reviews and essays

The God Of Small Verse

Sulaiman Khateeb and the literary legacy Of Dakhani

By GAUTAM PEMMARAJU | 1 February 2015

Kya bolun gorey-gorey, chandi key sarkey hathaan.
Deota samajh ko minjhey, phoolan pehna rahey they…

What white, sophisticated silver hands!
Garlanded like some god; such was my demand.

~ From Shayr Ki Izzat, Sulaiman Khateeb

THE FAINT, waggish drizzle finally let up, and the monsoon air of Gulbarga, in northern Karnataka, was pleasant. At about ten in the morning, a small crowd gathered outside a general goods kiosk near a historic shrine to watch a mullah deliver an animated taqreer—discourse—on a small television screen. His beard quivering, his voice slightly tortured inside his throat, like a hacksaw working against the grain, the spiritual leader spoke. “If your Hindu neighbour next-door remains hungry, even a lifetime of prayers at the mosque will go to waste if you ignore him,” he said. “The thing about food is, once a man eats at your house a friendship is formed. If anyone speaks against you to him, he will say I am sorry bhai, I have eaten at his house.” He underscored the sentiment with a common idiom: Mai unka namak khaya hoon—I have eaten his salt. “This … is grace,” he added.

The mullah’s cantillating cadences were tinctured with the folksy lyricism typical of Dakhani. This regional, vernacular manner of speaking Urdu, heard across the Deccan, has long been an object of derision for the nation at large. But for the ten-odd people huddled around the screen, the language was comfortably familiar, as it was to me. The mullah’s voice conveyed all the nimble idiosyncrasies of Dakhani, with just a tenuous touch of jocularity.

The shop was at the entrance to the dargah of an immensely popular Sufi saint, Khwaja Banda Nawaz Gesu Daraz of the Chishti order. Banda Nawaz, who made Gulbarga his home nearly seven centuries ago, also spoke the language of the people—awam ki boli. I had made the pilgrimage to his shrine as part of a four-year project on the mizahiya shayri, or humour-satire poetry, of the Deccan. Drawing from Dakhani’s rich history, dating back to the time of the Sufi saint, the modern tradition of mizahiya shayri took root in 1930s Hyderabad, and flourished rapidly following the fall of that independent princely state in 1948. A culture of public mushairas became common, and several poets gained renown. But the nuances of the region’s language were perhaps never captured as well by anyone as they were by one of Banda Nawaz’s modern followers, the Urdu poet Sulaiman Khateeb, who emerged as a poet of significance in the 1950s and whose work was a critical element of my research.

Hailed as the badshah of mizahiya shayri, Khateeb, who is still relatively unknown across the subcontinent, was prolific, and composed and performed a great number of his works in Dakhani. Suffused with regional idioms, pithy folk wisdom and the sumptuous inflections of the Deccan’s vernaculars, his poetry was accessible to and singularly popular among the people of the region. Khateeb was not just a guardian of Dakhani, he became one of its most beloved ambassadors. He lit a lamp in the darkened corner to which the language had retreated; his poetry was like a stick of incense burnt in propitiation to its glorious history.

Though sparse, the crowd inside Banda Nawaz’s shrine was a testament to the continuing significance of this history. A few families were huddled in small groups, some in silent prayer, some just looking around. A little girl handed a coconut to an elderly man; he broke it open on a stone and handed the pieces back to her. The coconut water ran over the stone. Several people were tying red threads to a metal grill, some with small padlocks, securing for themselves an unspoken promise from the dead saint.

As a young boy, Mohammed Sulaiman had felt the tug of those sacred strings intensely. Sulaiman was born in 1922, into a family of khateebs, or preachers, in Chitguppa, a sleepy town in Bidar district. His parents passed away in quick succession before he was two years old, and he grew up mostly in Raichur in the neighbouring district, with his older brother Waziruddin, under the tutelage of a prominent maulvi. He was taken in by a local family and entrusted with household duties—sweeping, washing dishes, fetching kindling from a forest nearby.

It was while collecting firewood one day, when he was about seven years old, that young Sulaiman joined a caravan of bullock carts headed to Gulbarga, over 150 kilometres away, to the urs of Banda Nawaz, which takes place every November. In subsequent geet—folk songs—and manqabat—Sufi devotional songs—written over the course of his career, Khateeb would often express his love for the Sufi saint. He writes in one manqabat, “Banda Nawaz, teri kashti bharaney aaya hoon,” beseeching the saint to ferry him across the turbulent waters of worldly life. Another famous song, which has been sung by several qawwali troupes, expresses the poet’s devotion to Banda Nawaz: “Sadqa teri chaukhat ka, bas ek nazar khwaja”— Even a glimpse, saint, of the charity of your threshold is enough.

Besides being an aashiq—a devoted lover—of Banda Nawaz, Khateeb was steeped in the spiritual tradition of his family profession of sermon-giving. Yet his style was by no means characterised by dull pedantry or platitude-filled dogma, but instead marked by deft humour and a generous humanity. This style also grew to encompass the prosaic rhythms of the early drudgery to which Khateeb had been accustomed—a daily plodding that the poet seemed to see as a foundational essence of his own character. This combination of the lofty and the mundane gave Khateeb’s poetry its special character. The vicissitudes of life were many, Khateeb intrinsically seemed to recognise, and while his verses reveal a profound intimacy with grief, loss and suffering, this intimacy is often cloaked in a comic form.

In a recording from the mid 1970s, in the crisp opening lines of one popular poem, Khateeb recites a description of a local quack, his voice full of dramatic pauses and comic punctuation.

Ghar key peechey jadeed kabrein thi,
Yeh bhi unka hi karnaama tha.

Behind his house were fresh graves,
This too was his doing.

The audience at the recitation, a small group possibly gathered at another poet’s house, has already begun to break out in staccato spurts of laughter at the second line. The atmosphere is thick with anticipation, and Khateeb’s words cut through it deliciously:

Kis kadr ba-kamaal insaan they
Qaumiyat sey kam letey they.
Hindu, Muslim ya Sikh, Isayi,
Ek goli sey maar detey they.

Banda bandey sey yahan nahi milta
Rab ko bandey sey mila detey they.

What an extraordinary man of skill
A national unity he could instil.
Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh, Christian,
He did them in with the very same pill.

A man does not greet his fellow man here,
But he’d send them on to meet god at will.

IN 1327, Mohammed bin Tughlaq, the Turkic sultan of Delhi, shifted his imperial capital south to Deogiri, which he renamed Daulatabad, now in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. The historian Richard Eaton describes the move as “a strategic vision for the imperial domination of the entire subcontinent.” It was an ambitious plan, fraught with numerous difficulties, and it involved a cultural shift alongside the political one. Several prominent Chishti Sufis were compelled to move to the Deccan, although the foremost spiritual leader of the time, the Chiragh i Delhi—lamp of Delhi—Nasir al’ Din, refused to relocate.

But Nasir al’ Din’s famous teacher, Nizam al’ Din Awliya, or Nizamuddin, also had a follower named Syed Yusuf al’ Husayni. His son, Syed Mohammed al’ Husayni, who would grow up to become Banda Nawaz, was a child when he travelled with his father to Daulatabad, in a caravan of migrants, in 1328. He would have seen the imposing Deogiri fort, which had been wrested from the local Yadava kings by the Delhi sultan Ala al’ Din Khilji in 1296, standing tall from a great distance. Khilji’s expansion into the Deccan, which left the local kings still ruling as vassals, enabled large-scale migration to the region, which further fuelled the nascent beginnings of Dakhani. Prior to the soldiers, and the labour force who travelled alongside them, a stream of Sufis, from Jalal al’ Din “Ganj i Ravan” to Muntajib al’ Din “Zar Zari Zar Baksh,” had already made their presence felt in the Deccan, settling mostly in and around Daulatabad.

On the evening of my visit to Banda Nawaz’s shrine, I went to meet his direct descendant and sajjada-nasheen, or living spiritual heir, at the premises of an educational institute run by the shrine’s trust. As I waited in the lobby, swatting at a cloud of fierce mosquitoes, my thoughts turned to the beloved, late Hindi comic actor Mehmood, who acted in over three hundred films and was particularly famous for his caricatures of the quintessential Hyderabadi. Through his roles in movies such as Gumnaam, Sadhu Aur Shaitan, and Shantranj, Mehmood successfully spun the “Hyderabadi” accent into a filmic trope. But to most people in Hyderabad and the Deccan, as much fun as his escapades were, he was never truly Hyderabadi. The language he spoke was but a crude, stereotypical parody, which failed to grasp the elusive humour, not to mention the beauty and colour, of this ill-regarded southern dialect. Dakhani was, and is, widely held to be, a poor, unsophisticated country cousin of the refined literary Urdu of Lucknow, Delhi and Punjab, “polluted” by its regional characteristics—its Marathi, Kannada and Telugu loanwords aside, its strange inflections and the confusion over the use of the over-guttural qaaf and the khay, have long contributed to hilarity and contempt. A couplet by “Baqa” Akbarabadi, an eighteenth-century shagird, or disciple, of either Khwaja Mir Dard or Shah Hatim, both prominent poets of the Delhi school, satirises the “confusion” of these Dakhani consonants:

Ek dakhni ne kahaa qaazi se “jab hum na rahey!
Khaazi, khasbaati hee khasbey mein tere dolenge!”
Kee giraft us ne jo ‘khay’ par, to laga yoon kehne!
“qoob qaatir se teri ‘qaaf’ hi ab bolengey!”

A Dakhni man once said to a qaazi [judge], “When
I’m gone
Oh khaazi, only khasba-dwellers will have sway in
the khasba (town).”
When the Qaazi took exception to the man’s khay
he said,
“With regard, hereafter I will use exclusively
your qaaf.”

Syed Shah Khusro Hussaini, the sajjada,is a scholar of Sufism, and he spoke to me at length about his hallowed ancestor. He pointed out that despite the “impracticality” of Tughlaq’s move, it was in some sense “a blessing in disguise” as it “gave an impetus to the popularity of the Chishti order in south India.” Banda Nawaz may have moved to the Deccan as a young boy along with Tughlaq’s court, but he went back to Delhi at the age of fourteen, in 1335, and entered the Chishti khanqah, or monastery, then under the spiritual guidance of Shaykh Nasir al’ Din. It was over sixty years later, at nearly the age of eighty, that the saint, now called Gesu Daraz—one with the long locks—would return to the Deccan, anticipating the sack of Delhi by Timur, the Turko-Mongol conqueror. He stopped on the way to visit the grave of his father at Khuldabad, a striking and fascinating town of prominent Sufi shrines, adjacent to Daulatabad. It was Banda Nawaz’s intention to settle there, but Firuz Shah, the Bahmani sultan who ruled the Deccan at the time, beseeched him to settle in Gulbarga.

Besides providing a focal point for Indo-Muslim society in the Deccan, Banda Nawaz’s eventual settlement in Gulbarga—and the parallel influx of influential Sufis—was monumental in that it animated the coalescing of Dakhani into a literary language, albeit mostly of religious and mystical character. The Dakhani of that era is regarded as a proto-Urdu form. It began to enter written texts in the fourteenth century, although its earliest extant works in prose and poetry are dated to the mid-fifteenth century. Several works are attributed to Banda Nawaz—some scholars say he wrote 105 or more tracts. The very beginnings of Urdu prose, which emerged in Dakhani, are linked in no small measure to the saint’s prolific literary output, Hussaini told me. In fact, an early mystical tract, Miraj al’ Ashiqin, which some believe is the first prose work in Dakhani and in Urdu, is often attributed to the saint of Gulbarga—though this attribution is highly contested.

Secular works followed soon enough, and many were composed across the Deccan. Over the course of the fifteenth century, the language spoken by the Sufis, soldiers, craftsmen, traders, merchants, journeymen and other migrants who moved to the Deccan was a curious mix of the many dialects they brought with them—Saraiki, Punjabi, Khadi-boli and others—and local vernacular forms. What was called Dakhani in the Deccan was, elsewhere and at later points, called Gojri, Gurjari, Hindawi and Hindi.

Hindawi, the spoken language of north India, was being shaped by the parallel mixing of Turkic languages, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Braj and other dialects—a process catalysed by the Sufi poet, mystic, and lover of language Amir Khusrau, in the thirteenth century.

Like Banda Nawaz’s father, the multi-faceted Khusrau was also a disciple of Nizam al’ Din. Khusrau referred to himself as an “Indian Turk,” and also called himself “the Parrot of India—question me in Hindawi that I may talk sweetly.” Widely regarded as the first poet of what would eventually come to be known as Urdu, this early mystic and musician served several masters, but was longest in the employ of Ala al’ Din Khilji.

“Khwaja sahab,” Khusro Hussaini said, referring to Banda Nawaz, who would presumably have spoken Hindawi during his time in Delhi, “also has said that there is such sweetness in Hindawi.” It was the alluring mix of tongues, which Hussaini described as bearing “a certain deep sentiment, a charm and sweetness,” that infused Banda Nawaz’s speech and writing upon his return to the Deccan in his old age. He was a man of the people; he wished to talk to them in a language that they understood, rather than in the Persian of courtly traditions. Thus began the journey of Dakhani, which flourished—as is evident from a rich repository of medieval manuscripts—until the early eighteenth century, when it went into a calamitous decline. Yet glimpses of its colourful history can be found in the thousands of folk songs and poems of those who still speak the language today, all across the Deccan.

KHATEEB COTTAGE IS TUCKED AWAY in a quiet residential neighbourhood off Sedam Road in East Gulbarga. The cottage, with its modest garden and small porch, is indicative of Khateeb’s journey from impoverished beginnings to a modicum of monetary—but more importantly literary—success. His ten children have inherited this legacy: though they mostly live in the United States, they collectively run a charitable trust in their late father’s name. The trust supports needy Urdu-medium students, and works tirelessly to promote Urdu literary culture.

On a mild October day, I sat with Shameem Surayya, Khateeb’s daughter, on the porch overlooking the small front garden. Surayya holds a doctoral degree on her father’s work, and told me that while people initially found her subject of study odd, she was encouraged by her advisor to pursue it.

“My father initially did not do waqti shayri,” or topical poetry, she told me. “He had decided that these problems are not just of the day … the problems that the common man faces, those are constantly there. So there should be some message, some consciousness within him should be evoked, so that he can tackle the circumstances of the times. There should be someone who encourages the common man, shows him the way, a means to fight the difficult fight of everyday life. It is with this intention that he started poetry.”

Indeed, in nearly all of Khateeb’s poetry one consistently finds a universal message. But high-minded sermons aside, what is most outstanding is his language—the regional muhavarey, or sayings, the local phrases, and the comic tone. In a famous nazm titled ‘Chora-Chori’—which was featured in a mostly forgotten 1975 Hindi film titled Maze Le Lo that showed Khateeb himself reciting it at a mushaira—the poet describes an exchange between two women over a possible marriage alliance. The boy’s mother approaches her kinswoman with a request, and the woman responds:

Bolo khala misaj kaisen hai,
Kittey barson key baad ayi ho,
Missi hoton pey, aankh mey kajal,
Jaisey paigham koyi layi ho.

Tell me aunt, are you well?
It has been so long, many a year.
Gloss on your lips, eyeshade,
A message perhaps you bring here?

The visitor replies that she is looking for a suitable bride for her son. My son, she says, is made of pure gold. Don’t entertain any doubts in your heart; he is a gem:

Char logaan mey uski abroo hain,
Jaisey kewde key ban mey khusboo hain.

Such respect from all quarters he draws,
Like the fragrance the wild flower does cause.

This couplet embodies several markers of Dakhani—the characteristic alif-noon plural of log, or people; the shortened first syllable of aabroo, or honour; and the use of the word ban, commonly used for woods in lieu of ‘jungle.’ (Kewde Ka Ban is also the name of Khateeb’s diwan, or collected poetry, first published in 1975.)

It is commonly believed, amongst Khateeb’s admirers, that ‘Chora-Chori’ inspired the scene in the iconic film Sholay in which Amitabh Bachchan approaches Hema Malini’s aunt to seek the heroine’s hand in marriage for his buddy Dharmendra. Khateeb’s poem continues with the boy’s mother revealing more details about her son:

Chora tirpat hai. Chora tircha hai.
Aur lulla hai.
Seedhi aankhi mey uski pulla hai.
Munh po chechak key khaali daghaan hai.
Rang dambar sey zarra khula hai.
Naak nakshey ka kitta accha hai.
Mera baccha to bor-baccha hai.

The boy is cross-eyed.
And crippled.
His sight is not up to par.
With pockmarks his face is marred.
His colour about the shade of tar.
He has the shapeliest nose by far.
My boy, he is such a star.

She goes on to describe the kind of girl that she wishes for this favoured, if somewhat lacking, son. The girl, of course, must have the qualities of an angel.

Chori phoolan mey phool disnaji
Bholi soorat kabool disnaji
Uskey lakkhan pey chand nai padna
Chand paavan key dhool disnaji.

Zulfaan lobaan ka dua disna
Lal hotaan pey gunchi mar jaana.
Achey gun ki, accha paaun ho
Ghar mey Lachmi ki sar ki chaoon ho.

Amidst all flowers, a flower with grace,
Innocence writ all over her face.
Nothing to besmirch her character
Her feet firmly over all that is debased.

Her hair like an elegant trail of smoke.
Red lips that a rosebud would invoke.
Good traits of course, and a good heart inside,
The shadow of Laxmi over where we reside.

In addition, the girl must sacrifice herself for the household.

Paak Sita sacchi mayi ho.
Pura Allah miya ki gayi ho.
Galla katey to hanstey mar jana,
Beti duniya mey naam kar jana.

Like mother Sita, honest and pure,
A song of Allah with all its allure.
She should die laughing if her throat were slit
The perfect bride in the eyes of the world, to wit.

The poem takes a sudden, sombre turn when the boy’s mother makes an impossible dowry demand. The girl’s father places his turban at her feet to signify his helplessness. For elderly parents, the father says, a girl of age is a “mountain on their hearts.” It has been said that Khateeb first made his listeners laugh, then made them cry—hasatey, hasatey, rula detey they. This mellifluous conflation of solemnity with humour and satire is his hallmark, and no one does it better.

The late Zeenat Sajida, a towering figure in Urdu and Dakhani literary studies, once said in an interview that while Khateeb mostly wrote satire and humour, he was not writing to “pass time,” and his verses, suffused with adabi baankpan, or literary felicity, advanced the subcontinent’s literary legacy. Many find Khateeb’s folk songs, evoking the gentle idylls of pastoral life, to be extraordinary as well. The octogenarian poet Mohammad Himayatullah, a Dakhani literary figure in his own right and perhaps the last to still compose exclusively in the language, mentioned Khateeb’s popular farmer’s song about plowing a field, ‘Mot chalaataun hallu hallu’ to me, as did another senior poet, Mustafa Ali Baig. Both poets have sung it at public gatherings over the decades. Surayya said that Khateeb’s manzar-nigari, his pastoral poetry, is derived from his early experiences. These, in turn, are linked inextricably to his love of the land—watan sey mohabbat.

THE VIEW OF HYDERABAD from atop Taramati Baradari is spectacular—a 360-degree vista. The historic sarai is believed to have been built by the seventh Qutb Shahi king, Abdullah, in honour of his favourite courtesan, Taramati. The structure’s beautiful arches frame the controversial Lanco Hills luxury residential project in the distance. One can also spot Golconda Fort, and the incredible necropolis of the Qutb Shahi dynasts adjacent to it.

It had just rained heavily when I and Naseemuddin Farees, a scholar of Dakhani at Maulana Azad Urdu University, climbed the slippery, steep incline to a lime-and-mortar pavilion that stands in the middle of a terraced garden. The henna-haired Farees was eager to offer his insights into the decline of Dakhani. He pointed out that Operation Polo, the military annexation by India of the princely state of Hyderabad, in 1948, was a critical event. While the end of the Nizam’s rule was desirous for many, Farees argued, it was undeniably traumatic for others—especially for the region’s Muslim population, which faced a period of anxiety and widespread violence.

For the Dakhani satire-humour poets, it was a watershed moment. Farees echoed a common refrain in the community—that the poets took on a lighter tone, applying themselves to dispelling the gloom. In his words, “Till when can we live like this, they asked themselves? We should respond to the need of the time; we should tackle the present. What is point of dwelling in the past?”

The charming Ghouse Mohiuddin Ahmed, also known as Khamakha, a poet now in his mid eighties, told me how his house was burnt down in violence of 1948, causing him to leave Hyderabad. In an interview in his flat in Panjagutta, now a bustling commercial centre in the new city, he described his move to Bombay, where he worked as a draughtsman in the electricity department, only to return to Hyderabad six decades later, in 2004. But, he quickly added, there was no point raking up the past. With bright eyes, a mischievous smile and a sharp wit, Khamakha is a huge hit with the Hyderabadi diaspora, not to mention many others who enjoy Urdu satirical poetry. Often lampooning himself self-deprecatingly, he also draws on a folksy, pithy depth, and has, in recent times, reflected often on his own mortality, plagued as he is by bouts of ill health. In a revelatory chavva, or quatrain, Khamakha, who translates his pen name as “good for nothing,” says:

Buzdil hai voh jo jeetey ji marney sey dar gaya
Mayich tha jo kaam kuch aur kar gaya.
Jab maut aako karney lagi mujhko salaam.
My valeykum salaam bola aur mar gaya.

It is a coward, he who fears death while still alive.
It was but me who something else did contrive.
When Death came to me and did a salaam,
I said valeykum salaam back and promptly died.

Mustafa Kamal, who has been publishing the humour magazine Shugoofa for just under half a century, pointed out to me that a significant consequence of the fall of the princely state was that poets could openly criticise anybody and anything without fear of retribution. While Dakhani poetic satire had been around for over a decade by then, the fall of the autocracy heralded an opening up of possibilities. Khateeb in particular, Kamal told me, travelled widely across Karnataka, gathering idioms, proverbs, catch phrases and uncommon rural words, which he would then use in his poetry. Speaking in a precise, deliberate manner, Kamal, who has published several important poets, prose writers and humorists, detailed the turns that Dakhani mizahiya shayri has taken over the decades.

The tradition of humour-satire verse in Dakhani, Kamal said, gained traction in the 1930s, during the early decades of South Asia’s first Urdu-medium university—Osmania University. This period saw scholars of a high calibre converging on Hyderabad. With the establishment of the dar ul tarjuma, the bureau of translation, which sought to bring modern science, literature and humanities into the Urdu-speaking world; the relocation of the Anjuman i Taraqqi i Urdu from Aligarh to Aurangabad, led by the iconic figure Maulvi Abdul Haq, popularly known as Baba i Urdu, or “the father of Urdu”; and the establishment of the Idara i Adabiyat i Urdu headed by the fascinating Hyderabad native Mohiuddin Qadri Zore; the city could boast of a stellar line-up of intellectuals and literary figures from the 1920s on.

Bright, talented youngsters flocked to Osmania University—from the outstanding revolutionary poet Maqdoom Mohiuddin; to others like Mirza Shakoor Baig, Ashfaque Hussain, Mir Hassan and Mirza Zafarul Hassan; to those from outside the region such as Khalifa Abdul Hakim from Punjab and Maulana Zafar Ali Khan. A loose group of four poets, known as the Nalugu Brothers—nalugu is “four” in Telugu—was formed in the late 1940s, and comprised Aijaz Hussain “Khatta”, Ali Saheb Miyan, Fariddudin “Gurda” and Nazeer “Dahqani.” In the years that followed, other poets, such as Sarwar “Danda,” “Gilli” Nalgondvi and “Pagal” Adilabadi, also arrived on the scene.

Many of these early poets wrote in a language that had a distinct rural flavour. Indeed, Dahqani’s choice of pen name indicated a predilection for using particular a form of Dakhani used in rural outposts, difficult even for city-dwellers to comprehend. Many also spoke of village life, and the tough circumstances that farmers and labourers faced. For example, Ali Saheb Miyan, who Khamakha described to me as “a very learned man with a simple lifestyle,” wrote:

Haddiyaan tutey talak yettiyaan karatey rahe,
Gandon ki baat ayi to phirkiyaan phiratey rahe.

Ummar tamaam yuich kati Ali Saheb ki,
Amma ka khaey, mamu key bakriyaan charatey rahe.

They made me labour till every bone broke,
But at payday, they spun me around like a joke.
Life passed this way for Ali Saheb,
Living off his mother, tending his uncle’s goat.

But the programmatic standarisation of the language that accompanied the intellectual ferment of this period, which the scholar Kavita Datla explores in her 2013 book The Language of Secular Islam, affected the fortunes of Dakhani adversely. With the coalescing of political and social forces in favour of linguistic cohesion, spoken Dakhani began to be regarded as impure, and not suitable for progress. While both the nobility and the common people of the region, regardless of religion, spoke Dakhani widely, once again, as had happened in the years following Aurangzeb’s conquest of the Deccan at the end of the eighteenth century, the language went into a phase of decline, retreating to within the four walls of private households and the dusty hinterlands of rural Telangana and north Karnataka. As Kamal pointed out, Dakhani literature is no longer being created, and no education conducted through it. It is now a boli—a spoken vernacular.

In a 2005 paper titled Urdu’s Progressive Wit: Sulaiman Khatib, Sarvar “Danda” and the Subaltern Satirists Who Spoke Up, the scholar Syed Akbar Hyder argues that, following a meeting of the All Indian Urdu Conference in Hyderabad in 1945, and with pressure from the Communist Party of India, a censorship campaign took root to block not only certain “obscene” writers and “undesirable” themes but also regional vernaculars. “The effort of North Indians to suppress Deccani Urdu,” Hyder writes, “was consequently also an effort to silence a region, a region that claimed it had a legitimate right over Urdu.” He further indicates that the elite literary figures of the north regarded the language of the Deccan in a poor light; for writers such as Josh Malihabadi and Hosh Bilgrami, “Hyderabad’s Urdu served as a gloss for humour.” But, Hyder argues, poets such as Khateeb, and his brilliant Hyderabadi contemporary Danda, “disrupted the progressive canon by turning the exclusionary semantic etiquette of the literary elite on its head.” Hyder describes these poets as “subaltern satirists,” but they were also champions of their language.

Danda, a highly skilled poet who died young, in the 1960s, is still remembered with great fondness in Hyderabad. Aside from his famous vitriolic verses, he also wrote exquisite naat—loosely poetry in praise of the Prophet—including a moving dirge in which he laments the state of decay around him: “Gammat, hairan hain ulfat, ab tumsey kya chupana”—so strange, so bizarre this sadness, what is there left to hide. In a charming geet on Dakhani itself, sung later by Mustafa Ali Baig at a gathering in Jeddah, Danda is at his folksy, playful best:

Purab Urdu boley saara, paccham Urdu boley
Uttar Dakhan ki Urdu to kaanan mey rach goley.

In all directions Urdu is spoken, Danda wrote, but the Urdu of the north Deccan just melts in your ears. The high literary traditions of north Indian Urdu are undeniable; that language’s sophistication of form, style and content, and its progression over the centuries, is readily apparent. Its popular form, expressed through our film music, through the poetry of Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi and others, is testament to its robustness, not to mention its presence in everyday life. Sharing Urdu couplets to illustrate subtle ideas is a valued cultural skill—among everyone from prime ministers and bureaucrats to autorickshaw drivers. The canon of Urdu poetry (not to mention prose) is fecund with sophistry and high literary culture; those in the Deccan are not just quick to admit this fact, but also to readily share it. In fact, popular legend has it that Urdu poetry was actually popularised by Wali Dakhani, also known as Aurangabadi, around 1700. According to a somewhat apocryphal story, the Deccan poet travelled to Delhi and presented his work before the imperial court, whetting the Mughal capital’s appetite for non-Persian poetry with mixed linguistic influences.

The sharp contrast that exists today between Dakhani and north Indian literary Urdu has played out on stage often enough. At a historic mushaira and humour conference in 1966, conducted by the organisation Zinda Dilane Hyderabad—The Lively Hearts of Hyderabad—and attended by Dakhani poets such as Ashraf Khundmiri and Mohammed Himayatullah, the highly regarded Pakistani poet Syed Zameer Jafri recited his fabulous version of an Alexander Pope poem, which he titled ‘Mrs William.’ With an elegant, Punjabi-accented singsong style, Jafri satirised an upper-class London sophisticate, a member of the party circuit who, with lovers handily kept in various cities, jets across the world.

Francisi mili angreziyon mein baat karti thi,
Din galiyon mein rehti thi, club mein raat karti thi.

With French-inflected English she used to speak
Her days about town; nights at the club with her clique.

The difference in themes, concerns, styles and approaches between Jafri’s baroque lyricism and, for example, Himayatullah’s poem capturing the banter between a Lucknowi wife speaking in her polished Urdu to her Hyderabadi husband, who replies in crude colloquialisms, could not have been starker.

In an interview with me, the celebrated humorist Mujtaba Hussain, also a founding member of Zinda Dilane Hyderabad and a well-known figure in the Urdu literary world, pointed out that there is a long-standing tradition of satire and humorous poetry in Urdu, with Punjab a great centre. Referencing the controversial eighteenth-century poet Ja’far Zatalli and the pioneering poetry of Akbar Illahabadi, he explained that satirical poetry was being written in Urdu before the same forms began to appear in Dakhani. But in the twentieth century, the Dakhani poets of Hyderabad truly made satire their own. Khateeb’s poetry was, in many ways, the very peak of this vernacular ascent; the poetry had achieved a lustre and sophistication through its embrace of its own colloquialisms and rustic flavours.

Many use the metaphor of a sugar-coated but bitter pill to describe the tanz-o-mizah—satire and humour—traditions of the Deccan, and there is no finer living example of it than Himayatullah. Despite his bad health, he recited some of his poetry when I interviewed him a few years ago. In a famous couplet that has occasionally angered some sensitive types, he takes on the hypocrisy of religious leaders:

Arey Murshad, tum namaz padey kiskey vastey?
Duniya key vastey padey, matlab key vastey.
Allah key vastey pado boley to kya ji tum.
Hooron key vastey padey, jannat key vastey.

Hey Murshad, for what do you pray?
For worldly things, for material things you pray.
You are meant to pray only for Allah, don’t you know.
You pray for virgins, for the delights of heaven you pray.

Himayatullah recalled the glory days of Dakhani literary culture in the middle of the last century, describing to me the formation of Zinda Dilane Hyderabadwith Kamal, Mujtaba Hussain and the retired civil servant and chronicler of Hyderabad Narendra Luther. The organisation’s annual mizahiya mushairas and comedy conferences, at the famous Exhibition Grounds in the old city centre, drew large crowds—over twenty-five thousand people on occasion. That is a staggering number if one considers that these were gatherings of poets reciting their work. The annual event remained steadfast until recent years; it last occurred in 2010. The older generation is fatigued, and the newer lot, as Himayatullah told me, is not quite up to it. Although mushairas still take place, their number has dwindled, as has the quality of poetry.

Modern Dakhani humour-satire poetry is set against the complex history of the language’s rise and fall. The hundreds of medieval Dakhani manuscripts and treatises still feed an area of study for scholars, and Dakhani’s opulent, staggering literary past takes in such gems as the Kitab i Nauras, a treatise on classical music by the sixteenth-century Bijapur sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II; and over fifty thousand couplets composed by the first Saheb i Dwan of Urdu poetry, the Golconda sultan and founder of Hyderabad, Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah. But Dakhani’s precipitous decline from a literary language to a spoken vernacular still remains a tantalising area of debate to explore. While mapping the language’s last phase of literary creation against the region’s cultural history, Khateeb emerges as a landmark figure.

Khateeb, who spent his working life as an employee of the civic water works department in Gulbarga, himself hints at the fluctuating fortunes of language, and at its need for a nurturing environment, in some of his work. One of his most popular poems, titled ‘Shayr Ki Izzat,’ or “A Poet’s Respect,” captures the irony of practical matters intruding into the economics of language and poetry.

An exultant poet on his way back from a gathering is accosted by a friend, who asks him the cause for his jaunty gait, his arrogant swagger. “I’m the king of poets” the impassioned poet replies, “with many rewards I come. In pitch darkness having lit lamps I come … This is poetry my dear, not some child’s play. My red blood this is, not a merchant’s oil I say.”

Such was his brilliance, he continues, that everyone at the mushaira was amazed; he was felicitated, treated like a god, garlanded by silver-handed sophisticates.

At the very end of the poem, with impeccable comic timing, Khateeb brings to the fore the sharp ironies of the day-to-day concerns so familiar to us all:

Izzat hai kitti meri, duniya ko tu batadey,
(Aur kaan mey bola)
Bhukka hoon kal sey Pasha, ek chai to piladey!

I command such respect—tell the world, my friend,
(Then, whispering in his ear)
But since yesterday I’ve eaten nothing; at least put a chai in my hand!

Khateeb bolstered the honour of a parodied, poorly understood tongue by claiming a lineage for it that went all the way back to Banda Nawaz, who heralded a unique Indo-Muslim encounter in the Deccan of the fourteenth century. This lineage casts a gentle shade over his poetry, rather than a looming shadow. Khateeb’s words retain a child-like charm; his work is an affectionate offering, returned to his people in their own language.

Kya bolun gorey-gorey, chandi key sarkey hathaan.
Deota samajh ko minjhey, phoolan pehna rahey they…

What white, sophisticated silver hands!
Garlanded like some god; such was my demand.

~ From Shayr Ki Izzat, Sulaiman Khateeb

THE FAINT, waggish drizzle finally let up, and the monsoon air of Gulbarga, in northern Karnataka, was pleasant. At about ten in the morning, a small crowd gathered outside a general goods kiosk near a historic shrine to watch a mullah deliver an animated taqreer—discourse—on a small television screen. His beard quivering, his voice slightly tortured inside his throat, like a hacksaw working against the grain, the spiritual leader spoke. “If your Hindu neighbour next-door remains hungry, even a lifetime of prayers at the mosque will go to waste if you ignore him,” he said. “The thing about food is, once a man eats at your house a friendship is formed. If anyone speaks against you to him, he will say I am sorry bhai, I have eaten at his house.” He underscored the sentiment with a common idiom: Mai unka namak khaya hoon—I have eaten his salt. “This … is grace,” he added.

The mullah’s cantillating cadences were tinctured with the folksy lyricism typical of Dakhani. This regional, vernacular manner of speaking Urdu, heard across the Deccan, has long been an object of derision for the nation at large. But for the ten-odd people huddled around the screen, the language was comfortably familiar, as it was to me. The mullah’s voice conveyed all the nimble idiosyncrasies of Dakhani, with just a tenuous touch of jocularity.

The shop was at the entrance to the dargah of an immensely popular Sufi saint, Khwaja Banda Nawaz Gesu Daraz of the Chishti order. Banda Nawaz, who made Gulbarga his home nearly seven centuries ago, also spoke the language of the people—awam ki boli. I had made the pilgrimage to his shrine as part of a four-year project on the mizahiya shayri, or humour-satire poetry, of the Deccan. Drawing from Dakhani’s rich history, dating back to the time of the Sufi saint, the modern tradition of mizahiya shayri took root in 1930s Hyderabad, and flourished rapidly following the fall of that independent princely state in 1948. A culture of public mushairas became common, and several poets gained renown. But the nuances of the region’s language were perhaps never captured as well by anyone as they were by one of Banda Nawaz’s modern followers, the Urdu poet Sulaiman Khateeb, who emerged as a poet of significance in the 1950s and whose work was a critical element of my research.

Hailed as the badshah of mizahiya shayri, Khateeb, who is still relatively unknown across the subcontinent, was prolific, and composed and performed a great number of his works in Dakhani. Suffused with regional idioms, pithy folk wisdom and the sumptuous inflections of the Deccan’s vernaculars, his poetry was accessible to and singularly popular among the people of the region. Khateeb was not just a guardian of Dakhani, he became one of its most beloved ambassadors. He lit a lamp in the darkened corner to which the language had retreated; his poetry was like a stick of incense burnt in propitiation to its glorious history.

Though sparse, the crowd inside Banda Nawaz’s shrine was a testament to the continuing significance of this history. A few families were huddled in small groups, some in silent prayer, some just looking around. A little girl handed a coconut to an elderly man; he broke it open on a stone and handed the pieces back to her. The coconut water ran over the stone. Several people were tying red threads to a metal grill, some with small padlocks, securing for themselves an unspoken promise from the dead saint.

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GautamPemmaraju is a Mumbai-based writer and filmmaker focusing on history, literature, sound aesthetics and production, and art. He has a special interest in the cultural history of Hyderabad and the Deccan, and is completing a documentary on the region’s comic and satirical Urdu performance poetry.

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