At a meet of poets and writers in September 2020 at Urdu Hall, one of Hyderabad’s premier language institutes, a grizzled individual seated beside me proclaimed, “I should celebrate my own Urs (a Sufi saint’s death anniversary).” After all, mused the Old City poet in Dakhani, “Humare potte karte ke ki nahin main mare baad. Apan ich kar lingey.” Who knew if the family would bother?
The centuries-old dialect, a form of Urdu spoken in the Deccan region, can still be heard in Telangana and the north-eastern parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka but the number of those who can play with Dakhani to come up with searing humour verse, or mazahiya shayari, is on the decline. The pandemic, which claimed the life of veteran poet Sardar Asar this May, may just have dealt a fatal blow, depriving the few remaining poets of the oxygen of mushairas, or gatherings that offered them a platform.
In better times, the unusual Dakhani accent—influenced by Telugu, Kannada and Marathi—was itself enough to lend humour to verse. Even the mention of poets’ pen names, like Khamakhaan Hyderabadi, could bring a smile to faces. Thespians like Mehmood, Johny Lever and actor Vidya Balan used the dialect in films like Gumnaam, Karan Arjun and Bobby Jasoos, respectively, to great comic effect. Some poets sprinkle the odd English word in between too.
In the mid-20th century, mazahiya shayars would use their skills to put social issues in razor-sharp focus, offer balm for wounds or spin humour out of despair. Gradually, though, the factionalism and politics that plague the literary world began taking a toll, with poets dividing and carving out separate organisations, says Oudesh Bava Rani, vice-president of Hyderabad’s Hindi-Urdu Progressive Writers Association. As time passed, Urdu itself began taking a back seat.
Today the rich heritage of mazahiya shayari has few takers—and online mushairas drained of live audiences during the pandemic have only made it worse. As Moin Amar “Bamboo”, one of the better-known mazahiya shayars, puts it, “Aisa dikhra khabristan mein jaake khade reh ke chilla rein. Apan ich padh rein apan ich sun rein (I feel like I am screaming in a graveyard, I am both the reader and the spectator).”
As it is, you can almost count the poets on the fingers of one hand: Apart from Amar, Hyderabad has just four veterans—Lateefuddin Lateef, Waheed Pasha Quadri, Fareed Saher and Shahid Adeeli. In Mahabubnagar district, Chicha Palmoory is a household name. Women are few and far between, despite notable exceptions like Ashraf Apa. Like other literary spaces, says Amena Tahseen, director-in-charge of women’s studies and associate professor at Hyderabad’s Maulana Azad National Urdu University, the humour poetry world remains male-dominated: “Mazahiya gatherings usually have two-three token women versifiers to project inclusion. (But) if women perform lines that contain even a third of the uncouthness some male poets are known for, or if they poke fun at their spouses, they won’t be looked upon favourably.”
Dakhani’s history goes back centuries. Mustafa Kamal, Urdu academic, convenor of the humour society Zinda Dilan-e-Hyderabad (ZDH) and long-time editor of the humour magazine Shugoofa, says, “Before the ouster of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, which founded the city of Hyderabad, by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, Dakhani reigned supreme.” After Hyderabad came under the control of the Mughals in 1686, Dakhani, with its distinct influences of Telugu, Marathi and Kannada, slowly came to be replaced with their chaste, north Indian version of Urdu. It’s in 1724, a little after Nizam I established his own Asaf Jahi dynasty, that we read about the first mentions of Nazeer Akbarabadi, a harbinger of sorts of humour poetry.
Nazir Dehqani, however, was the first contemporary Dakhani poet of note. Then, as the movement for independence gained strength, other names emerged: Aijaz Hussain “Khatta”, Sulaiman Khateeb, Ali Sahib Miyan and Ghulam Sarwar “Danda.” They offered a salve after the violent accession of the nizam-ruled state to the new Indian union in 1948. As city historian Sajjad Shahid puts it, “After so many tears had been shed, the late (Mohammad) Himayatullah, Sulaiman Khateeb and Danda taught us how to laugh again.”
In the 1950s, the poetry took on an activist hue, with the shayars coming not just from Hyderabad but from present-day Telangana, Marathwada and Karnataka. Danda’s poem Janta Ki Arzi (People’s Petition), addressed to the then chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh (AP), Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, talked about education and unemployment. After the 1969 agitation for a separate Telangana state, the poet Gilli Nalgondvi called for a bifurcation, lampooning AP’s then chief minister, K.B. Reddy.
In 1973, though, the genre saw its own divisions. Kamal turned ZDH, the literary wing of the artists’ association Fine Arts Academy, into a stand-alone entity. In 1982, a new group, Bazm-e-Tanz-o-Mizaah (BTM), spearheaded by Munawar Ali “Muqtasar”—who had also been involved with the Fine Arts Academy and ZDH—emerged.
The few poets left are still valiantly holding up a mirror to society. Waheed Pasha Quadri’s popular Dakhani mazahiya version of Bollywood number Pardesi Pardesi Jaana Nahin is about Gulf migrants being treated as ATM machines by their families. Afraz Ali, a computer programmer and the son of Bogus Hyderabadi, who was known for writing one original verse followed by one of Mirza Ghalib’s, says it’s important to appreciate the mazahiya shayars who have stayed the course. But, as Adeeli laments, this may be too little too late. “Sadly, it doesn’t look like my children will take to poetry or prosody and take our legacy forward.”
Daneesh Majid is a Hyderabad-based writer on South Asian culture and security.