The great Indian bazaar | Book Review: The Incomparable Festival by Mir Yar Ali ‘Jan Sahib’

A new English translation of 19th-century Urdu poetry celebrates an extraordinary act of catharsis in post-1857 Indian literature

Some of them like Mir Yar Ali Jaan moved to Rampur ruled by Nawab Kalb-e-Ali Khan to continue a tradition of Rekhti, a form of Urdu poetry that is today the subject of much research among scholars.
Some of them like Mir Yar Ali Jaan moved to Rampur ruled by Nawab Kalb-e-Ali Khan to continue a tradition of Rekhti, a form of Urdu poetry that is today the subject of much research among scholars.

The defeat of India’s First War of Independence in 1857 set off a series of repercussions impacting wider sections of society. One such was the community of poets, which flourished under the patronage of local rulers. Many were forced to flee from Delhi and Lucknow, the epicentres of the rebellion against British imperialism. Some of them like Mir Yar Ali Jaan moved to Rampur ruled by Nawab Kalb-e-Ali Khan to continue a tradition of Rekhti, a form of Urdu poetry that is today the subject of much research among scholars.

Called feminist poetry that existed in Urdu in the 18th- and 19th-century northern India, Rekhti has baffled its readers for dealing with topics like same-sex love that society considered or still considers taboo. It, however, enjoyed the support of local rulers like Rampur’s Nawab Kalb-e-Ali Khan, who assembled a royal festival, Jashn-e-Benazir, in 1866. Jashn-e-Benazir, which in Urdu means the incomparable festival, drew artistes, performers and gender-crossers, as Razak Khan, who has edited a new book on Mir Yar Ali Jaan’s account of the fair in Rekhti, says. The Incomparable Festival by Mir Yar Ali ‘Jan Sahib’ offers insights into an unconventional literature that begins with praises for its patron-ruler, but goes on to describe a gathering that includes ordinary workers and members of lower castes along with artistes and performers.

Mir Yar Ali Jaan’s original work, Musaddas tahniyat-e-jashn-e-benazir, is composed of poems written in six verses. The poet’s references to working groups such as gardener, washerman and butcher are striking. “Scrubbed and clean the sweeperesses from their localities make an entry/Should anyone accost them, they reply: ‘Do not even try!’,” goes one stanza. Says another: “Washerman, butcher and water-bearer in Awadh are singing/One one side the drummers their tambourines are beating.” “…Urdu literary history cannot be fully explained without engaging and addressing the triad of labour, caste and gender within the precincts of the bazaar economy,” explains Khan in his introduction to the book.

“Rekhti has so far been largely examined and utlised to understand women’s domestic or inner emotional and erotic domains. Jan Sahib creatively uses Rekhti here to talk about not just the female body and speech, but the body and speech as performative categories in the marketplace as well,” adds Khan. “Each dancing girl a rose, belongs to the garden, no less/Seeing the rose makes it a garden, the heart of the nightingale”, reads another stanza. The manuscript of Musaddas tahniyat-e-jashn-e-benazir, which is interspersed with miniature paintings, is preserved today at the Rampur Raza Library. The translation by Shad Naved, who retains the work’s original rhyme scheme, opens a window to a world of Urdu poetry that tore down social and cultural barriers in a tumultuous era.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

The Incomparable Festival
Mir Yar Ali ‘Jan Sahib’
Penguin Random House
Pp 95, Rs 299

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