Courting the Muse in Aligarh: Glimpses of campus literary activities in the 1980


Aligarh Muslim University had always been a magnet for Urdu writers and poets. The list of litterateurs who had either studied at Aligarh or were connected with it, even if they were not formally associated with the university but became an integral part of the cultural life revolving around the university,  is a long one. Collectively, all the Urdu litterateurs could in some sense be called the ‘Aligarh group’ except that there was nothing uniquely Aligarian in the sense of an idiom or style which they developed or followed. In other words there doesn’t seem to a suggestion of an ‘Aligarh school’.

Of all the big names in this group, none used the name Aligarh in their takhaluz (nom de plume). Majaz Lucknowi, Shakeel Badyuni, Jigar Moradabadi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, and others such as Jazbi, Janisar Akhtar, Akhtar-ul-Iman, Ali Sardar Jafri, etc, while all were closely associated with Aligarh, none adopted ‘Aligarhi’.

Interestingly, in Pakistan, I am told one comes across Urdu poets who use ‘Aligarhi’ as their takhaluz. Very strange.

Many of the Aligarh poets and writers viz. Jan Nisar Akhtar, Akhtar Ul Inman, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sheheryar, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Ismat Chugtai, Muzaffar Ali, Rahi Masoom Raza etc joined the film industry, which lent them a halo. The list becomes even more impressive if we include the name of the Hindi poet Neeraj, who wrote some wonderful lyrics for films and spent most of his life in Aligarh town.

In our times, while many of the stalwarts of the Urdu department such as Ale Ahmed Suroor, Jazbi, Khursheed Ul Islam, Qazi Abdul Sattar etc had retired, some of them could be encountered at functions in the campus, chiefly mushaiyras or public poetry reading sessions, which were organized in a large teaching hall in the Arts faculty, especially the one to celebrate Independence day.

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The atmosphere at these functions was invigorating. An interesting feature of these gatherings, strongly reminiscent of a scene of the Aligarh mushaiyra in the Bollywood classic of yester years, the Rajinder Kumar and Sadhana starrer ‘Mere Mehboob’, was the contingent of attendees which inevitably arrived from the women’s college. All these ladies sat together as a group among the audience. With pens and note books in hand, they were ready to scribble any good sher that was recited.

On numerous occasions one got a chance to hear well known poets, both resident and visitors.

I remember when Majrooh Sultanpuri, the famous lyricist visited Aligarh, he drank tea in enormous quantities (probably as a compensation for something he was forced to give up on doctors advise). Throughout the function he drank over 6 cups of tea which a flunky, standing at his elbow near the stage, kept replenishing.

Ahmed Faraz, the famous Pakistani poet, was a big hit when he visited Aligarh. Everyone in the packed hall requested him to recite the lines from his famous poem that was on everyone’s lips. Initially, he hesitated saying that it was an old poem and he wanted to recite his new kalam. But the crowd was unrelenting. Finally, he got up and in his impressive voice, thundered

ab ke ham bichhe to shāyad kabhī hvāboñ meñ mileñ

jis tarah sūkhe hue phuul kitāboñ meñ mileñ

The whole hall swooned, burst into raptures and claps.

In contrast to the sober and staid literary events of the Arts faculty, there were mushaiyras and qawallis held in the city too. In these loud, boisterous events the audience was supreme and the poets played to the gallery.  Not surprisingly, some members of the elitist Urdu department sniffed at such gatherings. But at the district level mushaiyras one got to hear the popular Urdu poets, such as Nida Fazli, Waseem Barelvi, Bashir Badr and others.

Soon after joining Aligarh as a student in the Pre-university course or PUC in 1978.  I discovered that at the undergraduate level one had to take compulsory courses in Urdu, Hindi and Theology (history of modern civilization in the case of non-Muslim students) alongside your core subjects.  Most people choose advanced Hindi with elementary Urdu. However, thinking that this offered a great opportunity to learn Urdu literature properly by studying it in the class room (and since I thought my Hindi was pretty good anyway), I opted for the advanced Urdu combination.

I paid a price for it. The advanced Urdu course turned out to be something more than I could chew. I failed in one of the papers and my transition into the next semester was withheld till I had passed that paper by appearing in a supplementary (repeat) exam.

As far as the classes were concerned I must say I enjoyed them immensely. I think there were some pretty good teachers too. Prof Ather Pervez and (then) a young lecturer called Khursheed Alam, among them.

The course itself, spread over four semesters, had representative selections of poetry and prose; Extracts from ‘Khutoot-e-Ghalib’ (Letters of Ghalib), passages from well known writers such as Sir Syed, Maulvi Abdul Haq (his memorable piece on Ram deo Mali, the gardener), Altaf Husain Hali’s piece on Sir Syed  (extracted from Hayat-e-Javed) and how he accomplished the risky field work for Asar-us Sanadid —the treatise which Sir Syed wrote on the monuments of Delhi. It had a description of all manner of dangerous things which Sir Syed did while researching for his book, such as hanging in a basket atop the Qutub Minar, in his attempts to copy the verses inscribed on the walls.  There were also representative selections from Aligarh/nationalist school—Rasheed Ahmed Siddiqi, Zakir Hussain, Maulana Azad etc.

All through this period, listening to and reading excellent poetry, I was forever waiting for a visit by the muse, which seemed to elude me. But at that time I was also grappling with rather fundamental issue.

The only language which I could read and write with some proficiency was English. Harboring ambitions about becoming a full time poet, I was constantly troubled with a dilemma—which language to write in? Urdu/Hindi/Hindustani or English? While all my thought processes were in Hindustani, not being very proficient in its written form, I was unable to write in it.

I began to develop an academic sort of an interest in the phenomena called ‘Indian-English writing’. My first port of call was (late) Professor Zahida Zaidi (in the English Department. Though her specialization was drama (See Naseeruddin Shah’s autobiography ‘and then one day’ (, which has a mention of Prof. Zaidi) she was also interested in Indian English poetry and had written many scholarly articles on the subject.

During the 1980’s—a long time before the internet, mobile telephony and social media erupted, there were literary and poetry magazines mushrooming from everywhere.



Even regular magazines occasionally brought out issues devoted to poetry. For instance, Youth Times magazine, a Times of India publication edited by Anees Jung, had brought out a special issue on ‘Poetry of Love’. Its cover had a beautiful girl sitting with her back resting against a tree trunk. With her head tilted she was looking at the camera, with deep, sensuous eyes and a suggestion of a smile.

I remember that issue carried poems by all the leading Indian English poets of the day. One essay began with a quote from Pablo Neruda’s famous poem, ‘Tonight I can write the saddest lines’. There were write ups about the love life of famous film personalities, such as Kaifi Azmi and Shaukat and the much talked about relationship between the Urdu poet Sahir Ludhyanvi and the Punjabi writer Amrita Pritam.

At a time when I was getting interested in Indian English poetry, I learnt about a person who actually published and edited a magazine devoted to English poetry. He was Baldev Mirza who brought out a magazine called ‘Skylark’.

Baldev’s actual name was Baldev Singh. An ex-student of AMU, from where he had done his MA in English Literature in the 1950’s, he lived in the Aligarh city, helping some of his family members in running a school for children. In his spare time (which I think he had in plenty) Baldev devoted to bringing out Skylark, at his own expense, with occasional financial help from family, friends, well wishers and a nominally priced subscription. The slim magazine, with beautiful art work had an interesting logo—a man sitting on the ground pushing the keys of a typewriter.

A Partition displaced Punjabi, Baldev was a representative of the composite culture of Punjab and had adopted Mirza as his nom de plume. During his student days at AMU he had established quite a reputation as a singer of ghazals and light classical music but his abiding interest was in Indian English Poetry and therefore as far as it concerned me, he was the man to meet. So, one day, accompanied by my friend Tejvir I dropped in at his house which was a 1950’s vintage building on the G T Road, not far from the exhibition ground.

We met in his study, a simple room, without any frills or decorations, lined with a number of book shelves, a simple table with a cloth cover. On the table sat a portable type writer and sheets of printed papers and books, kept under paper weights. The room had a single window facing the poet’s chair, which looked towards a small garden lined with ornamental and medicinal plants growing in all manner of containers, including some in empty Dalda Ghee canisters. An interesting conversation ensued as he proceeded to talk about his experiences in bringing out Skylark and about his own poetry.

He saw some of my poems and said, almost in a manner of sighing, ‘young people always write lyrical poetry’.

After this initial meeting, my visits to his house became a regular event and every month or so I would drop by for having discussions on poetry. Alas, he is no more. I read while surfing the internet that he passed away some years ago.


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