Thursday, 24 January 2019 10:18

Shayari: the progressive power of Urdu poetry

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in Poetry
Shayari: the progressive power of Urdu poetry


by Christopher Norris

In a Delhi hockey stadium in December, about 100,000 people of various ages, genders, and classes flooded in for two days of poetry, debates, food and calligraphy sessions. It was Jashn-e-Rekhta, a three-day Urdu cultural festival, and its popularity reflects a wider appreciation for Urdu poetry. Shayari, historically associated with the politics of resistance, is experiencing a revival in the face of rising Hindu nationalism in Delhi.

- The Guardian, 11th January, 2019

It's seventy years ago and more
We knocked the Raj for six,
Rose up and showed you Brits the door
For all your knavish tricks.

We settled our historic score
By a well-practised mix
Of old-style liberation war
With new mass politics

On such a scale it wiped the floor
With you lot. Just for kicks
We'd pitch our Hindu gods galore
Against your creed that sticks

To its one God plus hell in store
For us poor heretics
With small room in our oddments drawer
For Christ and crucifix.

That's where the poetry comes in,
The Urdu kind they call
Shayari, with its liberal spin
On credal stuff, its all-

Sorts god-squad, lack of zeal to win
More converts, love of small
Observances, and sense that sin
Goes deepest when we fall

For big ideas. Then we begin
To live our lives in thrall
To loons and bigots as we pin
Our faith on the cabal

Of those who make the loudest din
Though love begs we forestall,
Through Shayari, the kind of tin-
Eared rant that sparks a brawl.

It's plural, polyphonic, not
The kind of preachy style
That tries to get you thinking what
They're thinking all the while.

That's why it makes you feel you've got
To go the extra mile,
Pull dogma down, and have the lot -
All creeds and values - pile

Right in and put you on the spot,
Thinking how versatile
We are, we Hindus. We've a slot
For every god on file,

And no desire for some big shot
To bless or to revile
Those variants of the master-plot
No creed can reconcile.

But now we've Modri's BJP,
His far-right thuggish crew
Of Hindu nationalists who agree
That nothing else will do,

That only Hindus should be free
To have a point of view,
Since they alone possess the key
To all that's good and true.

Muslims and Christians they decree
Unfit to lick the shoe
Of anyone who bends a knee
To Modi's retinue.

It's pogrom, strife or killing-spree,
The goal his goons pursue,
With mindless unanimity
The flashmob-bonding glue.

So it's no wonder Shayari's
Got this big role to play,
This power to fight the same disease
We fought, back in the day,

When British nabobs came to seize
Our wealth, us easy prey,
And taught their bag of tricks to these
New leaders gone astray.

Shayari brings no guarantees,
Just clues along the way,
And no death-threats should you displease
The one God they obey.

Urdu, not Hindi, helps appease
Old grievances and lay
The lingering ghosts whose harsh decrees
Preach vengeance come what may.

It's the home-tongue of many, known
To Muslims in the main,
But in the Hindustans a zone
Apart where poets gain

A sense of all that's theirs on loan,
Not theirs by that old bane
Of language-lore, the will to own
By rights some proper strain

Of poet-speech. A lordly tone,
With priestly sect in train
To castigate the error-prone,
Goes clean against the grain

Of Urdu Shayari and the bone
It picks with all who'd feign
God's voice for edicts far outgrown
Once poets tap that vein.

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Chris Norris

Christopher Norris is Distinguished Research Professor in Philosophy at the University of Cardiff. He is the author of more than thirty books on aspects of philosophy, politics, literature, the history of ideas, and music.