There is a dilapidated gravestone in the bustling Yousufain Dargah, just a 10-minute walk from Hyderabad’s Nampally Metro Station. Thursday nights are particularly busy at this mausoleum of the city’s patron saints. It echoes with the music of qawwals — Sufi devotional singers — as crowds jostle for space on entering the domed edifice right after the evening prayers.
Not many in the crowds there would know that the largely unvisited grave is that of a prolific and much-feted Urdu poet who died in Hyderabad on March 17, 1905. Born in Delhi in 1831 to Nawab Mirza Shamsuddin Ahmed Khan and Wazir Khanum, Mirza Khan — as he was named — was known as Daagh Dehlvi: Daagh stood for grief or taint, while Dehlvi underlined that he was from Delhi.
After Daagh’s father was hanged by the British for his believed role in the assassination of a prominent British civil servant, his mother married the Mughal prince Mirza Muhammad Fakhroo, heir to Bahadur Shah Zafar. The regal relationship gave Daagh access to what was known as the epicentre of Urdu, the Red Fort.
Most Urdu connoisseurs believe Daagh was the last prominent poet of the Dabistan-e-Delhi genre — a broad category that adhered to a poetic style exclusive to the city. But not everybody agrees.
“In terms of the guidance he received from poet Mohammed Ibrahim Zauq and linguistic finesse that the Red Fort attuned him to, Daagh can be considered a Dabistan-e-Delhi figure,” says Naseemudin Farees, head of the Urdu department at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. “However, his actual penmanship contains major influences from poets such as [Qalandar Bakhsh] Jurat who belong to Dabistan-e-Lucknow,” he adds.
Whatever school he belonged to, what endears Daagh to poetry lovers is his pleasantly simple language. Though steeped in the rigid Persian-influenced literary traditions of North India that lent Urdu its elite character, his poetry rarely prompts readers to consult a dictionary. The words are so lucid that novice Urdu enthusiast and California-based techie Karthikeyan Madathil teases his teetotaller friends with these famous Daagh lines.
“ Lutf-e-mai tujh se kya kahoon zaahid,
Hai kambakht tu ne pi hi nahin! ”
(What can I tell you about the joys of wine, oh priest? Especially when you, oh hapless one, haven’t tasted it.)
Daagh didn’t just believe in the simplicity of language, he also turned away from the literary elements that were integral to the Persian poetic traditions which Urdu ghazal adhered to. Urdu poetry often focuses on the aashiq (lover) and the mashooq (beloved). Daagh’s poetry, critics believe, was more real.
“The Urdu ghazal’s elements are very much derived from Persian. The beloved can either be a real figure or an imaginary one that might even be from another world. While the latter is much more prevalent [in poetry], Daagh’s beloved was a being of this world,” says Farees. Some critics believe that the realism in his poetry and the fact that he shunned chaste Persian were reasons why he was — and is — seldom bracketed with Urdu greats such as Ghalib and Mir, his predecessors.
Daagh led a peripatetic life. During the mid-1800s, as the British supplanted Urdu’s Perso-Arabic script and the Mughal empire, he took up a job as a civil servant in the court of the Nawab of Rampur. Following the Nawab’s death, Daagh returned to his birthplace — only to later move to cities such as Jaipur and Ajmer.
But when the Deccan region started absorbing the feudal and cultural vestiges of the crumbling Mughal empire, Daagh looked southwards. The sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mehboob Ali Khan, eventually appointed him as his tutor and poet laureate of his court. With the British linguistic influence eroding the role of Urdu poets in the north, Daagh flourished in the south. Archival records of the Asaf Jahi period chronicle the numerous titles that the Nizam bestowed upon him: He was called the Dabir-ul-Mulk, Fasih-ul-Mulk and Bulbul-e-Hindustan.
His tutelage didn’t just grace Deccani poets, but Dabistan-e-Punjab stalwarts, too. One of the promising apprentices was a Government College Lahore student named Muhammad Iqbal, who would later be addressed as Shayar-e-Mashriq (Poet of the East) and Allama. Iqbal commemorated his mentor with these lines:
“ Janaab-e-Daagh ki Iqbal yeh saari karamat hai,
Tere jaise to kar dala, sukhandaan bhi sukhanwar bhi .”
(You owe it to the miracle of Daagh, Oh Iqbal, that a worthless poet like you has become a master versifier.)
As the Yousufain mausoleum reverberates with music, the caretaker of the shrine laments the derelict state of another grave — that of Ameer Minai, further away from the mausoleum. Minai was a Lucknowi poet whom Daagh invited to Hyderabad, despite the fact that they were rivals in the world of poetry.
But that, the caretaker will tell you, was another age, when nothing mattered more that the poet’s love for Urdu.
“ Urdu hain jis ka naam, hum hi jaante hain Daagh ,” he recites, quoting the poet. “ Hindustan mein dhoom humari zabaan ki hain .”
(Daagh, we know, the language that has Urdu as its name. Celebrated across India is its fame.)
Daneesh Majid is a freelance writer based in Hyderabad