Mushaira: Islam, Poetry, and South Asia

Abdul Manan Bhat on Ali Khan Mahmudabad

Poetry of Belonging. Ali Khan Mahmudabad. Oxford University Press, 2020. pp. 344 $60.00 (hardback)
Poetry gatherings have a magic of nearness, an immediacy and intimacy of sorts. The intimacy between a poem, its poet and the audience yields many possibilities of pleasure, reflection and belonging. Ali Khan Mahmudabad’s Poetry of Belonging explores such possibilities of intimacy in a South Asian tradition of poetry gathering. Called the mushaira, this pre-modern gathering is singularly devoted to reciting poetry, which, Mahmudabad argues, by the early twentieth century become a space where notions of Muslim selves and of political belonging get negotiated.  Ali Mahmudabad’s Poetry of Belonging is, in part, one of first histories of the mushaira in English, a monumental task brought to fruition by an attentive scholar.  At a time when the pandemic has made intimacy difficult, this book conjures a sweet yearning to recite and be recited to, teasing us with rooms that never tire of people and poetry.

Mahmudabad makes a bold and exciting choice to treat poetry and poetry gatherings as an archive of “being and belonging”—which is to say, as a domain in which Muslim religious and political selves get negotiated. His treatment of poetry and poetic spaces as archives of belonging is consequential for the study of public culture in South Asia, and, more broadly, for the study of notions of Muslim selfhoods.  Poetry of Belonging interlaces, in a scholarly and readable fashion,many critical conversations spanning various disciplines, including history, religious studies and literary studies, to tell complicated stories of Muslims’ conceptions of being and belonging in South Asia between 1850-1950. The bookexplores different normative horizons—religious, political, technological—that unfolded across a century, reminding us that there existed a time when the nation state was not an omnipresent reality but only a possibility.

The first half of the book focuses on poetic space and weaves a nuanced narrative of the mushaira, tracing its dissemination from a curated practice restricted to social and intellectual elites in the Mughal milieu to a highly aestheticized political space in a newly emergent North Indian public culture. The latter half discusses notions of homeland, community and religious fraternity in the corpus of notable Muslim thinkers; it pays special attention to poems that articulate “love for the homeland” (hub-e watan). The book does not tell the story of large movements but offers vignettes of how some prominent Muslim individuals — mostly poets — moved in these gatherings in order to articulate “their bond with their community homeland (watan) and their relationship to the religious fraternity of Muslims.” In refusing to chart any single movement, the book focuses on the multivalence of Muslims’ conceptions of belonging.

Mushairas are a dynamic space that allows interaction between words and bodies and to study the mushaira is to study the possibilities of such interaction.  Drawing on poetry, biographical accounts of Urdu poets, and Urdu journal and newspaper articles from the late 19th to the mid 20th century, Mahmudabad realizes the potential of his archive. He reconstructs for us the affects of these spaces: flailing voices; stern criticism; bold praise, a sea of requests to re-recite “Again! Again!”

Urdu poetry shares a special relationship to orality. In English, one writes a poem and then recites it; in Urdu one says a poem. Mahmudabad understands this orality in the context of Islamic meaning-making. Recitation, he posits, is indispensable to how Muslims across time and space have engaged with the Quran. Mahmudabad uses as an example Gabriel’s command to Muhammad to recite the word of God rather than to write it. Traditions of meaning-making enchant different senses differently, evoking responses both old and new.

A crucial part of the mushaira’s history, according to Mahmudabad, is its interaction with colonial modes of knowledge. As a practice, mushairas existed in South Asia as early as the sixteenth century and are part of what he calls a distinctly Indo-Islamic heritage. The colonial powers, after unleashing sociopolitical carnage over Muslims in Delhi and northern India following the uprisings of 1857, identified the mushaira as a site for threatening cultural politics. There was a concerted effort to alter the mushaira’s inclinations and manipulate it to promote new poetic themes, most notably “love for the homeland” (hub-e watan), which typically gets translated as patriotism. They were helped in this project by two important Urdu literary figures, Azad and Hali, who have been criticized for “clothing Urdu in English.” Mahmudabad observes that this culture of criticism, later amplified by burgeoning newspapers and journals, became a part of the dimension of the entire poetic landscape. The mushaira “served as… a space that was for the time of its existence both part of the city or town’s landscape and disconnected from it. Newspapers and magazines facilitated a movement in and out of the space of the mushaira.”

Mahmudabad devotes an entire chapter to highlighting how profusion of new technology, most notably the printing press, transformed the mushaira in terms of both its reach and aesthetics, and how it became a significant part of the North Indian public sphere. By the 1930s, advertisements, announcements and widely available tickets ensured that thousands of people thronged public mushairas to hear their favorite poets. By then, women formed a part of the audience, bringing concrete changes in the physical layout of the gathering in order to accommodate gendered norms of sociality. Improved transportation, like well-connected rail networks and affordable private carriages, ensured that the poets could move across venues with relative ease, facilitating new geographies of literary participation, best exemplified by the rise of secondary cities and rural towns as hosts of literary gatherings. In the 20th century mushaira, “poets now had to leave their place and go to the microphone rather than wait for the candle to come to them. The loudspeaker now became the focal point for both audience and poet.”  It is in charting these non-linear transformations that Mahmudabad makes a valuable contribution not only to our understanding of Urdu poetic culture, but also to the broader question of how pre-colonial spaces and forms of poetry negotiate what Octavio Paz called “a consciousness of the new, the modern.”

The mushaira, as a poetic space in which love poems for the homeland were recited, diverts from what Mahmudabad calls the normative horizon of the nation state and offers a critique “of the linear and capitalist temporality and spatiality.” The colonial intervention in the space of the mushaira established a direct relationship between the state and poetic space as an attempt to facilitate a normative horizon, a new way to be. Mahmudabad demonstrates how certain Muslim thinkers, in imagining love for homeland by drawing on religious symbolism, calibrated their own horizons of belonging. Such a religious selfhood is best articulated in the genre of “Love for Homeland” (hubb-i watani). This genre, valorized particularly in the long poetic form of the nazm, was relatively new to Urdu poetry, but by the mid-twentieth century had become omnipresent at the mushairas. The second half of the book follows the trajectories of this genre as one of the sites of Muslim self-hoods.

A major change occurred in the conception of “Love of Homeland.” It was transformed from being love for a metaphysical refuge into love for a homeland located in a specific geography. The idea of a homeland, Mahmudabad argues, was rendered in terms of a geographic space.  However, poetry still dwelled in powerful indeterminacy, creatively diverting its audience from the emerging horizon of the nation state. As Mahmudabad shows through a large number of previously untranslated Urdu poems, this playfulness was best captured by the interplay between the concepts of watan, qaum, and millat  (homeland, local Muslim community and global Muslim community), which denote the individual’s relationship to a collective group. In the space of the mushaira, poets traversed multiple horizons at once. They erased distances and circumvented conventional temporalities, tying allegiances to a host of collective identities without anxiety over concretizing one at the expense of another. For instance, Mahmudabad discusses how the word qaum came to denote the South Asian Muslim community, with prominent writers seeing no problem in using the word to represent the Muslim community in British India and, through it, to assert transnational relationships between Muslim communities. Mahmudabad offers a translation and commentary on the poem, Love for the homeland, composed by Mahbub in the 1930s. In discussing this poem, Mahmudabad brings to the fore the interplay of terms like qaum and millat, showing how their use located Muslims and Islam within India, and India within an Islamic imagination. This focus on Muslims’ notions of belonging in India is all the more relevant and reparative at this time given the ongoing rise of Islamophobia in India that treats Muslims as India’s perpetual others. More broadly, Mahmudabad succeeds in helping us reimagine, through a study of poetry and poetic space, cultures of belonging that are unfettered by the status of citizen of the nation-state which is now a necessary condition for everyone.

In dealing with the idea of “Love for Homeland,” Mahmudabad focuses mainly on the political conceptions of the homeland, paying less attention to the notion of love and how it renders hub-e watan different from nationalistic patriotism. Hub-e watan is both etymologically and conceptually couched in the discourse on love (hub) that pervades Urdu poetry. “Love for the homeland,” drawing on familiar conceptions of love, invokes a sensibility that is tied to a larger emotional complex. It is different from patriotism, in which the notion of love barely asserts itself. Mahmudabad spends time engaging with different iterations of love when commenting on poems, but he does not fully explore the emotional possibilities that love throws open in relation to the question of being and belonging. Mahmudabad’s argument — that the mushaira and its poetry jointly negotiated different normative horizons — would have only benefited from a deeper engagement with the notion of love as it relates to conceptions of self-hood and homeland.

Mahmudabad’s contribution lies not only in his analysis of sources, but also in his expanding the very understanding of a poetic archive: the spaces in which poetry is recited as an archive for thinking about Muslim selves, and how these selves articulate their senses of belonging to a homeland. In other words, the imaginative and the material, taken together, have much to tell us about the past. The book, at times, reflects on the material, embodied and performative nature of mushairas. For instance, when discussing the traditional mushaira, Mahmudabad is attuned to the investment of individual bodies in these spaces — what they wore, in what order they recited, how they quarreled with each other over poetic technicalities and sometimes over juicy gossip. On that account, it would have been exciting to see Mahmudabad in conversation with scholarship on Islamic materiality and embodiment. Future projects about the mushaira, which ought to build on Mahmudabad’s book, will stand to gain from engaging the vast scholarship on emotion, performance and embodiment in Islamic societies.

Thinking seriously about poetry gatherings, as Mahmudabad does, also infuses new potential into the broader study of poetry. It helps us traverse the distance between poems and poetry. In Mahmudabad’s work, poetry emerges as not only a discursive act but also as an embodied one; poems do not just live on a page but move around in the world. The audiences in these gatherings, whose bodies respond enthusiastically to poems, become a part of the poem. To ignore the settings in which poetry gets recited is, in a way, to ignore its poetic potential. Poetry is a performance conducted and received by embodied subjects, who feel, remember, recall, and even forget. It is this iteration of feeling, of remembering and recalling, that Mahmudabad considers indispensable to the study of Muslim belonging in modern South Asia.

Mahmudabad ends his book not in his own words but with Mahbub’s couplet : “I will gather twigs once again from this garden to build my nest/ For my home was set ablaze and I have all the time in the world.” This endearing choice—to give the last word to a poet—captures well the genuine love for poetry that radiates throughout the book.

The author is a PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he works on Islamic literature, Sufism and emotions in the twentieth century. More specifically, he focuses on the emotionality of modern Urdu and Persian poetry as it relates to Islamic meaning-making. Tweets @Abdulmanan418