The social distancing compulsions of the global pandemic have created new possibilities for far-flung but productive collaborations. A Berlin-based Indian historian, I have been researching the history of princely Rampur alongside other academics and public historians on the Forgotten Food project, of which this series is a part. Our academic research, archival and conference plans came to a sudden halt amid Covid-induced travel restrictions.
After the initial anxiety of being historians without access to an archive, we decided to take this crisis as an opportunity to rethink, innovate and produce new digital content in the era of Zoom and digital viewership.
The digital space allowed us to collaborate with scriptwriter Danish Iqbal and dastango Fouzia and Saneya in Delhi, and with helpful librarians and archivists Abusad Islahi, Sanam Khan, Syed Tareq Azhar in Rampur’s Raza Library, who provided us with digital reproductions of images of rare manuscripts.
We connected on Facebook, deliberated over WhatsApp and email, conducted meetings, readings, and recital sessions over Google Meet and finally managed to develop a contemporary performance piece on rekhti poetry that takes the form of an experimental video.
It is ironic that in the Covid-era of quarantine and social distancing, the video is all about sociality through the celebrations as part of a public festival. We draw on one of the last significant Urdu rekhti texts, Musaddas tahniyat-e-jashn-e-Benazir (Felicitation for the Incomparable Festival), written in 1867-1868 by Mir Yar Ali “Jan Sahib” (1818-1886). It has recently been translated by Shad Naved into English verse for a volume which I edited and introduced for publication by India Penguin Classic.
Mir Yar Ali “Jan Sahib” was an Urdu poet from Lucknow, but after the political turbulence of 1857 he moved to Rampur for literary patronage. He wrote this masterpiece about Jashn-e-Benazir, a public festival founded in 1866 by Nawab Kalb-e-Ali Khan (1832–87) in his princely state of Rampur. This annual festival lasted eight days in March and was a major venue for local trade and cultural promotion, attracting several guilds of artisans and artists.
Our focus for the performance is on the metaphors of food, flavours and tastes. The poetry catalogues the food and drink items sold at the fair ‒ from fish kebab, sohan halwa, pudding cups, sugarcane and opium to Persian almonds, boiling milk, cream and yogurt ‒ within a broader economy of food production and distribution. Farmers, fisherman, milkmaids, food vendors, opium-sellers, potters, cooks and consumers all rub shoulders in the bazaar.
“Jan Sahib” is widely considered to be the last major poet who also experimented with the rekhti genre of poetry. Rekhti is commonly understood to be poetry when men write and perform Urdu poetry impersonating women’s language. Rekhti has been studied by literary and feminist scholars, like CM Naim, Carla Pietivich and Ruth Vanita, as a “voice of women” observed and represented by men.
While audiences in India are by now familiar with the revival and popularity of dastangoi, rekhtigoi has not been embraced by many contemporary artists so far. As a critical reexamination, we decided to explore the revival of this art form through the first female dastango Fouzia and emerging dastango Saneya.
Fouzia Dastango has not only broken gender boundaries in the male-dominated dastango tradition but also created experimental pieces based on the karkhandari zubaan dialect of workers in Old Delhi’s factories. Saneya teaches English literature with a deep interest in women’s vocal expressions, particularly Begumati zubaan in Urdu.
Into this performance, Fouzia and Saneya bring both the subaltern and gendered aspects of rekhti, based on their personal and professional experiences.
Therefore, we present a rekhti as imagined by a male poet but reimagined and performed by two female performers. Since rekhti is an imaginative usage of women’s voices, we think about what happens when a woman performs as a man impersonating a woman’s language. Going with the playful gender-bending “vocal masquerade” tradition of rekhti, we hope this experimental piece will initiate new discussions and interest in rekhtigoi performance.
We also hope to hold a new jashn in the form of a Rampur Food Festival in a not-so-distant post-pandemic Rampur in October 2022. For now, though, the digital provides the virtual Bagh Benazir space.
Razak Khan is a research fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. He is the author of Minority Pasts: Locality, Histories, and Identities in Rampur (Oxford University Press).
This article is part of the project “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India”, curated by Tarana Khan and edited by Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and Claire Chambers.
Read all the articles in the series here.