Urdu poetry by Muslims in Nepal is a fading tradition

In a distant part of Nepal, a small band of Muslim poets meet each month to recite their verses on love, heartache and politics, in the knowledge that their customs lead an increasingly fragile existence.

About 20 poets gather each month to recite Urdu poetry and keep the art form alive. Photos courtesy of Bibek Bhandari
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In a distant part of Nepal, a small band of Muslim poets in a predominantly non-Muslim country meet each month to recite their verses on love, heartache and politics. They do this in the knowledge that their customs lead an increasingly fragile existence.

For a small portion of Nepalgunj's Muslim population, the last Saturday of each month in the Nepali calendar is dedicated to poetry. For more than three decades this industrial town has been the unlikely host of mushaira, a monthly poetry symposium.

About 20 people gather for each meeting at a guesthouse in the town, in Nepal's Banke district. Most are Muslims passionate about shayari and ghazal, two forms of Urdu poetry. Other poets, who write in Nepali, along with some spectators, make up the rest.

The participants quietly form a circle on the white sheets laid on the floor and soon poetry is in motion.

In a two-hour session, conducted mostly in Urdu, there is a free flow of verse: topics vary from love and heartache to burgeoning social problems.

Mustafa Qureshi, 52, whose pen name is Ahsan, (which means "very good" in Urdu), says his compositions are mainly influenced by his country's socio-political situation.

He takes out a small piece of paper from his pocket and reads his musings on Nepal's political framework.

"And so the constitution will be made," he says, stating the title of his poem. One line after another, his verse speaks to the country's political climate. Naseem Quadari, a 47-year-old poet who is also affiliated with one of Nepal's political parties, says he used poetry as a protest medium during one of the Maoist general strikes.

"A poet isn't scared to express," he says. "They bring forward the truth."

But politics isn't the topic of choice at the guesthouse. The meeting is mostly occupied with discourse on love and heartbreak.

"The most beautiful poems are the products of pain and heartache. But this one is about love," Abul Latif, 74, says before he recites a rhyme he wrote when he was 27.

Latif, who goes by the pen name Shauq (which means "interested" in Urdu), started writing shayari in 1969 as a hobby. He runs a jewellery business in Nepalgunj and is the president of Gulzar-e-Adab, an organisation that has been working for the advancement of Urdu language and literature in the region since 1976.

According to Nepal's 2001 census, 4.2 per cent of the country's population is Muslim. Nepalgunj is the heart of that community, with 28 per cent of its population being Muslim.

This makes Urdu, Pakistan's national language and one of India's official languages - Nepalgunj sits close to the border - highly prevalent in the region.

In his book of reflective literary analysis, Kehi Tippani Kehi Samalochana: A Collection of Reflective Analysis, Hari Prasad Timilsina, president of the Bheri Literary Society, writes about the emergence of Urdu literature in the area.

He says that the so-called golden age of Urdu literature in Nepalgunj was between 1908 and 1928. The formation in 1957 of Bazm-e-Adab, the Urdu literary foundation, strengthened it further. However, though the spoken form of the language is common, it is declining in popularity in written form.

"Our children can read and write Urdu but they are not interested in its literary aspect," Latif says. "It has died because of the influence of television and computers."

None of his 11 children show any interest in shayari, Latif says. Though he is ready to pass along what he knows, he says the younger generations aren't willing to learn.

For Zabir Seisk, a 24-year-old student, it is his second time at the mushaira. He says he has a passing interest in listening to the poets but has no intention of writing poetry as a hobby. "It's too technical," he says. "It's only good for the ears."

Qureshi says it is difficult to learn and master the art of shayari, which discourages most young people from attempting it. "My son types my poems in Urdu and also Nepali but he doesn't show any interest in learning," says Qureshi, who is the secretary of Gulzar-e-Adab.

Although it can be difficult to gather people together, the organisation's 15 core members, as well as other Nepali poetry enthusiasts, manage to keep the mushaira running, says Latif.

Every month, Qureshi sends out printed invitations for the month's mushaira. Advertisements are also aired on a local Urdu FM radio station. Some of the local poets who write in Nepali, including Timilsina, help publicise the event.

Timilsina says that though mushairas are conserving the region's culture, nothing is being done on a national level. For now, he says, it is self-contained in the Bheri region, one of the 14 administrative zones of Nepal to which Nepalgunj is the administrative headquarters. "There are so many respectable Urdu poets here but their works are inside a closet," he says. "So when they die, their legacy will go with them."

Though Latif has written hundreds of poems since he started, most of them are either lost or misplaced, he says.

But through Bheri Literary Society's initiative, Latif's poems have been compiled, translated into the Nepali language and recently published in a book form titled Mehekte Zakhm.

Qureshi's compilation of Urdu and Nepali poems titled Soz-e-Dil is also under production.

For poets like Latif and Qureshi, although publishing a book is an accomplishment, it's the mushaira that motivates them to keep writing and recite their poems on a monthly basis.

Though just an interest, and not a profession, these poets use their words to fuel their passion and also talk about various issues.

"Poetry helps to influence people," Qureshi says. "The power of poetry, those words, they have more weight than anything."

But the irony is that the power of their poetry is unlikely to keep their legacy alive.

The mushaira is like an open secret in Nepalgunj. The poets and their talent is little-known nationally, and their interactions are limited to the monthly mushairas at Musafirkhana.

"It's sad," Latif says. "I've dedicated my entire life to the shayari but it might just die away. It's sad."

Bibek Bhandari is a freelance journalist based in London.