Urdu’s two famous literary feuds

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Rauf Parekh

Authors are a strange lot. They are known for their eccentricities and inflated egos which often land them in controversies, spats and even scuffles. Sometimes, the reason behind a literary skirmish is just a scathing remark or a poisonous review by a contemporary. Rejoinders, counterclaims and insults can quickly pile up, dragging many into a full-blown and long-drawn feud.

During such a brawl, Mohlat (a pupil of Jur’at) and Mahshar (a disciple of Khwaja Mir Dard) drew swords. Mohlat killed Mahshar and fled, but when he returned a few years later Mahshar’s relatives killed him (Mohlat). Though not every literary skirmish ends in such a tragedy, the history of Urdu literature is replete with spats and feuds, some of which took nasty turns.

At the same time, these feuds inspired some very fine, witty and delightful pieces of poetry or prose. The history of literary feuds in Urdu begins as early as in the 16th century, but here, pressed for space, we can have a look at only two of Urdu’s noted literary feuds.

1. Insha and Mus’hafi: Apparently, some couplets of Insha Allah Khan Insha (1752-1817) that parodied Mus’hafi’s (1750-1824) couplets had ignited the fire. According to Muhammad Hussain Azad, Prince Mirza Sulaiman Shikoh, who left Delhi and settled in Lucknow in 1790, was a poet and Mus’hafi was assigned the job of ‘islah’ (literally ‘correction’), or review, which was quite common in those days.

But when Insha arrived in Lucknow, he impressed the prince much with his wit and learning and was assigned the work of reviewing the prince’s poetry. Some scholars disagree and say that Mus’hafi’s arrogant behaviour and his indecent words in a panegyric ode had infuriated the prince and he had asked Insha to slight Mus’hafi.

In reply to Insha’s insulting verses, Mus’hafi composed some equally insulting couplets. Both the poets and their pupils engaged in the war of words. On one occasion some of Mus’hafi’s disciples gathered together and reached Insha’s residence to recite before him a hajv (lampoon).

Insha, being a sharp fellow, welcomed them, listened to the poetry, appreciated much and entertained them quite well. But Insha’s revenge was even worse: he took an entire baraat (wedding procession) with dolls dressed as groom and bride, named ‘Mus’hafi and Mus’hafan’. The wedding party sang lampooning poems while marching on city streets. Though the entire episode was in bad taste, some of the verses composed on both sides were quite funny, some of them even lewd.

2. Ghalib and Zauq: Ghalib (1797-1869), known for his inflated ego, had had a literary skirmish during his stay in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1828. Ghalib ultimately had to bow out with writing an apologetic qit’a (poem). Another of Ghalib’s literary feuds began after his severe criticism of Burhan-i-qaat’e, a dictionary of Persian, prompting a series of books from the two sides.

However, the feud between Ghalib and his contemporary Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim Zauq (1788/9-1854) had some interesting turns. Zauq was Bahadur Shah Zafar’s poet-courtier and Zafar had made him ‘ustaad’ (teacher) when he was a prince.

Though ustaad’s salary was just Rs4, it earned him great respect among the royal family and a free access to the Red Fort. Ghalib always felt ignored and perhaps yearned to be the poet-courtier. Ghalib’s following couplet in fact lampoons Zauq, though he has inserted his name instead:

Huva hai sheh ka musahib phire hai itraataa

Vagarna shehr mein Ghalib ki aabroo kya hai?

(Since he has become the courtier, Ghalib behaves arrogantly. Otherwise he has no respect in the town.)

On the occasion of Prince Mirza Jawan Bakht’s wedding, the queen asked Ghalib to write a sehra (a poem recited on wedding). In his sehra Ghalib claimed that nobody could write a better sehra than him.

The last line said: Dekhen is sehre se keh de koi behter sehra

(Let’s see if someone can compose a better sehra than this one.)

Zauq took it as a challenge and wrote an equally exquisite, if not better, sehra. Zafar did not like Ghalib’s taunt and Ghalib, realising the sensitivity of the situation, wrote an apologetic qit’a. One of the couplets said:

Ustaad-i-sheh se ho mujhe purkhash ka khyayal

Ye tab ye majaal ye jr’at nahin mujhe

(To think of challenging the king’s teacher I do not have such courage and valour.)

But some critics believe that even in that apology Ghalib showed his wit by saying:

Roo-i-sukhan kisi ki taraf ho to roo siyah

(I may be cursed if I had said anything bad about anyone.)

But the use of word roo siyah is interesting, since it also mean ‘black faced’ as well as cursed, and Zauq is said to be of dark complexion.

Rauf Parekh, “Urdu’s two famous literary feuds,” in Dawn, June 1, 2015. Accessed on June 7, 2015, at: http://www.dawn.com/news/1185379/literary-notes-urdus-two-famous-literary-feuds

The item above written by Rauf Parekh and published in Dawn on June 1, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on June 7, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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