Thoughts & Ideas

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Mushaira in Bahrain

One of my major regrets is that I discovered poetry very late in life. When I was younger, I used to associate poetry only with rhythm and metre. That was the way poetry was introduced and taught in school. It was only much later that I discovered the power of poetry in disentangling emotions and as a means for exploring the depths of human feelings, thoughts, and psyche. A poem by Harivansh Rai Bachchan (Kavi) beautifully illustrates the role of poet in society where he elaborates that the poet’s solitary pursuit of finding means to disentangle emotions help others at large. Poetry is also described as the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility.

These thoughts come to my mind as I think about the lovely Mushaira – a poetry reading / reciting session - that I was extremely fortunate to have recently attended. The Mushaira was organized by AMUAAB (Aligarh Muslim University Alumni Association of Bahrain) at the Cultural Hall located on Al Fateh Corniche, Bahrain on 22nd October 2010.

The Mushaira was billed to start from 8 pm and I managed to reach the venue by that time with the hope that I was not too late and would find a decent seat. I was surprised to see that there were hardly a handful of people in the auditorium. I initially put the low attendance to lack of people who would appreciate Urdu poetry in Bahrain. As the evening progressed with little development to show as to by when the programme would start, doubts started building up in my mind on whether it was worth spending more time here. Since, I had already cancelled my other engagements for the evening I decided to stick around and at least experience some portion of the session before passing any judgment. It turned out that I was doubly lucky. First time lucky in having decided to come for the session, and second time lucky on having stayed back.

The programme finally started a little after 9.15 pm, with the first half hour being taken up by introductory speeches followed by reading from the Koran. And then the Mushaira took off and continued for nearly five hours to nearly 3 am the next morning. Five hours of exhilarating, exquisite poetry. Poetry sung, recited, clarified, reiterated, commented upon, made up extempore to suit the occasion or exemplify or elaborate a particular thought process. What sublime thoughts, what subtle relationships! What oneness of spirit and bonhomie between the audience and the poets! Poetry used as a collective experience to enable each individual to examine, reorder, and cleanse his or her personal emotions!

By about 10 pm the auditorium was overflowing with people who I assume were largely Indian Muslims. Though I expect there were a fair sprinkling of people from Pakistan and some also from Bangladesh. As the mushaira progressed, the audience and the poets merged into one organic whole with its own life, breath, thoughts, and mood. There were about 14 odd shaiyars (poets) on the stage with one leading poet introducing and commenting on the shaiyars and also compeering the show. There was quite some variation in age, social background, thought processes and styles of the shaiyars. Of the assembled poets, 3 were women and rest men.

The language used ranged from very formal, highly Persianised / Arabicised difficult to understand or appreciate Urdu, to common, easy to listen and understand Hindustani. Though, I felt that the poets with the deepest thoughts seemed to use the simplest language. This interpretation of mine could very well be flawed since there is always the possibility that I could not understand or appreciate the shaiyaries which were composed in more complex language.

There were some light, side moments too, to the evening. As I entered the venue, a young man accompanied with two young women (or was it the other way round – two young women accompanied with a young man) also reached the Cultural Hall. Their immediate query to the person at the reception was if there was provision for separate seating for women in the auditorium. They seemed to be quite surprised if not also crestfallen to be advised in the negative. Another thing that I noticed was that while nearly all the women in the audience (I assume Indian and Pakistani women living in Bahrain) were heavily Hijabed, the three women poets on the dias were not Hijabed, though one of them was constantly though unsuccessfully trying to drape her head with her dupatta (scarf?). Did this make them any less feminine or pious?

The most important realization or understanding that I carried back from the evening has nothing to do with poetry. We as a society, not just in India but also the popular world media have a tendency to look at our Muslim brothers and sisters as backward, semi literate, religious bigots, rooted in medieval irrational thought processes etc. But here was a group made up of nearly 100% Muslims from all strata of society getting together to sit and appreciate poetry which was without exception completely secular in thought and content!

During the nearly 5 hours of poetry, there was not a single instance where the content of the outpourings was remotely religious in nature. There was romance, some subtle and not so subtle sarcasm, a lot of irony, a little light hearted flirtation, accompanied with some deep angst and pathos. But of religion in terms of identity or means of support – there was no mention. What one saw was something which was against all popular, widely accepted conceptions. Nearly 5 hours of poetry where the topics were strictly secular. I have not attended any other mushairas, but I suppose this would be the general atmosphere of mushairas and not specific to the one I had attended. How misleading stereotypes can be!

The truth in the compeer’s (Anwar Jalapuri) introduction to Urdu poetry, as the drop of honey which has the power to sweeten the brackish water of entire oceans became apparent as the evening progressed and various thoughts, emotions, circumstances, and social conditions were serially examined, analysed and commented in the sweetest possible terms. For example, the wretched man who thanks bribe giving without which there was a high probability of his being beaten to death (at the police station?), or the universal nature of poverty on both sides of the border (India & Pakistan), or the glow which is emitted by waters of the pond where young women sit soaking their feet!

There was love galore all over the place the entire evening. Not just the love of lovers, but also the love of children for their mother (I hold the keys of heaven, when I massage my mothers feet), the love of mother for her children (she said yes, even though there was no room for agreement), the love of neighbours and friends, the love for ones country, the love for (Urdu) language (it is such a sweet language that it draws my lover to me whenever I use it).

Occasionally when the angst and pain came through it did with little resentment or bitterness. It rained trouble and I got drenched, but no one asked me as to why I became a terrorist. Or the disbelief when Urdu is told that it belonged to particular religion (mujhe maloom na tha ki mera bhi koi mazhab hai)! Or the plaintive cry of the patriot, who lays bare his heart and soul to try and find out as to why is he considered suspect.

One of the poets shared his experience of participating in a Mushaira in the US. He enquired from the organizers as to the composition of the audience – as to whether they were Hindustanis or Pakistanis. The reply was totally unexpected. His host informed him that here (in the US) there were no Hindustanis or Pakistanis – all are known only as “Desis”. Our man, felt the embarrassment and pain and the irony of the fact that he had to travel so far (saat samundar par) to be called a Desi (a fellow countryman)! The irony was that in our own country, we are always busy in the us and them game of bifurcating and classifying fellow nationals and human beings into segments of caste, religion, region, and gender that humanity and identity as a fellow countryman is lost!

There is a lot of difference between reading poetry and having it recited by the poet himself / herself. Apart from the intimacy which is fostered in a Mushaira, the Shaiyar is able to bring out the nuances in meaning which he alone is aware of in reciting the poems. With the intonation, stress, repetition of words and phrases the deeper, hidden, enriching qualities of the poetry emerges. Just as the best and most expensive music systems cannot match the experience of listening to live music, there is no match between listening to poetry being recited by the poet himself to listening in by somebody else reciting it or reading it. Though at many times I really enjoy the peace and introspection that reading poetry enables.

It is sad that there was such limited larger public involvement in such a festive, joyous, and enriching experience and well publicized event. It was sadder to note that the program was not attended by anybody from the Indian Embassy (at least officially). Moreover, there was no representation from State Bank of India, one of the main sponsors of the programme.

A couple of weeks later, while the after glow of the experience was still with me, I came to know that the entire programme had been videographed and was available on DVDs. I immediately got myself a copy and spent the next 3 evenings reliving the experience at my own pace. This makes me third time lucky!

I consider myself really blessed that I got a chance to discover poetry in this lifetime.