Nazir Akbarabadi: A People’s Poet of the Eighteenth Century

Najma Rehmani

Nazir Akbarabadi, a people’s poet of the classical period, did not get the recognition that he deserved only because he did not conform to the orthodox norms of ‘high’ poetry. Instead of restricting himself to the values and forms of a self-indulgent feudal elite, he wrote about the life and cultural traditions of the common people. This extraordinary Urdu poet was born in Delhi in the politically turbulent period of the 18th century. Mughul rule was in the last throes of its existence and was constantly under attack from internal and external forces. Since Delhi was the main target of these assaults, Nazir was obliged at a young age to move to Agra where he spent the rest of his life. He was witness to the plunder and devastation of Delhi as well as of Agra. Evils arising out of a condition of continuous conflict, large-scale massacres, plunder, and widespread unemployment became an integral part of his experience. This political and economic background also formed a major inspiration of his poetry and manifests itself in it in various ways

Nazir was not a political thinker. Nor was he a social reformer. He was at heart a sensitive and fair-minded social being who was able to mingle freely with people of different classes and creeds and share with them their sorrows and pleasures. That is why his poetry is concerned more with love for humanity than with politics. His heart beats for the common people. Nazir recognizes that food constitutes the basic necessity of the common man for which one is obliged to do various things and take on different roles. Every activity and business in the world is for food. Therefore, food, like poverty itself, becomes a subject for Nazir’s poetry. From the ideological point of view, Nazir was not a revolutionary. Nor did he have any direct connections with the oppressed sections of society. But as a sensitive person and poet, he could not ignore the pain of poverty and deprivation that he witnessed all around him. However, in writing about the wretched sections, he did not resort to sentimentalism. Instead, he portrayed their true condition with tasteful humour and subtle wit. He comes across as a conscious artist and a lively person – one who knows the art of representing pain with a smile and wit:

An eyeless fakir was once asked:
Of what stuff are the moon and stars
The fakir smiled and shook his head:
God bless you, sir, the answer is only bread.

For, the poor know no planets, no stars
The thought of food our vision mars
When the belly is empty, nothing feels good
No taste for pleasure, only a craving for some food.

To fill one’s stomach, one can do anything. Even what is usually described as a soldier’s patriotic and heroic self-sacrifice on the battlefield is actually undertaken for livelihood. For, the honours and medals that the soldier receives in return for his heroism leads to more money in his pocket to enable him to buy food and other necessities for himself and his family. Nazir shows an astute awareness of this truth in his poetry

It was natural for such critical social awareness to emerge in an oppressive environment fraught with economic disparities and inequities. The contradiction between class discrimination and humane values was felt by Nazir with great intensity. In his poem on poverty, he says that in a class society only the words of the rich carry weight and command respect while the words, the suffering, and dignity of the poor are treated with indifference and scorn.

We tend to put great value on spirituality, religion and piety. But the fact is that one’s ability to find time to meditate over spiritual matters or to pray depends largely on one’s material circumstances. One cannot honestly concentrate on religion and worship on an empty stomach. Since antiquity, scholars have wondered about the origin and sources of the curses of begging, stealing, and prostitution. Nazir offers a simple answer to this question: hunger can make a person do anything. A hungry person does not differentiate between good and bad. For him right and wrong, legitimate and illegitimate have no meaning. Everything, religious devotion and life’s enjoyment, revolves around food. Nazir’s poem, Roti Nama, highlights this fundamental reality of human existence.

With the belly empty nothing feels good
No fun, no frolic, no joy without food
The hungry can’t commune with god
There is no worship if there’s no food.

In short, Nazir regards economic inequality to be at the heart of an oppressive, class-divided society. This awareness on his part is particularly significant in the context of modern, particularly Marxist, economic thought. For, there was no philosophical tradition of this kind in Nazir’s own time. It was his sensitive mind and humane disposition which allowed him to identify with the misery and sufferings of the downtrodden sections and to articulate their pain in his poetry.

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