Jab jab dor patang se katne lagti hai
tab tab koi CD batne lagti hai
Rahul jeet na jaaye bas is dar se
sahib ki GST ghatne lagti hai
Whenever the kite’s thread gets broken
a CD starts getting distributed
to stop Rahul from winning at any cost
the ruler’s GST starts to decrease
These are the lines with which Imran Pratapgarhi began his mushaira session on a cold November night at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, and the crowd of over 30,000 people – including the chief guest, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal – broke into rapturous applause. Despite the presence of other poets, including Altaf Zia, Saba Balrampuri and Chandni Shabnam, the biggest cheer that night was reserved for Pratapgarhi.
It is Pratapgarhi’s ability to encapsulate the prevalent political and social atmosphere in a few lines that has made the 30-year-old achieve rockstar status at Urdu mushairas in India. And he has got here without a formal training in Urdu.
Pratapgarhi, the second of 10 siblings, was born Mohammed Imran Khan on August 6, 1987, in Pratapgarh, Allahahabad, to Mohammed Iliyas Khan, a Unani medicine practitioner and Sajida Khan, a homemaker.
In a telephone interview, the poet recounted, “My father wanted me to become a doctor, so I studied science in school but always had an inclination for literature and participated in various literary events. I completed my Masters in Hindi literature from Allahabad University. [When I was at] university, I wrote in Hindi and participated in kavi sammelans (poetry symposiums), but I attended mushairas with keen interest.”
Pratapgarhi started participating in mushairas in 2008 and the nazm that brought him instant fame was Madrasa. In 2010, he was invited to a mushaira in Mumbai, where he recited it and a recording was widely-shared, bringing him unexpected fame. According to Pratapgarhi, the nazm was inspired by the intense media focus on madrasas – owing to a spate of terror attacks.
…mila hamesha chahat ka paigham madrason se
mat jodo aatankwad ka naam madrason se koi ilzam madrason se…
…the message of love always emanates from madrasas
do not link terrorism with madrasas, do not taint madrasas…
The reception to Madrasa made him realise that there was a need for someone to talk about marginalised communities and highlight their issues – “I saw that crowds of 20,000-25,000 would gather, sitting all night long to hear shayari. I thought why not use the platform to make people politically aware and inform them about society? I made a conscious decision to infuse my poetry with political and social themes.”
Pratapgarhi has now written over 100 nazms, including Filisteen (about the suppression of Palestinians), Najeeb (about the disappearance of JNU student Najeeb Ahmed), and Umar (about the victims of mob lynchings).
In one nazm, Pratapgarhi summed up Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Sambit Patra’s hapless attempt at equating cow’s dung with Kohinoor, the deaths of children in a Gorakhpur hospital, and the test of nationalism that the Uttar Pradesh government wanted the madrasas in the state to go through on August15.
Gobar ko Kohinoor batane me reh gaye
Hindu ko Musalman se ladane me reh gaye
bacche tamam marte rahe aspatal me
wo madraso ki jaanch karane me reh gaye
They stopped short of calling dung the Kohinoor
they stayed busy sowing enmity between Hindus and Muslims
Although children kept dying in hospitals
their attention remained focused on investigating madrasas
Poetry as activism
The tradition of mushairas has been traced back to the time of Amir Khusrau and its patronage during the Mughal era is well-documented. Weekly mushairas are still held in Indian cities and abroad in places with Urdu-speaking diaspora. In Delhi, the most well-known mushairas are the Shankar-Shad and Lal Qila, and the All-India Mushaira is organised in several cities.
Although ghazals remain the biggest draw at mushairas, nazms with political and social themes also feature heavily in such gatherings. Waseem Rashid, a Delhi-based poet, editor of Urdu portal Sada Today and naazim (convenor) of mushairas, said that in recent years, poetry has become infused with political themes, reflecting the mood of the nation.
“I do not consciously sit to write about a particular topic,” Pratapgarhi said. “But most of my nazms have been penned after flashes of inspiration. The poem on victims of lynchings was completed as I walked towards the stage. Throughout the day I had a nagging feeling that I want to talk about Umar.” A dairy farmer, Umar Mohammed was killed and his body thrown on railway tracks, allegedly by cow vigilantes, in the same week as the event at Jamia last November.
…jinko kaata gaya nafrato ke sabab
mai khada hoon har aise shajar ke liye…
…those who killed for reasons for hate
I am standing for every such tree…
That evening, Pratapgarhi announced that he would be donating his fee from the event to Umar Mohammed’s family, and that he had donated the earnings from his appearances over the last two years to other victims of lynching. He also talked about mobilising people to lend a helping hand to the families of victims of hate crimes.
In an act of activism, using his appearances at mushairas and his social media accounts, Pratapgarhi implored Muslims to wear a black band during Eid ul Fitr prayers as a silent protest against the rising hate crimes against the community. He termed the protest Gandhigiri-I. The second part of the protest involved mobilising people to donate blood on August 6.
“I saw that our blood was wantonly shed on the streets and the victims were left to die on streets and trains without anyone coming to their help,” Pratapgarhi said. “I wanted to tell people, ‘Don’t shed our blood. We will donate it. Use it to help those who need it.’” He added that 2,816 units of blood were collected across India during the initiative. He also mobilised his admirers to help people affected by the floods in Bihar in August.
Does this social activism mask any political aspirations? Is this why there was speculation earlier this year that he might be nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the Aam Aadmi Party? “Electoral politics doesn’t interest me, but if I am invited to campaign for a candidate who is willing to fight for justice and truth I have no qualms in doing so,” Pratapgarhi responded. “I have done it in the past.”
Not everyone is a fan
Pratapgarhi has had his fair share of critics. Apart from a steady flow of hate mails and threats, he has also earned the disapproval of some prominent Urdu poets. He says that Munawwar Rana, one of the most famous contemporary Urdu poets, has refused to share a stage with him. When contacted by Scroll.in, Rana confirmed this: “He lacks respect for other shayars, [he offers] no greeting or acknowledgment. He travels with an entourage and arrives at his own convenience, unlike the other invitees, which is disrespectful to the institution of mushairas.”
About Pratapgarhi’s poetry, Rana said, “He is doing the kind of shayari that I also probably did at his age. I don’t have issues with that. But a mushaira is a lot more than reading shairs, it also encapsulates respect for fellow shayars from whom you learn and who learn from you. He lacks adab.”
Rashid, too, is a critic, believing that shayari is the art of subtlety of language and using it to directly take potshots against anyone doesn’t sit well with the tradition. As an example, she quotes a couplet by Dr Rahat Indori, Bollywood lyricist, former Urdu professor and a renowned poet:
…sabhi ka khoon hai shaamil yahan ki mitti me
kisi ke baap ka Hindustan thodi hai…
…everyone’s blood is part of this soil
India doesn’t belong to anyone’s father, does it?...
“Rahat sahab has beautifully conveyed a sentiment that we all share without taking anyone’s name, that’s what a mushaira is meant for,” she said. “Not for taking potshots at anyone.”
When contacted, Indori said, “I am too insignificant a poet to comment on anyone’s work.”
Man on a mission
To his critics, Pratapgarhi says that poetry isn’t just about reading out loud what you once wrote. He believes it can raise awareness among the masses, and he is willing to do it even if it comes at the expense of being marginalised by his peers.
Pratapgarhi counts the legendary poet of the masses, Habib Jalib, as his inspiration. Jalib earned fame for his biting commentary on the state of affairs in Pakistan following the Partition of India. He passed away in 1993 but his nazms still ring true in the current political climates of Pakistan and India.
Pratapgarhi, who is currently in the process of finishing a book of nazms, said he would be happy to continue in the same vein. And the placard-holding, banner-waving audience – a sight unique to his mushairas – as well as his hundreds of thousands of followers on social media wouldn’t want it any other way.