It was a queen’s promise that upon the release of her son from prison, she would present a ritual cloth and a floral decoration at the holy dargah of Mehrauli. This procession and the offering of flowers that became an annual ritual for both Hindus and Muslims, came to be known as phool valon ke sair, or the festival of flower-sellers, and it continues to this day.
In the days of Bahadur Shah II, the festival took the form of an exuberant celebration, an experience that brought the city of Delhi alive. In a narrative that captures the delight that once filled the hears of the people of the city, when they came together regardless of their religious diversities, Mirza Farhatullah Beg brings this experience to the reader.
Beg takes us through the Mehrauli that was. We travel with him from the mango-grove and the cascading waters of the Shamsi Talab, to the busy bazaars glimmering with mirrors, chandeliers and lamps; from the sweet call of the peacock and papiha, and the gentle drizzle of Bhadon rain, to the songs of Tirmunhi Khanam and Dildar; from the fragrance of andarsas and suhals frying in the angithees to the aroma of kachoris and kebabs in the shops on the streets; from the flare of the dancers’ pishwaz to the tinkle of their glass bangles… to the grand procession itself, accompanied by the dhol and shehnai, by wrestling matches, kite-flying competitions, and the magic of fireworks lighting up the sky-a spectacle that continued well past midnight.
A vivid portrayal of Delhi’s picturesque and happy past, this story is also reminiscent of the love and faith that the King shared with his people. It is a portrayal the reader is sure to relish through Mohammed Zakir’s lucid, yet evocative translation that ably retains the flavor of the Urdu original.
Mirza Farhatullah Beg (1883-1947) was born of Mughal stock in Delhi. Educated at the Delhi Madrassah, Hindu College and St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, he was Director of Education in the State of Hyderabad. Later, he became the Registrar of the High Court of Hyderabad. A renowned research scholar and a distinguished humorist, Beg’s essays are marked by rich imagination and informality of style. His language is one of the best specimens of Urdu as spoken in Delhi. Steeped as he was in the medieval modes of culture and the lifestyle of Delhi, he saw beauty in them and sought to make them live for good through his writings.
Mohammed Zakir was born in Delhi and educated at St. Stephen’s College, Sri Ram College of Commerce and Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi. He retired as Professor of Urdu after four decades of service in the Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. His main interests have been translation, literary criticism and Urdu linguistics.
Bahadur Shah and the Festival of Flower-sellers is a translation of Bahadur Shah aur Phool Valon ki Sair written by Mirza Farhatullah Beg (1883-1947) towards the end of the third decade of the last century and has been published several times. It has nearly become a little modern classic in Urdu. Appartently it is just a narrative-cum-descriptive essay about a woman making a vow and fulfilling it.
During the administration of the British East India Company, in early nineteenth century, it so happened that a prince insulted the British Resident in the royal court. Consequently, he was sent to prison. His mother, the queen, promised to present a chadar (a sheet of cloth) and a masehri (bed-curtain of flowers) as offerings at the tomb of a saint when her son was released. Upon his release these offerings were taken to the tomb of the saint in a procession in which both the Hindus and the Muslims participated with great zeal. The flower-sellers who made the bed-curtain of flowers also made a flower-pankha (fan), suspended with it. Akbar Shah II, the king, the Mughal emperor (practically a pensioner of the East India Company), not only made it an offering to be made regularly, every year, but also advised the Hindus to present a similar flower-fan as an offering at a historic temple near the saint’s tomb. He wished that the Hindus and the Muslims participate in each other’s offering ceremonies. It was, thus, actually ‘flower offering’ ceremonies but they came to be known as the festival of flower-sellers.
Making vows and offerings at the tombs of religious men and seeking help from them in mundane affairs pertains to a man’s faith and religious beliefs. The ceremonies and the rituals that go with them, practiced year after year, become the distinguishing marks of the culture of a people. Engaging in various kinds of outdoor activities such as wrestling and swimming competitions, swinging, display of fireworks, and setting up temporary stalls to sell toys, general merchandise and eatables, etc., during these ceremonies and rituals give them a touch of excitement and zeal that a fair has. The festival of the flower-sellers remained an annual feature with the Delhiites until 1942 when it was banned by the British government for security reasons. The realization that such social events were indeed the cementing forces to bring about greater cohesion that could promote emotional integration among different communities, helped revive the festival in 1962 by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. Now there is a registered Society, ‘Anjuman Sair-e-Gulfaroshan’, which organizes it every year. There is every effort to make it more popular by introducing newer programmes in which more and more people can participate. Central and state authorities in Delhi also patronize it. It is also reported that some other states too are taking interest in this festival by sending their cultural troupes to Delhi every year. Indeed, such participation leads to overshadowing the regional diversities.
Empires rise, empires fall. Various events that happen during their reign, leave behind traces that become the hallmark of culture and civilization. Between the thirteenth and midnineteenth centuries (i.e., between the time when the Muslim Sultanate was established and the time when the last Mughal emperor was deposed) India witnessed several such political, economic and social changes. I do not mean to dwell on these changes of course, but I would like to point out that perhaps the most important outcome of the intermingling of the who cultures-Indian (represented by various Indo-Aryan dialects in north India) and non-Indian (which was itself the result of the assimilation of Persian, Arabic and Turkish elements with Persian as its representative language)-was the coming to existence of a composite Indo-Muslim culture. Its most representative languages came to be Urdu from the Indo-European family of languages, with some bearings of the Semitic and the Altaic. During the course of its development it was given various names at different times and at different places in India.
India has been like ‘a seething cauldron’, like ‘a continent of some sorceress.’ From time immemorial, whoever has come to settle here, has been naturalized as an Indian in due course of time. Hardly anybody can say with conviction that they could keep their original identities intact. We still find diversities that can be traced to the ancient and medieval settlers; however, it would not be wrong to say that there has been a sort of underlying unity or emotional integration that has been manifest in the religious thoughts and practices, and the customs and ceremonies followed by the people. In the later nineteenth century, the spread of education on modern lines gave a more pronounced sense of oneness among the people. During the later middle ages, Islam with its democratic tendencies-more manifest in Sufism which had by the thirteenth century become a movement with the aim of taking Islam to the masses-and more or less uninterrupted rule of Muslims (adequate/inadequate representatives of Islam) over vast territories with a uniform system of administration, must have also imperceptibly contributed towards this sense of oneness.
Muslims were conquerors, but they were settlers as well. To fulfill their political as well as everyday needs they had to rub against the local population, the previous settlers who had by then come to be naturalized as Indians speaking various dialects of the Indo-Aryan, the most important branch of the Indo-European. The spread of the conquerors/new settlers across the country gave a fillip to regional languages and along with it a new synthesized speech/language which could serve both the new settlers and the earlier ones came to the fore. Thus, Urdu assumed greater significance, having a wider reach along with the regional languages with their defined and undefined areas, just as Sanskrit (after assimilating some Dravidian elements) must have assumed in ancient times and Prakrit in the early middle ages.
Urdu was rightly called the grand popular language of India’, Hindustani being one of its several other names. Indeed, it had come to be the lingua franca. Over the centuries, there has been a large amount of literature in that language, both prose and poetry, which is essentially Indian in nature and secular in spirit truly representing the composite Indo-Muslim culture I speak of.
If India is not only to remain peaceful and prosperous but also be a leading light for all pluralistic societies, it has keep this spirit alive and invigorate it.
Bahadur Shah, the last Mughal emperor, was a true representative of the cultural synthesis, to whatever extent it may be, we have just hinted at. He also patronized the festival of flower-sellers and made it more exuberant. I would also like to mention here, that contrary to perhaps several historians of Urdu literature, Bahadur shah was a poet in his own right; students of Urdu literature who study his writings with an appreciating eye have to admit that he was. Apart from the simple language and a cultivated taste, his later ghazals remind us of his personal sufferings and misfortunes. However these were not meant to be only lamentation and cry or about traditional mystical feelings. One also finds in them traces of his passionate love for freedom and a strong resolve to achieve it. Those who know about the racking circumstances he was placed in and are also conversant with the symbolic nature of ghazal poetry will find significance in such couplets:
Besides poetry, Bahadur Shah practiced other arts like archery and calligraphy as well which were popular in those days. He was of a peaceful disposition and a disciple of a Chishti saint. It was at his instance that all the vazifahs (quiet repetition of an Attribute of Allah or a passage from the Holy Book) from the times of the Prophet of Islam till then were compiled in the form of a book to which a taqriz (an introduction by way of commendation) was written by the poet Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (which is a brief but a marvellous introduction to Sufism/mysticism itself).5 It will be inadvertent for me to comment on Bahadur Shah's role in the 1857 Mutiny or First War of Independence. But I may well say that in spite of all the frivolities that generally go with despotic rulers and his personal weaknesses, Bahadur Shah had the qualities of heart which had made him popular with the masses. His, perhaps, is a unique example of how a monarch by force of circumstances beyond his control and by his own disposition comes to be a commoner among the commons sharing their pleasure and pain.
Some historical facts need to be also borne in mind. Before India passed under the British Crown (1858) there had been hardly any trace of communal feelings between the Hindus and the Muslims. The cohesion and oneness that once existed between the two communities gradually diminished. Later, there was even the parting of the ways. There were, in fact, many factors responsible for it, but with the downfall of the Mughal empire, the absence of the Mughal court which served as 'the standard of cultural behaviour' was certainly one, if not the most, important factor. It is also well-known that since the days of Emperor Akbar, certain Mughal em erors had Hindu wives. Bahadur Shah's mother was Lal Bai, a Rajput. Before him, Shah Jahan and Shah Alam II had also had Hindu mothers. Common sense tells us that there must have been a semblance, a streak of secularism or liberalism or openness or whatever it may be called, in the harem atmosphere at least because of their presence. 'The slow seepage of Hindu ideas and customs from the harem into the rest of the palace: says Dalrymple, 'had led the later Mughal emperors to subscribe to particularly tolerant and syncretic form of Sufi Islam, aligned to the liberal Chishti brotherhood’. Moreover, it should also be remembered that majority of the Muslims in India had been converts, and however zealous a convert one may be to practise his new religion, the age-old way of life to which he is accustomed does not change overnight. It not only persists but also overshadows the new doctrine and beliefs. Rightly does Professor Mujeeb point out that, ‘...while the Conversion from Hinduism to Islam may have been a matter of moments, the conversion of the converts from the Hindu to the Islamic way of life took centuries, and it was during this process that Hindus and Muslims influenced each other. A study of Muslim customs, specially those relating to marriage and child-birth, would probably show that Hindu customs and ideas had a far greater hold on the Muslims than Islamic doctrine and practice.
Festivals of both, Hindus and Muslims, such as ‘Eid, Dussehra, diwali and Holi were celebrated in the Fort with equal fervour. I was told by the older members of my family that at least upto the mid-thirties of the last century Holi was celebrated in the clubs the gardens adjoining Chandni Chowk in Delhi. Muharram and Basant were observed by both the communities together in certain cities of the native states. Bahadur Shah loved his subject. He banned the sacrifice of cows during the days of the Mutiny so that it did not hurt Hindu sentiments. Dalrymple aptly observes: 'while Zafar was certainly not cut out to be a heroic or revolutionary leader, he remains, like his ancestor the Emperor Akbar, an attractive symbol of Islamic civilization at its most tolerant and pluralistic .... He is certainly a strikingly liberal and likeable figure.... He never forgot the central importance of preserving the bond between his Hindu and Muslim subjects, which he always recognised was the central stitching that held his capital city together ...’ His subjects, both Hindus and Muslims, too, reciprocated his love. In the words of C. F. Andrews, ‘his subjects knew well how ineffective he was, but they loved him all the same.’ This is why in spite of individual grudges against the East India Company or aspirations of different personalities who took to arms against it, it was the reluctant Bahadur Shah who was the common choice of the Hindus and the Muslims under whose name the struggle for freedom was carried out.
Indeed, the fall of Bahadur Shah was not the fall of Bahadur Shah alone. It also meant the fall of the old system, loss of prestige of the aristocratic order, and above all, the end of the leading centre of the composite Indo-Muslim culture which originated and developed in India and which I believe is her destiny.
The author of this essay, Mirza Farhatullah Beg, was born of Mughal stock in Delhi. Educated at the (Kashmiri Gate) Madrasa, Hindu College and St. Stephen's College, Delhi, he worked as a director of Education in the State of Hyderabad. Later, he became the Inspector General of Courts, Nizam's Government. Besides his interest in cricket, 13 painting and writing poetry, he also wrote plays. He published his essays under the title Mazamin-e-Farhat in seven volumes which include his pen-portraits, humorous writings and research articles on some medieval Urdu poets and writers as well. He also edited the poetical works of two medieval Urdu poets- Inamullah Khan, poetically surnamed Yaqin (d. 1755) and Vali Muhammad, renowned as Nazir Akbarabadi (d. 1830)-with critical Introductions.
Farhat was a well-known research scholar and a distinguished humorist with a style of his own. He started writing under the pen-name Mirza Alam Nashrah (Mirza, the Tattler) which speaks of his humorous disposition. Steeped as he was in the medieval modes of culture and the lifestyle of Delhi, he saw beauty in it and sought to keep it alive for good through his writings.
Urdu literature does not lack in such descriptive or narrative prose pieces as Bahadur Shah aur Phool Valon ki Sair. Several other writers have written about the sair itself. Faizuddin, who is said to have spent a greater part of his life in the service of a Mughal prince in the fort, has recorded various rituals and ceremonies in the fort during the reigns of the last two Mughal emperors in his Bazm-e-Akhir (The Last Assembly), first published in 1885. He also describes the sair, taking note of the royal procession and the din and bustle of the fair in a simple language. Another famous writer, Nasir Nazeer Firaq (b. 1865-1933) while speaking of the sair, concentrates on the description of the offerings made at the tomb and on the adornment of the royal ladies on that occasion. But apart from the inimitable style of Mirza Farhatullah Beg and his excellence in bringing about a short but living glimpse of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the man, what distinguishes this essays from the rest is his genius in the presentation of a cultural event by nearly making it a social document as it vividly brings before us the rapport between a king and his subjects. His description of competitions between the people of the city of Delhi and the people of the Fort, whether it was Swimming, or playing fireworks, or kite-flying is highly picturesque and charming. Farhat is equally superb in describing the formation and march of the royal procession, and the singing and swinging scenes of the royal ladies and princesses in gardens together with their cooking sweetmeats and the fun and frolic that accompanied it. Writings which preserve such social events may also be a good source in etching out the cultural history of a people.
Farhat's style is based on the use of ordinary matter of fact language as spoken in Delhi, with an unrestricted flow. But he is never trite in its use. It is always lively and refreshing. Translating a work of a writer having a distinguished style is always a challenge. Even otherwise, it is more or less generally agreed that one who has read the original in one's mother tongue, seldom enjoys it in translation. But then, who can deny that translation does help in the intellectual growth and development in the multilingual world? It is a bridge between two different linguistic and cultural communities which may lead to create a better sense of proximity and brotherhood among them. So one should go ahead with it undeterred, and so have LIS Many of the notes given after the text have been provided by me and have been marked as 'translator's note'. Where, along with the author's note (from the original), I have added some information I have separately referred to them as 'author's note' and 'translator's note'. The words given in brackets Within the text and notes, are also mine.
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