The poetic physician: Momin and his art (Column: Bookends XXVI)

By Vikas Datta (09:24)

It is an unfortunate occurrence that if there are many outstanding literary figures in any era, only one or two will figure in the general public consciousness. Elizabethan England had no shortage of dramatists but can you think of anyone except Shakespeare? Russian literature flourished in the 19th century but the only names that register now are Tolstoy and, maybe, Dostoyevsky. Likewise, mid-19th century Delhi could boast of a galaxy of accomplished poets, but all have been overshadowed by Mirza Ghalib, though some were much more popular then and just one couplet of one of them had sent him into raptures.

It is only Urdu poetry’s devoted connoisseurs who will recall the era had the monarch of poetry, titular emperor Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’, whose melancholy but philosophical outlook tinges his still-relevant verse. Take: “Na thi haal ki jab hame apni khabar rahe dekhte rahe auron ke aib-o-hunar/Padhi apni buraiyon pe jo nazar to nigaah mein koi bura na raha”.

There was Zafar’s gifted poetic preceptor Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim ‘Zauq’, with that pessimistic “Ab to ghabra ke yeh kehte hai ke mar jayenge/Mar ke bhi chain na paaya to kidhar jaayenge”, as well as the outstanding ghazal – “Layi hayat aaye qazaa le chali chale/Na aapni khushi aaye, na aapni khushi chale” – made immortal by both K.L. Saigal and Begum Akhtar. There were countless others – Mufti Sadruddin ‘Azurda’, Lala Balmukand ‘Huzoor’, Nawab Mustafa Khan ‘Shefta’, Mir Mehdi ‘Majruh’ and Hakeem Momin Khan ‘Momin’.

Legend has it that one particular couplet of Momin, succinct but imbued with multiple layers of meaning, so impressed Ghalib that he offered him his entire ‘diwan’ of 250-odd intricately-worded ghazals in exchange. It was ‘Tum mere paas hote ho goya/Jab koi doosra nahi hota”. ‘Goya’ can mean a way to address both yourself or a significant other, and thus can exhibit at least two meanings. It may or may not have really been true but underscores how much value meaningful poetry commanded.

A poet all over, Momin (1800-51) was born in Delhi in a family of Mughal administrators and physicians hailing originally from Kashmir. Urdu literature’s first historian Mohammad Hussain Azad, in his “Ab-e-Hayaat” (Frances W. Pritchett and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s translation), says Momin “had an artistic and romantic temperament; he was always in handsome style and well-dressed. He was tall, of darkish complexion, with a head full of long curly locks that he constantly kept combing with his fingers”.

Momin was a man of many parts. A competent physician like his father and grandfather, he was also proficient in mathematics, geomancy, astrology, chess and music. Perhaps the last skill helps to explain the rhythmic cadence he easily achieved in some of his ghazals and how exquisitely they pair with music.

Those fond of listening to master ghazal singers like Begum Akhtar and Ghulam Ali, will remember two of Momin’s best – those haunting lyrics of futile and painful love: ” Vo jo ham mein tum mein qaraar tha tumhen yaad ho ke na yaad ho/Vahi yaani vaada nibaah ka tumhen yaad ho ke na yaad ho” and “Roya karenge aap bhi pahron isi tarah/Atka kahi jo aap ka dil bhi meri tarah”.

In one more ghazal, Momin expresses his pain more colourfully: “Bepardah ghair ke paas use baitha na dekhte/Uth jaate kaash ham bhi jahan se haaya ke saath”.

Azad says Momin’s “thoughts are extremely delicate, and his themes lofty. And the power of his metaphors and similes too lifts his ghazals to a high level. In them he has expressed romantic affairs with an extraordinary delightfulness”.

And this is a trademark for Momin – delightfully and playfully juxtaposing his takhallus which means believer with a predilection for ‘buts’ (idols) and ‘butkhaanas’ in the ‘maqtas’ (last sher) of his ghazals.

“Hae sanam! hae sanam lab pe kyun/Khair hai Momin? Tumhe kya ho gaya?”, or “Chahta hoon main to masjid mein rahun Momin/Kya karun butkhaane ki jaanib khencha jata hai dil”, or “Momin na sahi bosa-e-pa sajda hi karenge/Woh but hai jo auron ka to apna bhi Khuda hai” but also “Allah re! Ghum rahi buton butkhaaana chorh kar/Momin chala hai Kaabe ko ek parsa ke saath”.

He could make innovative use of words: “Aisi ghazal kahi yeh ke jhukta hai sab ka sar/Momin ne is zameen ko masjid bana diya” – ‘zameen’ here denotes both land and (poetic) metre.

And, proving his timelessness, he, in the maqta of his most famous ghazal “Vo jo ham mein tum mein…”, makes an anguished admission, not only to the oblivious paramour, but also to us: “Jise aap ginte the aashna, jise aap kehta the bawafa/Main vahi hoon Momin-e-mubtala, tumhen yaad ho ke na yaad ho”.

Can you forget such a poet?

(10.08.2014. Vikas Datta is a senior assistant editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at


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