The Poetic Pathways of Shahjahanabad

The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), in tandem with the Kri Foundation, organised a two-day long event called Dilli ka Apna Utsav on March 22 and 23. This was a combination of different events—performances, walks, and so on—aimed at highlighting and celebrating Delhi’s rich cultural heritage.

While I didn’t attend any of the cultural performances that formed part of the festival, I couldn’t resist the temptation to go on one of the heritage walks. This was ‘Poetic Pathways of Shahjahanabad’, with a focus on those areas of Shahjahanabad that are relevant in the development of poetry (especially Urdu poetry in the 19th century). My sister, Swapna Liddle, led the walk, which was both enlightening and entertaining.

Walking through Lal Kuan Bazaar.

Walking through Lal Kuan Bazaar.

Here’s the route we took.

Ajmeri Gate: Ajmeri Gate was one of the original gates that pierced the city walls of Shahjahanabad, and—as its name indicates—faces the direction of faraway Ajmer. During 1857, this gate was an important scene of battle between British and Indian soldiers; after the revolt was suppressed, the British decided to make Delhi less easy to defend, so the city walls on either side were systematically knocked down. The gate still stands, though, and is quite scenic, with its red sandstone, grey quartzite, and even some white marble.

Ajmeri Gate. Ghaizuddin's madarsa, opposite the gate, was the venue for mushairas in the mid 1800s.

Ajmeri Gate. Ghaizuddin’s madarsa, opposite the gate, was the venue for mushairas in the mid 1800s.

The poetic connection? Just beyond Ajmeri Gate, outside the city walls, stands the Ghaziuddin Madarsa, an important venue for mushairas (poets’ gatherings) during the 1800s. Ajmeri Gate used to be shut every night at 9 PM, but mushairas would go on till long after; so a special request was made to the garh kaptaan (literally, the ‘fort captain’) to let the gate remain open till 2 AM on mushaira nights, so that attendees from the mushaira could return to their homes within the city after the gathering was over.

Ghaziuddin’s Madarsa: Though we didn’t visit it on this occasion (we only saw it from Ajmeri Gate), Ghaziuddin’s Madarsa is one of my favourite places in this part of town. This is a quietly busy school (the Anglo-Arabic School) that began life as a college founded by the late 17th century nobleman Ghaziuddin Khan, father of Nizam-ul-Mulk Asafjah, who founded the state of Hyderabad. Ghaziuddin built his own tomb in the madarsa complex too.

By the early 19th century, the madarsa had fallen on hard times and had only about 10 students; in 1825, therefore, the British East India Company (by then in control of Delhi) revived it by turning it into the Delhi College, the first institute of Western education in Delhi. One of the teachers at the Delhi College, Faiz Parsa (himself a poet) initiated the organisation of regular mushairas at the college.

Haveli Razi-un-Nissa Begum: Known more commonly as Haveli Razia Begum, this haveli (also close to Ajmeri Gate) was, like Ghaziuddin’s Madarsa, a scene of mushairas during the 19th century. The mushairas here, however, were organised not by a poet, but by a man named Munshi Karimuddin. Karimuddin hailed from Panipat, came to study at the Delhi College, and eventually set up a printing press at this haveli. His press printed erudite Arabic books, which he soon realised were not popular at all. What was popular was Urdu poetry. So Karimuddin (who must have been a canny businessman) began to organise—at the haveli itself—fortnightly mushairas. The poetry recited at each mushaira was compiled into a booklet and published every two weeks by Karimuddin.

Erroneously known as Haveli Razia, this was the site of mushairas organised by Munshi Karimuddin.

Erroneously known as Haveli Razia, this was the site of mushairas organised by Munshi Karimuddin.

Masjid Mubarak Begum: While it’s not related to poetry, this striking red-and-green painted masjid in Lal Kuan Bazaar—past the Chawri Bazaar Metro Station—has an interesting historical connection. It was built by Mubarak Begum, a dancer who married Brigadier (later General) David Ochterlony, who became the British Resident in Delhi. Ochterlony was fond of the arts, and a famous painting depicts him clad in Indian clothes, sitting and watching a dance performance in distinctly Indian settings.

A view of Masjid Mubarak Begum, built by Octerlony's wife, Mubarak Begum.

A view of Masjid Mubarak Begum, built by Octerlony’s wife, Mubarak Begum.

(The tainted past of Mubarak Begum—a lowly dancer—seems to have followed her till late in life. Masjid Mubarak Begum is also known as ‘Randi ki Masjid’, the masjid of the strumpet).

Zeenat Mahal: Not very much remains—except the arched gateway—remains of the Zeenat Mahal, but this haveli in Lal Kuan was built by Zeenat Mahal, wife of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’. The empress was from an influential family, and after her marriage, became an important personage in the Red Fort, controlling much of the royal finances for the fort, its employees, and its daily functioning.

Zeenat Mahal, built by Bahadur Shah Zafar's Empress. The emperor stayed here now and then.

Zeenat Mahal, built by Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Empress. The emperor stayed here now and then.

The Zeenat Mahal, well outside the fort walls, was often visited both by the empress and by her husband. Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’ (‘zafar’ being his pen name) was, as most people know, an accomplished poet, and may well have composed some of his poetry here.

Ahaata Kaale Sahib: Between Lal Kuan and Gali Qasim Jaan lies Ahaata Kaale Sahib. (‘ahaata’ means ‘enclosure’; Kaale Sahib was a holy man, the spiritual guru of Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’. This area was once the enclosure consisting of Kaale Sahib’s house and around). Kaale Sahib was a friend of Mirza Ghalib’s, and it was through him that Ghalib was introduced to Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’.

Kaale Sahib proved to be an extremely loyal friend to Ghalib. In the 1840s, Ghalib was indicted for gambling and imprisoned by the British for 3 months. When he emerged from jail, many of his former friends and acquaintances shunned Ghalib, but Kaale Sahib invited Ghalib to come and stay with him—as a result of which Ghalib actually lived in Ahaata Kaale Sahib for a while.

Walking through Ahaata Kaale Sahib, where Ghalib stayed for sometime during the 1840s.

Walking through Ahaata Kaale Sahib, where Ghalib stayed for sometime during the 1840s.

There’s an amusing anecdote related to this incident, which reveals Ghalib’s superb sense of humour: someone, visiting him at Ahaata Kaale Sahib, asked “Toh aap qaid se chhoote?” (“So you are no longer imprisoned?”). Ghalib’s joking response: “Kahaan qaid se chhoota? Gore ki qaid se chhoota, kale ki qaid mein phansaa!” (“How am I no longer imprisoned? I was freed from the white man’s prison and am now in the black man’s prison”—a pun on ‘kaala’, which means ‘black’, and was also Kaale Sahib’s name)

Ghalib’s Haveli: Mirza Ghalib, though he was born in Agra, lived most of his life in Delhi—invariably in rented accommodation around the area of Ballimaran. The house where he spent his last days is in Gali Qasim Jaan (named after an 18th century nobleman, originally from Central Asia; Ghalib’s wife was a descendant of Qasim Jaan’s). Today, after having been neglected for many years, a portion of Ghalib’s haveli has been converted into a Ghalib museum, with information about his life, excerpts from his poetry, and artefacts recreating Ghalib’s days.

Swapna Liddle at Ghalib's Haveli.

Swapna Liddle at Ghalib’s Haveli.

As our group—more than 30 people, a large crowd, especially in the narrow streets of Shahjahanabad—walked from Ahaata Kaale Sahib to Gali Qasim Jaan, I overheard a roadside shopkeeper (selling fluffy yellow chicks) remark to a friend: “Yeh Ghalib Sahib ke yahaan jaa rahe honge” (“They must be going to Ghalib Sahib’s”). It’s heartening to know that nearly a century and a half after Ghalib’s death, he is still referred to with so much respect, among those who may be descendants of his neighbours.


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