Mehfil at Prithvi: Celebrating Urdu Poetry

Mehfil at Prithvi: Celebrating Urdu Poetry


Unke dekhne se jo aa jaatee hai munh par raunaq

Woh samajhte hain ke beemaar ka haal achcha hai

It means …
On seeing her my face brightens up, she presumes that the condition of the sick (me) is better now. Ghalib says that on seeing her face, my face lights up and she thinks that my illness is better now. O! I do not even get the looks of sympathy now, for I just looking at her brighten up and she thinks that I am alright and recovering.

It was the 12th of Semptember 2015. An artist friend met his Grandfather after really long and he was greeted with this shair by Ghalib. He told me about it at a sea side cafe and although I was in awe, I passed it off as a magical moment.

The very next day, I attended a musical, Sounds of the Sufis performed by The Looking Glass. They showcased the history of Sufism through song, word and music. There were multiple references to Urdu and its relevance today. When someone sneezes, we say, ‘God bless you’. This is taken from the Urdu phrase Alhamdulillah (This actually means “Praise be to Allah”… it is used to thank God as well. The reply to it is YarhamukAllah which means “May God have mercy on you” or “God bless you”, which has the same meaning.

Both Priyanka and Anurag shared poems by Rabia Basri, Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, Baba Farid and other Sufi saints which I have written about in another post.

Hussain Dalal and Sumeet Vyas in One on One Part 2 at Prithvi Theatre
Hussain Dalal and Sumeet Vyas in One on One Part 2 at Prithvi Theatre

A couple of weeks later, on 25th September, I attended a play One on One Part 2. In one of the scenes, a soldier from the Indian army (played by Hussain Dalal) spoke about a nukta. It is a part of the Urdu language where a mere dot can change the meaning of the word. Eg: Dua (blessing) becomes Daga (To betray). Mehram (someone close) becomes Mujrim (guilty)

I felt a connection with the language, but I did not understand why and given the busy buzz in Bombay, the routine of the following day took precedence, thinking I will explore the connection when I have the time.


Attempt at Arabic calligraphy
Attempts at Arabic calligraphy

And magical interactions with the language continued. The artist friend sent me pictures of Arabic calligraphy.

And around the same time, I came across a billboard showcasing a brand that customises jewellery with the Arabic typeface.  Although the pieces looked exquisite, I dismissed it as a girl’s fascination with jewellery.

Sometime in October, Naseruddin Shah’s play Gadha aur Gaddha, which is an adaptation of Urdu writer Krishan Chander’s stories continued to pique my interest.

Urdu calligraphy on a papier mache tray made by Kashmiri Arisans, seen at Akshara exhibition in Bombay
Urdu calligraphy on a papier mache tray made by Kashmiri Arisans, seen at Akshara exhibition in Bombay

An exhibition titled Akshara (written word) organized by Jaya Jaitley and the Dastkari Haat Samiti, introduced me to papier mache art from Kashmir which used Urdu calligraphy.

Recently, the movie, He named me Malala had repeated references to Pashtun, the region of the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan. The language Malala spoke is called Pashto, which comes from the same family as Urdu. You have to hear it to understand how sweet it is.

By now I knew that I had a deeper connection with the language, otherwise, I wouldn’t feel the constant pull towards it. I also realised that the script of my mother tongue Sindhi shared similarities with Urdu.

Therefore, when I saw that Mehfil at Prithvi was on the theme of Urdu poetry, this was a session I couldn’t miss.

The 10th November 2015, on the eve of Diwali, the annexe of Prithvi theatre was decorated with lamps in tea glasses, fairy lights hanging from above, beautifully arranged dhurries to sit, the hum of a raag playing softly in the background, there was a slight nip in the air, the perfect ambience for a mehfil.

The session started with Javed Siddique introducing the beginning of Urdu poetry. According to the earliest records known to man, Badshah Quli Qutub Shah was the first Urdu poet, around 500 years back. He was a Farzi (Mathmatician) and had a style of reciting shayris. This is around the time 1518 to 1577. Amongst his most popular Urdu shairs is:

Piya baj pyala piya jaaye naa
Piya baj ek din jeeya jaaye naa

Nahi ishk jis woh bada kud hai
Kadi usase mil besiya jaaye naa

Kutub shaah ne de mujh deewaane ko pan
Deewaane ko kuchh pan diya jaaye na

Javed Saab then introduced Shah Mir Taqi Mir or Meer Mohammed Taqi Meer who is also known as Khuda e Sukhan (God of Poetry).

Sadia Siddique, Neha Sharad and Sohail Warsi read verses of the poets, some parts were easy to understand, others were not.

It is wonderful to simply hear them talk with the adab (respect), saadgi (simplicity), the proficient pronunciation and accent that comes with speaking Urdu fluently. There is so much style in the language that even a simple greeting as Aadab makes you feel part of a celebration.

The next Urdu poet who is synonymous with poetry in Urdu is Ghalib. Born in 1779, as Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan, he was responsible for igniting inqualab (revolution) through his writings. His style of writing stood out from the rest because his poems explored emotions beyond love. Ghalib’s writings are marked by different phases, one where he would write complex verses entirely in Farsi with one or two Urdu words. Later his writings were easier to understand and he expressed himself more in Urdu.

Some of his shairs that they recited were

  1. Dil-e-naadaan tujhe huaa kya hai ?
    Aakhir is dard kee dawa kya hai
  2. Puchte hain woh ke Ghalib kaun hai

Koi batlao ki hum batlaaein kya

The next poet was Ghalib’s contemporary, Hakim Momin Khan Momin. This was followed by the reading of one of his beautiful couplets:

asar usko zara nahin hota
ranj rahaat faza nahin hota

tum hamaare kissi tarah na hu’e
warna duniya mein kya nahin hota

zikr-e-agyaar se hu’a ma’aloom
harf-e-naaseh bura nahin hota

usne kya jaane kya kiya lekar
dil kissi kaam ka nahin hota

tum mere paas hota ho goya
jab koi doosra nahin hota

haal-e-dil yaar ko likhuun kyun kar
haath dil se juda nahin hota

chaarah-e-dil siwa-e-sabr nahin
so tumhaare siwa nahin hota

kyun sunay arz-e-muztar ai Momin
sanam aakhir khuda nahin hota

Momin was a very good astrologer and did not consider anyone else a poet except Ghalib. He recited verses in Urdu after a lot of thought. There is a story about a verse written by Ghalib where the word Goya fits into both the meanings of the word. The same is explained beautifully on the Urduwallahs blog.

Tum mere paas hote ho goya
Jab koi doosra nahi hota

Momin was so impressed with this verse that he wanted to exchange this one verse in return of his Diwan (collection of poetry)

A clip of Momin’s ghazal was played at the Mehfil.

Woh Jo Hum Mein Tum Mein Qaraar Tha, Tumhe Yaad Ho Ke Naa Yaad Ho
Wohi Yaani Waada Nibaah Kaa, Tumhe Yaad Ho Ke Naa Yaad Ho

Javed Saab then told us that Lal Quila (Red fort) was the centre of Urdu shayri. Nawab Mirza Khan’s who was born and brought up in the Red fort was known for Daagh poetry. He was in his late teens when the Red fort was looted. He started writing poetry as a kid and his style was rawadaan, khoobsurat jaban (beautiful language). It is believed that 90% of the courtesans of those days would sing his ghazals. A clip of one of his most popular ghazals was played.

Tumhare Khat Mein Naya Ek Salaam Kiska Tha

The next poet showcased was Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was the last Mughal emperor. He ruled at a time when the English had conquered the whole of India, barring the Red fort. He was later abdicated and sent to prison in Rangoon. That is why his poems express a lot of hurt and pain.

One of his ghazals has been incorporated in the movie Lal Quila, made in 1960. The ghazal is:

Lagta nahi hai dil mera
Ujde dayar mein
Kis ki bani hai aalame
Na payedar mein

Javed Saab was introducing Urdu poets in order of chronology from the 18th century. He then introduced a prominent poet of the 19th century, Iqbal. His verses of Sare Jahan Se Accha are still a popular patriotic song. He was born on 9th November 1877 and the Urdu Markaz celebrated his anniversary the day before Mehfil at Prithvi. Born in Sialkot, Iqbal completed his Doctrate from Germany. He was heavily influenced by Daagh’s poetry at first and then he moved on to his own genre of writing.

Smita Sadeqa Bellur then sang one of his verses Tu rah Na’ward-e-Shauq hai; Manzil na kar qabool.

Javed Saab then told us when socialism was introduced in the 1930s and its roots were spreading in India, Faiz was studying in London. His writings were like a balm to the struggles of those days, he wrote on social concerns of inequality.

Smita sang Mujh se pehli si muhabbat mere mehboob na maang
Maine samjhaa tha ke tu hai to darakhshaan hai hayaa.

Moving on to recent times, they introduced Majru Sultapuri. He had completed his course in Unani medicine and was friends with Jigar Saab. One of his very famous ghazals is

Mujhe Sahal Ho Gain Manzilen Wo Hawaa Ke Rukh Bhi Badal Gae
Teraa Haath Haath Mein Aa Gaya Ke Chiraag Raah Mein Jal Gae

Wo Lajaaye Mere Sawaal Par Ke Uthaa Sake Na Jhukaa Ke Sar
Udi Zulf Chehre Pe Is Tarah Ke Shabon Ke Raaz Machal Gae

Wahi Baat Jo Wo Na Kar Sake Mere Sher-O-Nagma Mein Aa Gai
Wahi Lab Na Main Jinhen Chhoo Saka Qadaah-E-Sharaab Mein Dhal Gae

Unhen Kab Ke Raas Bhi Aa Chuke Teri Bazm-E-Naaz Ke Haadse
Ab Uthe Ke Teri Nazar Phire Jo Gire The Gir Ke Sanbhal Gae

Mere Kaam Aa Gain Aakhirash Yahi Kaawishen Yahi Garadishen
Badahin Is Qadar Meri Manzilen Ke Qadam Ke Khaar Nikal Gae


There was a lot of music in his ghazals and the music director Kardar asked Majrooh Sultanpuri to write solely for him. Therefore many of them have been composed into songs.

He is one of the poets whose involvement in the freedom struggle is through his poetry being showcased on posters in Bangladesh written in both Urdu and Bengali.

Sutun e daar pe rakhte chalo saron ke charagh,

Jahan tak ye sitam ki siyah raat chale  

With that the evening came to a close, I met Zaheda Nizami, she told me about Urdu classes that are conducted at Akbar Peerbhoy college. I certainly don’t dismiss the constant interactions with the language, I am letting it lead me where it has to.

The overlap and connections between travel and communication across the mountain belt, from Urdu to Farsi, Persian to Pashtun, Sindhi and Punjabi, transports me to another world. Something like this track from Coke Studio’s season 8 which was shared by the artist friend recently:

Khalis Makhan Dudh Makhane Kithe Gaye


My interaction with Urdu is very recent. In my ignorance, if I have made any mistakes, kindly let me know and I will correct the same.


Mehfil at Prithvi is organized by Arwa Mamaji and Priya Nijhara who are also founders of the blog


Mehfil at Prithvi: Celebrating Urdu Poetry
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