How a royal wedding erupted into an epic battle of wits - Ghalib and the court poet

#1 Dec 28th, 2017, 22:05
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The sehra, or prothalamion, (song to celebrate a wedding) is now a vanishing genre. I remember while I was growing up that almost all nikahs would have a sehra read by a relative with poetic aspirations, after the ceremony.

Though sehras are supposed to be in praise of the groom and a prayer for his wedded life, these would be witty and laudatory at the same time, usually a humorous dig at all relatives. A copy of this would then be distributed to the wedding guests.

Sehras fall into the category of nazms and have to be in meter.

The most famous sehra, of course, is the one penned by Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) for a royal wedding, in which he took a dig at the emperor's Ustad, Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq (1788/9-1854).

Zauq and Ghalib were contemporaries in Delhi, and their rivalry was legendary. Zauq had been given the title of Khaqani e Hind and drew a nominal salary of Rs 4 per month. The respect and position that he gained as a result was immense. It also gave him free access to the Qila e Moalla (Red Fort).

This was a constant thorn in the side of Mirza Ghalib, who felt he was better and deserved a royal position too. Thus, he never let go of any chance to score poetic points over his rival.

One such chance came at the last grand Mughal wedding, on April 2, 1852 - that of Jawan Bakht, Badshah Bahadur Shah Zafar's son by his favourite and youngest wife Zeenat Mahal, to Nawab Shah Zamani Begum.

Begum Zeenat Mahal asked Ghalib to write a 'sehra' for her son's wedding. The honour should have gone to Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq, but he was reportedly unwell.

William Dalrymple in his book The Last Mughal writes: "The marriage procession of Prince Jawan Bakht left the Lahore Gate of the Red Fort at 2 am on the hot summer night of 2 April, 1852."

Dalrymple goes on to write that what was remembered longest and discussed most about the wedding was not so much the festivities or the feasting or the fireworks, but "the marriage odes recited by the Poet Laureate Zauq, and his rival Mirza Nausha, now more widely known by his pen-name Ghalib."

Ghalib wrote a 'sehra' whose maqta (the last couplet in an Urdu ghazal which contains the poet's pen name) was:

'hum sukhan_fahm hain, Ghalib ke tarafdaar nahin
dekhen keh de koi is sehre se barh kar sehra'

We are connoisseurs of poetry, not partial to Ghalib

Let's see if there's anyone who can write a better 'sehra'

The emperor, realising that this was a dig at his mentor Zauq, is said to have been displeased with the maqta. A slight to his mentor was seen as a slight to the emperor himself. Zafar asked Zauq to write a 'sehra' too. Not one to let go of an opportunity, Zauq included these line.

jin ko daawa ho sukhan ka yeh sunaa do unko
dekh is taraH se kehte hain sukhanwar sehra

Tell those who claim to be eloquent

This is how poets write a sehra

The fort reverberated with this clash of titans and it is recorded that the Crown Prince Mirza Fakhruddin (also a disciple of Mirza Zauq) exclaimed, "Ustaad ne maidan maar liya".Dalrymple writes: "The squabble at the wedding was over a single verse in Ghalib's sehra (or wedding oration) where he appeared - characteristically - to suggest that no one in the gathering could write a couplet as well as he…. Zafar [the king] also encouraged Zauq to reply to Ghalib's unprovoked sally. The fine sehra that the Poet Laureate came up with ended with a couplet tossing the challenge back to Ghalib:
#2 Dec 10th, 2018, 18:31
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