The culture of mushaira


Spreading ‘sweetness and light’

In the late1950’s, popular compere Khawaja Muhammad Shafi was conducting a packed Indo-Pak mushaira at the Lyallpur Cotton Mills (in the then Lyallpur and now Faisalabad) when in his usual witty exuberance, he called Prof. Shore Alig to recite his verses, imploring the audience to make a noise (shor) so as to prompt the poet to come to the stage. As ill luck would have it, the professor mistook the humour implied in the remark. Deeming it a personal affront, he refused to oblige the compere, and quit the venue in a fit of pique vowing never to attend the LCM mushairas in future.

Though it was an uncommon incident that took the literary world by surprise yet it would also testify to the importance of the institution of mushaira in our socio-cultural milieu. Its relevance to the cultural ethos of Pakistan and India can hardly be overemphasized. For decades, it has served to provide strong bonds between different communities in the sub-continent. Its survival to this day reflects the pleasure and power of literature in relation to the cultural-cum-aesthetic aspirations of a society. The merciless tide of time has not affected its lustre or entertaining quality.

Pakistan, India, Arabia and Iran share the tradition of mushaira with some common characteristics. Amir Khusrau mentions a mushaira in his Ghurat-ul-Kamal which was attended by princes and other eminent personages. In Babarnama too, there is an oblique reference to a sitting of poets resembling mushaira. Mughal kings in India did patronize Persian poetry but later a rivalry between local poets and Iranian poets paved the ground for Urdu mushairas. Eventually Khwaja Mir Dard and Mir Taqi Mir heralded the tradition of Urdu mushaira in the sub-continent. Royal patronage of the tradition in the twilight of the Mughal rule, further served to popularize it among the courtiers, nobles and the public.

Ever since, mushaira continues to be a cultural event with its own mannerism and decorum. It is also a sort of test aiming to judge the abilities and talent of the participating poets besides teaching younger generations to learn the language and craft of poetry and its concomitant etiquette and propriety.

In the past century, holding of mushairas became a regular socio-cultural activity pursued by some quarters (like large business and industrial concerns, and district management units) as a matter of social interaction and prestige, too. The electronic media has enormously enhanced its audience. Mushairas are now a common feature of the socio-cultural milieu of the Indo-Pak expatriates living in various parts of the world. Thus it is a source of handsome livelihood also for the poets who are invited to attend them frequently.

In its neo-modern version, the tradition was sustained by the higher management of Delhi Cloth Mills. Sir Shankar Lall and Murli Dhar Shad of DCM who were well respected poets themselves and were friends with some eminent contemporary poets, initiated holding of annual mushairas at the Mills expanding them to its sister establishment viz., the Lyallpur Cotton Mills (founded in the year 1932) when Murli Dhar Shad arranged an annual all-India mushaira here in 1944. Mushairas at LCM attracted famed poets from all parts of the sub-continent. The tradition terminated with its takeover by the government as enemy property in the aftermath of the 1965 War with India. However, the DCM has persisted with it albeit intermittently.

Mushaira is now a popular literary pastime. Apart from poets of Urdu, poets of other regional languages also take part in these events. Karachi, Hyderabad, Quetta, Bahawalpur, Multan, Faisalabad, Lahore, Islamabad, and Peshawar are the major cities where mushairas are commonly held in a spirit of festivity. At less prominent cities and towns too, the activity is pursued with no less vigour and zest. As observed earlier, electronic media has geared up its appeal and popularity.

Over a period of time, immigrants from our part of the world have implanted the tradition of mushaira (Kavi Sammelan in Hindi) in their new abodes in the UK, the US, the UAE, the KSA, Canada, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Australia. Individuals and organizations (devoted to literature) in these countries hold poetry recital events periodically by inviting prominent poets from the sub-continent which promotes inter-communal harmony and disseminates the ‘sweetness and light’ of culture in the world.

It would be pertinent here to cite some names of poets and organizers who have made a significant contribution to revitalize the tradition in the recent times, both at home and abroad.

Mushaira as a cultural institution is now firmly established. Its growth and popularity is contingent upon its adaptability to the growing needs of the time whence its impact on society cannot be gainsaid.