February 21, 2024

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Akbar Ilahabadi to Akbar Prayagraji, and a Ghazal Worth Returning To

7 min read

Hungamah hai kyun barpa, sung in Ghulam Ali’s deep, dulcet voice, is a very popular ghazal. Ali seductively croons “thodi si jo pi li hai (I have only drunk a little)” over and over, and the audience is ecstatic. Not many people know that Akbar Illahabadi composed this ghazal. Nor do the other verses of this nine-verse ghazal resonate with audiences as much as the opening one does.

Ghulam Ali, like most singers, chose to sing five verses out of the nine. He changed the order of verses as well, perhaps according to his personal preference, or to create an evocative mood. I wasn’t surprised when I came across this ghazal being discussed in blogs and other online platforms as a poem about masti, the euphoria that drunkenness can produce. What I didn’t expect was a Wikipedia page on this ghazal with some hard-to-believe stories about why Akbar composed it:

“Akbar Allahabadi’s song is clearly about the pleasures of imbibing alcohol. It is claimed that its genesis is in the social context of the British Raj in India, at a time when the Muslim League had begun to exert its independent approach to interacting with the British, against the wishes of the Congress. Some Muslims, including Akbar Allahabadi, hoped for Hindu-Muslim unity. This caused others to suggest that he had been given alcohol by the Hindus (Muslims are forbidden to drink alcohol). His ghazal was intended as a response to those insinuations.”

Akbar Ilahabadi (1846-1921) was a staunch nationalist, a great admirer of M.K. Gandhi. The poet settled in Allahabad after retirement from government service in 1903. His residence behind the Chowk Kotwali is an Inter College now. Akbar is buried in Allahabad’s Khuldabad cemetery. He had risen from a railway clerk to sessions judge; the colonial government had conferred the title of Khan Bahadur on him. He was highly critical of the colonial government’s “civilising mission” and wrote many poems warning Indians of the perils of Western culture. He wrote a series of poems called Gandhinama expressing his profound respect for Gandhi but did not publish. The manuscript was ultimately published in 1948 with a scholarly introduction by Professor Naimur Rahman, the chair of Persian Studies at the University of Allahabad.

Incidentally, the year 2021 marked 100 years since the poet’s death. The poet’s centenary was commemorated at conferences in Allahabad and other literary venues. But these remembrances of Akbar’s contributions did not create any ripples on social media or create awareness of the poet’s witty satire and melodious ghazals. What instead drew Akbar’s name into the limelight was the news that his pen name had been changed from Ilahabadi to Prayagraji!

Uttar Pradesh Higher Education Council’s (UPHEC’s) website drew flak when this news circulated at lightning speed on the internet. (Two lesser-known poets, Rashid Ilahabadi and Tegh Ilahabadi’s pen names had suffered similar defacement.) Spokespersons from UPHEC blamed the egregious act on hackers. The names were restored quickly enough. Evidently, this reflected the contested acceptance of the city’s name change from Allahabad to Prayagraj.

I will not go into the details of the difference between Ilahabad and Allahabad except to say that the British preferred the latter spelling. In Hindi and Urdu, it was always spelt Ilahabad; Ilah in Arabic is generic for god, like khuda in Persian. In 2018, Yogi Adityanath’s government had blatantly announced the name change to Prayagraj and stuck with it.

In some way the hungamah fostered by the murky prank, its deeper message, even threat, drew me to the hungamah hai kyun barpa ghazal. This ghazal is truly exceptional in both its hypnotic musicality and elevated mood. The mood of this ghazal is the taste of mystical experience. As a tribute to Akbar on his death centenary, I want to share my reading of this beautiful ghazal, provide a commentary of sorts to make it more accessible for audiences, enhance their enjoyment. I will go through the verses in the order the poet wrote them.

Hungamah hai kyun barpa thodi si jo pi li hai
Daka to nahi dala chori to nahin ki hai

(Why the fuss? Because I am a little drunk?
I haven’t looted anyone or engaged in robbery!)

The next verse eloquently explains that the drunkenness is not from alcohol but from the wine that is distilled from the heart’s blood:

Us mai se nahin matlab dil jis se ho beganah
Maqsud hai us mai se dil hi men jo khinchti hai

(It is not the wine that alienates the heart
It is the wine that is distilled in the heart)

The next verse goes a bit further in explication. Drawing on the well-worn theme of the so-called pious but worldly preacher (va’ez) whose religious practices are empty of real feeling, Akbar delivers an honest but ingenious jibe; it is soaked in the “rang (colour)” of a true believer, one who has tasted the mystical wine.

Na tajrubah kari se va’ez ki yeh baten hain
Us rang ko kya jaane, pucho jo kabhi pi hai

(The preacher’s moralising reflect his ignorance
Would he know that heady intoxication, has he ever tasted wine?)

If there were any doubts that this poem is not mystical, they are wiped away by the following verse in which barq-e tajalli is invoked. Tajalli or manifestation can be the moment of clarity that is like “that flash across the inward eye”, an awareness that is possible only when self awareness or hosh is suspended.

Ay shauq vahi mai pi, ay hosh zara so ja
Mehman-e nazar is dam, ek barq-e tajalli hai

(O craving! imbibe that wine, O awareness, slumber
At this moment, my eye’s joy is divine manifestation)

The next verse is truly a masterpiece, especially the second line: We exist because God exists. Every breath we take affirms God’s presence, every particle glows with divine radiance.

Har zarrah chamakta hai anvaar-e ilahi se
Har sans yeh kahti hai hum hain to khuda bhi hai

(Every particle shines with God’s radiance
Every breath affirms: if we exist so does God)

The almighty, blazing sun can be eclipsed if Nature wills it so:

Suraj men lage dhabba, qudrat ke karishme hain
But ham ko kahen kafir, allah ki marzi hai

(The sun can be blemished such are miracles of nature.
Idols can call us unbelievers if Allah wills)

Typically, ghazals can incorporate a variety of mazmuns (subjects) because the idea is complete in each two-line verse. Although this ghazal is about ecstasy or mystical experience, Akbar doesn’t hesitate in putting in his favourite theme of critiquing Western education and its perils. With unerring precision, he lampoons the dubious intent behind the coloniser’s education schemes.

Ta’lim ka shor aisa, tahzib ka ghul itna
Barkat jo nahin hoti, niyat ki kharabi hai

(Such clamour about education, fuss about civilisation
Yet doesn’t it flourish because the intent is dubious)

Akbar Ilahabadi was a prolific poet. Three volumes of his poetry were published in his lifetime. After his death in 1921, his heirs dragged their feet in publishing the remainder of his corpus. This included the Gandhinama. Akbar’s popularity also declined, and he was barely given his due until the turn of the century. The reason was his complicated attitude towards the British government. He accepted the title of Khan Bahadur. He did not publish Gandhinama. Although he did say:

Ap kyun apna khitaab ay Khan wapas kijiye
Khud unhin se kahiye meri shaan wapas kijiye

(O Khan, why should you return the title
Ask them to return our splendour)

In Urdu’s post-independence literary scenario, Akbar’s “complicated” attitude towards the British coloured the reception of his poetry. Satire, especially in poetry, is not considered a high form of writing in Urdu. His stance against Western education, while working for the government was seen as a kind of betrayal. It wasn’t until 2002, when Shamsur Rahman Faruqi delivered a pathbreaking paper, ‘Akbar: The New Cultural Politics and Changing Ideals (Nayi Tahzibi Siyasat aur Badalte Hue Iqdar)’, did it become evident that Akbar’s views reflected his awareness of the trauma that postcolonial societies face.

Akbar’s Gandhinama is an unusual piece. It is a collection of short poems and individual verses that the poet composed over a period that reflect his engagement with Gandhi’s leadership of the freedom movement. We must remember that those are early years. Gandhi had returned to India from Africa in 1915; Akbar died only six years later. But he had envisaged producing a historic poem that would be an ode to dawn of a new era:

Inqilab aya nayi duniya naya hungama hai
Shahnamah ho chuka ab daur-e Gandhinama hai

(A revolution is here, it’s a new world, new fervour
The time of the Shahnamah is past, it’s now the era of Gandhinama)

We must credit Akbar for welcoming a young leader and for applauding his efforts in creating Hindu-Muslim unity:

Bhai Gandhi ka nihayat hi muqaddas kaam hai
Rampuri saath hai aur Ram hi ka naam hai

(Gandhi’s work is extremely sincere
The Rampuris are with him, and Ram’s name prevails)

 It turns out that the Gandhinama, though unique in its conception is an unfinished piece. The 198 short poems (qita) that constitute it are of uneven quality. Nonetheless, I was gratified to note that the work has finally caught the attention of scholars. There are several recent editions in Hindi. The Hindustani Academy in Allahabad brought out an edition in 2016. Rakhshanda Jalil’s edition is as recent as 2020.

Akbar rejected the the agenda of obliterating cultural values. Unfortunately, we are seeing it surface again, whether it be a prank in changing an eminent poet’s name or renaming a street or city simply because it represents a historical past that is perceived as unworthy. A century after his passing, Akbar Ilahabadi lives on.

Mehr Afshan Farooqi is associate professor at the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Virginia, US.


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