Aakhri Badshah: The Last Monarch


Once Upon a Time, Lal Qila Staged Hindustan’s Last Saahi Mehfil

We do not know if a man can be prophetic about vicissitudes of his life but the garland of Sher (Urdu poems) that the last Mughal Badshah Bahadur Shah Zafar composed indeed fits with the frame of his life.

On making a Safar with Zafar’s Shairi, we find the last Mughal Badshah predicted bitterest chapters of his life in the sweetest Urdu words indicating he felt life really is Fani: mortal. A Sufiana Andaaz indeed!

He, however, had a real jest for life otherwise a Badshah whose Badshahat shrank from entire Hindustan to only Lal Qila could not have been organizing Mehfils of Mushaira at Diwan-e-Khaas of the Red Fort.

In the days of Shah Alam II, much before Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Muhammad Bahadur Shah with Takhallus (pen name) Zafar became the Mughal Badshah, people living in Dayar-e-Dehlavi (streets of Delhi) used to say: “Sultanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli Ta Palam” (Shah Alam’s empire is restricted from Delhi to Palam).

But that was the reality and he accepted it. And he sang to express it uniquely with a philosophical tinge:

Kis Ki Bani Hai Alame-napaaidar mein

(Fulfilling all wishes of life

Who has found it in the world?)

No wonder, his misfortune could not deter him from staging Mehfil-e-Mushaira in Lal Qila in 1857: Hindustan’s last one with the attendance by all the Chand-Sitara (stars) of contemporary Urdu poetic mosaic of Delhi. As Baagi or rebel sepoys of the 3rd Light Cavalry of East India Company entered into Delhi on May 11, 1857 after revolving in Meerut Cantonment, the Mehfil-e-Mushaira must have been organized before that.

We do not know the exact date when Chand-Sitara of Delhi’s poetic world like Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq, Mirza Ghalib, Hakim Momin Khan Momin, Nawab Mustafa Khan Shefta, Alexander Heatherley (or Hiderley) and Mufti Sadruddin Aazurda attended that Shahi Jalsa but it must have been before May, 1857. The mutiny continued in Delhi till September 1857.

Latest efforts of the Delhi Government may perhaps help us ascertaining many more facts about Lal Qila’s last Mehfil-e-Mushaira as very old records since 1803 are going to be digitized. The digitization of old records, photographs and letters of Bahadur Shah Zafar would be done. This kindles our hope of knowing more about that last Shahi Jalsa.

Serialization of records of 1857 perhaps would help us to have a glimpse of what Delhi became after the violent Gadar against the East India Company that was described as Uzra Dayar or a city of deserted streets by Zafar in the following way:

Na Tha Sahar Dehli, Ye Tha Chaman

Kaho Kis Tarah Ka Tha Aman

Jo Khitab Tha Who Mita Diya

Faqaat Ab To Uzra Dayar Hai

(At a Garden Named Delhi, Once Peace Nestled

What remains of it now, are streets deserted)

Yes! Delhi was really destroyed. The fort-town’s Kabuli Darwaza, Daliba, Jama Masjid area, Dilli Darwaja, Kucha Bulaqi Begum to Khanum Ka Bazaar and Daryaganj had practically turned into heaps of rubbles.

We know Lal Qila used to hold Mehfil-e-Mushaira on special occasions during the reign of Zafar but in the absence of written documents, we can only draw inferences. But those were the days when Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb had flourished in Northern India including Delhi.

The last Mehfil-e-Mushaira at Lal Qila was held amidst kindling of hundreds of Shama (candle) 162 years ago. Yet, the flame continues to flicker even today with continued efforts to keep the tradition of Urdu Shairee alive. However, the Central Government must initiate steps to promote Mehfil-e-Mushaira lest it inches towards extinction like that of Kawwali.   

The first major step to preserve the glorious tradition of Mehfil-e-Mushaira at Lal Qila was taken in 1950 at the initiatives of Jawaharlal Nehru as a part of the Republic Day celebrations. Can we not continue it? The Urdu language is not only for Muslims but for Hindus too.

Even a British like Alexander Heatherley used to compose Urdu Shairee under the Takhallus Azad. He used to attend Mehfil-e-Mushaira organized by Zafar at Lal Qila sitting in the galaxy of Mirza Ghalib, Hakim Monin Khan Momin and Sheikh Ibrahim Jauq.

Among the Hindus, Bal Mukund Huzoor and Pundit Sakhanand Raqam also participated regularly at the Mehfil-e-Mushaira organized by Zafar at Lal Qila.

After 1950’s event, the Mushaira used to be organized by the Defence Ministry and later in 1968, The Sahitya Kala Parishad took over. In 1969, the Indian People’s Theatre Association organized a grand Mehfil-e-Mushaira at Diwan-e-Aam of Lal Qila with Bollywood actors Balraj Sahni acting as Mirza Ghalib and A.K. Hangal as Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq.

Last year on January 12, the Republic Day Mushaira was held at Lal Qila by the Delhi Government and the Urdu Academy. In 2016, the event could not be organized at Lal Qila due to security reasons.

The continuation of the event since 1950 show India still fondly remembers Zafar Badshah. It is in this context that the hope that the remains of the last Mughal Emperor would be brought back from Myanmar and reinterred in Delhi continues to remain aglow.

How can Zafar be deprived from “Do Gaz Zamin” in Hindustan, once his empire?     


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