In the cultural history of Muslim India a special place must be assigned to the musha'irah (mu^a'lra)f which has played a significant role in the evolution of Urdu poetry. The word "musha'irah" literally means "a poetical contest." But in its more general connotation it represents the assembly where poets come together to recite their verses. The history of the musha'irah runs parallel with the development of the Urdu language and literature, and presents some interesting features which have survived until the present time. <
Obscurity surrounds the origins of the musha'irah. It is likely that the institution might have evolved from the custom of the poets reciting eulogies in the royal courts or in the houses of nobles. According to Shibli Nu'mani, it made its appearance on the Indo-Persian literary horizon in the 15th-16th century "when a tradition arose under which poets gathered at the house of some wealthy individual endowed with literary taste. A specimen line would be circulated in advance and each poet, having written his ghazal according to the proposed pattern, brought his composition with the purpose of reciting it in the meeting. From time to time rival poets had a fling at each other; questions and answers were exchanged; and thus the^cause of poetry was furthered through competition and rivalry."
In the Urdu milieu, the musha'irahs seemed to have found currency simultaneously with the adoption of the language as a popular medium of expression by the poets. By the eighteenth century they were a familiar feature of the Urdu literary environment. These gatherings were sponsored by the court and nobility, or were organized by some leading poet. In the early period they helped in the refinement of the Urdu language. An example of this is provided by the musha'irah which Khwaja Mir Dard (d. 1783) used to hold once or twice a month at his house in Delhi, and which was attended by the leading poets of the day. According to Muhammad Sadiq: "After the jnusha'ara, these masters of Urdu held discussions on how to improve the language, what words and expressions to import into it, and what to avoid as archaic and vulgar."^
The musha'irah was the product of a princely age, and reflected the sophisticated taste of its time. The ceremonies connected with it were formal and elaborate. A glimpse of these can be obtained from the celebrated work DillT kT AxirT Sam' by ("The Last Flickering of Delhi's Candle") by Farhatullah Beg (d. 1947). The book has been rightly characterized by its recent translator as "a manual for those interested in the conventions of a musha'irah in the old style."^ It is a fictional account of an actual poetical gathering which took place in 1845. The original event was described in Tabaqat-al-lsu' ra-e Hind