Diwali through the words of Nazeer Akbarabadi: Reminder that it's a festival of lights and colour, not a religious affair
Urdu poet Nazeer Akbarabadi wrote over a dozen poems on Diwali, with more couplets distributed over a range of poems. In these, he had written about toys and sweets and lights and colour forming an important part of the festivities
India has a rich tradition of amalgamation of various cultures and religions. For centuries, people from different religious beliefs have lived together while actively participating in each other's festive and religious activities.
But colonial policies after 1857 and the subsequent political rhetoric divided Indian society on religious lines. Costumes, food, language, festivals etc were all labelled as belonging to one religious group or the other.
The works of Nazeer Akbarabadi (1740-1830), an Urdu poet who lived at a time when the Mughal empire was witnessing a steep downfall and the British were taking over the country, can be used as an example to shed light on the rich composite culture of India during the 18th and early 19th centuries. The old social fabric was very much intact. Seemab Akbarabadi (1882-1951) has noted that in the times of Nazeer, Hindus and Muslims differed only in their methods of offering prayers, while people had one common culture. Festivals were deemed "cultural" rather than "religious", and hence Hindus and Muslims celebrated festivals together.
Nazeer has written several poems on what could be termed "Hindu festivals" in today's parlance. He has written more than a dozen poems on Holi, Diwali, Raksha Bandhan etc. In fact, he has written only three poems on "Muslim" festivals — one each on Id-ul-fitr, Id-ul-Azha and Shab-e-barat. One reason might be that Diwali and Holi are festivals that bring out more vibrant socio-cultural themes, while religious prayers and not human festivities are more central to Id or Shab-e-barat, where more than human festivities religious prayers are central. Whatever be the reason, it points towards the times when festivals were more cultural than religious.
Diwali, being one of the most celebrated festivals in north India, gets a special mention in his writings. He has, at least, two whole compositions dedicated to this festival, while many more couplets are distributed over a range of poems.
har ik makāñ meñ jalā phir diyā divālī kā
har ik taraf ko ujālā huā divālī kā
sabhī ke dil meñ samāñ bhā gayā divālī kā
kisī ke dil ko mazā ḳhush lagā dīvālī kā
ajab bahār kā hai din banā divālī kā
His poem Saman Diwali Ka is a magnificent example of him praising the joys of this festival. It's a beautiful description of the way people celebrated Diwali in the 18th Century. He describes the festival as the day when each house is illuminated with lamps, and each heart is full of joy and ecstasy, while surroundings bloom.
khilaune khiloñ batāshoñ kā garm hai bāzār
har ik dukāñ meñ charāġhoñ kī ho rahī hai bahār
Describing the scene of the market, he writes that the business of toys, khil (a kind of eatable made of roasted rice) and sweets are at their peak. Lamps are being traded with fervour.
miThā.iyoñ kī dukāneñ lagā ke halvā.ī
pukārte haiñ ki ''lā laa! divālī hai ā.ī''
batāshe le koī barfī kisī ne tulvā.ī
khilaune vāloñ kī in se ziyāda bin aa.ī
"Sweet shop owners call people to buy sweets, saying it's Diwali, and people respond by purchasing a variety of sweets. Toy shops are also selling their wares": Nazeer has painted a picture of Diwali where everybody is happily buying sweets and toys.
makān lep ke Thaliyā jo korī rakhavā.ī
jalā charāġh ko kauḌī vo jald jhankā.ī
"Homes are painted, utensils are cleaned, and lamps are lit": This is Nazeer's description of Diwali. He even celebrates gambling as an important part of this festival.
kisī ne ghar kī havelī giro rakhā haarī
jo kuchh thī jins mayassar banā banā haarī
kisī ne chiiz kisī kisī kī churā chhupā haarī
kisī ne gaThrī paḌosan kī apnī lā haarī
ye haar jiit kā charchā paḌā divālī kā
"Someone has lost his own house, while someone of the neighbour. Diwali is all about winning and losing the gamble."
jahāñ meñ ye jo dīvālī kī sair hotī hai
to zar se hotī hai aur zar baġhair hotī hai
jo haare un pe ḳharābī kī fair hotī hai
aur un meñ aan ke jin jin kī ḳhair hotī hai
to aaḌe aatā hai un ke diyā divālī kā
He further writes that the enjoyment of Diwali is owed to the money but without it also one can celebrate. "The one who loses the gamble is doomed and one who wins is happy but still lamp of Diwali keeps the joy of the festival intact for the losers too," he wrote.
ye bāteñ sach haiñ na jhuuT un ko jāniyo yāro!
nasīhateñ haiñ unheñ dil se māniyo yāro!
jahāñ ko jaao ye qissa bakhāniyo yāro!
jo jvārī ho na burā us kā māniyo yaaro
'nazīr' aap bhī hai jvāriyā dīvālī kā
He ends the poem saying one should not think ill of the gamblers on this day. "It's the day of festivities and the poet himself gambles on this day. For him, one should be advised against ills of gambling but festivities should not stop and Diwali is all about sweets, toys, lights and gambling," he wrote.
Nazeer also celebrated Diwali in another poem.
dosto kyā kyā divālī meñ nashāt-o-aish hai
sab muhayyā hai jo is hañgām ke shāyāñ hai shai
He writes that if provided with objects needed to celebrate, Diwali can bring out maximum ecstasy and joy. In this poem, he again talks about the market scenery, gambling, sweets, etc.. He equates the mood of this festival to that of spring, concluding the poem with the following couplet:
hai dasahre meñ bhī yuuñ gar farhat-o-zīnat 'nazīr'
par divālī bhī ajab pākīza-tar tyauhār hai
"While Dussehra is also full of pleasure and grace, Diwali is still an amazingly purer festival"
Nazeer did not look at festivals through religious eyes but from humane ones. Wherever he saw joy and festivity, he would participate and celebrate. Such is the soul of our composite culture, the real India of Indians, not of Hindus or Muslims.
The author is an independent socio-political commentator and historian
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