporary Iranian chronicler, “Thus did Sabit reduce to trash five hundred verses of Hazin within a very few days.”
The eighteenth century was a century of great artistic and cultural achievement in India. It was also a century which saw the creativity of Indian Persian poets and scholars grow to full maturity and boundless self-assurance. Shaikh Ali Hazin’s advent occasioned a long-running debate about the competence of Indians in Persian and it fell to Sabit, an Ilahabadi, to make the first important contribution to this debate. Literary activity in Allahabad luckily gained an auspicious participant in the person of the Emperor Shah Alam II (r.1759-1806) himself, who stayed in Allahabad from about 1765 to January 1771. Shah Alam knew many languages, including Sanskrit and Arabic, and wrote poetry and prose in Hindi, Persian, and Braj Bhasha, and according to a contemporary chronicler, wrote poetry in Sanskrit too. He favoured Hindi (as Urdu was then called) over Persian for everyday conversation.
An important cultural development in the eighteenth century was the adoption, and then assumption of leadership, of Rekhta/Hindi (as Urdu was then called) poetry by the poets of Delhi in preference to, or alongside, Persian. Almost all of these poets were born between 1685 and 1725, and their influence spread far into the land, including the south and the east. Allahabad could not remain untouched by the new literary wave, and Urdu poetry in Allahabad may be said properly to begin with Shah Ghulam Qutbuddin Musib (1726-1773). He was the son of Shah Muhammad Fakhir Za’ir and was married to Abul Hasan’s sister. He is generally regarded as more eminent than his father, because in addition to his being a Sufi master and scholar, he wrote poetry in Arabic, Persian, and Rekhta/Hindi, and also spent much of his time travelling, ultimately dying in Mecca.
Afzali’s son Shah Muhammad Ajmal (1747-1820) was a distinguished poet and author in Persian and Arabic who also occasionally wrote Urdu poetry. One of his chief distinctions is that he made a Persian translation of the Qur’an. It is thus the third known Persian translation of the Qur’an made in India. While his disciples and followers must have benefited by the translation, it however has remained unpublished.
Shah Muhammad Ajmal and Shah Afzali’s grandson, Shah Ghulam Azam Afzal (1810-1858), were friends with Imam Bakhsh Nasikh (1776-1838), the great Lakhnavi master of Urdu poetry and almost the founder of an entirely new style of ghazal. Nasikh was a frequent house guest at the khanqah of Shah Muhammad Ajmal (which later came to be known as Da’ira-e Shah Ajmal). It was here that Nasikh composed his famous verse:
Three flowing at Tribeni, two from my eyes;
Now Ilahabad too is Panjab [='five-waters']!
Nasikh formally accepted Shah Ghulam Azam Afzal as his pupil. One of Shah Ghulam Azam Afzal’s pupils was the great Sufi poet Abdul Alim Asi Sikandarpuri (1834-1917) who has the distinction of being a Sufi poet in Nasikh’s style: witty, somewhat sardonic, and also studded with far-fetched verbal conceits. It was a style generally considered unsuitable for Sufi themes.
The story so far of the growth of Urdu and Persian literary culture has been almost entirely the story of one House: that of Shah Muhammad Afzal. This was to change in the 19th century, but Abul Hasan’s chronicle gives us information about many other poets active in Allahabad. One of them was Sarb Sukh Divanah (1727?-1788/89), who was a legendary figure in his times as the model of Indo-Muslim culture. Abul Hasan gives us a rare nugget of information about him to the effect that Shujauddaulah appointed him Mir-e Bahri (Admiral of the River Fleet) at Allahabad, and that Divanah didn’t mix much with the locals.
Abul Hasan mentions many other poets of Allahabad, both Hindu and Muslim. Worthy of special mention among them are Shah Ghulam Yahya Insaf (d.1780) who wrote delightful comic verse in Urdu and is perhaps the first Urdu poet to devote himself exclusively to comic verse, and Shah Muhammad Alim Betab (d.1791), a maternal grandson of Shah Muhammad Yahya. He wrote in both Persian and Urdu. Among his pupils was Kanji Sahai Mateen, who commanded a good reputation as a Persian poet in early 19th century.
Mirza Kalb-e Husain Khan Nadir, a middle-grade officer in the service of the Company, composed in 1831 Tazkira-e Shaukat-e Nadiri (Biographical Dictionary: Nadir’s Magnificence) about the poets active in Allahabad. He tells us that there are at least a hundred full-time poets in Allahabad at the time of his writing. He records seventy poets in his Dictionary, of which a full dozen are Hindu. Nadir says that Urdu poetry is now not so prominent in the cultural life of the city as it was in the time of Shah Muhammad Alim. Even so, he says, some of us organize regular musha’iras; apart from the locals, many of the forty-two non-local poets also who are resident here take part in them.
Interestingly, Nadir’s little tract has an Introduction which is rather too long for a book of its size. Yet for us today it is extremely valuable, because it is full of information about the contemporary literary and social culture of Allahabad. For instance, Nadir tells the reader that the proper way to recite poetry in an assembly is to enunciate the words clearly: your voice should be fully audible to those present; you should not recite your poems in a singing tone of voice. Nadir strongly disapproves of poets who make dramatic gestures and use “a special tone of voice” while reciting poetry. We should perhaps extrapolate that Nadir’s remarks could apply to poets of that time generally, and not to just those of Allahabad.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the House of Shah Muhammad Afzal ceased to occupy centre stage in the literary culture of Allahabad. Two major players at that time were Ghulam Imam Shaheed ( d.1879) and Ghulam Ghaus Bekhabar (1824-1905). Both were men of substance in the society, and both wrote extremely good poetry and prose in Persian. Bekhabar is also known for his friendship with Ghalib.
After a hiatus of more than two centuries, the House of Shah Muhibbullah Ilahabadi reentered the literary scene in the person of Akbar Ilahabadi (1846-1921), one of whose sisters was married to Sayyid Sahib Ali, a direct descendant of Shaikh Muhibbullah Ilahabadi. Akbar Ilahabadi was arguably the greatest Urdu poet of Allahabad. He was also Urdu’s greatest political and social satirist. He was perhaps the first Indian to recognize that culture and big business and politics went side by side in the colonial system of governance, and that modernization was actually a powerful weapon to establish and spread colonial power. Akbar was a passionate nationalist and wrote in a famous verse:
Were Akbar not the Government’s concubine,
You would find him too among Gandhi’s gopis.
He collected a series of his short poems under the title Gandhi Namah (Gandhi’s Book), for whose epigraph he wrote another famous verse, as follows:
The revolution is here:Later critics chose to see his distrust and hatred of the colonial power’s modernizing steps as a sign of his backwardness and blind conservatism, but our experience of globalization and the economic hegemony of the West in the 21st century vindicates Akbar as the first postcolonial poet.
It’s a new world, a new tumult,
The Book of Kings is done;
It’s the age of The Book of Gandhi now.
Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) was resident at Allahabad during his years of membership of the Legislative Council in the 1870’s. The building now famous as Anand Bhawan was once owned by Sayyid Ahmad Khan. He continued to be in Allahabad off and on. Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s close friend Maulvi Nazir Ahmad (1831-1912), novelist, theologian, social reformer, jurisprudent, and much else besides, also lived in Allahabad during the 1870’s. The founding of Muir Central College (1885), later to become the University of Allahabad, caused the arrival of some other major Urdu writers here from Delhi and elsewhere. Among them was the essayist, historian, and mathematician Maulvi Zaka’ullah (1832-1910). Later, there was Mahdi Hasan Nasiri (1885-1931), and the great historian Tara Chand (1888-1973). All of them taught Urdu at the Muir Central College at one time or another.
Akbar Ilahabadi and his teacher Vaheed Ilahabadi (1829-1892) are also to be remembered as the last ghazal poets of Allahabad who wrote in the “classical” mode. By the time of Akbar’s death, the influence of English on Urdu literature had all but superseded the prestige of the ghazal in the classical mode. Soon enough, new ideas about the social and revolutionary relevance of literature began to sweep the board. Premchand (1880-1936), the greatest Urdu fiction writer, studied and worked in Allahabad for many years, off and on. He said that he never wrote a story unless the incident which he was narrating had some psychological or social truth.
The Progressive Writers’Association (PWA) at its inception consisted of Urdu writers mainly, and Premchand delivered the Presidential address at its first convention in 1936 at Lucknow. Among other notable PWA writers who worked in Allahabad in the 1930’s and 1940’s are PWA’s founder Sayyid Sajjad Zaheer (1905-73) and Ahmad Ali (1910-84). Raghupati Sahai Firaq (1896-1982) was a Gorakhpuri by birth, but spent nearly all his life in Allahabad. Poet, critic, fiction writer, translator, and conversationalist, Firaq Gorakhpuri is widely regarded as one of the greatest Urdu men of letters. It is generally held that he revolutionized Urdu ghazal, added new dimensions to the ruba’i, and wrote perhaps the best creative criticism in Urdu.
Premchand is rightly regarded as the greatest fiction writer in both Hindi and Urdu. Similar is the case of Upendra Nath Ashk (1910-96), an Urdu writer who settled in Allahabad after the Partition and then turned his vast talent to both Hindi and Urdu. Ashk was an informal Progressive, like Firaq, but by the 1950’s Allahabad had become an extremely important locus of the PWA. The Progressive critic Professor Sayyid Aijaz Husain wrote Na’e Adabi Rujhanat (New Trends in Literature) in 1947, perhaps the first full-length study of post-1936 literature in Urdu. Aijaz Husain influenced a host of notable writers who were his students at one time or other. Among them the greatest name is that of Sayyid Ehtesham Husain (1912-72), the chief ideologue of the Progressives. Then there were the scholar and critic Sayyid Vaqar Azim (1910-76), the critic Mujtaba Husain (1922-89), and the scholar, critic, and linguist Gyan Chand Jain (1923-2007).
Urdu’s literary culture in Allahabad was greatly enriched up to the early nineteen-fifties by the Hindustani Academy (established 1928) and its Urdu magazine Hindustani. Asghar Gondvi (1880-1936), a major Urdu poet of the time, was its editor. Premchand, the eminent linguist and scholar Abdus Sattar Siddiqi (1885-1972), and the eminent jurist and lover of Urdu Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru (1875-1949), were among the Academy’s founding members. Hriday Nath Kunzru (1887-1978), who later became President of Anjuman Taraqqi-e Urdu (Hind), India’s premier NGO in the field of Urdu letters, was among many others in the circle of Tej Bahadur Sapru who was not alone in his love of Urdu. Other prominent Hindus like Amaranatha Jha the famous professor of English, and Sir Sundar Lal, Gyanendra Kumar, N. P. Asthana, and S. N. Mulla, lawyers, continued to love and live Urdu letters until the very middle of the 20th century.
Urdu journalism in Allahabad can be said to begin with Sada Sukh Lal who started his newspaper Nur ul-Absar (The Light of the Eyes) from Allahabad in 1852. By about 1900, there were at least seven Urdu newspapers being published from Allahabad. Some Urdu literary magazines of Allahabad were catalysts as well as promoters of new writing from the early years of the 20th century. Adeeb was edited by Naubat Ra’i Nazar (1866-1923), Pyare Lal Shakir (1880-1956), and lastly by Haseer Azimabadi (1882-1922), during its short but influential life from 1910 to 1913. Sayyid Aijaz Husain edited Karavan (The Caravan) in the 1940’s. In the 1950’s the monthly Fasana (Story), which published only short stories, was a great success. Firaq Gorakhpuri and the economist Ram Pratap Bahadur were among its contributors. During the late fifties and early sixties Mahmud Ahmad Hunar’s literary digest Shahkar (Masterpiece) printed some of the best modern Urdu literature from the subcontinent. The present writer’s Shabkhoon (Surprise Attack by Night), in spite of its unusual name, became the paradigmatic space for modernist writing and literary theory during its life of nearly forty years.