The man pictured above is one of the more poignant characters of recent Indian history. Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Muhammad Bahadur Shah Zafar inherited the throne of Mughal India at the age of 63 in 1837. Grand though his ancestors’ Empire had once been and as fabled the name–‘Mughal’ was a synonym for other-worldly luxury and power to the 17th century European imagination–when the old man ascended the throne he was in fact, little more than the King of Delhi. During his grandfather’s reign, the city’s wags came up with the line, Sultanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli ta Palam [The kingdom of Shah Alam extends from Delhi to Palam]. A vast territory indeed, covering a mere dozen or so miles.
Not only did Bahadur Shah inherit a ‘moth-eaten’ kingdom, he was cursed with bad timing. As his family’s influence shrank to near-comical dimensions the wealth and aggressive power of the British grew ravenous. It was the old Shah’s kismat to live his days along a crease in time; those lines of history which demarcate the end from the beginning. They say when a King dies there is moment when his Kingdom’s Fate hangs suspended in the balance. As the bitter internecine fights that inevitably surround the dying monarch break out, the people hold their breath and wait, hoping for a smooth and rapid restoration of order.
Twenty years into Bahadur Zafar’s reign all hell broke loose. Local soldiers in the employ of the red-coated East India Company revolted against their English commanders. Rumours had it that the bullets they used in their weapons were oiled with pig and cow grease. In Meerut sipahis (soldiers) mutinied and overthrew the Company’s garrison. The violence and momentum spread across the plains toward Kanpur and Lucknow. With the English on the backfoot, deserters rushed to Delhi and appealed to the opium-smoking Emperor to back their cause.
Although the historical tide had truly turned against the House of Babur, perhaps the old man saw one final flash of grandeur beckoning. He assented to throwing his mighty symbolic authority behind the rebels but to no avail. The Englishmen rallied and clawed their way to Delhi where they unleashed a scorched earth campaign against the city’s people. The Emperor’s sons were beheaded. As for His Majesty himself, he was humiliatingly carted off to Rangoon, a sort of Siberian exile, where he breathed his last 87 years after being born.
Bahadur Shah Zafar was not born great. And rather than greatness, all he had thrust upon him were ill luck and disaster. But this last Mughal of note did achieve greatness, nevertheless. And it is to a small detail of that eminence that I now turn.
Those who observed Bahadur Shah Zafar before he became Emperor remarked on his ordinariness: tall and thin with the appearance of a tutor. With no expectation or ambition to be the Shahenshah, Zafar had spent his life composing poetry, developing a very fine hand at calligraphy, smoking opium and generally, reflecting on the way the Universe worked.
He was a man of letters rather than politics. He shared his lifetime with the greatest of all Urdu poets, Ghalib, and his time in power coincided with a final flourishing of the sharif (noble) arts for which we so fondly appreciate the Mughal dynasty.
Zafar composed poetry in a number of styles including ghazal and masnavi and used an Urdu that was, considering his own social rank, quite common. Compared to Ghalib’s lines which are full of Persianised phrases Zafar’s language is refreshingly straight-forward. Many of Zafar’s poems are beloved classics. They are recited and sung to this day across northern India and Pakistan. This rendition of Baat Karni Muskhil by Mehdi Hassan is among the best and most popular.
There is a strong sense of sorrow and despair in many of Zafar’s poems, almost as if in his youth he had seen a vision of his tragic and pathetic last years. Here is one such, which was sung by Mohammad Rafi in the film Lal Qila.
Lagtaa nahii hai dil meraa ujRe dayaar mei
What pleasure can the heart know in this derelict city
Kiss kii banii hai aalame-naapaaidaar mein
Who has found fulfillment in this mortal world
Umr-e-daraaz maang ke laaye the chaar din
Having asked for long life, I brought back four days
Do aarzuu mein kat gaye do intezaar mein
Two passed away in yearning and two in waiting
Kah do in hasraton se kahiin aur jaa baein
Tell these desires to go and settle down elsewhere
Itnii jagah kahaan hai dil-e-daaghdaar mein
There is little room in this so tainted heart
Kitnaa hai badnaseeb zafar dafan ke liye
How ill fated is that for Zafar even for his burial
Do gaz zamiin bhii naa milii kue-yaar mein
Was not granted two yards of earth (for his grave) in the land of the beloved
(Translation from First Impression blog)
If we were to take his external words as a reflection of his inner state, the last Mughal of India was an unloved child with rock bottom self esteem!
My love affair with Zafar’s many popular ghazals came after I stumbed upon a couplet of his from a masnavi. I studied Urdu as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota where the head of the South Asian Department was none other than the much feted M.A. R. Barker. In one of his several books on Urdu language and poetry I found the following lines:
Kyon ka’aba o kanishth mein sar marta hai tu / sargarm-e-justuju
Tu dhundtha hai jisko chchupa woh tujhi mein hai / par tu hai bekhabar
(Why do you bang your heads in the Kaaba and temple / in a feverish search?
What you are searching for is hidden within you / but you are aware)
I was raised in a religious home and so this pooh-poohing of mindless worship struck a chord. I completely understood and embraced that first line. I knew the Divine was not in some building or another and that rituals (the banging of the head) were generally followed out of a fearful desperation (the feverish, frenetic, scurrying search).
The second line made sense in that if ‘God’ was not out there then he/she/they must be internal within me. And though I’ve never doubted that truth, my appreciation of Zafar’s simple statement has only deepened over the years.
(Part 2 to follow)