The Fifth Era of Āb-e ḥayāt:

Part Eleven


#515# He was not from a family of poets.a In his boyhood he used to recite elegies. This passion brought him by the steps of the pulpit to the heavens of accomplished elegy composition. He became a pupil of Mīr Muz̤affar Ḥusain Ẓamīr, and whatever he received from his ustad he brought in his own work to a very high and radiant level. In his whole life he can scarcely--and only for some casual reason--have composed a single ghazal or ghazal verse. For in fact he took up the art of elegy composition, and brought it to such a level that the road to further progress became closed. From the beginning he felt this pursuit to be his equipment for the final journey. And whatever reward he received, he received it with good intentions. His temperament too was so soft and compassionate that it was extremely suitable and appropriate for this art. His moderation, abstemiousness, hospitality to travelers, and generosity added further luster to the quality of his accomplishment.

#516# The temperament of a pupil of God too shows an exuberance like that of divine feeling. His heart was restless from his childhood. When Dabīr was just beginning his practice, his ustad's correction about some word displeased him. Shaiḳh Nāsiḳh was alive, but he had grown old. Dabīr went to him. At that time he was amidst a group of people, sitting on cushioned stools, gathered in his courtyard. Dabīr petitioned, 'Your Excellency! In this verse I said such-and-such, and my ustad gave such-and-such a correction.' He replied, 'Your ustad gave the proper correction'. Dabīr then said, 'Your Excellency, it is written in such-and-such a way in books'. He said, 'No. What your ustad has said is the proper thing.' Dabīr again petitioned, 'Your Excellency, please just look at this book'. The Shaiḳh Sahib grew irritated and said, 'What! What do you know about books? In my presence you invoke books! I've looked at so many books, I've become a book myself!' He was so angry that he picked up a cane that lay before him and rose. Dabīr fled. Shaiḳh Nāsiḳh was so excited that he pursued him as far as the door.

The inciters and instigators of Lucknow were extraordinary. After all, Mirzā Dabīr was in the springtime of his youth. And his accomplishment too was in its springtime, when there occurred an encounter of youth with old age. Navab Sharaf ud-Daulah was a great admirer of Mīr Ẓamīr. He used to present him with gifts worth thousands of rupees. In the beginning for Mīr Ẓamīr's sake, and then because of the qualities of his own accomplishment, he used to admire Mirzā Dabīr also. In his majlis, first Mirzā, then Mīr Ẓamīr, used to recite.

On one occasion, Mirzā Dabīr wrote an elegy of which the opening verse is, /The strength of the hand of God's arm is Ḥusain/. When he presented it for correction before Mīr Ẓamīr, its new thoughts and style of expression and arrangement of themes pleased Mīr Ẓamīr. Mīr Ẓamīr did the elegy with care. And at that time, a majlis was about to be held at the Navab's. He said to his devoted pupil, 'My boy, I will recite this elegy in that majlis'. Mirzā Dabīr saluted him by way of consent, and gave him the elegy.

When Mirzā Dabīr came home, he told some companions about the situation. The draft was with him; he recited that too. Partly because his friends incited him, partly because the flowers of enthusiasm and taste are always thirsty for the dew of praise--and word had reached #517# the Navab. In hints from that side, the breeze of reward came. Finally, the result was that the ustad made a fair copy of the elegy and took it away, to recite it himself.

As usual, first Mirzā Dabīr mounted the pulpit. And he recited that very elegy. Great praises were heard, and the elegy was a flourishing success. The ustad always overflowed with joy when the pupil recited, and praised and encouraged him. Now he sat silently. Some anger, some thoughts of the fickleness of the times, some regret at his own hard work. And the thought, 'Now when I recite, what will I recite? And what will I recite that is beyond that, such that it will advance the rank of ustad-ship--or if not, that at least will not fall below my own level?' In short, he recited after him, and keeping the turban of accomplishment safely on his head, he descended from the pulpit. But from that day he lost affection for him. People set them up as rivals, and through their own judgment changed Dabīr's title 'pupil' into that of 'ustad'; and such a situation indeed developed that both of them never appeared in the same majlis. Time, as is its wont, after some days of competition, had encouraged the pupil's heart. And finally, at the recommendation of Old Age, it permitted the ustad to retire. He began to compete with his rival Mīr Ḳhalīq in retiringness. And here, Mīr Anīs and Mirzā Dabīr's encounters began to heat up.

The accomplishment of both of them divided knowers of poetry into two groups. Half became Anisians, half Dabirians. The pleasure of judging their merits was when you yourself would read four or five hundred elegies by each ustad--and you would hear them in majlises, and see to what extent the poetry of each would succeed or fail among the people of the majlis. Without that, there's no pleasure. I will elaborate this point in the account of Mīr Anīs. But here I say this much: that for limpidity of speech, pleasure of language, spiciness of idiom, excellence of construction, beauty of style, suitability of word to occasion, manner of presentation, and narrative organization, Mīr Anīs has no equal. And these considerations were the reason he composed so little. Grandeur of language, proliferation of themes, in them frequent grief-arousing touches, pain-producing implications, the tragic and heart-melting style that is the true goal of the elegy--of these qualities #518# Mirzā Dabīr was the king.

Although indeed his rivals properly objected that he included in his verse a number of unreliable traditions and harrowing themes that were not suitable. But the human temperament is such that when people they keep one goal before their eyes and fix their attention on it, they think very little about other aspects of the matter. He had to recite in the kind of majlises where thousands of men, friends and enemies, were collected together. The basis for praise was the arousal of weeping and lamenting, and the pleasure of poetry, and the invention of themes. His accomplishment was to make everyone weep, and bring forth praise from everyone's mouth. In the emotion of this passion, and in his absorption with thinking of inventions, whatever comes forth from the pen is no cause for surprise. Nit-picking is a small thing; wherever you want you can dash off a couple of points. When a man has devoted his whole life to a pursuit, [only] then can one know how much he has said and how he has said it. On the subject of invention and devising, an anecdote comes to mind that is connected with the principles of art. I write it down for the scrutiny of people of taste.

A fiery [ātashī] anecdote: It was Mirzā Dabīr's youth, and his poetry too was in its youthful bloom, when he composed an elegy full of tumult and energy. He composed the chihrah by including a prominent verse preface. In martial and social themes he showed great power of temperament. He made a fresh invention: he created in the army of Syria a single brave champion and brought him into the field. He made a typhoon out of this champion's terrifying, inauspicious face; the pomp of his arrival; his weapons of war; and their implausible numbers and weights. Before the elegy was recited, it became famous in the city. A majlis was arranged. In addition to the usual hearers, people of judgment and accomplishment were especially invited to it. On the appointed day, there was a crowd of both great and small. People had been invited so enthusiastically that despite his old age and his unconventional style of life, Ḳhvājah Ātash came.

The elegy began. All those present, according to their habit, kept making a tumult of praise. There was much weeping and lamenting as well. Ḳhvājah Ātash stayed sitting silently with his legs tucked beneath him, swaying back and forth, with his head bowed. Mirzā Dabīr, having recited the elegy, came down from the pulpit. When the fervor of people's hearts grew quiet, he went and sat near the Ḳhvājah Sahib and said, 'Your Excellency! You have heard whatever I have offered.' He said, 'Yes, my friend, I've heard it'. How could he be content with this much of a comment? He again said, #519# 'To recite in your presence is insolence. But did you consider it?' Ḳhvājsh Ātash said, 'My friend, I certainly heard it, but I wonder whether it was an elegy, or the dāstān of Landhaurb bin Saʿdān?' (Bravo! The perfect ustad gave correction for a lifetime in only this many words.)

Mirzā Sahib died on the 29th of Muḥarram, A.H. 1292 [1875-76], at the age of 72 years. In his lifetime he must have written at least three thousand elegies. There's no counting his salāms and nauḥahs and quatrains. He wrote a dotless elegy of which the opening verse is /My far-reaching imagination has the same fortune-star as the Humā/. In it, he used [the dotless] ʿUt̤ārid [=Jupiter] instead of Dabīr for a pen-name. And there's no doubt that with him elegy composition in India reached its conclusion. Now no such time will come, nor will such accomplished persons be born.


He was raised and educatedc in Lucknow, and obtained knowledge of the requirements of his art. In his ancestral art [of poetry] he was his father's pupil, and just as in age he was older than his two brothers, so in accomplishment too he was superior. In the beginning he too was fond of ghazal composition. On one occasion he went to some mushairah, and recited a ghazal, and was much praised. His kind father, hearing of this, was extremely happy at heart. But he asked his promising son, 'Where did you go last night?' He told him the circumstances. He heard the ghazal and said, 'My boy! Now bid farewell to this ghazal, and apply the strength of your temperament to the pursuit that is wealth in both this world and that one.' From that very day, the obedient son turned his back on it. He composed a salām in the pattern of that ghazal. Giving up worldly affairs, he entered the circle of faith, #520# and devoted his whole life to it. The blessings that flowed from his good intentions gave him the faith, and the world too, in this activity. In those days, he and his contemporaries had considered it their religious duty to obey their ustads. He composed salāms, elegies, nauḥahs, quatrains. And the length of an elegy was from thirty-five or forty to fifty stanzas.

The special temperament of Time is such that when plants grow old, it uproots them and flings them away and plants new seedlings. It seated Mīr Ẓamīr and Mīr Ḳhalīq on the bedstead of old age, and promoted Mīr Anīs to the pulpit in his father's place. On the other side, Mirzā Dabīr advanced to confront him. He was not a poet by family background, but was the devoted pupil of Mīr Ẓamīr. When both young men began to gallop into the fields of majlises, then the clouds of progress in that art rose up thundering and growling, and a torrent of new inventions and devices began to rain down.

The main thing was that from the king to the nobles and the poor, they were of the Shia persuasion. The true-believing appreciators of the young men's accomplishment were greater in numbers, and much greater in importance, than those their elders had found. Their poetry earned such esteem that only in heaven might they have been more honored. Nor was the esteem confined merely to oral praise and honor and veneration. Rather, valuable rewards of money and goods were presented to them in the form of gifts and offerings. Thanks to these incentives, the flight of their thought and the reach of their minds expanded even beyond what could have been hoped. Both accomplished ones showed that they were both real and proven poets, and ones who could, with the power of their arrangement of words, use every sort of theme, every type of idea, every situation, to weave such an enchantment that they could if they wished make people weep, make them laugh, make them sit petrified with astonishment.

These claims were absolutely proper, because they were always under observation. There was no need for proof. The Sikandar nāmah, which people praise until their lips go dry, contains just a few scenes of battle. The battle of Zangbār, the battle of Dārā, the battle of Rūs, the battle of Fūr, the battle of Faġhfūr; #521# similarly there are just a few introductory passages and festive gatherings. The Shāh nāmah's sixty thousand verses are the fruit of Firdausī's whole life. Mīr Anīs has caused a river of invention of themes to flow. One given theme he has used in hundreds--no, thousands--of moods. The chihrah of every elegy is new, the āmad [=arrival of a champion on the battlefield] is new, the battle scenes and scenes of social gathering are individual. And in every area the themes are highly original. The sword is new, the spear is new, the horse is new, the style is new, the combat is new.

And it's not only these things--if you look at the scene of the morning, then praise be to God! The departure of night, the tearing asunder of the darkness, the appearance of light, the rising of the sun, the lush beauty of the meadow. If it is evening, then it is the sadness of the evening of travelers in a strange country. Sometimes Mīr Anīs has shown the desolation of night, sometimes the dim glimmer of the stars, varied with moonlight and darkness in many ways. In short, whatever situation he has taken up, he has reproduced the scene in verse. His proliferation of themes has also been unlimited. While the elegy formerly had no more than forty or fifty stanzas, it now goes beyond one hundred fifty and turns out to be even longer than two hundred stanzas. The late Mīr Sahib must certainly have composed at least ten thousand elegies, and salāms beyond count. He composed as easily and casually as he spoke.

With both ustads, two groups of partisans formed. One was called the Anisians, the other the Dabirians. Although their pointless prides and objections created inappropriate disputes and quarrels, the good outweighed the harm. Because excessive praise caused the imaginations of both ustads to leap, in the passion of invention and the practice of flight, even beyond the heavens. When both factions presented their arguments, some were heavier in weight, some larger in size. Thus a decision in favor of either side was impossible.

The Anisians looked for equals of their poetry-creator by demanding his limpidity of speech, beauty of description, and pleasure of idiom.

The Dabirians presented in opposition grandeur of words, high flight, and newness of themes.

The Anisians said, 'These things that you consider the substance of your pride have been found unacceptable in the court of eloquence, #522# and have already been expelled, for they are only "digging up a mountain and producing a blade of grass"'.

The Dabirians said, 'You call it difficulty. This is the essence of knowledge, it is called rhetoric. If your poet has the strength of knowledge in his arms, then let him tear up mountains and pull out these gems. What is there in Anīs's poetry? It is merely hot air and the wagging of the tongue.'

The Anisians flared up at this answer, and said, 'What idea of your poetry-creator is there, that is not present in our meaning-creator's work? You don't realize! What you call hot air and tongue-wagging is the excellence of limpidity of speech and power of description. They call it 'unobtainable simplicity' [sahl-e mumtanaʿ]. It is an inborn quality. It does not come from reading books or blackening pieces of paper with ink.'

The Dabirians, hearing this speech, would start to recite from some elegy verses of the introduction, or the arrival [of the champion] on the battlefield, or the martial vaunting, in which there was often incorporation of [Quranic] verses or hadith.

The Anisians would say about this, 'Who is such an infidel as to deny it? But only recite this much. Don't recite the next part. If you move on to the next purpose, there won't even be connection in the sequence. Hazrat! Mere pomp and circumstance of words is good for nothing. Presentation of meaning is the real thing. If you discuss this point, you won't even be able to complete the discussion. This is the task of accomplished ones with power over speech, who have learned the principles of the art from their elders, from one breast to another. Only they know how to do this task.'

The Dabirians, in answer to this, displayed their poet's creative powers, the fertility of his temperament, the multitude of his themes, the abundance of his words. And they went on saying, appropriately or not, 'Look what an idiom! Look, simple colloquial language!' Together with this, they also said, 'Who has the nerve to sit down one night and compose one hundred stanzas before getting up? If someone wore out his pen for a whole year and prepared ten or fifteen elegies, then what has he done? And that too, with the combined advice of two other brothers, and after much sweat and discussion.'

The Anisians said, 'It's true. When people compose one hundred stanzas in a night, they are disconnected and #523# full of faults. And when such people come to express a meaning, they are even worse.' Along with this, they used to recite some lines as well, against which they laid the charge of being contrary to idiom, or having defective similes or improperly made metaphors.

The crossfire of objections reached such a level that the Dabirians said, 'When has such popularity ever fallen to anyone's lot, as God has bestowed on his poetry? In whichever majlis his poetry was recited, there was tumult. What sadness-inducing and sorrow-producing themes there were! Look at his words--they are immersed in the 'Water of Life' of faith.'

The Anisians said, 'How can he recite! Just think about his voice! And he doesn't even know how to recite elegies.' In short, no words could quiet the quarrelsome partisans. Indeed, necessity did it, for both sides tired their throats until they lost their voices. And Justice came between them and said, 'Both are good, both are good'. Sometimes she said, 'That one is a sun, this one a moon'. Sometimes, 'This is a sun, that a moon'.

In Lucknow, idle people were accomplished at inciting quarrels between others, and they loved to see the show. Dabīr was no relation, after all. They made brother fight with brother [in the case of Mīr Anīs]. For a long time, the hostility remained. When they came to Mīr Anīs, they said, 'Your Excellency, as long as there are elegies that have received correction, let him keep on reciting. The day he recites an elegy without your looking it over, the whitewash will come off.' Others said to his brother [Mīr Munīs], 'Your Excellency, seniority in age is one thing, the pleasure of language is another! This blessing is your portion alone.'

In short, these pure souls, thanks to whom our poetry has acquired power and our language has acquired scope--may the True Maker of Words give them their reward! What value does our gratitude have? But this point is worth emphasizing: that through their enthusiasm for competition, the area of the realm [iqlīm] of poetry that was under their pen [qalam] was largely overrun by exaggerations, and by narratives of battlefields and social gatherings. The field of elegy-ness became very narrow. And it's a pity that its real point [of inducing weeping] was the one that they had lost.

As long as Lucknow remained flourishing, when going to some other city was mentioned, both gentlemen said, #524# 'Only the people of this city can understand this poetry. What will anyone else know of its worth? And how will he understand the subtlety of our language?' But after the sack of Lucknow [in 1857], Mirzā Dabīr Sahib was the first to be invited to Murshidabad, in 1858. He went. He also kept going to Allahabad and Banaras. First in 1859 and then in 1860, the late Mīr Anīs too kept going to Azimabad, at the invitation and insistence of Navab Qāsim ʿAlī Ḳhān. Then in 1871, since Maulvī Sayyid Sharīf Ḥusain Ḳhān Sahib, virtuous son of the late Arast̤ū Jāh, was in Hyderabad [Deccan], at his instigation Navab Tahavvur Jang Bahādur invited Mīr Anīs.

Even now, his adherence to [consistency of] style didn't let him leave. But neither could he evade the word of the Maulvī Sahib; therefore, being helpless, he went. The people of Hyderabad showed for his accomplishment the esteem that they ought to have shown. People came in such numbers to the majlises that even the splendid mansion could not provide enough space. He posted watchmen at the doors, and told them to allow no one in except substantial and poetry-knowing people, and to permit a nobleman to bring no more than two companions. Despite this, people came in such numbers that they considered it great good fortune if they were able to find standing room, and they were happy to be able at least to hear.

When Mīr Anīs Sahib came away from there, then according to his promise he had to stop off at Allahabad. A majlis of great sophistication and elegance was arranged. My old and dear friend Maulvī Ẓakāʾullāh Sahib, who is a teacher in Muir College--who is more of a perceiver of fine points and a knower of poetry than he? He himself used to tell me about this majlis: 'Thousands of men, great and small, had gathered. How can I describe the accomplishment and the poetry? People were in a state of trance. Mīr Anīs was sitting in the pulpit, reciting, and it seemed that hed was working magic.' Over and over the Maulvī Sahib recited the ṭīp of the concluding verse, and enjoyed it:

/My life has passed in traveling this field

I am in the fifth generation of the praisers of Shabbīr/.

#525# His, or rather his whole family's, language, with regard to Urdū-e Muʿallā, was an authority in all of Lucknow. And he too was aware of this. But by temperament Mīr Anīs was extremely humble. His politeness kept his conversation so discreet and decorous that the tone of his words remained even below the level of moderation. And every word he spoke was weighed and measured. In some gathering, reciting his poetry, at certain idioms he said only, 'This is the language of my house. The gentlemen of Lucknow do not speak like this.' This also shows that up till this time Mīr Anīs did not want to call himself a resident of Lucknow.

Maulvī Sharīf Ḥusain Ḳhān Sahib used to say that in Hyderabad one day some persons of high rank were sitting. One gentleman began to praise Mīr Anīs's poetry. Mīr Anīs said, 'My friend, who is a poet? I am a composer of sorrows. I don't even know whether I do it as it ought to be done or not.' I myself met him, in 1857. I've heard it from other people as well. He spoke little, and his phrases were like pearls, worthy of stringing. Arast̤ū Jāh Maulvī Rajab ʿAlī Ḳhān Bahādur was in Lucknow at the invitation of the Chief Commissioner Bahādur. One day some of the aristocrats of the city were present. Mīr Anīs Sahib too was there. From somewhere, mangoes arrived. Since they were excellent, the worthy Maulvī Sahib had them placed in vessels full of water. And he invited all the gentlemen to take note. One Ḥakīm Sahib in the gathering was complaining of fever. But he participated in the tasting. One elder said, 'Ḥakīm Sahib! You were just complaining about your ailments.' The Ḥakīm stared at the floor. Mīr Anīs said [the Arabic proverb], 'The action of a wise man is not devoid of wisdom'.

Just as you see his poetry to be peerless, his recitation too was incomparable. His voice, his height and stature, the expression of his face--in short, everything was right and suitable for this work. His and his brothers' custom was that they placed a large mirror before #526# them and sat in private and practiced reciting the elegy. Style, gestures, pauses, phrases--they looked at everything, and themselves gave correction with regard to its suitability or unsuitability. Ẓauq:

/Having made a mirror, the mirror-maker first looks into it

The craftsman sees his own faults and craftsmanship/.

It is true that in Mirzā Dabīr's recitation there was not this elegance. But God had given him wide popularity and the flow of emotional effect. Even if anyone else recited an elegy of his, then usually he was successful in evoking tears and lamentations--and this indeed is the final goal of this work.

a In the anthology Sarāpā suḳhan it is written that his father, Mirzā Āġhā Jān, was a paper merchant. Then at one point in that book he writes, 'Dabīr, the son of Ġhulām Ḥusain, is connected with Mirzā Āġhā Jān the paper merchant'. The aforementioned writer has a penchant for bringing out one or another point of sarcasm about every individual. Therefore about his family, there is neither assurance nor doubt.

b Landhaur's unbelievable feats of strength and unheard-of prowess in combat so enhance the glory and splendor of the qiṣṣah of Amīr Ḥamzah that Rustam and Isfandyār hide their faces in the pages of the Shāh nāmah.

c Maulvī Ḥaidar ʿAlī Sahib, the 'Consummation of Learning', lived in his neighborhood, and was a teacher by profession. Mīr Anīs used to say that he studied the preliminary books with him alone.

d For what he said about an opening verse of Shaiḳh Ibrāhīm Ẓauq, see page #456#. Since I had not told him my situation, I asked him what opinion he held about the Shaiḳh. He said, 'After Miyāñ Sayyid Mīr, what other such poet has there been in Delhi?' On the tongues of the elders, this was the name that was given to Ḳhvājah Mīr Dard. It appears that people of that time called him Miyāñ Ḳhvājah Mīr.