Battered by marauders, only one thing bloomed in the desolate capital of the Mughal Empire before its death in 1857: Urdu poetry. Delhi had fallen in love with Urdu, which was brought in by poet Wali Dakhani from the Deccan in 1700, but no-one had fallen for it harder than the poets of the city.

From Mirza Mohammad Rafi Sauda in the early 18th century to Daag Dehlvi in the late 19th century, they all crafted poetry that was uniquely Delhi – encapsulating its gallis, bazaars, sounds and linguistic quirks. Most importantly, they wrote poetry that was politically and socially aware and unafraid to speak the truth.

At a time when the offence-taking machinery is in overdrive, it is hard to imagine an era when poets revelled in being subversive, wore defiance as a badge of honour, and poked fun at emperors, nobles and clerics, as they chronicled the fall of a once-great city and empire.

Their stories are documented in the recently-released book Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets by lawyer, commentator and Urdu evangelist Saif Mahmood. “These men were born in a politically intimidating milieu,” said Mahmood, who has juxtaposed the lives of eight of Urdu’s greatest classical poets against the politics, society and culture of 18th and 19th century Delhi. “But dissent and a little blasphemy were liberties that were a part of the business of being a poet and an artist. It was expected of them. They were worn like a badge of honour.”

Do Gaz Zameen. Photo credit: Anant Raina.

Kisi gada ne suna hai ye ek sheh se kaha/Karoon mai’n arz gar isko na sarsari jaanein/Umroor-e-mulk mein awwal hai sheh ko yeh laazim/Ki har ek khurd-o-kalaan mein barabari janein
(We hear a beggar once said this to a king: May I say something if you don’t consider it frivolous/Foremost, in state of affairs, it is incumbent upon the king/To treat everyone as equal, no matter how high or low.)

This four-line verse by Sauda, among the earliest in this league of Urdu poets, offered some direct tips on good governance to Alamgir II, the ineffectual emperor who was also his patron and the subject of many of his eulogies. Sauda was witness in his lifetime to several invasions, including those led by Nadir Shah, Ahmad Shah Abdali, the Marathas and the Rohillas. He was clearly heartbroken by Delhi’s decline.

Is zamane ka jo dekha toh hai ulta insaaf/Gurg azaad rahein aur ho shubaan pehre mein
(Justice in this age is turned upside down/wolves roam free and shepherds are under guard.)

“Sauda, like every great poet of his day, depended on the patronage of the great nobles for his livelihood, but this did not prevent him from speaking his mind with the utmost forthrightness in his verse, lashing out at the nobility on who he depended for all the vices which their conduct so abundantly exemplified,” wrote Urdu scholar Ralph Russel in An Eighteenth-Century Urdu Satirist, published in Sahitya Akademi’s journal Indian Literature.

Sauda was one of the greatest satirists of his times, sparing neither the elite nor the intellectual, the hakim or the mullah, as this couplet shows:

Dikahoonga tujhe zaahid us aafat-e-deen ko/khalal dimaagh mein tere hai parsaayi ka
(I’ll prove to you, O devout, religion is a menace/your poor mind suffers from the disorders of piety.)

Before Sauda there had been the wildly irrepressible Mir Jafar Zattali, the late 17th-century poet who was famously executed by the Mughal emperor Farrukhsiyar in 1713 for recklessly perverting a royal ode. (The tag zattali means speaker of nonsense.)

Renowned Urdu scholar Shamsur Rahman Faruqi describes him thus in his delightful sketch Burning Rage, Icy Scorn: The Poetry of Ja’far Zatalli: “Besides being the first Urdu writer with an uninhibited love for words, he was the first Urdu satirist, the first Urdu humourist, the first social and political satirist in Urdu, the first and the greatest Urdu writer of obscene and bawdy prose and verse, and the first Urdu prose writer in North India.”

A coin had been minted to honour the newly-anointed Farrukhsiyar and it was inscribed with an adulatory couplet:

Sikka-zad az fazl-e-haq bar seem-o-zar/Padshaah-e-bahr-o-bar Farrukhsiyar
(By the grace of god [he has] minted coins of silver and gold/The emperor of the earth and oceans, Farrukhsiyar.)

Zattalli, known for taking offensive digs at Aurangzeb and his sons with an inventive mix of Persian and Urdu, pushed his luck too far by reworking it: Sikka-zad bar gandum-moth-matar/Padshaah-e-tasmakash Farruksiyar. This is how Faruqi translates it: He struck his coin on grains of wheat and on coarse pulses, and peas: Farrukhsiyar, that garrotter of a king.

For one, Zattali was lampooning the ruler, reducing his coins to pulses and peas, and then as Faruqi explains, punned on the fact that the emperor had put to death a nobleman who had opposed his succession, and violated the tradition of pardon for such rivals.

Dargah Mir Dard. Photo credit: Anant Raina.

Another outspoken poet who inhabited Delhi around the same years as Sauda was Khwaja Mir Dard. A Sufi mystic, Dard was equally impatient with the royalty, the clerics and puritans. Here he is weaving in the earthy Delhi patois into two couplets verse on why wine and spiritualism can coexist:

Tar-daamani pe shaikh hamaari na jaaiyo/Daaman nichod dein toh farishte wazu karein
Hai apni ye salaah ki sab zaahidaan-e-shehr/Ae Dard aa ke bai’at-e-dast-e-subu karein
(Don’t be deceived by my sodden clothes, O shaikh, If I squeezed them, angels would cleanse themselves in the wine.
I advise all puritans of the city, o dard/Should come and swear allegiances to wine.)

Dard also famously and impudently told off the emperor Muhammad Shah Rangeela for landing up unannounced at a mystical congregation of Sufis and disrupting its meditative mood.

Ghata Masjid. Photo credit: Anant Raina.

If there was a poet who was passionately in love with Delhi despite its ragged state, it was Mir Taqi Mir, who Mahmood describes as “the incurable romancer” of the city. The sharp edge of his voice was unaffected by the fear of the mighty, many of who were his patrons.

Ho koi badshaah, koi yahaan vazeer ho/ Apni bala se, baith rahe jab faqeer ho
(Someone may be a king or a minister here/I don’t give a damn, I am a careless fakir.)

Mir was among the many poets of the era to write a shehr-e-ashob, or a lament for a city, grieving the death of Delhi’s grandeur, chutzpah and the haplessness of its people.

Chor-uchakke, Sikh, Marathey, Shah-o-gada az khwaahaan hai/ Chaiyn men hain jo kuchh nahin rakthey, faqr hi ek daulat hai ab
(Thieves, pickpockets, Sikhs, Marathas, king and beggar, all are in need/In peace are those alone who own nothing, poverty is now the only wealth.)

Here he grieves over the city’s repeated ransacking: Ab kharaba hua Jahanabad/Vana har ek qadam pe yaan ghar tha (Jahanabad is now a ruin/At every step there was once a home here).

But Mir’s most lacerating wit was reserved for the preacher and the priest and the hypocrisy of the religious orders, as is evident in this excerpt from a ghazal.

Shaikh jo hai masjid mein nanga, raat ko tha maikhaane mein Jubba, khurqa, kurta, topi, masti mein inaam kiya /Kis ka Kaaba kaisa qibla kaun haram hai kya ehraam/Kooche ke us ke baashindon ne sab ko yahin se salaam kiya
(The shaikh who stands naked in the mosque today was in the tavern last night/His cloak, gown, shirt and cap – drunk out of his wits, he gave them all away/Whose Kaaba, what prayer direction, what holy mosque, what pilgrim robes/We the inhabitants of her lane, bid farewell to these from a distance).

A portion of Ghalib's letter to his pupil, Munshi Hargopal Tafta (in Ghalib's own hand). Photo credit: Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib/via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

By Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s time, the political clouds over Delhi had turned darker. He was witness to the revolt of 1857 and violent retribution that followed for the city and its residents. He wrote with great effect against religious establishment.

“Ghalib was not an atheist or even an agnostic but he couldn’t stand structured religion or religious formalism,” said Mahmood. “He says, for instance, that the masjid needs a tavern next door for protection from the zealots just like the eye needs the brow to protect it – Masjid ke saaye kharaahaat chaahiye/Bhon paas aankh qibla-e-jaajaat chaahiye.”

Ghalib laughs at his discovery that a mosque sits right next to his new rented home at Gali Qasimjan: Masji ke zer-e-saaya ek gha banaa liya hai/Ye banda-e-kameena hamsaaya-e-khuda hai (In the shadow of a mosque, he has made his home/This rascal is now a neighbour of god).

When Ghalib died in 1869, only two Delhi legends of the era remained: the exiled emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and Daagh Dehlvi. The city itself was a shadow of its former flamboyant self and its rulers were in no mood for humour.