The Sun that Rose From the Earth

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s The Sun That Rose From the Earth: Insights into the world of Urdu poetry in the Late Mughal Era

By Kabir Altaf

South Asians continue to be fascinated by the Mughal period.  Whether one sees this period as the origin of North India’s high culture (the view of most Pakistanis and partisans of the Islamicate culture) or as hundreds of years of slavery under the Muslims (the view of the Hindu Right), it is clear that the Mughals remain central to India’s history and to the country’s conception of itself.   This period was also the time when there was a great flourishing of the arts, including music and poetry. For example, it was during the reign of Muhammad Shah “Rangila” (r. 1719-1748) that khayal gaiyki—presently the main style of classical vocal music in North India—was developed. Some scholars also state that it was in Muhammad Shah’s time that Urdu replaced Persian as the language of the Mughal court.   What is without question is that the 18th and 19th centuries were when Urdu poetry reached its heights and when the works of authors such as Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810) and Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) were created.

It is the lives and works of these poets which forms the core of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s collection of novellas, The Sun That Rose From The Earth—the author’s own translation into English of his Urdu work Savaar aur Doosre Afsane.  The three major stories–“Bright Star, Lone Splendour”, “In Such Meetings and Partings, Ultimately” and “The Sun That Rose from the Earth”—are about Ghalib, Mir, and Mushafi respectively.  Faruqi is known as the “grand old man of Urdu literature” and received the Padma Shri from the Government of India in 2009.  His novellas reflect his vast knowledge of Urdu poetry and the culture that produced it.

“In Such Meetings and Partings, Ultimately” is one the longest stories in the book and revolves around Mir Taqi Mir’s romance with Nurus Saadat, a courtesan from Isfahan.  The title comes from one of Mir’s verses from his first divan (1752), which Faruqi translates as follows: “In such meetings and partings, ultimately/ Lives are lost. There is no end to Love/And Beauty never relents.” The story ranges from Armenia—where Nurus Saadat’s mother, Labiba Khanam, is orphaned and becomes a courtesan, to Isfahan, and finally to Delhi, where Mir meets Nurus Saadat.  Since she is a courtesan and is contracted to another, her meetings with Mir must remain secret.  She is also dying of consumption and eventually she pushes Mir away so that he will not have to deal with the grief of her death.

Faruqi is a master at physical description and at describing people’s clothes (which reveals his immense knowledge about the cultural details of the period). Here is his introduction of Mir: “He was twenty-two, twenty-three years of age, tall but slim. His wrists were strong and broad, his eyes, red with sleeplessness—or was it drink?—were still commanding, full of character, though it could be seen that they could twinkle with humour when the occasion demanded. His beard was not long or dense…”  This physical description is followed by a paragraph on Mir’s clothes, which begins: “He had a short, light, full-sleeved tunic on his upper body. It was called nima, or angarkha, depending on the style. The nima was worn waistcoat fashion. The fabric was woolen, russet coloured. It was called banat, but it was not of the best quality and its russet was now fading somewhat. Under the nima he wore a long woolen tunic. His trousers were of Aurangabadi mashru…” (Faruqi 250).  Though such long descriptions tend to slow down the narrative pace, they are invaluable for giving one a sense of the period.

Another noteworthy aspect that Faruqi gets across is that it was not only Muslims who were involved in the creation of Urdu poetry.   One of Mir’s close friends is Rai Kishan Chand Ikhlas, an Urdu poet in his own right.  Similarly, the narrator of the story about Mushafi is Darbari Mal Vafa, whose father, Kanji Mal Saba, was a Persian poet and a student of Mushafi’s. The fact that Hindus are shown as being involved in the creation of Urdu and Persian poetry gives the lie to the modern Hindutva version of history that the religious majority was deeply oppressed under “Muslim” (really Mughal) rule.  Faruqi’s book is thus an essential corrective to the revisionist myths of today’s India.

The book is filled with Persian and Urdu verses, though these suffer from being sometimes awkwardly translated into English.  However, this is my limitation as a reviewer of being unable to fluently read the Urdu version of Faruqi’s book. Probably, the verses would have more power there. In the English version, they sometimes get in the way of advancing the plot.

Overall, The Sun That Rose From The Earth provides a fascinating look at Delhi at the beginning of the long Mughal decline. It is a must-read for those with an interest in Urdu poetry and culture.

Kabir Altaf received a B.A. in Dramatic Literature from George Washington University. He has studied Hindustani Classical Vocal and is currently teaching Music History at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

16 thoughts on “The Sun that Rose From the Earth”

  1. Thanks Zach for publishing my piece.

    On a slightly related theme, some students from the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad have made a hip-hop video to get Indians to stop hating the Mughals (something that we at BP are always trying to do). Enjoy:

    It’s slightly tongue-in-cheek I think, but the refrain is cute: “Masjid, Mazaar and the beauty of Minar/ They gave us all that makes us a class apart”.

    1. To be honest I don’t think India hates the Mughals; for instance Akbar is considered to be a very good king.

      1. Well, it was referenced in the linked article that some states are trying to erase or minimize the Mughals from their textbooks (I think Maharashtra was mentioned, but I don’t recall exactly). A few years ago “Aurangzeb Road” in Delhi was re-named which caused a big debate.

        You are right Akbar is generally thought of positively (probably in proportion to the fact that he was not a particularly Orthodox Muslim). Aurangzeb is hated (whether fairly or unfairly is a separate debate).

        Honestly, I think it’s all part of history. One doesn’t have to love the Mughals but one should be able to dispassionately appreciate what they did for India’s culture (cue the comments about temple destruction from the usual suspects).

  2. You exaggerate the good that Mughals did for India. It might be time to question your own biases, maybe?

    1. @Satya: Thanks for raising a pertinent point. It is also important to ask, did Mughals like India and Indians, except as real estate and source of taxes to support their extravagant life style? With Akbar as a worthy exception.

      1. “Did the Mughals like India and Indians”– Why do the Mughals not qualify as Indian (Unless you are on the Hindu Right in which case there is no arguing with you)?

        Jahangir’s mother was a Rajput (the daughter of Raja Bihari Mal of Amber). So Jahangir was at least half Indian–even if Indian only means “Hindu”. His descendants also obviously had some Indian genetic stock.

    2. I am clear about my own position. I absolutely love the Mughals. I see them as the origin of North India’s high culture. Khayal gaiyki, Kathak dance–all of this is part of the Islamicate high culture. Not to mention India’s most famous tourist site–the Taj Mahal– and the Lal Qila and Qutub Minar. Even simple daily things like biryani and gulub jamun are of Mughal origin (see the linked video above). Urdu arguably wouldn’t have existed without them either, given that it was known as “Zubaan-e-Urdu-e-Maulla”.

      As I said in the opening paragraph of my essay, Indians either love the Mughals or hate them. But even the Hindu Right finds the Mughals essential to argue against (hence they are still central to the self-conception). After all without the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals there would be no “thousand years of slavery under the Muslims” to use to gin up Hindu votes and create Islamophobia.

      Say what you will about the Mughals, no one is indifferent to them.

  3. I would like to listen to all these songs with musical accompaniment. Where can I hear them? The stories you describe are secular. Were there also stories and songs with spiritual connections? Stories and songs that exulted Sufi and Shia themes?

    Before khayal gaiyki, what were the most popular types of Hindustani music and how did they sound like? Today Kabir, Sufi and Shia songs are sung in modern hindustani styles. How did they sound when they were sung in the 1600s AD?

    The Hindutvva scholars are more nuanced than they are given credit for. They were in the Dara Shikoh/Jahanara Begum fan club that got overrun by the Islamist Aurangzeb shippers.

    I think that the world would be immeasurably better off today had Dara Shikoh and Jahanara Begum defeated Aurangzeb.

    I have many Sufi books, but have not read Jahanara Begum’s biography of Moinuddin Chishti–who brought the Chishtiyah order in India–named Mu’nis al-Arwāḥ, or Jahanara Begum’s biography of Mullah Shah, titled Risālah-i Ṣāḥibīyah. I very much look forward to reading them. Could anyone else who has read these books comment on them?

    1. Medhi Hassan has sung some of the ghazals of Mir Taqi Mir. See here:

      Faruqi Sahab’s novellas in this collection are all secular, they are focused on poets and poetry. He didn’t really delve into any spiritual themes.

      Before the development of Khayal, the main type of Hindustani Classical music was dhrupad. This is what Miyan Tansen sang at Akbar’s court. Today’s exponents of dhrupad include the Dagar brothers and the Gundecha Brothers:

      The Sufis developed Qawwali around the 13th century. I would imagine that Bhagat Kabir’s dohas were sung in more of a folk style or like bhajans. Certainly, he wasn’t singing dhrupad or khayal.

      Hindustani music is endlessly fascinating, with genres like thumri, dadra, kajri that I haven’t even touched on here. Maybe I’ll do an article on its history.

  4. As promised, my thoughts on the review.

    I did not know about the Shams ur Rahman Faruqi sahib’s book, so it was indeed educative for me. And I’m always fascinated by (and ignorant about) Indian classical music, so the development of Khayal (out of Dhrupad) in Muhammad Shah “Rangila”‘s court is indeed informative. My go-to resource in all things Indian Classical Music is my wife (and my in-laws) who are far more musically acquainted (and accomplished). So, a great point for discussion 🙂

    The 18th century was a period of great cultural and political tumult in India. Rangila was a major patron of the arts, but at terrible political expense – the Sayyed brothers were real power-brokers in Delhi at the time and Rangila was little more than an effete Bohemian playboy. I recall a major exhibition of Moghal era art at the British Library some years ago, wherein every single painting of Rangila had him trying one position after another from the Kamasutra in his extensive harem. The irreversible decline that had set in finally resulted in Nader Shah’s brutal sack of old Delhi and a massacre of its citizenry.

    I think your view here is a little too dichotomous (and too simplistic):

    Whether one sees this period as the origin of North India’s high culture (the view of most Pakistanis and partisans of the Islamicate culture) or as hundreds of years of slavery under the Muslims (the view of the Hindu Right), it is clear that the Mughals remain central to India’s history and to the country’s conception of itself.

    Moghals, of course, were sometimes neither of those two views and often both. One has to realize that medieval India was a deeply stratified society, with little or no concept of nationhood. In fact, the statement that Moghals ruled North India itself can be questioned somewhat, as one has to understand the mechanism by which their power trickled through to the hinterland (where most Indians lived). What was the rate of dilution of Moghal power and culture down the chain from the Emperor to the most typical of his subjects (often a rural farmer or farmhand)? Was there any concept of the Rule of Law – even in the Emperor’s dealing with his feudals (mansabdars) and landed-gentry – let alone the commoners (e.g. akin to the Magna Carta in Norman England)? How was taxation levied? Was there any social responsibility or public welfare of any kind, e.g. in droughts or floods or epidemics?

    The Moghal period was one of interminable cruelty for a vast majority of its citizens. In part, this cruelty was the sign of the (medieval) times, but in part it was especially worse than in other contemporary societies, say of England or Spain. And most Muslims of the Indian subcontinent were always slaves in the Moghal period, often under other Muslims. There’s nothing special about Indian Muslims in this regard, as Iranian Muslims were slaves under Muslim Kings and so were Egyptian Muslims etc.

    Moghal culture is a product of its super-rich elite characterised by excess wealth squeezed out of a large toiling underclass. Yet they produced something of great objective value and beauty that should not be tainted by their terribly low morals. Nonetheless, one mustn’t ever forget what Moghals were like, for theirs was a tyranny that no self-respecting Indian ought to ever wish on her/his countrymen.

    By the way, this has nothing to do with what religion they professed (even though Islam was used by them as a means to consolidate power). They hobnobbed with Indian Rajputs and Rais and Raizadas just as easily. Partied during Holi and had banquets during Diwali, all the while squeezing resources out of a vast underclass beneath them.

    So while we celebrate Mir and Ghalib (as we should), we shouldn’t lose sight of who put the food on their tables and carried their shit.

    1. Thanks Slapstik for your comment. Your knowledgeable and historically informed views are always appreciated 🙂

      Poor Muhammad Shah gets a bad rap. I was reading an article by Aakar Patel about Sadarang in which he mentions that the Pakistani scholar Daud Rahbar called Rangila the “Nero of Islam”. He goes on to say:
      “In his Fall of the Mughal Empire, Jadunath Sarkar has two pages on Muhammad Shah’s character. He lists with dislike the emperor’s fondness for hunting, dope and womanizing, but has no words, even of disdain, on his sustained and enthusiastic patronage of music.” Surely hunting and womanizing was not all Muhammad Shah was doing. Granted, this is the period of the empire’s decline, so it is objectively fair to say that he wasn’t a really great king.

      I do agree that my initial framing was simplistic. But it was meant to get at the point that no one is indifferent to the Mughals. Their partisans (most people in Pakistan and some Indians) think that they gave rise to North India’s high culture. Their detractors think this was a period of “Hindu slavery”. But it is important to note that even if it can be characterized as “slavery” it was slavery under a particular dynasty not some generalized “Muslims”. That it is characterized in that way says more about the BJP’s Islamophobia than about history.

      As for their “partying it up with Raizadas”, they were half-Hindu themselves, even at the genetic level. I think Akbar was the last pure Turkic ruler. This is why the whole “Indic” people vs “Turkic” Mughals thing breaks down–at least in my opinion.

      I think we have to judge the Mughals by the standards of pre-modern monarchies. They were running an Empire not a democracy.

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