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The moon-cheeked poet and her forgotten legacy

Mallik Thatipalli | Updated on March 29, 2021

In rest: The quietude within the maqbara complex is in stark contrast to the din outside it   -  IMAGES: Mallik Thatipalli

Mah Laqa Bai, poet, dancer and advisor to the Nizams, made unmatched contributions to Hyderabad’s literature and architecture in the 18th and early 19th centuries

* In a densely packed street ... lies the grave of one of the most influential women of the Deccan region

* Mah Laqa Bai wrote poetry, mastered the difficult Deccani Kathak, trained courtesans at her mansion, and even played a part in the battlefield

* The grave faces the dargah of Maula Ali, the Sufi saint she revered

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“Where is the grave of Mah Laqa Bai?” I ask a couple of men sunning themselves on a Sunday morning. They look askance and Google Maps are not of much help in the Byzantine lanes of Maula Ali in Hyderabad. Our team of heritage walkers eventually locates the maqbara or grave of Mah Laqa Bai, an 18th-century poet, dancer, and political advisor to the Nizams, after a few hits and misses.

In a densely packed street just off the Maula Ali dargah, with homes arranged cheek by jowl, lies the grave of one of the most influential women of the Deccan region. Almost 200 years after her death, the city where she lived, composed poetry, built schools and stepwells, has all but forgotten her. A heritage walk organised by the Deccan Archive and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), Hyderabad, earlier this month was an attempt to re-introduce the poet to the city she loved and lived in.

Telling tales: The stucco work at the maqbara depicts traditional emblems of flowers and other motifs from nature which were popular in the Asaf Jahi period

 

A ceremonial gateway carved in teak leads to the maqbara complex which has an inner compound full of trees and adorned by tapered pillars and towering arches; the quietude within the complex is in stark contrast to the din outside its doors. The rippling leaves, the lush garden laid out in the famous Mughal Charbagh style and the gentle grace of the monument transport the visitor to a viridian world.

An accomplished life

Born Chanda Bibi in 1768 to Raj Kunwar Bai, a courtesan who migrated from Rajputana, the north-western region in modern India, Mah Laqa Bai received an aristocratic upbringing thanks to her stepsister who adopted her as a child. She received the best education is arts and aesthetics, and was trained in thumri by Khushhal Khan, a great-grandson of Tansen. She became one of the first women to compile her own Diwan (collection of ghazals) in 1798 and was a celebrated poet during the reigns of two Nizams — Mir Nizam Ali Khan and Sikandar Jah — of Hyderabad.

Mah Laqa Bai wrote poetry, mastered the difficult Deccani Kathak, trained courtesans at her mansion — Hassa Rang Mahal (a crumbling building which is now a government girls’ school), and even played a part in battlefield. Mah Laqa Bai (the moon-cheeked one), was her court name given in honour of her beauty in 1803, and Chanda is her takhallus or pen name by which she signed off her ghazals. All her surviving portraits have a crescent against her visage, a testimony to the title bestowed upon her.

Anuradha Reddy, convener, Intach, Hyderabad, first came across the story of the poet as a student in the 1960s when she chanced upon a stepwell built by her in the precincts of Osmania University which was formerly a part of Mah Laqa Bai’s jagir (the region allocated to her to collect revenue from).

Reddy observes that to Mah Laqa Bai’s credit, she used the opportunities she was given to optimum use. “Then, as it is now, women found it very difficult to establish themselves. Mah Laqa used the opportunities available to her, thanks to growing up in a milieu which was exposed to power, and brought herself up from any ordinary courtesan to a person of prestige,” says Reddy.

The period of Mah Laqa Bai’s life and that of her mother is a reflection of the inclusive nature of erstwhile communities. The fact that she was a courtesan did not take away from her contributions and the sheer respect she commanded during her lifetime. Mah Laqa Bai was one of the most influential women in Hyderabad’s long history.

The maqbara

On the death of her mother Raj Kunwar Bai in 1792, Mah Laqa Bai built a magnificent tomb in Maula Ali, at the foothills of the dargah, and was herself buried there in 1824. If the tomb of this legendary poet survives today, it is due to the efforts of Scott Kugle, professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies at Emory University in Atlanta.

In 2006, Kugle, who was studying Islamic religious monuments in Hyderabad, chanced upon the dilapidated tomb complex. By 2011, it was restored with grants from the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation and under supervision from the Centre for Deccan Studies.

Kugle tells BLink says that Mah Laqa Bai’s contribution to the city’s architecture and literature is unmatched by any other woman before the 20th century, with the possible exception of the Qutb Shahi queen Hayat Bakhshi Begum. “Mah Laqa Bai’s achievement is even more notable because she was not born into a royal family and never married to secure her social standing. What she achieved she earned by her own talent and ambition,” he says.

Mah Laqa Bai’s tomb is a simple structure in which she is buried alongside her mother. Situated on the foothills of the Maula Ali Dargah (the Sufi saint revered by Mah Laqa Bai), the graves face the dargah and the location is a continuation of a lifelong belief held by the poet that Ali was her protector and benefactor. Such was her devotion that the last couplet of almost every ghazal she wrote was addressed to Ali. In the Deccan, the dargahs of popular Sufis are preferred resting places for the mausoleums of the royalty and aristocracy.

The tomb with elements from Mughal and Rajasthani architecture has five structures within the complex. The pavilion, two dalans (halls), two stepwells and a mosque. The stucco work is decorative with traditional emblems of flowers and scenes from nature containing motifs which were popular in the Asaf Jahi period (18th-20th century) in Hyderabad.

Her poetry

Mah Laqa Bai wrote in the popular ghazal form, short lyrics used to describe love — both erotic and spiritual. The themes of her work ranged from the romantic to the mystic.

Classical singer Vidya Shah, who sang some of Mah Laqa Bai’s verses at an event to commemorate the restoration of Hyderabad’s British Residency in 2017, says that the language of her repertoire is rich and lyrical. “The fact that she might have sung the same songs 200 years ago at the very location, for the British Resident of Hyderabad, was surreal,” the acclaimed singer says.

Mah Laqa Bai’s poetry had many inflections and inspirations; she wrote and sang of spring, love and heartbreak. Her music was a reflection of her journey and bore the influences of the Rajputana (where her mother was from) and Deccan traditions. Her Diwan consisted of dohas (couplets) and verses which sound like the taranas — compositions where syllables are repeated — of Hindustani music, indicative of her training. Shah likens her work to that of Ghalib, and says that her poetry could easily be set to music. To place the 18th-century poet’s music in context, it is important to not write her off as a courtesan, believes Shah and quotes one of her ghazals.

Dil meñ mere phir ḳhayāl aatā hai aaj

koī dilbar be-misāl aatā hai aaj

(And the thought comes to mind again,

of that incomparable one, my lover.)

“Women in her position, were respected, included in society and have led to the making of the cultural history of our country. That is relevant in Mah Laqa Chanda’s context because when we talk about her greatness, let us also consider the fact that her greatness was also lodged in this identity (of her being a courtesan) and yet it was considered greatness,” observes Shah.

The legacy

In Hyderabad, barring the scholarly circles, information about Mah Laqa Bai is still scant. Her meticulously restored tomb has new constructions towering around it. A swanky new multi-storeyed building looms large over one of the dalans. With people living in the very street where her tomb is located unaware of its historic or architectural significance, protecting the maqbara is bound to be challenging.

Caught in the crossfire between conservation and development, the maqbara of Mah Laqa Bai battles the same uncertain future faced by many a heritage structure in the country. For now, Mah Laqa Bai’s beloved Ali is watching over her tomb from the hillock.

Mallik Thatipalli is a journalist based in Hyderabad

Published on March 29, 2021

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