Remembering Ibrahim Zauq On His 166th Death Anniversary: Zauq Ki Dilli

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Remembering Ibrahim Zauq On His 166th Death Anniversary: Zauq Ki Dilli

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Laayi hayaat aaye, kazaa le chali chale
Apni khushi na aaye, na apni khushi chale

(Life brought me in, death takes me away
Neither did I come on my own, nor am I leaving at my will)


A crowded furniture market in the Delhi’s Paharganj area houses the final resting place of a genius of the past, Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim Zauq, ustaad of the last Mughal emperor and the poet laureate of the last Mughal court and one can presumably say that this is not the fate that Zauq would have envisaged for himself. The rivalry between Mirza Ghalib and Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim Zauq is how most of the people know and remember Zauq! Zauq, even after being the poet laureate of the last Mughal court, did not gain the same recognition and fame as did other poets who were his contemporaries.

Delhi is not just a city. It has more to it. It has a vast history which is inextricably linked with its present. Its history is one of violence, invasions, assaults and massacres. In this process, the city died many times, yet it lives. Thus, one thing that can be concluded from this is that there is nothing that can die in Delhi. The story, the art, the architectural wonders and even the ghosts from Delhi’s past haven’t died as their stories continue to scare people visiting half-ruined buildings. Delhi is a city of love and has inspired many poets who lived in the city and showed their love for the place by being there both in flourish and in ruins and captured the history of Delhi in their outstanding oeuvres. The old Delhi or Shahjahanabad is often referred to as a city within a city. But like Delhi, Shahjahanabad is also not like any usual city but has its own distinct features. It is brimmed with art, heritage and poetry. It is a city which smells of poetry and one could have the feel of its heritage in the streets of Shahjahanabad. In fact, the streets of Delhi have eternalized its poets through their work.

Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim Zauq is an important name in the world of Urdu poetry in the mid-nineteenth century. Although he was the ustaad of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, he himself ruled a parallel empire of verse and rhyme as is evident from the stories of his legendary rivalry with Ghalib, gatherings of his disciples and by his adoration in and outside the Qila-e-Moalla. He was first appointed as the ustaad of prince Bahadur Shah Zafar. Later, the title of ‘Khaqani-e-Hind’ was conferred upon him by the Mughal Emperor Akbar Shah II after Zauq wrote a Qaseedah in his praise. After the demise of Akbar Shah II, Bahadur Shah Zafar acceded the throne as the Mughal Emperor and impressed by a longish Qaseedah, appointed Zauq as the Malik-ul-Shoara or the poet laureate of the Mughal court. However, in spite of getting this honour, his salary remained Four rupees and his house in Kabuli Darwaza remained small too.

Kabuli Darwaza was the place in Delhi where Zauq lived. It was the place where most of the elites lived but among the huge mansions of others, Zauq’s house was a small one manifesting his humility. However, any effort to find the place at present would be in vain as none of its remnants is left.

Born in 1790, he was the son of a soldier of the Mughal army. His father Shaikh Mohammad Ramzan, though a soldier, was a remarkable storyteller and a raconteur. This skill was inherited by his son as well and despite not being provided with the best available education due to the lack of sufficient means, Zauq made a mark in poetry. He had acquired ordinary education. However, instead of following the traditional occupation, he took to literature and enhanced his skills under the guidance of Hafiz Ghulam Rasool Shauq.  His teacher Hafiz Ghulam Rasool had a proclivity for writing Urdu poetry and he had chosen ‘Shauq’ as his ‘takhallus’ (pen name). In this kind of ambience, the poetry which was inherent in Zauq got a boost and he started getting interested in poetry as well. However, the beginning of the journey of the poet Zauq is marked by a special event. As a child, Zauk would visit shrines and pray, “Ilahi, mujhe sher kehna aa jaaye” (Lord, grant me the art of writing poetry), writes Ahmad Husain Lahori in Hayat-e-Zauq. “Then, one fine morning, when he was still a child, he suddenly uttered two couplets almost miraculously” and that was the beginning of Zauq’s journey as a poet. Rhyming with the takhallus of Shauq, he chose the takhallus Zauq for himself which literally meant taste. Later, he also learned from the virtuoso, Shah Naseer. Zauq’s Delhi was not only home to many poets but also had many experienced ustaad and the poet seer Shah Naseer was one of the most towering personalities among them. Zauq was one who received his tutelage and improved his skills under his ustaad and started attending Mushairas with him.

The most distinctive character of Zauq’s poetry was his perfectionist style. He was someone who did not believe in experimenting and rather chose to stick to the classical style of romantic Urdu poetry. Pure Ghazal is a highly romantic form of poetry and Zauq has been called the master of this. He had an excellent command over the language and was capable of composing poetry in difficult metres and it is this quality that made him famous in the world of Urdu poetry. Qaseedah was Zauq’s main forte. The two salient features of his ghazals were the adept use of unblemished reasoned philosophy in a limited meter and the use of antonyms at the same time. He widened the limits of traditional Urdu by applying simple Hindi words in it and by use of a variety of words for expressing a diverse range of themes. Phrases used by common people and Hindustani idioms were also abundantly used in his poetry and his modesty, simple thoughts and quirky style of poetry were his true strengths. Following is the use of Hindustani idiom in his poetry:

Gul us nigah ke zakhm-raseedon mein mil gaya
Ye bhi lahu laga ke shaheedon mein mil gaya

(Now the flower’s been wounded by her gaze
So here’s another one pretending to be a martyr.)

Like many other poets, Zauq also loved Delhi and despite receiving a low salary, he was reluctant to leave Delhi to go to any other place. In this context, he said:

In dinon garche Dakan mein hai bohot qadr-e-sukhan
Kaun jaaye Zauq par Dilli ki galiyaan chhor kar

(Although poetry is greatly valued in the Deccan these days
Zauq, who would trade that for the lanes of Delhi?)

Zauq, a great personality who conquered many hearts with his poetry, passed away in 1854 at the age of sixty-six due to a severe gastrointestinal condition. Although the streets of Delhi still give a feel of the ambience that would have existed years ago when these poets glorified these lanes, it is disappointing to find out the deteriorated state of Zauq’s final resting place and the same is also true for many others. One can only hope and try to bring back the same glory and give those marvels of the past the same kind of reverence post their death.

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About Divyanshi Shrivastava

Divyanshi Shrivastava is a graduate from St Stephen's College, University of Delhi and is currently pursuing her Masters in A.I.H.C and Archaeology from Deccan College, Pune. She has a keen interest in learning new languages and scripts and knows English, Hindi, Urdu, Persian and Spanish. Loves exploring History, culture, art and architecture.

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