Pandit Anand Mohan Zutshi, known as Gulzar Dehlvi, died on June 12, 2020 at the age of 93. His death does not only marks the end of a long and illustrious poetic journey that spanned much of the 20th century and all of the current one, but also signals the end of a defender of a mushtarka tahzeeb – shared civilisational ethos – which he voiced powerfully through his Urdu poetry.

His legacy, which is especially relevant in the present political and social context marred by division, hate, and bigotry, can be encapsulated into Urdu, which to him was a language in the literal sense, and a philosophy of social and political harmony and coexistence in a metaphorical one. Throughout his life, he aggressively fought for defending the literal and metaphorical meanings of Urdu through the soft and subtle weapon of words.

I met Gulzar sahab in 2006 during my doctoral fieldwork; I was then doing my PhD at the University of Michigan, where I was studying the ideologies, perceptions, and acquisition of Urdu among different generations of Old Delhi Dilliwalas, both Muslims and Hindus. As part of my research design, I needed to record interviews with three generations of Dilliwalas. In addition to the pre-partition generation of Muslims and Hindus that he represented, I also studied the middle generation, those born after the partition and the Muslim and Hindu youth of the 21st century. The goal was to track generational changes in not only the use of Urdu as a language but the ideologies surrounding it as well.

Urdu for Gulzar sahab transcends its ordinary and limiting conception as a language of communication; to him it represents a cultural space and sensibilities that are constituted, in addition to language, by thoughts and ideas that imagined a society that is based on justice, harmony, and mutual respect for each other. At a tender age of nine, he challenged the unjust British rule in this she’r.

chaman jo qaum ka sukha para hai eed muddat se 
usee apne lahoo see seench kar gulshan bana doonga

the garden has been lying dry for ages
having watered it with my blood, it will turn into a beautiful garden

His revolutionary poems became quite popular among freedom fighters, and he would often be invited to deliver them at political meetings, in addition to mushaeras. He kept teaching these values through his poetry both in written as well as oral form through mushaeras.

During my conversation with him back in 2006, he spoke about his early life and education, Urdu, the language, and Urdu the tahzeeb at length from the pre-partition era to the present days.

Kashmiri pandit

Gulzar Dehlvi was born in a Kashmiri Pandit family in Bazar Sitaram, Old Delhi in 1926. His father, whom he refers to as Maulana Pandit Professor Tribhuvan Nath Zutshi Zar Dehlvi (1878-1965) in his book, served as a professor and principal of the Indraprastha College of Delhi. His father was one of the first disciples of the famous poet Dagh Dehlvi (1831-1905). Gulzar in his prose and his poetry proudly traced his literary lineage to stalwarts like Dagh through Sael Dehlvi, whom he refers to as his ustaad, mentor.

Sa’el ki zaban zar ki boli meri 
Sa’el ne sikheye hai adab ke usloob
Kaifi se talammuz ka sharaf rakhta hun
Urdu ke sewe kuchh nahin mujhko matloob

My language is the language of Zar and Sa’el
I have learned the literary style from Sa’el
I am honored to be a pupil of Kaifi
I do not seek anything other than Urdu

In this quartet, he acknowledges his debt of gratitude to Sa’el Dehlvi and Pandit Brij Mohan Dattatreya Kaifi (1866-1955). This was the civilisational ethos jointly constructed by Muslims and Hindus which he espoused in his poetry. The partition of India and communalisation that preceded and followed it damaged this mushtarka tahzeeb.

The love for Urdu

My research showed that while many pre-partition Hindus did use Urdu, including reading the Gita and Ramayana in it, the post-partition Hindus abandoned it completely. In the changed political environment, Urdu had not only become the language of Muslims alone but also a symbol of lack of patriotism. The Urdu language, which became confined largely to Muslims in post-partition India, became foreign and thus an object of suspicion.

This agonised Gulzar sahab greatly. Here’s what he wrote in response to the politics of hatred surrounding Urdu.

Tarikh e watan, husn, wafa hai Urdu
har zarre pe bharat ke fida hai Urdu
azadi ki tahreek pe dalo to nazar
khul jaega ye raaz ke kya hai Urdu

Urdu is the history of homeland, beauty and loyalty
Urdu will die for every grain of India
if you look at the history of India
the secret of Urdu will become clear to you

Pained by the division, hatred, and killing manifested in the communal politics of the current times, Gulzar sahab composed a parody of the famous patriotic poem Saare jahan se achha hindustan hamara (“India is better than the whole of the world”) in which he castigated the communal forces that are destroying the mushtarka tahzeeb that he was part of, and to which he contributed through his poetry. He says:

saare jahan men ruswa Hindustan hamara 
ham iske cheel kauwe, ye bezaban hamara 
insaniyat ke dushman firqa parast sare 
ab chhod de khudara hindostan hamara

Our India is ashamed in the whole world
we are its vultures and crows, and it is voiceless
you all enemies of humanity, the communalists
by god, please leave our India

In conclusion, Gulzar sahab’s legacy is pricelessly valuable for his love and fight for both the literal and metaphorical Urdu. Whether it was the physical attack on a BSP corporator in Aligarh for taking their oath in Urdu, or declaring null and void the oath taken in Urdu by two MLAs in the UP assembly, or the stopping of Manjari Chaturvedi’s qawwali performance by the UP government, all of these violated the mushtarka tahzeeb built around mutual love and respect that Gulzar sahab aspired to create through his poetic vision.