Category Archives: Poetry

Operas of the East

Published / by Jehangir

In our childhood days an old family retainer would regale us with his rambling retelling of the adventures of two heroes – Prince Gulfaam and the unnamed hero of Gul-e-Bakawali ( whose name he probably could not recall 😉 )

I. Gul-e-Bakawali

In 1712, Sheikh Izzat Ullah wrote a medieval romance Taj-ul-Mulk Gul-e-Bakawali narrating the tale of Prince Taj-ul-Mulk, Princess Bakawali and a magical flower that could restore sight to the blind. His book was written in Farsi (Persian) prose and over the years a number of authors published their own poetry/prose versions, and plays and later films in various Indian languages were based on the fable.

In 1835, Pandit Daya Shankar Naseem, belonging to a Kashmiri family settled in Lucknow wrote ‘Gulzar-e-Naseem‘ a masnavi (poem with rhyming couplets) based on ‘Gul-e-Bakawali‘. Reputedly verses from the poem became very popular and excerpts from the poem were included in text books.

dekha to woh gul hawa hua hai
kuchh aur hi gul khila hua hai

jis kaf men woh gul ho daagh ho jaaye
jis ghar men ho gul chiraagh ho jaaye

The poem is also famous for a controversy about its antecedents and Naseem was defended spiritedly by Brij Narain Chakbast. Apparently the controversy was fanned at the time by Awadh Punch, an Urdu weekly. [Who knew that Punch (1841-1992), the famous satirical British journal, had an Indian clone in the shape of the Awadh Punch (1877-1936), that dared to make fun of British rule during the heydays of the Raj in India!]

Pandit Brij Narain Chakbast (1882–1926) also belonged to a Kashmiri family settled in the erstwhile United Provinces. He wrote some highly-regarded poetry, most famously the following couplet:

zarra zarra hai mere kashmir ka mehmaan nawaaz
raah mein patthar ke tukdon ne diya paani mujhe

[I was reminded of this couplet when our thirsty trekking party encountered cool and sweet water flowing out of the rocks on the way to Gangabal from Naranag]

II. Indar Sabha

The story of Prince Gulfaam is even more interesting.

Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh (Awadh), was so enamoured by accounts of famous European operas that he commissioned Syed Agha Hassan Amanat to compose an opera in Urdu. The Nawab supervised the production, composed part of the music and performed one of the leading roles in the opera whenever it was performed before courtiers at Kaisar Bagh in Lucknow!

The opera called The Court of Indra or Indar Sabha is a fantasy about the forbidden attraction between Prince Gulfaam (the Flower Prince), son of Gulzar Shah (the King of the Flower-Garden) in Hindustan and the Sabz Pari (the Emerald Fairy) of the heavenly court of Raja Indra, ruler of Paristan (the Land of Fairies) in Koh-e-Qaf (the Caucasus Mountains) beyond Iran.

Gulfaam is a recurring motif in Kashmiri literature, and a mystical couplet describes an idyllic setting thus:

Springtime, fragrant goblets
the evening of the full moon
rhythms of songs of youth
and Gulfaam in front of my eyes

III. Bombur ta Yemberzal

The first opera in Kashmiri was Bombur ta Yemberzal (The Bumblebee and the Narcissus) written by Pandit Dina Nath Nadeem. It is a tale about the doomed love between the Narcissus (Yembarzal) which blooms in springtime and withers away, and the Bumblebee (Bombur) which arrives in summer and searches from flower to flower till it goes blind.

Mohan Lal Aima composed the music for the opera including the famous Bumbro Bumbro song. ‘Bombur ta Yemberzal’ was performed at Tagore Hall in 1955 for Russian dignitaries Nikita Khruschev and Nikolai Bulganin.


Image credit: RIA Novosti

Bombur-Yemberzal as a symbol of selfless love is quite common in popular culture. Mahjoor’s lyrics provide the theme of a Kashmiri-Urdu-Persian fusion song which is a huge hit with Kashmiri youth these days.

tamanna chaani deedaruk chumo yemberzale bumbro
phaejis yamath laejis wuchney gaejis chaney kaley bumbro

karan mahjoor chu husnas gath vanan yaaras patho akh kath
ye dil deewan gow sei path beyis seith na raley bumbro

I don’t know how the old illiterate rascal had heard these fantastic tales but his dastangoi – mixing up elements from each other and from other unrelated tales – used to be hilarious yet compelling at the same time.

Ah sweet nostalgia!

Inspired by Insomnia

Published / by Jehangir

Traditionally the insomnia of hot sleepless nights has inspired my attempts at translating some of my favourite poems. Tonight, however, I am sleepless because I slept away the late afternoon and evening of an unseasonally cold June day.

I realised that I had left these two poems in Return to The Land of Poems unassailed. So here goes.

jab teri samundar aankhon mein
ye dhoop kinara, sham dhale
milte hain dono waqt jahan,
jo raat na din, jo aaj na kal,
pal bhar ko amar,
pal bhar mein dhuan,
is dhoop kinare, pal do pal,
honton ki lapak,
baahon ki chanak,
ye mel hamara jhoot na sach,
kyon raaz karo, kyun dosh dharo,
kis kaaran jhooti baat karo,
jab teri samundar aankhon mein,
is shaam ka sooraj doobega,
sukh soenge ghar dar wale,
aur raahi apni raah lega

when, in your ocean eyes
this edge of sunlight at dusk
this twilight
neither night nor day
tomorrow nor today
eternal for a moment
evanescent the next
at this sunlight’s edge
stolen moments
lips springing
limbs clinging
our union
neither true nor false
no need for secrecy
no need for blame
no need for lies

when the evening sun sets
in your ocean eyes
householders will sleep peacefully
and the wanderer shall take to the road

Original: jab teri samundar ankhon mein (faiz ahmed faiz)

farz karo

farz karo hum ahl-e-wafaa ho
farz karo deewane ho

farz karo yeh dono baatein
jhooti ho afsane hon

farz karo yeh ji ki bipta
ji se jor sunai ho

farz karo abhi aur ho itni
aadhi humne chhupai ho

farz karo tumhe khush karne ke
dhoonde humne bahaane ho

farz karo yeh nain tumhare
sach-much ke maikhaane ho

farz karo yeh rog hai jhoota,
jhooti preet hamari ho

farz karo is preet ke rog mein
saans bhi hum pe bhaari ho

farz karo yeh jog bijog ka
humne dhong rachaaya ho

farz karo bas yahi haqeeqat
baqi sab kuch maaya ho

just suppose

just suppose i may be faithful
just suppose i may be crazy for you

just suppose both these assumptions
may be falsehoods, may be fables

just suppose my heart’s torment
may have been coerced from my heart

just suppose there may be more to things
i may have concealed one-half

just suppose to delight you
i may have invented excuses

just suppose these eyes of yours
may be actual taverns

just suppose this malady, this love for you
may be a fabrication

just suppose in the affliction of this love
each breath may be an ordeal

just suppose this destined union
may be an elaborate masquerade

but just suppose only our love exists
and all else is an illusion

Original: farz karo (ibn-e-insha)

Confession Time: Some sharp-eyed folks have pointed out that Momin Khan Momin’s couplet in the quoted post remains untranslated.

tum mere paas hote ho goya*
jab koi doosra nahi hota

My excuse/explanation is that this couplet defies translation (at least by myself – haath patthar se ho gaye manoos to shauq kooza-gari ka kya kiije).

The juxtaposition of ‘goya‘ in an already haiku-esque expression opens up a labyrinth of interpretations.

Ghalib’s exaltation of this couplet is not accidental. It is the perfect example of Urdu poetry’s ideal of ‘kooze mein samundar.’

*The word ‘Goya‘ has been explained thus – Goya is an Urdu word that refers to a momentary suspension of disbelief that occurs when fantasy is so realistic that it temporarily becomes reality, usually associated with a story very well told. There is no translation for this word in English.

P.S : Comments and suggestions are welcome as usual.

Googling your Memories

Published / by Jehangir

In February 2011 I blogged about the demonstrations and revolts in the Middle East which later came to be known as the Arab Spring. In the post I quoted a Persian ode that had figured alongside Laxman’s caricature of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the Illustrated Weekly of India in 1979.

Think not, 0 King! thy sceptre or thy pow’r
one moment can arrest the destin’d hour !

After years of fruitless searching, I managed to track down the image after a long and hazardous quest that took me into the depths of the Deep Web and beyond.

Not really! I just googled it today and voila.

A growing number of newspapers, archives, and institutions are publishing searchable databases of their data on the internet. It is a researchers dream come true – with the flip side that anyone can post false or biased information online. While accessibility vs accuracy concerns are justified, just the sheer number of books and historical photographs available online is staggering.

Amazingly enough, I found this rare colour photograph of my parents in an online photo archive published from New Zealand.

The persian sceptre/power quote is from the great persian poet Firdausi .
Apparently miffed by the lacklustre response shown by Sultan Mahmud Ghazni towards his epic 'Shahnama' or 'Book of Kings', Firdausi wrote a satire on the king. The complete 'Shahnama' can be read here.