Opinion: Embracing Urdu women poets

Written By: Baran Farooqi
Delhi, India Published: Mar 08, 2018, 07:34 AM(IST)

Mahlaqa Bai Chanda was the first sahib-e diwan, a women poet having a volume of poetry as an existing document. Photograph:( Others )

Poems by Indian Women is a volume of poetry edited by Margaret Macnicol, published in 1923, containing 110 selections written by 56 women in 14 languages.

The case of Urdu poet Sheikh Rangrezin (1703), has a very interesting couplet which carries an anecdote with it. Rangrezin, as one might guess, means a woman who dyes clothes.  The story goes that a Brahmin poet known as Alam sent her his turban to be dyed and by mistake left in the folds a slip of paper on which he had written half a verse of poetry: 
 “Why has the waist of a woman, like a gold stick, become thin?”

The woman poet Rangrezin sent the reply, tucked in the folds of the turban :

“Having taken away the gold of the waist, the Creator has put it on the bosom.”   


Mahlaqa Bai Chanda (1767-1824)

She was the first sahib-e diwan, (a poet having a volume of poetry as an existing document) woman poet. She was a courtesan by profession in the Asif Jahi Sultanate of Aurangabad. Her poems, compiled as Gulzar-e Mahlaqa are of reasonably good quality in a world dominated largely by men. A patron of the arts, she gave away large sums of money and endowed several shrines. When she died, her enormous wealth was distributed among homeless women. She knew horse riding, as she is shown riding an elephant on a hunt with a cart with a tiger on it accompanying her elephant. Chanda’s contemporary in the North, (1759-1806) was Shah Alam II’s daughter, Hayat un Nisa Begum. I present here two of Chanda’s couplets in translation:
Hoping to blossom (one day) into a flower
Every bud sits, holding its soul in its fist.
How can Chanda be dry lipped O saqi of the heavenly wine?
She has drained the cup of thy love.

Gul Badan Begum (1523-1603)

The learning and sophistication of women in the Mughal royal families are common knowledge. There were scholars, poets, stateswomen and architects among them. Daughter of Babur, sister to Humayun and Askari, Humayun’s wife Hameeda comes alive as they might in a modern psychological novel. When she died (at 80) Akbar himself helped carry the bier.However, with the increasing impact of the colonial masters, our literary and social cultures grew weak. A major disruption was caused in the literary imagination, and, consequently, in the manner we viewed ourselves. With the decline of the classical culture, the culture (or system) of economically independent and highly educated and refined courtesans also fell into disrepute and decay, and poetry itself became a bad word for women, as the definition of decent and upper-class women did not include a knowledge of the affairs of the heart, soul or the body.  

It took very long for women to again come to the fore in the world of Urdu poetry and we don’t see anything worth notice before the nineteen forties. Urdu woman poets, however, have been present ever since then, prominent among them being Parween Shakir, Darab Bano Wafa, Ada Jafri, Kishwar Naheed, Fahmida Reyaz, Sajida Zaidi, Zehra Nigah, Azra Abbas, Bilqees Zafirul Hasan, Shafiq Fatima Shera, Zahida Zaidi and many more names. Some of the above-mentioned names are no more, while some are living.

As can be expected, there being no immediate predecessors for them to take a cue from, the road taken by the women poets was fraught with difficulties. Different methods and techniques were tried out by different voices and we can’t really say that a women’s ‘movement’ in poetry was launched. While one may acknowledge that women’s poetry is recognised by its tone of protest or complaint,  confessional and existential poems of the first order as well as ghazals have also been written prolifically by them. 

I wrap up this piece on women poets in Urdu by citing some poems along with their translations into English. This is mainly to show the reader a glimpse of the tone and tenor of women’s poetry in Urdu and also to illustrate the variety of subject matter.

Bilqees Zafirul Hasan
Har dil azeez who bhi hai hum bhi hain khush mizaaj
Ab kya batayen kaise hamari nahi bani
He’s also well liked, I too am of the amiable sort
How can I explain the disharmony between us?
Bano Darab Wafa
Kabhi Gokul kabhi Radha kabhi Mohun ban ke
Main khayalon mein bhatakti rahi jogan ban ke

(Putting on the guise of a child cowherd or of Radha or of Krishna himself
I wandered in my thoughts like a woman saint-mendicant)

Parveenn Shakir
Ab bhala chhod ke ghar kya karte
Shaam ke waqt safar kya karte
(What was the fun of abandoning home now
What was the fun of the journey at evening time?)

Main tera naam leke tazabzub mein pad gayi
Sab log apne apne azizon ko ro liye
(I found myself confused and puzzled even as I mentioned your name
While everyone else mourned their near and dear ones)

Shafiq Fatma Shera
Rut Mala*
Neele bhure parbat tujh par
Barkha mausam mausam barsi
Tujhko baha nahi payi
Aandhi takrayi par uda nahi payi
Dhoopen pighlane ko badhin
Tab badli chhatar bani
Tab shail shaam ayi
Neele bhure parbat
Hum tab bhi azad the
Hum ab bhi azad rahein dil shaad rahein
Paabandi agar ho toh ek ada ho
Apni hi manmaani ada
Hati ziddi sadaa rahein….

*this is a small part of a longer poem by the name of Rut Mala

(The rain rained through many seasons
On you, o blue-brown mountain
Could not flow you down.
The storm struck you,
Could not pluck you off
The sunshines advanced to melt you,
The clouds came and sheltered you then
And the cool evening descended.
O blue-brown mountain,
We were free then
Let us remain free even today, and happy
Let any restriction there is, be just an eye- catching novelty
Our own heart’s contrivance
Always stubborn, always headstrong)

(All translations are done by the author)


(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL) 

Baran Farooqi

Baran Farooqi is professor of English at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, whose areas of specialisation include Women Studies.
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