An Introduction to Urdu Shaayari - ZorbaBooks

An Introduction to Urdu Shaayari

An Introduction to Urdu Shaayari

Tracing the evolution of shers down the centuries

Sher-o-shaayari is the most popular genre of Urdu writing and is often the first exposure to the Urdu language for most of us. Who can forget the popular Hindi film songs of yester years based on ghazals which have enthralled generations in South Asia. The world of Urdu shaayari is filled with feelings and emotions, elegantly and delicately expressed. The succinctness of shers encourages a listener to draw his or her own interpretation depending on one’s experience and state of mind.

Urdu shaayari began in the early 18th century and continues to evolve till date. Through the examples of select shers written by master shaayars down the ages, this evolution can be traced. And this will make interesting reading for those taking their first steps in shaayari appreciation as well as connoisseurs. 

18th Century

The golden period of Urdu shaayari really began in the 18th Century. The 18th and 19th Centuries were a period of great chaos. Aurangzeb had died and soon after that the Mughal empire started to collapse. The final blow was the quashing of the 1857 mutiny, after which the last Mughal emperor was exiled. The Mughal court was no longer able to offer patronage to the shaayars and most of them started to move out from Delhi. Most of them migrated to Lucknow, Rampur or Hyderabad.

Shaayars, like most poets, are the conscience-keepers of society. Even the shaayars of the 18th and 19th Century were dead against religious orthodoxy and spoke often about the oneness of Hinduism and Islam. They reserved their utter contempt for the Islamic clergy, called mulla or zaahid. This contempt was probably driven by the fact that the clergy was dead against alcohol, while most shaayars would rather die than teetotal! From time to time, the shaayars also revealed their romantic side!

Mohammad Rafi Sauda (1713-1781)

He was the first major shaayar of the 18th Century to emerge from Delhi. He clearly knew where his heart lay:

हिन्दू हैं बुत-परस्त मुसलमान ख़ुदा-परस्त

पूजूँ मैं उस किसी को जो हो आशना-परस्त

Worship of any God may be fine but I would rather revere one who worships his beloved!

Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810)

He is known as the “God of Poetry”. He left Delhi in the midst of the collapse of the Mughal empire and he describes the sad situation of the Mughal nobility in Delhi at that time. He says

दिल्ली में आज भीक भी मिलती नहीं उन्हें

था कल तलक दिमाग़ जिन्हें ताज-ओ-तख़्त का

He also revealed a softer side

नाज़ुकी उस के लब की क्या कहिये

पंखुड़ी इक गुलाब की सी है

He died a broken man in Lucknow. His grave in Lucknow is untraceable – people say that a railway line was laid over it!

Ghulam Hamdani Mushafi (1747-1824)

He was a very prolific writer, who lived in deprivation all his life. He tried to get patronage from both the Delhi & the Lucknow courts but failed.

His best-known sher is a personal favourite:

‘मुसहफ़ी’ हम तो ये समझे थे कि होगा कोई ज़ख़्म

तेरे दिल में तो बहुत काम रफ़ू का निकला

Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775-1862)

He was the last Mughal emperor when the 1857 mutiny took place. He was arrested, tried for treason and exiled to Burma, where he died. His sadness and irony at his situation comes through beautifully in this shaayari:

कितना है बाद-नसीब ‘ज़फर’ दफन के लिए

दो गज़ ज़मीन भी न मिली कू-ए-यार में

Haider Ali Aatish (1778-1847)

He was a disciple of Mushafi who kept himself away from nobles and lead the life of a sufi. His dislike for bigotry was clear:

बुत-ख़ाना तोड़ डालिये मस्जिद को धाइये

दिल को न तोड़िये यह ख़ुदा का मक़ाम है

Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq (1790-1854)

He was the poet laureate of the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was also his disciple in poetry. His father was an ordinary soldier and he remained down to earth and used simple speech. That is probably the reason why he became popular amongst the masses. Taking potshots at the mullas helped too! 

ज़ाहिद शराब पीने से काफिर हुआ मैं क्यूँ

क्या डेढ़ चुल्लू पानी मैं ईमान बह गया


‘ज़ौक़’ जो मदरसे के बिगड़े हुए हैं मुल्लI

उन को मये-खाने में ले आओ संवर जाएंगे

19th Century

Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869)

He belonged to a family of soldiers in the Mughal army. Having lost his father at 5 and having little inheritance, he lived in poverty. He became Bahadur Shah Zafar’s mentor after Zauq but the mutiny of 1857 ended the Emperor’s patronage.

Ghalib took on concepts sacred to Islam in his usual witty style

हम को मालूम है जन्नत की हक़ीक़त लेकिन

दिल के खुश रखने को ‘ग़ालिब’ ये ख़याल अच्छा है

I know that there is no heaven but dreaming of the joys of heaven after you die makes your shitty life on earth bearable!

He fell in love with a dancing girl who gave him a lot of anguish and pain

मोहब्बत में नहीं है फ़र्क़ जीने-मरने का

उसी को देख के जीते हैं जिस काफिर पे दम निकले

After Ghalib, Dagh Dehlavi and Amir Minai were the last of the shaayars who enjoyed royal patronage.

Dagh Dehlavi (1831-1905)

He was a grandson of Bahadur Shah Zafar. After the fall of Delhi, he moved to Rampur and later to Lucknow and Hyderabad. He had a refreshing take on romance and brought it down to the physical level!

शब्-ए-विसाल है गुल कर दो इन चराग़ों को

ख़ुशी की बज़्म में क्या काम जलने वालों का

Amir Minai (1829-1900)

He was a contemporary of Dagh Dehlavi. He too left Delhi and lived in the Rampur court for many years.

सरकती जाए है रुख से नक़ाब आहिस्ता आहिस्ता 

निकलता आ रहा है आफताब आहिस्ता आहिस्ता

By the end of the 19th Century, a shaayar had lost all royal patronage. He became a common man left to his own devices to make a living. 

Akbar Allahabadi (1846-1921)

He is a good example of this new shaayar. He was a self-made man who had to leave school at 15, improved his English through self-study, passed the bar exam and retired as a Sessions Court Judge. He was a master of satire and a keen observer of the changing world, as the 19th century moved into the 20th century.    

लिपट भी जा न रुक ‘अकबर’ ग़ज़ब की ब्यूटी है

नहीं नहीं पे न जा ये हया की ड्यूटी है

He wrote this famous sher which some of you may have heard

हम आह भी करते हैं तो हो जाते हैं बदनाम

वो क़त्ल भी करते हैं तो चर्चा नहीं होता

20th Century

The 20th century saw the dawn of a modern India, marked by the freedom struggle, the partition and the birth of a new republic. The concerns of the shaayar moved from the philosophical level to the realities of life.  

Jigar Moradabadi (1890-1960)

He epitomized this 20th century shaayar. He was an iconic romantic poet who regaled audiences in mushairas. In the turbulent period post partition, he saw his role very clearly:

उन का जो फ़र्ज़ है वो अहल-ए-सियासत जानें

मेरा पैग़ाम मोहब्बत है जहां तक पहुंचे

One of his well-known shers is

यूँ ज़िंदगी गुज़ार रहा हूँ तिरे बग़ैर

जैसे कोई गुनाह किये जा रहा हूँ मैं

Majrooh Sultanpuri (1919-2000)

He was also a well-known film lyricist. He saw some of his close friends move to Pakistan after partition and his feeling of alienation is palpable:  

ज़बान हमारी न समझा यहाँ कोई ‘मजरूह’

हम अजनबी की तरह अपने वतन में रहे

The mid-20th Century saw the emergence of new styles of shaayari. The themes revolved around the anonymity and loneliness of city life and the hollowness of modern human relationships. And the language became simplified and direct.   

Mohammad Alvi (1927-2018)

He lived all his life in Ahmedabad. He broke established traditions of shaayari:  

बुला रहा था कोई चीख चीख कर मुझ को

कुँए में झाँक कर देखा तो मैं ही अंदर था

Ahmad Faraz (1931–2008)

He was born in Pakistan. He disapproved of Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship and was arrested. Upon his release he went on a self-imposed exile to Europe. He returned to Pakistan to hold important Government positions and win many state honors.  

इस तरह से गुज़ारी है ज़िंदगी जैसे

तमाम उम्र किसी दूसरे के घर मैं रहा


अब के हम बिछड़े तो शायद कहीं ख़्वाबों में मिलें

जिस तरह सूखे हुए फूल किताबों में मिलें

Bashir Badr (b1935)

He is an academician whose house in Meerut was burnt in communal riots. He then shifted to Bhopal, where is still lives.  

ज़िंदगी तू ने मुझे क़ब्र से कम दी है ज़मीन

पाँव फैलाऊं तो दीवार में सर लगता है


यहाँ लिबास की क़ीमत है आदमी की नहीं 

मुझे गिलास बड़े दे शराब कम कर दे

Shahryar (1936-2012)

He was an academician and film lyricist for critically acclaimed films.

This sher is from ‘Gaman’, a film of the 70’s set in Mumbai

सीने में जलन आँखों में तूफ़ान सा क्यूँ है

इस शहर में हर शख़्स परेशान सा क्यूँ है

All the acclaimed songs in Umrao Jaan were based on ghazals written by him:

ये क्या जगह है दोस्तों ये कौन सा दयार है 

हद-ए-निगाह तक गुबार ही गुबार है  

Zehra Nigaah (b1936)

She was born in Hyderabad but migrated to Pakistan after partition. Her’s is one of the very rare women’s voices in Urdu shaayari. Her shers are a refreshing take on domestic and feminist themes:

अब इस घर की आबादी मेहमानों पर है

कोई आ जाए तो वक़्त गुज़र जाता है 

Those of us who are empty-nesters whose children have left home can identify with this situation

छोटी सी बात पे खुश होना मुझे आता थ

पर बड़ी बात पे चुप रहना तुम्ही से सीखा

Gulzar (b1936)

He needs no introduction as a poet, lyricist and film director. He is able to weave magic with words used in daily life! The loneliness, probably after his divorce from his wife, a well-known Hindi film actress, is palpable in these shers:

आइना देख कर तसल्ली हुई

हम को इस घर में जानता है कोई


हम ने अक्सर तुम्हारी राहों में

रुक कर अपना ही इंतज़ार किया

Nida Fazli (1938-2016)

He also found fame as a film lyricist. Though his father migrated to Pakistan, he chose to remain in India. He wrote about the short-lived nature of modern human relationships:

नक़्शा उठा के कोई नया शहर ढूँढिये

इस शहर में तो सब से मुलाक़ात हो गई

And in this shallow world, looking for trust and faith is a risky business:

रिश्तों का एतिबार वफ़ाओं का इन्तिज़ार

हम भी चराग ले के हवाओं में आए हैं

Javed Akhtar (b1945)

He found fame as a famous script-writer for Amitabh blockbusters. He captures the trend of hi-rises in big cities in a telling sher

ऊंची इमारतों से मकान मेरा घिर गया 

कुछ लोग मेरे हिस्से का सूरज भी खा गए

Parveen Shakir (1952-1994)

She was a distinguished academic and civil servant of Pakistan. Her very promising career as a shaayaraa was cut short in a car accident when she was only 42.

The gender imbalance between men and women in our societies is brought out very well:

मैं सच कहूँगी मगर फिर भी हर जाऊँगी

वो झूट बोलेगा और ला-जवाब कर देगा

The tradition of evocative and elegant shaayari continues and there are many young shaayars who speak of contemporary issues. There is one shaayar that I would like to feature here.

Rajesh Reddy (b1952)

In his unique style, he reflects modern-day reality:   

वो आफ़ताब लाने का देकर हमें फरेब

हम से हमारी रात के जुगनू भी ले गया

मुस्कुराया कैमरे के सामने 

एक गवाही मैंने दी खुद के खिलाफ


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Sunil Gupta