Art & Culture

How a ghazal controversy became an ode to a Mughal patriot

Ajay Mankotia
Ajay MankotiaOct 09, 2015 | 19:39

How a ghazal controversy became an ode to a Mughal patriot

Na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon

Na kisi ke dil ka qaraar hoon

Jo kisi ke kaam na aa sake

Main woh ek musht-e-gubaar hoon

A whole generation has grown up in the subcontinent listening to the pathos-filled, divine-voiced, masterly rendition by Rafi of this ghazal written by Bahadur Shah Zafar from Lal Qila released in 1960. SN Tripathi's music was minimal, thus enhancing the pain and suffering suffusing the ghazal of the last Mughal emperor.


In the same film, Rafi also sang, in a recitational style, the other jewel in Zafar's oeuvre - "Lagta nahin hai dil mera".

The longing, despair and helplessness of the Rangoon-exiled monarch is very movingly conveyed in the last stanza - Kitnaa hai badnaseeb Zafar, dafn ke liye, do gaz zameen bhi na mili, koo-e-yaar mein.

Earlier, in the early '50s, Habib Wali Muhammad had recorded "Lagta nahin" under the music direction of Saraswati Devi (India's first female music director). After this ghazal was broadcast on Radio Ceylon, it became very popular. Habib later migrated to Pakistan.

But it was Rafi who brought the two ghazals and Zafar's authorship of them into national consciousness. The association of Zafar with these two ghazals has continued to be reinforced in popular culture. "Lagta nahin" was so inextricably linked to Zafar that it was represented on a commemorative postage stamp released in his honour in 1975. Last year, I saw Salman Khurshid's play Sons of Babur with Zafar as the central character where these ghazals were featured.

Imagine, therefore, the shock when Javed Akhtar recently announced that "Na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon" was actually penned by his grandfather Muztar Khairabadi (1865-1927). Javed's father, the noted poet Jan Nisar Akhtar, had some of Muztar's works with him. His remaining works were found in libraries and private collections in Khairabad, Lucknow, Tonk, Rampur, Indore, Gwalior, Bhopal and Indore - cities where Muztar had worked as a judicial magistrate. Javed found the original copy of the ghazal in the pages of his grandfather's personal books. He collected all of Muztar's ghazals into a book consisting of five volumes - Khirman - which was launched by the vice president of India in September this year.


Among the cognoscenti, the debate, however, has been raging for long, much before Javed's disclosure. There is a considerable section which believes that the provenance of both the ghazals is not Zafar. In fact, some quarters in popular culture also uphold this view. Theatre director Sayeed Alam's play Lal Quile ka Akhri Mushaira, inspired by Muhammad Hussain Azad's Ab-e-Hayat and Farhatullah Beg's Dehli ki Aakhri Shama mentions the two ghazals as not having been penned by Zafar. In the opening scene of Bahadur Shah Zafar, a television serial directed by Baldev Raj Chopra in 1986, the names that appear on the screen are Zauq, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Muztar Khairabadi and Ghalib. William Dalrymple in his book The Last Mughal also refers to the controversy.

How did the controversy begin?

Jan Nisar Akhtar, in a 1938 article in the magazine Suhail, claimed that "Na kisi ki aankh" was in Muztar's handwritten divan (collection of poems), which he had in his possession. An essay by Yunus Hasni, "Shah Zafar nahin - Muztar Khairabadi", appeared in Nigar-e- Pakistan in January 1963, making the same claim.

The ghazal is not to be found in any of Zafar's divans. His first divan (believed to be completed in 1808) was published in 1845 or 1846. The second divan appeared in 1849. His third and fourth divans were probably published in 1856. His Kulliyat (collection) of all four divans was first published in 1862, and then in 1870 or 1887.


But could Zafar have written them during his exile in Rangoon post-1857 and that's why they don't appear in his divans? There's very little evidence that Zafar ever composed any more poetry after his four pre-1857 divans. During his stay in Rangoon, it wasn't possible for him to write as pen, ink and paper were strictly prohibited (jail governor quoted in Biyaz-e-Zafar). While he could have composed ghazals and remembered it by heart, the public was not allowed to hold intercourse with the prisoners. Zafar had no communication with the outside world.

Till 1958, this ghazal was not mentioned in any recognised Urdu publication. It had only been recited in mushairas and mehfils from where it travelled to ghazal singers and qawwals. From there it found its way to a paperback called Guldasta and got published as that of Zafar. The first published attribution of this ghazal to Zafar appeared in a selection called Navaa-e Zafar, published in 1958. The reading public readily accepted Zafar's authorship.

Similarly, "Lagta nahin hai dil mera" is attributed to Seemab Akbarabadi. One of the couplets of the ghazal is:

Umr-e-daraaz maang kar laaye they chaar din, do arzoo mein kat gaye do intezaar mein.

This verse appeared in Nigar's special issue on autobiographies (January-February 1941). Seemab himself selected this couplet for the special issue as one of his favourite verses.

Why were these ghazals attributed to Zafar?

In Urdu poetry, there is a tradition to write ghazals in the style of famous poets. They thus resemble, in style and substance, the ghazals of the poet concered. Zafar was an accomplished poet with a distinct style. His ghazals are a beautiful collection of words that spell magic and are read with awe and admiration. It's not unusual, therefore, for these two ghazals to be wrongly attributed to Zafar. There are examples galore of such misattributions. Regarding "Na kisi ki aankh", there are similar such couplets which are in circulation, like:

Na raha voh rang na boo rahi, na gulon ki khoobi-o-khoo rahi

Jo khizaan ke haathon tabaah hai, main voh yaadgaar-e-bahaar hoon

Most people were of the view that only a doomed emperor like Zafar could create self-pity of the sort expressed in the two ghazals. To use the imagery of Kitnaa hai badnaseeb Zafar, dafn ke liye, do gaz zameen bhi na mili, koo-e-yaar mein, to declare that it must have been written after his arrest and exile made it that much more poignant. How tragic that the last Mughal to rule India had been imprisoned and then exiled to Burma, ruing his fate, missing the land he was born in, knowing that he wouldn't be buried there. This was romanticism at its very best! Since this ghazal is in a melancholic style and the maqta has Zafar's takhallus, the association with Zafar became even stronger.

There exists a contrarian view that Muztar couldn't have suffered such pain, which Zafar had to undergo. The emperor passed away in 1862 in exile in Rangoon and wrote these soul touching words in a state of utter loneliness, they claim. There are others who argue that Muztar was a man with a religious bent of mind and could not have written a ghazal of absolute hopelessness. The counter argument adduced is that Khairabadi's maternal grandfather, poet and philosopher Maulvi Fazl-i-Haq Khairabadi, was a freedom fighter who played an important role in 1857. He was later banished to the Andamans. His despondence and hopelessness were similar to what Zafar experienced, hence the similarity.

Zafar was a poet of great charm and accomplishment. Even if the two ghazals are not his, it doesn't detract from his immense talent and popularity. His poetry breathed the simmering anger, despair and revolt against the British rule. Once taunted:

Dumdamein mein dum nahin khair maango jaan ki

Aey Zafar thandi hui shamsheer Hindustan ki

Zafar riposted:

Gaziyon mein boo rahegi jab tak imaan ki

Tab toh London tak chalegi teg Hindustan ki

Only a true patriot could have uttered those words and paid a heavy price for it!

Last updated: November 07, 2016 | 13:32
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