Author: (Late) Ahmed G. Chagla


        The works of the two truly popular poets Dagh (Dehlavi) and Amir (Meenai) are so significant that actually an epoch in Urdu poetry is called after them: "the period of Dagh and Amir". They were the very last of the great "formalists" in Urdu poetry. Their popularity still remains to such an extent that their ghazals are even today an important part, if not the mainstay, of the repertoire of many a reputed singer.

        Born in different stations in life; different in temperament, training, and outlook; different in circumstances - more than that: actually rivals as poets, these two outstanding personalities nevertheless remained life-long friends. That is because there was one thing common between them: both were true gentlemen, in the truest sense of that much abused word. In fact Amir, the rival poet, actually died in the house of Dagh, and Dagh was the man to write the first epitaph on Amir and to perform the last ceremonies. This shows what a period of true culture that was; not like the present, when "dog-eat-dog" seems to be the normal law of this jungle of our present "civilisation"!

        M1RZA NAWAB KHAN Dagh (1831-1905) was born in Delhi. His father was a brother of a Governor of the Moghuls. He died when Dagh was still a small child. Afterwards, Dagh's mother re-married a son of the last Moghul Emperor, Bahadurshah, and went to live in the famous Lal Qila of Delhi where she was known by the title Shaukat Mahal.

        The boy Dagh was also brought up in the Lal Qila and as a stepson of a Prince of royal blood, Dagh enjoyed all the privileges of royalty during his boyhood and his youth. Penmanship, horsemanship and games attracted him. Moreover in that atmosphere where the Emperor Bahadurshah himself was a poet, and the great Ghalib was his court poet, Dagh was soon attracted to poetry. After some education in Persian and Urdu, Dagh became the pupil of another famous master, Zauq, who died a few years before the Mutiny. In the atmosphere of Lal Qila of those days, Dagh lived like a true royal child. In 1856 his princely step-father died; 1857 was the year of the terrible Mutiny. These events brought a revolutionary change in the life and fortunes of the youthful Dagh.

The early days of Amir were quite different.

        MUNSHI AMIR AHMED MINAI (1828-1900) was the son of a middle-class man, Maulvi Karam Mahomed of Lucknow. Religious, hard-working, and a man of thought, Amir, grew up to be an erudite scholar. He has more than a score of published and unpublished works still to his credit, though much of his unpublished work was destroyed in a fire that burnt down his house. Among his scholarly works may be mentioned two dictionaries of Urdu phrase and idiom, one of which he had planned in as many as eight volumes. Only two of these volumes have been published so far. Amir lived in the religious atmosphere of a maulvi's house till the dark days of 1857.

        1857, when the spirit of revolt was abroad, was a crucial year in the history of India, both from the political and cultural points of view. The after-effects of the Mutiny on Urdu poets and poetry were especially significant. Bahadurshah at Delhi and Wajidali Shah at Lucknow were both themselves poets and patrons of poets and men of art and culture in every branch. In fact such men were supported by these two great Rulers. After the deportation of the one, after the Mutiny, to Rangoon, and of the other to Calcutta, the homeless and disheartened masters of Urdu poetry began to look with longing eyes towards the various Indian States where they could hope at least to find some sort of employment.

        Meanwhile Wajidali Shah at Calcutta managed to reassemble a shadowy court around him; he collected together what he called a "Constellation of Seven" poets. Dagh, the homeless step-son of a dead Moghul Prince, was soon forced to seek refuge with this patron of learning at Calcutta. But with the waning of the fortunes of the ill-starred Wajidali Shah, the poets had to look elsewhere for sustenance and support.

        At this period Nawab Yusafali Khan was the ruler of Rampur State. He was himself a man of culture and knew how to appreciate and to respect other men of culture and of learning in every field. Amir, the scholar-poet, was called to Rampur and appointed the instructor of the Nawab himself. The great service rendered to the cause of  Urdu poetry by Nawab Yusufali Khan and by his equally cultured son was that they welcomed poets both from Lucknow and from Delhi. Hitherto each section had specialised in a different style and mode. In Rampur of those days was laid the foundation of a synthesis of the two styles, which ultimately led to the great moderns in Urdu poetry.

        Nawab Kalb Ali Khan, the son of Nawab Yusufali Khan, was another great patron of poets, musicians and men of culture and learning. In his days Dagh too reached Rampur and was appointed the "Keeper of the Ruler's Stables"! Being fond of horses and riding this suited him well. This does not mean that Dagh neglected poetry in this period. In fact be was so well-contented with his lot at Rampur that he often used to call it "Aram-pur" -"the place of Rest". In company of this great Nawab, Dagh also went for Hajj and other pilgrimages. In 1886, when Dagh had been full twenty four years at Rampur, the sudden demise of Nawab Kalb Ali Khan again brought about a sudden change in Dagh's life and fortunes. Dagh had already met the Nizam of Hyderabad once. The Nizam too was a great patron of learning and a poet. Dagh now went over to Hyderabad where he was received with esteem by the Nizam Mir Mahbub All Khan. Dagh was appointed to the enviable position of being the Nizam's own teacher in poetry. Besides numerous and valuable presents Dagh received no less than what was a fabulous sum in those days - fifteen hundred rupees a month. Probably no poet has received a higher salary.

        So while Amir had the distinction of being the teacher of the cultured ruler of Rampur, Dagh attained a similar distinction of being the teacher of the ruler of Hyderabad. In addition, both Dagh and Amir counted their pupils in hundreds. During his early days even the great modern poet Iqbal used to send his work to Dagh for correction. But Dagh soon recognised the genius in lqbal and after a short while wrote to say that Iqbal's verses needed no correction. Those were truly great days for our poets! When Amir and Dagh were together at Rampur, the two had struck up a deep personal friendship, despite the fact that they were rivals as poets. This friendship, as has been said, lasted to the end of their days. Amir lived full forty three years of his life at Rampur; Dagh lived there twenty four years.

        In 1900, when Dagh was at the height of his popularity and influence in Hyderabad, Amir also thought it best to migrate thither. But hardly had he been there a few days, and before Dagh could arrange an audience with the Nizam, Amir was taken ill and passed away in the house of Dagh. Dagh survived his personal friend - and rival poet - barely five years.

        There is much that is meretricious and merely play upon words and phrases in the works of Dagh and Amir, since both were voluminous writers. Amir is the more profound of the two. And yet why were Amir and Dagh so popular in their day? Why are their best ghazals still the mainstay of many a reputed singer? Both have been called formalists. What is formalism and what is its significance? A reply to the last question would furnish us with the key to the undoubted and probably unrivalled popularity of Dagh and Amir.

        Formalism, in the best sense of the term, is the crystallised mode of thought of centuries. Only that thought can attain to formalism which has stood the test of centuries. The same applies to a "formal" mode of expression. Nothing meretricious can attain to formalism, in this sense. There must be deep psychological insight behind "formal" thought and expression, otherwise these could not survive. Only when deeper aspects of truth and more vital modes of expression come into being in the natural course of the evolution of thought and expression does the older "formalism" begin to grow somewhat stale. Even then the psychological insight remains, for human psychology does not change. If formalism is a fault then the works of all past masters of Urdu and Persian poetry should have been discarded and should have disappeared by now. And yet the ultra-modern "qalandar" Iqbal does not hesitate to call the medieval Rumi his pir - master! In Urdu and Persian poetry, besides the formal modes of expression in ever-varying imagery - such as "gul" (rose-flower) and the "bulbul" (nightingale), candle and the moth, lover and the beloved, and so on - sufistic thought forms an important mode of expression of deep psychological truths. The man who has not understood the significance of the deeper aspects of man's inner life says about tasawwuf (sufism): "Barae shaer guftan khub ast" - "It is good enough for composing verses!" But the point is why should those particular verses which deal with some aspect of tasawwuf appeal to the thinking man? Precisely because these contain deep truths of the inner life, which belongs to a different category to the life of the intellect and therefore its expression needs must be garbed in similies that the imagination and the intellect can understand. These verses do not appeal merely because these have been cast in the "formal" sufistic mould. The protest of the ultra-modem Iqbal is not against the higher aspects of sufi thought - otherwise he would never have acknowledged Rumi as his master and quoted freely from him - but against the degradation of the present-day so-called sufis.

        The great achievement of our formalists in Urdu poetry is that they not only perceived, and expressed in verse of astonishing beauty, the psychological facts behind every-day life; they; also expressed in an inimitable manner and in the garb of ever-varying imagery the "formalized deeper facts of inner life - the facts which deal with the deeper aspects of psychology, beyond the ken of discursive reasoning. These poets were not philosophers - in the sense that Iqbal was a philosopher-poet. They were primarily psychologists, however unconscious they may have been of the fact. At the same time they had achieved such a mastery over their medium - the "formalised" couplet - that in one couplet they could often express more than a writer in prose could do in a paragraph or more. That too they did with such force of inner conviction which would be entirely lacking in prose. Their sustained popularity depends mainly on this fundamental fact.

        Perhaps a few instances would make this clear: In choosing the very few examples - for, there is no space for more - an endeavour will be made to make a selection from the lesser known but more profound ghazals. Perhaps Amir and Dagh were themselves consciously unaware of the profundity of the thought since they were primarily poets and not thinkers. They were more concerned with the expression in formalised couplets of the crystallised thought of centuries, called formalism. Nevertheless the profundity and the message hidden in the formalism remains. Above all, the extreme simplicity and brevity of the expression of deep thoughts is worth notice. Dagh says:


Freely rendered, this means:

"O foolish heart! No task will ever be hindered (and remain undone)! 

The (Great) Unseen will (Itself) find a way out (of your difficulties)!"

        Here Dagh is uttering a deep truth of inner life. As a matter of fact he is affirming his belief in what Iqbal calls "higher fatalism", which brings hope to the hopeless. In explanation of the philosophical implications of this thought an essay could be written quoting the deepest thinkers of the past and the present - from Rumi and Ghazali of medieval times to Iqbal and Whitehead of today! And yet Dagh merely tries to touch the heart; he tries to console, leaving the reader or the listener to fill his cup according to its capacity! In the same ghazal he says:


"If there is a buyer, I am willing to sell my (deep) yearnings;

(Why!) I am prepared to give these free to any one who says as little as thank you!"

(The translations given throughout are free.)

        Where is the man who does not possess deep, unsatisfied yearnings in his life - yearnings which are a living torment and yet cannot be got rid of? Frustration is much too common a psychological phenomenon today to be explained in detail. Let the man who has deep, unsatisfied, yearnings judge the worth of this couplet of untranslatable beauty and simplicity in expression.

        Amir, being the scholar that he was, is a deeper thinker than Dagh. Writing of the Ultimate Reality that we call God, he says:


"The eyes contain Thy light; the heart contains Thy ecstasy:

(Verily) from the door (eyes) to the abode (heart), the entire manifestation is of Thee!"



"Be drunk with (the wine of) Love and (then) go to the Court of (true) Knowledge!

0 unknowing one! - Let thy (own) intellect not be the veil (between thee and the Beloved)! "

        Here again, in a formalised couplet, and in the formal mould of medieval sufism be reveals a profound truth of the deeper aspects of psychology: that discursive reason is not the final criterion of the truth of things. Those interested in the philosophical aspects of this thought may well read Iqbal's "Six Lectures" and try to grasp his explanation of the "super-sensory modes of consciousness" transcending what Whitehead calls "spatio-temporal continuum". And yet how simple and direct is the appeal of this couplet of Amir!

        Here is a simpler couplet of Dagh revealing psychological truth: 

"(Now) My life is becoming strangely prickless! 

(Verily) hopelessness has given me greater joy than when I was full of yearning!"

        It is our discontent with the station in life where we are placed which involves us in unnecessary restlessness of the spirit. (This lower kind of discontent is not to be confused with what has been called "Divine discontent"). It is only when we do not expect anything from outer life that we attain to inner peace. In fact it is only then that Nature, in her bounty, opens the doors of Her hidden treasure-houses for us. In one short formalised couplet Dagh tells us of the significance of what the mystics call taslim and raza, the other aspect of which is what Iqbal calls "istaghna - not being dependant on anything external. "0 aspirant!" says another poet, "Take hopelessness with you that you may come near to Hope!" How simply and beautifully does Dagh gives us all these implications in one short couplet!

        Amir says, talking of the pain which is the constant companion of man from the cradle to the grave and beyond:


"O wayfarer, passing by my grave-side!

Ask: 'What pain is your spirit passing through, O (seemingly) dead one?"

        What deep feeling is there behind this couplet! To this Dagh adds:


"The scar of the (outer) heart (dil); The scar of the (inmost) heart (jigar);

The carvings (left within me) by cruelty; The carvings (left within me) by fidelity;

These (four) will never be effaced, even though one tries to efface them!"

        It will thus be seen that there is much in the works of our "formalists" which is not merely play on word and expression. Their work is our heritage. Would not some scholars of repute come forward to give us and to give our younger generation a re-interpretation of the "formalised" thought of these masters? Our Nation is in the making. This is just the time when our cultural heritage needs a re-presentation. Especially to our younger generation.