Existentialism’s genesis in 19th century Urdu poetry


Debates on man’s purpose in life have been as old as his existence and, at some phase, call in question the role of the world – is it friendly, hostile or supremely indifferent? Taking the last position was a school of thought, predominantly European, where the individual’s start is marked by “the existential attitude”, or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless, absurd world.

But do the angst-ridden quartet of writers and philosophers – Kierkegaard (Dane), Dostoyevsky (Russian), Nietzsche (German) and Sartre (French) – who are acknowledged as Existentialism’s pioneers deserve all the credit or should we look closer to home?

A consistent but concise definition of Existentialism has been difficult to frame, but Sartre came the closest in describing it as “the attempt to draw all the consequences from a position of consistent atheism”.

Also among its key features is the notion of the Absurd, which is not the dictionary definition but rather that there is no meaning in the world beyond what humans give it.

It is not very difficult to trace these sentiments expressed in the 19th and 20th century Europe, earlier in time and space to Asia – 12th century Persian astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), in one of his quatrains, translated and popularised by Edward Fitzgerald, says: “Into this Universe, and why not knowing,/Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:/And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,/I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.”

And on the inexorable, mechanistic workings of destiny and the futility of imploring divine intercession, the Sage of Naishapur says: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,/Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit/Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,/Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it” and “And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,/Whereunder crawling coop’t we live and die,/Lift not thy hands to IT for help–for It/Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.”

But there was a poet from the Indian subcontinent itself who excelled in transmuting the mysterious absurdity of life and the human condition into verse – verse which is still popular and heard, though most of the hearers may not know anything of its antecedents.

His most famous couplet is on the ineffable paradox of life – and death: “Ab to ghabra ke ye kahte hai ke mar jaayenge/Mar ke bhi chain na paaya to kidhar jaayenge“, while another famous ghazal, immortalised by both K.L. Saigal and Begum Akhtar, is the one beginning: “Layi hayat aaye qaza le chali chale/ Na apni khushi aaye na apni khushi chale” – and what could be a more poetic expression of Existentialism.

These are among the few surviving examples of the corpus of Sheikh Muhammad Ibrahim ‘Zauq’ (1789-1854), the most popular poet in an era which boasted Ghalib, Momin, Shefta, Azurda and the poet-emperor Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’ himself among many others.

The son of an ordinary soldier who educated himself to rise to poet laureate at the imperial court when just a teenager, the poetic preceptor to the emperor himself and was titled “Khaqani-e-Hind” after the fabled 12th century Persian poet, ‘Zauq’s fame has unfortunately dissipated after him.

But circumstances were against him – as the emperor’s Ustad meant he never had enough time for his own work, of which a major segment was anyway lost in turmoil Delhi went through in 1857.

Contemporary accounts also played a part – while film “Mirza Ghalib” was ambivalent, the TV serial on Urdu poetry’s most recognised poet was slightly more partisan in favour of its hero, who is shown thinking aloud in one scene, that poetry should not merely be esteemed on the basis of usage of wordplay, polished language and skilled rhyming, but on content and style – as exemplified in his own oeuvre!

But even if only the second of his ghazals cited above had survived, it would have been enough to cement his reputation. Succeeding couplets, including those not featured in Saigal and the Begum’s renditions, go: “Behtar to hai yehi ke na duniya se dil lage/Par kya karen jo kaam na bedillagi chale”, “Ho umr-e-Khizr bhi to kahenge ba vaqt-e-marg/Ham kya rahe yahaan abhi aaye abhi chale”, and “Naazaan na ho khirad pe jo hona hai vo hi ho/Daanish teri na kuchh meri daanishvari chale”.

Most superlative are the last two deeply imbued in a pessimistic resignation: “Duniya ne kis ka raah-e-fanaa mein diya hai saath/Tum bhi chale chalo yun hi jab tak chali chale” and “Jati havaa-e-shauq mein hai is chaman se ‘Zauq’/Apni bala se baad-e-saba kahi chale”.

The ghazal seems a primer for a contemplative soul – and we can only bemoan other gems lost in ‘Zauq’s unpublished work!

(Vikas Dutta, IANS)