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Sharab, Shabab And Shayari –
The Chronic Misinterpretation Of Urdu Poetry

By Gagan Rism

29 April, 2010

As I was told later, in my Urdu class, one of the student on the very first day shot a question to Hrikrishan Lall, our teacher, that there is nothing in Urdu shayari except sharab and shabab, is there any? Lall Sir, who used to teach in that Punjab state sponsored Diploma in Urdu, smiled, and replied in this verse –

uske paimane mein kuchh aur, mere paimane mein kuch aur
dekhna saki ho na jaye, tere maikhane mein kuchh aur

The student was promptly up again in see-i-told-you-so fashion. What Lall Sir said next can be taken as an axiomatic reply to any such questions shot by any lay reader regarding Urdu shayari. He replied, “Never take Urdu shayari literally – it is more behind the words than on their face. The paimanas are not goblets here, but Destiny; maikhana is not tavern, but the world; saki is not wine-bearer, but god himself. And the shayar (poet) is flinging an age old query to the god as to why my destiny is so poor as compared to the other man. Shayar, in fact, is warning god to be just and behave rightly; otherwise he might be forced to wreak havoc in his unjust world.” The student turned speechless at this sudden revelation.

General readership is not an exception to misconceptions like this. Not many people have eyes keen enough to delve deeper behind the veil of words. Not only the laymen, but so called good readers also succumb to this boorishness while talking about Urdu poetry. The fact that Urdu poetry heavily uses the symbols of saki-o-maikhana (wine-bearer and tavern) does not make it an out and out a tribute to alcoholism. It does not endorse liquor mania when it speaks in these terms. Neither shayars are the brand ambassadors of liquors or taverns.

Like any poetry, Urdu shayari is no exception to the general rule that the words are mostly used metaphorically in it. Depending upon the context, words demand a symbolic rather than literal interpretation. Like any poetry, therefore, Urdu shayari too deserves a rational and non-prejudicial understanding of the same. Since, the critic often argues that, it does not use words-as-symbols in that accepted sense in which poetry of other languages does, such an interpretation may not always be warranted. For example, why only a select few symbols like goblet, tavern, woman, etc over and over again, rather than a whole corpus of others? There can be no straightforward reply to this as the choice of symbols is more culture-dependent, than a matter of personal concern. It would be more appropriate to question rather what that accepted sense is and from which authority it derives such an acceptance. Whereas for the lay, it may derive that from their general attitude towards Urdu language as such, for the so called good readership, it derives largely from their experience in other languages. Most of the languages use common-place terms as symbols to express the hidden. So, whereas Hindi may use dharamshala (rest-house) to symbolize world, Urdu uses maikhana (tavern) for the same. Symbol selection is more sensual than commonplace in Urdu. On account of different symbol selectivity, it has become a fashion to scoff at the symbolic corpus of Urdu as morally corrupt. By their biased code thus, the frequent occurring of words like, saki-o-maikhana represent degradation in the standards of the poetry and therefore, worthy of being discredited. Can mere the difference in symbol selectivity make Urdu a convenient scapegoat for people’s ignorance? The difference between symbol-selection needs be understood before any such (mis)adventure.

Unlike other languages, Urdu poetry mostly uses materialistic and erotic symbols to refer to things sometimes supra-rational, super-natural, or even truths controversial or dogmatic. Here, symbol and symbolized stands as if on the diametrically opposite poles such that conceiving any relation between the two is taken as sacrilege of the symbolized itself. Among host of such symbols, sharab, shabab and saki (wine, women and wine-bearer) are the most common. Owing to their capacity of being used in endless variety, these are used heavily by most of the poets. In fact, very rare a poet would be found who had never used these symbols in his poetry. Since the three are misunderstood most of all but favorite with me,[1] I will take these three in this write-up and try to dispel the uneasiness about them. But, before that, it has to be acknowledged first that these do occur as symbols. Not always of course but many times.

Sharab or Wine is the most mistreated of all these symbols. To fully understand the import of this symbol, it is necessary to know its relation with its allied symbols like paimana (goblet), maikhana (tavern), saki (wine-bearer) and of course, zahid (the teetotaler) and vaaiz (the orthodox maulvi) with whom it is negatively correlated, to say. Together all of these give the appearance of only wine being talked about, or praised as if. Though, it may not be always the case. The origination of these symbols in Urdu shayari is undated, but earliest accounts of them come from the poetry of medieval times, especially Mughal era. In Mughal era, Urdu shayari got major boost in the form of royal patronages to the poets. The patrons would often preside over the mushairas (poetry-recital) amid freely flowing wine by beautiful damsels. Since, mushairas were those days major source of entertainment and patrons not less than god for the poor shayars; it is too natural for the shayar to link the bounties of the patron to his poor lot with freely flowing wine to the empty goblet. Unconsciously thus, these words came to abound in the ghazals of the contemporary poets and seeped to the later gazal-goz (gazal writers) as legacy. The shayars darned them in various garbs, and made them the symbols gradually. They would often use them to say things scoffed at, forbidden, or expose societal insularity, as in these ashaar (couplets)

vaaiz na tum peeyo, na kisi ko pila sako
kya baat hai tumhari sharab-e-tahoor ki (ghalib)

zahid sharab peene de masjid mein baith kar
ya woh jagah bata de jahan par khuda na ho (daag dehlvi)

ik jagah baith kar pee lun mera dastoor nahi
meykada tang bana lun mujhe manzoor nahi (jigar muradabadi)

Tang-meykada (small tavern) symbolizes more the confinement of thought, than geographical measurements of a physical structure which shayar emphatically wants to reject. His intention is more of expanding into the world than remaining in the cloistered seclusion of his own thought. Ghalib, going beyond the societal taboos, wages a direct war on the religious dogmas which consciously inculcate such a constraint in the individual. Sharab-e-tahoor is the mythical river of wine that flows in the heaven about which Ghalib is skeptical. The religious dogma assures the hoors, paris (both as fairies) and sharab-e-tahoor for the devotees who remain loyal to the creed and hellish fires for the defectors. Ameer Minai finds the effort of assuring post-mortem awards to be worthless since in the end, the dreams of both the devotee and drunkard are found to be identical. See, in this sheir:

juda hai dukhtar-e-raj ka naam har sohbat mein ae saki
pari hai meykashon mein, hoor hai parhezgaron mein (Ameer Minai)

The ultimate end of the devotee is then what? What for all this worshipping or devotion is in the last? Nothing but a pleasurable existence in the heaven, no? In the end, all the religious creeds then do nothing but providing a means to enjoy eternal pleasure without restrictions, without reservations. Almost every religion of the world has the concept of heaven as the ultimate reward of an individual’s devotion in the world. The descriptions may differ, but character-wise all heavens are places of unbounded pleasure – mostly sensual. Does not the shier then expose the shallowness of religions whereby loyalties are sought after by ensuring premium gifts in the end like marketing strategies of the corporates? But, what Minai wishes to emphasize is more than that. He seems to equate the goal of a drunkard with that of a parhezgaar or those abstaining from indulgences. Only names are different, but goals of two are essentially the same. What abstainer calls a Hoor (elf), drunkard calls Pari (fairy). The shier is then not just an effort of devising a controversial equation. It has more psychological underpinnings to it. It equates the effort and abstention of the two and enlightens the other that what he seeks after death, the other one get right here in the world itself – if pleasure is the goal entirely.

Vaaiz is another celebrated symbol of Urdu Shayari standing for religious taboos related to wine-drinking. He represents the orthodoxy of the religious creeds which deny minimalist of freedom to the individual. He is a conservative maulvi who going by the religious sanctions is always at the loggerheads with drunken-shayar. Not a single ghazal have I come across so far in which shayar is at peace with Vaaiz. It is, thus, not shayar-vs-vaaiz in the end, but religion-vs-individual - individual who is frustrated by always going by the dictates of religion, who asks for the freedom to bear his grief in his own way rather than prescribed by religion. Vaaiz is the domineering authority who imposes the prescriptions rather forcefully with implicit caveat of excommunication. For such Vaaizes, Zauk has one beautiful suggestion

Zauk jo madrason ke bigre hue hain mulla
unhein maikhane le aao, sanvar jayeinge

Against the decrees of Vaaiz is Saki – the wine-bearer, another misunderstood symbol in Urdu poetry. Of course it is used literally as well, but mostly it is used to refer to something other than a mere wine-server. Before and during mughal era, Sakis were usually the young ladies who used to serve wine from their long-neck surahis to the drinkers. Rather than a wine-server, Saki stands for one whose kind attention is sought after constantly – like a devotee seeks the attention of his lord. Drunkard is at the mercy of Saki in the tavern. By his silent devotion, he waits and craves for her attention. Saki is the fountainhead of bounties for the poor drunkard. The bounty of saki - the flowing wine into the goblet – is the measure of attention she gives to her devotees. She is seen in various garbs of a beloved, charmer, master, administrator, lord of the tavern – at times just, at times unjust. Usually, however, it is the beautiful beloved that drunkard conceives Saki to be. More than a beloved, however, Saki symbolizes the concept of Love itself - Love that encompasses the virtues of care, sympathy and solace.

Often, it is through voice of the drunkard that Shayar speaks out to the world. The protagonist in Urdu poetry is gloriously portrayed as a poor drunkard. The poverty-stricken youth weighed down the by hard ways of the world, mesmerized and distressed equally at the indifference of the people, choking taboos of the society, and the callous hostility of the companions. This unsophisticated drunkard is at home in not the civilized society, but uncivilized tavern! Ghalib, Zauk, Meer, Sauda, Minai, Riyaz Khairabadi, Jigar Muradabadi etc, pictured the protagonist of their couplets as a penniless, wretched drunkard. As a symbol, this drunkard portrays the individual who lives and dies impoverished, victimized and misunderstood. It depicts the existential reality of the individual in the society characterized by sanctions, taboos, and social ostracism of various kinds on acts as commonplace as drinking wine. Where the minimalist freedom to the individual is denied, the most innocuous acts of drinking wine become a gunaah or a sin, and courting love, an act of butprasti or worshipping physical icons. Variously called, Rind, Meykash, Meynosh, Badakash, Badakhawar, or Meykhawar, this drunkard is a lonely figure, love-sick, victim of the world’s fickleness and betrayal especially of beloved and friends. He is averse to the authority, be it social or divine. He sees society and god in grey shades and feels being cheated by both of them alike. He craves for a delicate sensitivity in the Faith, but finds instead unquestionable allegiance. He longs for humanism in societal codes, but finds rather the endless walls of separation between men and men. Disillusioned thus, he finds maikhana rather more egalitarian than the world. He is more at home in tavern which does not ask either his creedal fellowship, or unflinching adherence to its rituals. It is the place of the realization of his personal freedom. He is at once the member and master of his maikhana. He is attached to every brick of this tavern like a moth is attached to the flame so much so that he feels a mortal threat by even the chance intrusion of outside forces. To the apathetic society, the religion, the eternal law of the universe, the drunkard has to say,

laazim hai meykade ki shariyat ka ehtmaam,
e daur-e-rozgaar, jara larkhara ke chal
dair-o- haram nahi to kharabat hi sahi
e gardish-e-zamana, kahin to kayam kar (Abdul Hameed ‘Adam’)

nasha-e-ishq ka gar zarf dia tha mujhko
umar ka tang na paimana banaya hota
roz-e-mamoora-e-duniya mein kharabi hai zafar
aisi basti ko to veerana banaya hota (Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’)

Frustrated of the incessant activity of the indifferent society, the only shelter of the lonely drunkard is the tavern where he can forget himself, and only solace – the Saki who holds the cup of his salvation. Saki is the only companion of the drunkard in this world-cum-tavern who faithfully remains with him throughout all the ordeals. To Saki, he can lay bare his self, with whom he can be himself. Saki is the twin-soul of this drunkard who shares his miseries with utmost love and care. Saki is the eternal audience to which the shayar, the perpetual drunkard of the tavern, talk to. Saki is the sympathetic ear to the unheard pathos of the shayar. It is no surprise therefore that most of the shayars have talked to Saki in most flattering terms. Dedicating gazals to her, they eulogize her beauty, praise her bounties (in form of sympathy-cum-wine), and crave her very presence around them. They feel elated and on top of the world by her simple glance. Mere her presence is enough to turn the nizam-e-meykhana (the administration of tavern) topsy-turvy. Then, Saki is not someone serving wine, but a goblet full of wine herself

magar usko fareb nargis-e-mastana aata hai
ulatati hai safein, gardish mein jab paimana ata hai (Aatish)

The drunk shayar is always in the competing spirits with his companions for the fleeting attention of Saki. Saki is the everlasting beloved of the drunken shayar whom he craves to take possession of. A restless soul, he is ever ready to renounce his possessions, his Faith, his very life at her mere hint

baat saki ki na tali jayegi

karke tauba tor dali jayegi (Habib Jaleel)

ankh ko jaam samjh baitha tha anjane mein
saakiya hosh kahan tha tere diwane mein (Shamim Shahbadi)

Although, Saki is more than a beloved, however because of her endless conceiving as a lover, shabab has been considered in equal loving veneration by the poets. Owing to its varied dimensions, shabab too deserves symbolic rather than literal interpretation. Literally, shabab refers to beauty. Metaphorically, it may refer to the beauty personified as in a charming damsel, or worldly pleasures, or even divinity itself, according to the context. The soul battered by the torments of the life craves for a delicate touch that may put the balm of care on the exuding wounds. The sufis had famously compared god to the beloved, much like the Hindu conception of God as Krishna, and individual selves as gopis. As an immanent reality god that exists everywhere, Ameer Minai vouches for the courage and patience to the eager soul,

kon si jaa hai jahan jalwa-e-mashook nahi
shauk-e-deedar agar hai to nazar paida kar

Only an ignorant would interpret mashook as just lover that would be doing injustice to the true meaning of the couplet. Rather than being atheist as his other couplets on narrow interpretation might suggest, Minai emphasizes the immanence of divinity instead and advise a tolerant courage to the seekers.

To take the symbols, thus, on surface without delving deeper is completely misreading the Urdu poetry. Since such a practice would normally be considered churlish and uncouth in other languages, such is totally ignored while reading Urdu poetry. Not only the symbols are taken carelessly literal, but are offensively distorted in the process as well. It is out-an-out misinterpretation of Urdu poetry which is wholly unwarranted. To consider it as a compendium of eulogizing jingles of liquor and beauty by misunderstanding the same is to defame it. Such an act speaks not the sympathetic concern of the critics for standards of poetry, but boorishness of their thought. It tells the narrow-minded chauvinism against Urdu language as a whole. Such baseless and unfair condemnation is not only un-poetical, unethical, but criminal as well. It is like the washing the minds of the naive readers even before they come to relish Urdu poetry. It is like playing with their beliefs which they put in the sayings of such critics.

It is not that critics, whether lay or professional, are not aware of such nuances of Urdu poetry. For these are more or less similar in all the languages. This has nothing to do anything with the prior knowledge at all. Nor intellectual competence is required. It is concerned rather with the attitude, the perspective with which one approaches the language. It should be honestly admitted now that people do not as innocently approach Urdu as they do other languages. Their perspective towards Urdu language is shaped by the social reality they live in. This social reality which is politically shaped! And this perspective is disappointingly biased, unfair and detrimental to urdu language as such. It wont be insignificant at this point to expose one more disgusting attitude of the people whereby a language is linked with the religious identity of the speaker. It is the most depressing aspect of all this turmoil that people quickly relate language with the religion. So, a Hindi, by their view, rightly is of Hindus, Punjabi of Sikhs and Urdu of Muslims only! Such deeply has ingrained this sordid belief that people gape with wonder seeing a Hindu speaking Urdu, or a Muslim discoursing about Sanskrit. This ‘wonder’ often gives me fits! Language is never, never of religion, or region only. It is of people. It belongs to people who speak it, whoever or wherever they might be. Language lives and nourished in the hands of people. Such wonders are what lead to bigotry and make the world of their believers small and choking. These wonders, in fact, build the perspectives from which such misreadings, that we talked about, ensue. Rather than linguist incompetence, thus, more socio-political prejudices are responsible for abetting and spreading such an adverse attitude for Urdu poetry and its chronic misinterpretation at the hands of ignorant fools. Unless and until, people come out of the claustrophobic world of their own language only, honest appreciation of any other language is not possible. It is incumbent upon people, therefore, to come forward and save language from such chauvinist onslaughts. Urdu is as much of Sikhs or Hindus, as Hindi is of Hindus or Muslims. Unless this general belongingness is there it appears difficult to stop the misconceptions lurking in people about Urdu shayari. Instead of being an apathetic Vaaiz, let people be Saki instead, and lend a sympathetic ear to the pathos of the Urdu gazal moaning at her degradation in the hands of bigots. Let gazals be the sweet voice of heart of shayars, and Urdu language - pride of nation once again,

Urdu hai naam jiska yeh humin jante hain Daag
Hindustan mein dhoom hamari zubaan ki hai (Daag Dehlavi)

Gagan Rism is a research scholar studying in IIT Bombay, India. For the last 11 years she is writing fiction - short stories and poetry which have been published in various journals/anthologies of India. Email- gaganrism@gmail.com

[1] Your goodself writes her gazals under the pen-name of 'Saki'. Blink!