Politically Incorrect! Political satire in Urdu poetry (Column: Bookends L)

By Vikas Datta (08:26) 

“Here richly, with ridiculous display,/The Politician’s corpse was laid away/While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged/I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged”, was prolific English author Hillaire Belloc’s caustic send-off to an unnamed politician. The verse also exemplifies the vibrant, universal tradition of political satire that exists alongside organised government – from the plays of Aristophanes in ancient Athens to TV shows like “Yes Minister” and “Saturday Night Live” now. And closer to home, both Hindi and Urdu literature used it to devastating effect.

While the Hindi tradition has Manohar Shyam Joshi (“Netaji Kahin”) and Hari Shankar Parsai among others, satire entwined with humour – “tanz-o-mizah” – has an older existence in Urdu where Mughal-era poet Mirza Muhammad Rafi “Sauda” (1713-81) was perhaps the first exponent.

Political satire started with Akbar Hussain Rizvi “Akbar Allahabadi” (1846-1921) , and his barbs at both colonial rule and his compatriots’ craze for western habits and forsaking their own roots.

“Chhorh ‘literature’ ko apni, ‘history’ ko bhul ja/Sheikh-o-masjid se ta’alluq tark kar ‘school’ ja/Chaar din ki zindagi hai koft se kya faida/Kha ‘double-roti’ ‘clerki’ kar khushi se phuul ja” is perhaps the earliest attack on those following the Macaulay-inspired educational system, while desultory efforts at political reform were captured in: “Reform ka hai shor par uska asar nahi aata ghayab/Plateon ki saada sunta hoon par khaana nahi aata” (or words to that effect).

This cause was taken much further by the late 19th-century Lucknow newspaper “Awadh Punch” (influenced by the iconic English journal) which provided some of the trenchant satirists of their day a platform. Through both words and images – its cartoons were no less than those of the original Punch – it pulled no punches. An attack on a colonial policy went: “Mehnga kar gehun, sasta kar afeem/Bismillah ir-rehman- ir-rahim”.

But these examples were somewhat uncharacteristic as they were intended as form of protest/dissent unlike pure political satire, which occasionally may have an agenda or seek to influence a political process, but is largely aimed at entertainment.

Thankfully, in an independent subcontinent, there was no shortage of opportunities and targets.

Pakistani poet Abdul Majeed Chauhan (1913-57) who wrote as “Namak Lahori” but is popularly known as “Majeed Lahori” wrote about a minister’s pretensions in a delightful lyric which bears comparison with Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Modern Major-General’s Song” (“The Pirates of Penzance”) – as far as expertise is concerned.

“Murghion par bhi kar sakta hoon izhar-e-khayal/Aur saandon par bhi hoon mehfil mein sargaram-e-maqaal/Race ke ghorhon pe bhi taqreer kar sakta hoon main/’Akbar’ o ‘Iqbal’ ki tafseer kar sakta hoon main…”

And after a whole lot of things including the philosophy of Plato, the poetry of “Dagh Dehlvi”, the secrets of the atom bomb, the minister declares – quite modestly: “Jitne bhi shaube hain un sab par hoon main chaya hua/Hoon Minister mustanad hai mera farmaya hua”.

More recently, there is Syed Aijazuddin Shah “Popular Meeruti”, a figure well-known to those who attend mushairas for his rib-splitting verse delivered deadpan.

“Umeedvar main bhi hoon” about an aspiring candidate, who has just one request: “Ticket mujhe bhi dila do assembly ke liye”. For this, he can do anything: “Ticket ke vaaste ghairat bhi bech sakta hoon/Main khandaan ki izzat bhi bech sakta hoon/ Bhikhe to apni sharafat bhi bech sakta hoon/Mujhe sukoon hain darkar zindagi ke liye/Ticket mujhe bhi dila do assembly ke liye”.

And he knows his capability: “Main sangreze se jauhar bana diya jaaon/Ek ek qatre se samandar bana diya jaaon/Ajab nahi ke ‘minister bana diya jaaon/Main har tarah hoon munasib ‘ministry’ ke liye/Ticket mujhe bhi dila do assembly ke liye”.

‘Popular’ is unrelenting about politicians. “Is martaba bhi aaye number tere to kam/Rusvaiyon ka kya meri daftar banega tu?/Bete ke sar pe deke chapat baap ne kaha/Phir fail ho gaya hai Minister banega tu?” or take “Ajab nahi hai jo kutta bhi pir ho jaaye/Phatte jo doodh to phir voh paneer ho jaaye/Mawaalion ko na dekha karon hikarat se/Na jaane kaun sa goonda wazir ho jaaye.”

Rafiq Shadani follows the same tradition, weaving in folk rhythms and dialect of central Uttar Pradesh but is as aggressive: “Desh ma mahangai, bekari/Nafrat ki phaili bemaari/Dukhi hai janata bechaari/Bhikhi jaat hai lota-thaari/Jiyo Bahadur khaddar-dhari!”

And “Tan se gora, man se ganda/Mandir-masjid nam pe chanda/Sab se badhiya tohra dhanda/Na to namaazi, na to pujaari/Jiyo Bahadur khaddar-dhari!” and more in this vein.

Another goes: “Neta logan ghoom lage apan apan jajmaani ma/Utho kahilon, chorho khichri, haath maaro biryani ma/Aur yehi varta hot rahi kal Ramdaas aur Ramzaani ma/Dudh ki matki dharo na bhaiyya, billi ki nigrani ma”.

Never underestimate poets’ role as sentinels of democracy!

(27.01.2015 – Vikas Datta is an associate editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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