'Insha': Urdu poetry's 'enfant terrible' – or its unsung prodigy? (IANS Column: Bazm-e-Ghazal)

Yet, Sayyid Insha’allah Khan ‘Insha’ (c.1752-1817) is predominantly known as a ghazal poet, particularly for his – uncharacteristically – sombre piece which begins: "Kamar bandhe huye chalne ko yaan sab yaar baithe hain/Bahut aage gaye baaqi jo hain tayyar baithe hain." Next is the ennui-laden: "Na chhed ae nikhat-e-bad-e-bahari raah lag apni/Tujhe atkheliyan sujhi hain ham be-zar baithe hain."

Uncharacteristically, because, ‘Insha’, who is counted among the Lucknow school of Urdu poetry, was more known for flippant, and even frivolous, though well-constructed poetry – "Khayal kijiye kya kaam aaj main ne kiya/Jab un ne di mujhe gaali salam main ne kiya" or "Kuch ishara jo kiya ham ne mulaqat ke waqt/Taal kar kahne lage din hai abhi raat ke waqt" or "Ham bhi Hazrat Suleiman ki naukar hain, Saiyyad ‘Insha’/Kyun na ho hamari bhi badshaahi kharch."

He and his bosom friends Sheikh Qalandar Baksh ‘Jur’rat’ and Nawab Saadat Yaar Khan ‘Rangin’ represented the closest Indian letters got to have its own set of "Restoration rakes" – though in their wit, banter, practical jokes, and sentiment of their poetry rather than "hell-raising" acts in their life like those of Charles II’s nobles.

Along with Mir Yaar Ali ‘Jaan Sahib’, the trio also developed "rekhti" – which can charitably be termed an early form of "feminist" poetry – where male poets made use of women’s voices, idioms, mannerisms, and, even accents, to talk about issues from the female viewpoint – or what they imagined it to be. While reciting these poems, they would also adopt women’s mannerisms and a falsetto!

An example of ‘Insha’s rekhti begins: "Thaam thaam apne ko rakhti hoon bahut sa lekin/Kya kahun tham nahi sakta mera andar waala," and ends: "Admi-zada vo ‘Insha’ mile un pariyon se/Ud gaya hove nigoda jo koi par waala."

Yet, the same poet, in his "normal" state, could craft something like "Jazba-e-ishq salamat hai to Insha’Allah/Kachche dhage se chale aayenge sarkar bandhe" or "Jis ne yaro mujh se daava sher ke fan ka kiya/Main ne le kar us ke kaghaz aur qalam aage dhara" or "Mahshar ki tishnagi ka kya khauf Saiyyad ‘Insha’/Kausar ka jaam bhar bhar pilayega Imam mera."

And ‘Insha’ spread his literary net wide. Urdu’s first historian Muhammad Husain Azad, in his seminal "Aab-e-Hayat", says what he was aware of the poet’s work included a volume of Urdu ghazals, one of Persian ghazals, one of rekhti, including riddles and ‘magic spells’, a Pushto grammar, Urdu and Persian odes, including hamds and naats, and two Persian masnavis, including one without any dots on the letters!

There was also a Persian poem about Awadh’s Nawab Saadat Ali Khan out on a hunt, satires complaining about heat, bedbugs, flies, and so on, and on various individuals, a poem on the wedding of two elephants, a masnavi detailing the rules of cock-fighting, puzzles, quatrains, chronograms, etc.

"Darya-e-Latafat" was a pathbreaking work on Urdu grammar, where ‘Insha’ dwells on the differences in speech of various groups of Urdu speakers – especially those from Delhi and Lucknow, sets down the rules of the language, and goes on to deal with prosody, rhyme, speech, devices, figures of speech and so on. In this, he also coined Hindustani equivalents for Arabic and Persian terms – which are used to this day!

Prose romance "Dastan Rani Ketaki aur Kunvar Uday Bhan ki," or more commonly "Rani Ketaki ki Kahani" was his contribution to Hindustani prose. As noted, it broke new ground by omitting all Arabic and Persian words and phrases – which is a tougher thing to do than it sounds – try avoiding words like paneer, mez, jeb, sabzi, barf, naukri, et al.<br> <br>Born in Murshidabad, then a part of the Nawab of Bengal’s dominions, ‘Insha’ was the son of Hakim Mir Masha’allah Khan, who was a poet too, had migrated there from tumult-ridden Delhi. He belonged to an old family which had come from Najaf, while some said they were from Samarkand, via Kashmir.

Provided the best education by his father, ‘Insha’ was a prodigy. To quote Azad: "Few such creative and brilliant men can have been born in India… His nature was a primary substance that could assume every sort of form. Despite all this, he had so much liveliness that, like quicksilver, he never stayed for long in one place… But since such varied, colourful ideas cannot subsist in any other art except poetry, he leaned toward poetry, for which he had an innate affinity…"

True enough, ‘Insha’ returned to Delhi as a young man, established himself in local poetic circles, and earned favour of the Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam II, who was fond of having him around. But as the fortunes of the city continued to decline, ‘Insha’ – like many other poets – headed for Nawabi Awadh, where he came into the good graces of its then ruler, Saadat Ali Khan, who prized him equally for his wit, and innate ability to complete shers in the blink of an eye.

Once, the Nawab gave the first misra: "Ek nazar dekhne se toot na jaate tere haath" and commanded the courtiers to complete the sher. All were dumbfounded at a rather odd phrasing, but ‘Insha’ was equal to the task, making the whole sher: "Ek nazar dekhne se toot na jaate tere haath/Laila, itna to na tha pardah mahmal bhaari."<br> <br>’Insha’s most creative and productive period was spent at Lucknow, creating gems like: "Laila o Majnun ki lakhon garche tasviren khinchi/Mil gayi sab ?haak men jis waqt zanjiren khinchi", or "Sanvle tan pe ghazab dhaj hai basanti shaal ki/Ji men hai kah baithiye ab jai kanhaiya laal ki", or "Nazakat us gul-e-rana ki dekhiyo ‘Insha’/Naseem-e-subh jo chuu jaaye rang ho maila."

Good times, however, never last, and one impetuous and unguarded remark of ‘Insha’ caused the Nawab to withdraw his munificence and place him in virtual house arrest. His last decade was sad and penurious but made livable by unflinching support of a few devoted friends.

"Kahan gardish falak ki chain deti hai suna ‘Insha’/Ghanimat hai ki ham-surat yahaan do chaar baithe hai!"

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])


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