History, Music

The Lonely Mughal


As a subject in high school, History was a seemingly limitless study of various dynasties of yore.  The lessons focussed largely on dates of events, conquests, administrative reforms and either largesses or depredations of the ruler in question.  The Mughal dynasty, given its prominence, spanned a few chapters.  Akbar enjoyed the lion’s share followed by Babur and Aurangzeb.  A footnote to the chapter was Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last emperor who was exiled by the British to Rangoon and died in anonymity there.  Zafar was not the conqueror that Akbar was.  Neither was he a builder like Shah Jahan.  Nor was he a fundamentalist zealot in the mold of Aurangzeb.  He was a poet, caught in a vortex of historical events beyond his control that ultimately led to his downfall.

Zafar ascended the throne at the age of 61, taking over a Mughal empire that was a mere shell of its former glory.  He was by all accounts a Sufi mystic more interested in poetry than in statesmanship.  In fact, his court was home to the celebrated Urdu poets, Zauq and Ghalib.  William Dalrymple’s “The Last Mughal” is an exhaustively researched compendium that chronicles the last few days of the rule and life of Zafar and his intersection with the Indian Mutiny of 1857.  Zafar, at the age of 82, threw in his lot with the mutineers and when the mutiny was quelled, he was tried for treason by the East India Company and exiled to Rangoon.  

I had heard the Mohammed Rafi sung  “Na kisi ka aankh ka noor hoon” on our radio when I was growing up.  This melancholic song has a haunting melody but I never quite understood the lyrics.   The song is from the movie “Lal Qila” (Red Fort) and is filmed on the historical character of Bahadur Shah Zafar.  Given Zafar’s reputation as a poet, I had always assumed that the song was composed by him.  About a year ago,  I came across videos of a singer called Anil Bajpai who does a remarkable job of covering Rafi’s songs.  While looking through his videos on YouTube, I came across his version of this song.  This led me to search the web for the meaning of the lyrics.

I was surprised to find that the song was not penned by Zafar but by the poet – Muztar Khairabadi.  Muztar Khairabadi is incidentally the grandfather of the contemporary poet and lyricist – Javed Akthar.  I found a translation of this Urdu poem by Philip Nikolayev, a Russian student of Urdu poetry. It is hard to capture the beauty of the original poem in a translation but this version does capture the loneliness, helplessness and the lost sense of the grandeur of the deposed scion of the great Mughal dynasty.

Postage stamp issued by India in 1975 to commemorate the bicentenary of Zafar’s birth (source: stampsathi.in)

The poet who presided over a court that boasted of men of letters was denied paper and ink by his British jailors.  He is said to have written his last poems with charcoal on the walls of his cell.  He was buried in an unmarked grave, forgotten for over a century.  The grave was unearthed and identified in 1991 and is now a shrine of sorts for Muslims in what is now Yangon.  The Mughal whose empire was small but still wealthy lived his last few years in 4 rooms, each measuring 16 sq feet, along with a few members of his family.  In his book, Dalrymple quotes the British officer in charge of security arrangements as noting that it cost Rs 11 a day to take care of the prisoners and that the prices of provisions were steadily rising.  Surely, a drain on the British empire!  Prior to their exile, Zafar’s queen was dispossessed of her private jewels worth Rs 2,000,000!  Zafar died at the age of 87 and was hastily buried by his captors.  HIs last poem ends with the following words:

How unfortunate is Zafar! For his burial
Not even two yards of land were to be had, in the land of his beloved

There can be only one Mohammed Rafi but I do like Anil Bajpai’s version.  He has sung this song beautifully.  Here then is his version of the song and the translation by Philip Nikolayev.

Not the light of any one’s eyes,
Nor the solace for any one’s heart
Of no use to anyone,
I am that one fistful of dust.

I am not the song infusing life,
Why would anyone want to hear me
I am the sound of separation,
I am the wail of much distress.

My complexion and beauty is ravaged,
My beloved is parted from me
The garden that got ruined in autumn,
I am the crop of its spring.

I am neither anyone’s friend,
Nor am I anyone’s rival
The one that is ruined, I am that fate
The one that is destroyed, that land.

Why should anyone come to sing a requiem
Why should anyone come to offer four flowers
Why should anyone come to light a candle
I am the tomb of that destitution.


The featured image of Bahadur Shah Zafar is from wikimedia.conmons

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