Nazeer Akbarabadi: The Hindustani Poet

This is a very interesting article sent to us by Ms Razia Hussain. Apart from a brief biography of the poet, it is an excellent analysis of language as well as the social circumstance prevailing at that time. It talks about a language which later on evolved into two major languages, i.e. Urdu and Hindi. A must read for language buffs and also for those who want to have a look at history through a completely different perspective

By Razia Hussain

Nazeer Akbarabadi (1735-1830) was one of the first ‘Hidustani’ poet – unfortunately he turned out to be the only one.

In early 1700s a new language was emerging in and around Delhi. This language was a mixture of some local dialects (Hindvi and Bhaashaa) and Persian, the language of the royal court. There was no formal script, grammar and no prescribed rules for this language. The formation of this un-named language was as organic as the formation of the society at the turn of eighteenth century in the northern sub-continent. There were Hindu aristocrats, eager to learn Persian to gain favor of the court. There were people of Persian and Mongolian decent already rooted in the culture of the sub-continent. Presence of East India Company was ever more felt in larger cities. Political tensions were high, there were many players and the balance of political power hung precariously between them all. At this precise juncture in history, when the fates of a society, a polity, a nation and a language were hanging in a balance, a linguistically gifted genius happened to be taking lexical snapshots of these accounts in his poetry.

Axes of Hindustani

The claim that Nazeer was the first and only Hindustani poet requires some explanation. There is no definition of Hindustani language. It is probably this hypothetical ideal of a language –the mother of modern Urdu/Hindi registers. As mentioned earlier, Urdu/Hindi are a result of an organically evolved language from local Sanskrit based dialects and Persian. One axis of Hindustani is, therefore, along the various languages it has evolved from: Sanskrit on one end and Persian on the other, with various local dialects in-between. The few foreign words of Portuguese and Latin come through the dialects (absorbed from Portuguese traders) whereas Turkish and Arabic come through Persian.  Second axis of Hindustani ran along the social status of the speaker. Persian was the medium of instruction of higher education, and viewed similar to how English is viewed in modern day subcontinent. Education, though not always, also reflects the economic status of people because it is a luxury only the rich can afford. Therefore, in 1700s, a wealthy and/or educated person was more likely to use Persian vocabulary than not. Third axis of the language depicted the religious affiliation of the speaker. Islamic terms did not have Sanskrit words and Hindu terms did not have Persian counterparts. Therefore Hindus were likely to resort to Sanskrit based words whereas Muslims had more Persian vocabulary at their disposal. The third axis, however, was the weakest because as mentioned earlier, wealthy Hindu families routinely acquired formal Persian education.

The Chemistry of the language

Taking an analogy of a chemical reaction, if one can imagine a complex reaction of various socio-political forces with language as a reagent, one can imagine that for a brief period in history in a place called Akbarabad, the conditions were just right for Hindustani to exist before breaking up into its registers. Nazeer just happened to be at the right place at the right time under the right circumstances to record this period for posterity. Right place because Akbarabad was neither too far from the Delhi court, nor too near; right time because Hindustani had not yet been formally divided into the two registers; and the right circumstances because Nazeer was perhaps the only major poet of his time who was not associated with any court and did not receive any stipend from a local aristocrat. In fact, Nazeer’s only wealthy patron was a Hindu family whose children were his students. How is financial independence of Nazeer (who earned his living by teaching Persian and selling books) relevant, you ask? It is because, the poets who received stipends from courts of the sultan or aristocrats reflected the class of people they worked for and were removed from the common people. Nazeer, being a Persian scholar, was well aware of the etiquettes of high society but preferred to live among the common people. His close association with people of all religions and keen observation contributed inordinately to his vast vocabulary and knowledge of various dialects (regarded as separate languages in his time.) His poetic work, therefore, slides back and forth on all three axes of the Hindustani language, making him the one and only Hindustani poet of the subcontinent.

Linguistic Contribution

Nazeer is perhaps the only poet of subcontinent who blatantly disregarded all the rules of ‘proper’ language and went on a quest to forge a language as he saw fitting to the society he lived in. There are no other examples found in poets of his time or even later, who saw the potential in the newly forming Hindustani language, as did Nazeer. He used compound words like “nigeh guptii” (Persian;Sanskrit) and “dush.t .gazab” (Sanskrit;Arabic), joinedwords like “jawaan o la.rkei” (using the Persian conjuction forbidden to join Persian and Hindustani words) and concocted words like “phabaawa.t” (from “phabtii”). He also used many colloquial words not found in formal dictionaries, many of them quite lewd in nature. No wonder the literary elites brushed his work aside as substandard and later struck his name out from the prestigious collections of Urdu poetry. His vast vocabulary was criticized to be too uncouth, his linguistic innovations were dismissed as grotesque and his reverence for Hinduism and other religions was taken as the sign of apostasy.

Nazeer’s poems are a snapshot of the urban society under the failing Mughal empire. He describes in detail the everyday life, festivities and the breakdown of social fabric in the society of Akbarabad. He paints a picture of a society which is keenly aware of the different castes, religions and social classes and yet works through all these differences on a day to day basis. His poems encompass the unlikely characters of prostitutes (both male and female) eunuchs, peddlers and street performers. He writes of shallow frivolities as well as the deeper meaning of life; for the illiterate as well as the erudite. Nazeer is not just a poet of common people, he is a poet for all the people.

Nazeer and Now

Nazeer’s work is relevant now, more than ever, in the history of the subcontinent. While his peers such as Ghalib and Mir reluctantly slaved in the courts, he felt the pulse of the society and articulated the aspirations of the common man on the street: food, shelter and security. These are still the most coveted objects of desire for millions in the subcontinent. People really don’t care who rules over them and whether they have weapons of mass destruction to defeat the invaders. People want to survive and live in peace with their families and watch their children grow.

Nazeer’s discernment of one society never came to pass. The political tides drove the people of subcontinent onto two separate paths. Religion, the weakest axis of Hindustani language, was inordinately strengthened to achieve political goals. The script and vocabulary of the language was divvied up between various groups and what could have been a grand language and a grand nation was reduced to Hindi for Hindus in Hindustan and Urdu for Muslims in Pakistan.

Six decades later, Pakistanis still find themselves hooked to Hindi movies and Indians still fall for the Persianized Urdu songs of Bollywood. The governments try to keep the people apart, feeding fear and hatred, but the common culture and language unequivocally attracts them when they see each other outside of their homeland. The political stability of the area depends on their mutual cooperation which is crucial for their economic viability as well. India and Pakistan share the common geography which is equally prone to threats from epidemics such as UG99. It is only through mutual cooperation that both nations can find common solutions to their common problems.

There are some recent efforts, however humble, to bring the two countries together such as Aman ki Aasha. Who better to quote at this time than Nazeer, who says: 

kaljag nahii.n karjag hai ye, yaa.n din ko dei aur raat lei                                                                                          

kyaa  .kuub   saudaa naqd hai, is  haat  dei  us  haat   lei.  

With poverty and populations rising and resources, such as water, falling short, peace is no longer a preference, but a dire need.  One must never underestimate the power of necessity.

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30 Comments

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30 responses to “Nazeer Akbarabadi: The Hindustani Poet

  1. Kamala

    Fascinating post. You learn something new everyday.

    Kamala

  2. Raza Raja

    In my opinion it is a splendid article which evaluates Nazeer Akbar Abadi’s contributions from a very different angle.

  3. Vijay Goel

    Great Post. Hidden Emotions of a shared past and beauty of the two languages Sanskrit and Persian conglamurating in Hindustani and then dividing in Hindi and Urdu bring tears in the eyes.

  4. Mnoor

    Nazeer poems possess an awami touch which is unique of his times. As mentioned in the article he was not part of the court and that gave him plenty of creative freedom. His poetry is as relevant today or perhaps more so than it was in his times. I wish a good translation of his poems like Aadmi is made available to the English Speaking public.

  5. KR

    Nazeer has written conventional ghazals too which can compete with Mir and Ghalib’s ghazals any day. However, you are right majority of his poems are for common people. There are some translations available, but you have to realize it takes a lot more than translation to reach Western audience. Nazeer has yet not been on any political/ religious/ literary group’s radar and no one has championed him or his work, hence he remains obscure (except for a few poems) even in the subcontinent.
    here is a translation for his ‘banjaaraa naamaa’:
    Why do you wander restlessly, why this envy and greed.
    Death’ll follow wherever you go, a truth you better heed!
    All your wealth and possessions, your cattle of every breed
    Those heaps of rice and lentils, every grain and every seed
    As you pack your bag to leave there’s nothing you will need

    Yes you are a big trader and your stakes are very high
    But, beware, there is another, a bigger one, close by
    All the sugar and saffron from lands far and nigh
    Sweet condiments, hot spices that bring tears to the eye
    As you pack your bag to leave there’s nothing you will need

    Time will clean out your saddlebag and it will deflate as it must
    And you will be stretched out all alone in the wilderness of dust
    Your fabulous wealth and rosy health will also have gone bust
    Quite forsaken and forgotten by all you love and trust
    As you pack your bag to leave there’s nothing you will need

    Why crave for worldly goods, why this pining for Midas’s touch?
    Where you are headed, silly man, you won’t really need much
    All this velvet, all this silk, all this glittering brocaded stuff
    Bejewelled saddles and gilded howdahs will not add up to much
    As you pack your bag to leave there’s nothing you will need

    Your sole thought is of profit and loss which makes you slog like mad
    But forget not you are marked and stalked by an enemy vicious and bad
    None can help, your family nor slaves nor friends nor mom nor dad
    Prayer you made, charity you gave, the succour you offered to the sad
    As you pack your bag to leave there’s nothing you will need

    When you are taken away by Death leaving behind a body in tatters
    Some will gather, some stitch and darn, and some see to other matters
    You’ll be alone in a narrow dark grave as your dust in the wind scatters
    None’ll peep in then not a bird, nor an insect nor the cricket which chatters
    As you pack your bag to leave there’s nothing you will need

  6. safia

    Very educational and interesting article–

  7. Rafi

    Excellent article and poem. Makes you wonder and realize the real worth of life and humanity at large. Poets are special as they bring forth ideas that are so real and close to life.

  8. VS

    Well done KR. Any translation in Urdu/Hindi?

  9. KR

    VS: Thanks. The poems are in Urdu/Hindi …Hindustani…so I am not sure what do you mean. There are some samples available on web in Devnagri and Urdu script but those are only select 5-8 poems repeated everywhere…the poet wrote upwards of 200,000 verses..surely there is more to him than banjara naama, aadmi naama, philosophy of ‘roti’, and the ‘khulii jab sei ca.sme dil e hazii.n’ … The author has one on her facebook page
    http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=463812086015

  10. Tilsim

    Thank you Razia for bringing this poet of our common heritage and shared culture to the fore once again.

    Here is an extract from just one of his poems, Aadmi Nama:

    “yan aadmi hi naar hai aur aadmi hi noor
    yan aadmi hi paas hai aur aadmi hi door
    kul aadmi ka husn o qaba mien hai yaan zahoor
    shaitaan bhi aadmi hai jo karta hai makr o zor
    aur haadi, rehnuma hai so hai woh bhi aadmi

    masjid bhi aadmi ne banai hai yan miyan
    bante hain aadmi hi imaam aur khutba khwan
    padhte hain aadmi hi namaaz aur quran yan
    aur aadmi hi un ki churaate hain jootiyan
    unko jo tadhta hai so hai woh bhi aadmi

    yan aadmi pe jaan ko ware hai aadmi
    aur aadmi hi tegh se maare hai aadmi
    pagrhi bhi aadmi ki utaare hai aadmi
    chilla ke aadmi ko pukare hai aadmi
    aur sun ke daudhta hai so hai woh bhi aadmi!

    We have a lot to learn about ourselves. It reminds me of Iqbal’s verse from Diyar e Ishq

    Zindagani Hai Sadaf
    Qatra-e-Nesa Hai Khudhi
    Woh Sadaf Kya Ke Jo Qatre Ko Gohar Ker Na Sakay

    Life is like an Oyster Seashell,
    Self awakening is a droplet of irritant
    What’s the worth of an Oyster Seashell? If it can’t create a Pearl from an irritant.

    – Iqbal

  11. Mnoor

    @KR thanks for the translation of banjaara nama, I thought it was quite difficult to translate a spontaneity of the poem, but this is good.

    @Tilsim one of the stanza you have quoted captures the situation where on one hand there are terrorists out to kill and on the other there are aid workers and peacniks working too.

    yan aadmi pe jaan ko ware hai aadmi
    aur aadmi hi tegh se maare hai aadmi
    pagrhi bhi aadmi ki utaare hai aadmi
    chilla ke aadmi ko pukare hai aadmi
    aur sun ke daudhta hai so hai woh bhi aadmi!

  12. Tilsim

    @Mnoor
    Yes, it’s remarkable to read the poets of old and see how their thoughts, emotions and ideas still have meaning today. Nazeer in the context of history is a very recent poet ofcourse! It’s just that the context is different. Perhaps not all that different.

    Man’s nature is like the flow of water, sometimes it takes the form of ice and sometimes of snow. The essence stays the same. Or, as Nazeer said:

    “yan aadmi hi naar hai aur aadmi hi noor”

    Nazir’s words remind us to not lose sight of the essential unity of our core essence when we attempt to comprehend the differences around us and the roles of our friends, strangers, family, neighbours, fellow citizens and enemies forever highlighting differences.

  13. krash

    Kulliyat-e-Nazeer is available free online in 2 volumes at

    http://www.iqbalcyberlibrary.net/content/view/14/18/default.htm

  14. KR

    Tilsim: Well said indeed. Nazir also believes in “unity of experience”, according to him the entire humanity has many common aspirations, fears and fallacies. And despite all we gather, achieve and leave for posterity, we all face the same end.

  15. Tilsim

    @ Krash

    Thanks for the online reference. What a great resource and treasure. I hope they can ask people to translate and transliterate and provide all of this collection in one place for a global audience. In particular those who can’t read the Urdu script on the subcontinent or who’s Urdu is not up to the par to absorb the vast panoply of Urdu/Hindi vocabulary.

  16. Tilsim

    @ KR

    “Nazir also believes in “unity of experience”, according to him the entire humanity has many common aspirations, fears and fallacies.”

    I think a reflection of the insights of Sufi/Bakhti philosophy – stressing the fundamental equality of mankind. With such prolific output, his other work needs to come to the fore. I am sure he will delight us, a new audience, once more from his grave.

    The silsila that had Hasan Basri to Ramnanda to Kabir to Guru Nanak as pearls on a chain must have come to embrace Nazir Akbarabadi.

  17. no-communal

    Tilsim,
    You forgot Lalan from the east. There is a trailer of a new film I posted on the other thread. You may like it.

  18. KR

    Tilsim: Some write sufi poetry, or on sufiism, but remain quite attached to world. Yet others give up worldly pleasures and write sufi poetry and are called “sufis”…Nazeer was neither! In my book, he was the true sufi who was essentially a humble person who chose to live simplistically, and performed charity while earning an honest living, bringing up his family and documenting the society in his poems. Nazeer has the wit of Khusro with the compassion of Kabir which he wraps in the flirtatious style of Ghalib to entertain his audience while showing them the truth as he sees it!!

  19. Bin Ismail

    @Tilsim (December 3, 2010 at 6:20 am)

    “…..this poet of our common heritage and shared culture…..”

    I would be of the opinion that not just Nazeer Akbarabadi, but in fact, all the Urdu poets who shined before independence, were all part of the common heritage and shared culture of the Indian Subcontinent. Considering that Iqbal too, passed away before partition and considering that his brilliance as a poet, is a shared treasure for both India and Pakistan, he too, like Nazeer, is part of our common heritage and shared culture. Iqbal’s famous line “saaray jahan sey achha Hindostan hamara” has virtually become a proverbial slogan, specially East of the border.

  20. Tilsim

    @ no-communal
    I will surely look out for Moner Manush, the film about Lalan Fakir. Thanks.

  21. Tilsim

    @ KR
    “Nazeer has the wit of Khusro with the compassion of Kabir which he wraps in the flirtatious style of Ghalib”

    Excellent.
    @ Bin Ismail
    “all the Urdu poets who shined before independence, were all part of the common heritage and shared culture of the Indian Subcontinent”

    Tongue in cheek, I beg to differ. I would say that all the Urdu poets who shined AFTER independence are also part of the common heritage and shared culture of the Indian Subcontinent. We are indebted to, amongst countless others, Faiz, Ahmad Faraz, Habib Jalib, Parveen Shakir, Anwer Maqsood, Ahmad Naseem Qasmi, Josh Malihabadi, Sahir Ludhianvi, Naushad, Shakeel Badayuni, Gulzar, Nida Fazli, Javed Akhter. Too many to mention! Many of them wrote songs sung by Lata, Mukesh, Rafi, Noor Jahan; the haunting beauty of their poetry still alive today for hundreds of millions even though may be ignorant of who of those who penned the sada bahar words.

  22. Tilsim

    “kal aur ayenge naghmo ki khilti kalian chunnewale, koi mujhse behtar kehnewale, koi tumse behtar sunne wale;kal koi mujhe keun yaad kare, keun koi mujhe yaad kare, masroof zamana mere lie keun waqt apna barbad kare?”

    Sahir Ludhianvi (who wrote these lines) was wrong.

  23. KR

    Tilsim: I think I essentially agree to your comments and so does the author. Most “Pakistani” poets were really born in “India” and whatever has been produced in Urdu/Hindi literature is essentially ‘common heritage’. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, the more Persian one uses in poetry, the more value one has a poet. While Faiz, Ghalib and Naasikh are the giants of literature, Ibne Insha, Nazeer, Kabeer are sidled only because they use “too much Hindi” in their poems to be of any worth.
    Indians, on the other hand, greatly appreciate Ghalib and Kabir … there are more sites on Ghalib in devnagri than are in Persian script of Urdu!!

  24. Tilsim

    @ KR
    Some of that Persian chauvanism that you refer to of course goes back into our ancient history. Persian culture is/was considered more refined just like English is now the new master language. Some would say that Urdu is quite fairly indebted to the sweetness of Farsi but khari boli is very lyrical too. I would like to see more Hindi literature and poetry translated into Urdu script or even into English and the blogosphere can be a medium to increase awareness in the absence of official promotion. I have some familiarity with the modern Indian writers, writing in English but very little about the literary giants of Hindi or other languages such as Bengali. At the moment, I doubt if there is much demand for Hindi literature amongst intellectual circles in Pakistan but the internet can change all that. We enjoy Indian films so why not Indian literature? Mastering Sanskrit words in Hindi for Pakistanis is not all that straightforward but due to common verbs perhaps easier to decipher than Dari!

    Urdu with a Persian emphasis versus one a Hindi one can lead to some comical and serious misunderstandings. When my mother, who was born in Delhi came to stay with her in-laws, she immediately fell out with my father in law. She politely said: “Aap yeh farma rahay thay” instead of “Aap yeh keh rahay thay”. He mistook the phrase “farma rahay thay” to be some sort of statement by his daughter in law of implied superiority!

  25. Tilsim

    As Nazeer Akbarabadi was from Agra, I am not an expert but his Urdu is probably more Brij Bhasha rather than Khari Boli: Arya Jarya versus Araha Jaraha or Ara Jara or as we say here Avay Javay!

  26. KR

    Tilsim: Nazeer was familiar with both Khari Boli and Brij Bhaashaa and several other dialects. Personally I don’t know the difference b/w the two, but a lot of Nazeer’s poems use aavei, jaavei…never aariyaa, jaariyaa.
    As for translating Hindi literature in Urdu script….hehehe!! Urdu cannot really script itself, scripting any other literature into Urdu will be a very comical disaster…read this author’s article here:
    http://www.chowk.com/Arts/Story-of-Hindustani-II

  27. Bin Ismail

    @Tilsim (December 5, 2010 at 1:57 am)

    “…Tongue in cheek, I beg to differ. I would say that all the Urdu poets who shined AFTER independence are also part of the common heritage and shared culture of the Indian Subcontinent…”

    I certainly would not – could not – disagree with you on that. Poetry is always without borders – rather beyond borders. What I was trying to suggest – which on account of my clumsy expression, I obviously failed to – was that Iqbal’s “nationalization” by Pakistan is a rather far-fetched and tall claim. Iqbal was as much Indian as of Pakistan and in that respect resembles Nazeer Akbarabadi.

    Regards.

  28. Bin Ismail

    Allow me to elaborate further. With reference to Pakistan, we are talking about two categories of maestros or asataza of Urdu poetry:

    1. Urdu poets whose poetry came to be widely recognized before Partition.
    2. Urdu poets who emerged from Pakistan’s horizon and won acclaim.

    Poets of both categories are part of the common literary heritage of the Subcontinent. Iqbal’s case seems to be the most peculiar of all. Iqbal emerged from Undivided India, lived and died in Undivided India. Obviously, that makes him, all the more, part of the common heritage of India and Pakistan. But by having been designated as the “Qaumi Shaair” or National Poet of Pakistan, his Subcontinental stature seems to have compromised. His “nationalization” by Pakistan has actually narrowed the horizon of his art.

    Poets and poetry, in my opinion, should not be nationalized. They should be allowed to flourish “sans frontiers”.

  29. KR

    Bin Ismail: million dollar thought {“Poets and poetry, in my opinion, should not be nationalized. They should be allowed to flourish “sans frontiers”.}
    When I was in Turkey “Mevlana Rumi” was touted as Turkish Poet, when I was in Iran “Masnavi” was sold as “Quran in Farsi” and my Afghan friend insists that Rumi was an Afghan…Seems like poeple fight over poets like ‘property’ and the human thought and intellect really belongs to humanity!!

  30. KR

    Bin Ismail: million dollar thought {“Poets and poetry, in my opinion, should not be nationalized. They should be allowed to flourish “sans frontiers”.}
    When I was in Turkey “Mevlana Rumi” was touted as Turkish Poet, when I was in Iran “Masnavi” was sold as “Quran in Farsi” and my Afghan friend insists that Rumi was an Afghan…Seems like poeple fight over poets like ‘property’, when the human thought and intellect should really belong to humanity!!