Dr Ali Khan Mahmudabad speaks to Rishita Roy Chowdhury about the roots of mushaira culture, and the role poetry has played in the shaping of the Muslim identity in India. 


Dr Ali Khan Mahmudabad is a historian, writer, poet and professor. He is a scholar of the social and cultural history of Islam and has had a deep engagement with Muslim communities living in South Asia and the Middle East. He teaches history and political science at Ashoka University, Haryana, and is the national spokesperson for the Samajwadi Party.

Mahmudabad has just finished his first book in the English language, entitled The Making of North Indian Muslim Identity: Poetry, Politics, and Religion 1850–1950. The soon to be published book delves into the significance of poetry in identity formation and expression, the history of the mushaira (poetic symposium), and what it means to be a Muslim in India.


Q. Why do you think there was a need today for a book such as you’ve written, about how poetry, politics and religion have shaped the Muslim identity in India?

A. One of the most pressing issues regarding Muslims across the world has to do with their relationship to the ummah or the global community of Muslims and their belonging to a particular country. Indeed, this question only became important during the period of imperialism and colonialism, because ideas of the nation travelled to various parts of the extra-European world. This set off a race in the mid to late 19thcentury to locate and define the nation—its roots, boundaries, definitive features and uniqueness. The subjugation by colonial and imperial powers also catalysed a quest for reconfiguring and at times radically altering existent modes of being and identification in order to try and catch up with Europe. My book looks at the period in which “national identities” and the nation state were still imperceptible points on the horizon. It therefore seeks to highlight how certain Muslims in North India were grappling with questions of belonging and also about how they were re-imagining their idea of India. I broadly argue that the advent of ideas to do with the modern “state” and nationalism catalysed changes that eventually made metaphysical conceptions of belonging impossible, and instead demanded a material demarcation of borders and identities, and that it was this which eventually precipitated into a politics that was inherently divisive and polarising.

Q. How has the culture of mushaira helped in developing Muslim identity?

A. The mushaira or poetic symposium was an important space which was co-opted by the British among others to try and bring about changes in what were seen as “hedonistic” literary tastes. The ghazal was identified with backwardness by the British and they encouraged the writing of poetry on “natural” subjects. For instance the Anjuman-e Punjab under the aegis of the Dr Leitner and Major Holroyd sponsored mushairas in 1874 in which they gave topics for the poets to engage with, including barkha rut and hubb-e watan or the rainy season and patriotism. It is important to state that the mushaira could be said to be an “Islamicate” space but was by no means a Muslim space. The development of a distinctly Muslim political identity was something that was the result of the new ideas that became widespread in the extra-European world and the mushaira was one part of a much larger “public sphere” which played a role in the articulation of certain aspects of this identity. It is not so much that the culture of the mushaira helped create or develop a Muslim identity as it did a cosmopolitan identity.

Q. Can you briefly chart the history of the mushaira for us? How did it develop over the years?

A. The mushaira is a distinct part of an Indo-Islamic culture that took root and grew in India. Although details of its precise origins cannot be identified, it developed as a formal space during Mughal times and it is mentioned in various tazkirahs or compendia of biographies of poets. The political decline of the Mughals was marked by a cultural effervescence, which is linked to the fact that sometimes communities and individuals tend to be at their most creative in times of decline and loss. This manifested itself in poetry and the mushaira up until this point was a technical workshop, where poets primarily addressed each other. Subsequently this closed circular space opened up towards the end of the 19th century and we have accounts of how the colonial authorities sought to use this space to bring about changes in the literary landscape of India. Part of this included the opening up of the mushaira to include an audience of non-poets, and some critics mark this moment as the point from which the standards of poetry began to gradually decline with tastes being determined by what was popular. Later on various kinds of mushairas were also constituted. For example tamseeli, or acted mushairas in which people would dress up as some of the great poets of bygone times and recite their poetry. There were also sarkari or nīm sarkari mushairas (official and demi-official) which were patronised by the government or officers. Immediately after Partition the Shankar-Shad mushairas sought to use poetry to try and build Indo-Pak ties. Today there are mushairas from Dallas to Dubai, and mushairas continue to be spaces which act as bridges not only between the past and present, but also between communities. Indeed they are an inextricable part of the culture that travels with South Asians wherever they go.

Q. How central a role has poetry played in the Indo-Islamic heritage, as explored in your book?

A. The Quran has a chapter called “The Poets”, in which God warns people of the power poets have to mislead them. Arguably this by itself is testament to the power of poetry. Poetry and the spoken word have been of crucial importance in various Islamic cultures and the ghazal as a poetic form, which predates Quranic revelation, has travelled and made a distinct mark in the literary traditions of various languages and people. In India, and I would argue in most other parts of the world, it is poetry that is perhaps the hallmark and testament to the genius of Islamic civilisation. Here Islamic should not be treated simply as a religious marker but more broadly as a civilisational set of symbols, tropes and themes that influenced and were influenced by the cultures they encountered. Thus an Indo-Islamic heritage developed that was highly influenced by its surroundings without, in my view, compromising the essence of Islam’s fundamental principles. In my book, I seek to highlight how certain voices used poetry as a medium through which to renegotiate and reconfigure aspects of their identities, identity itself being a relatively new concept in the modern sense, and I argue that they were able to address questions, such as that of ummah vs. nation, creatively and sensitively. The time period was one in which the formal nation-state did not exist and yet many of the questions that continue to animate political conversations today were not only answered but in many cases also resolved. Ultimately, for many of these people it was poetry that was the true site of philosophical questioning and debate.

Q. How did politics and religion in their turn influence the culture of mushaira?

A. It is a curious thing that I was unable to find any mushairas that were sponsored by the Muslim League apart from purely religious ones. In a way, poetry has always been subversive and the medium through which various dogmas have not only been questioned but have been shown to be limited. Religion in a much broader sense has of course had an indelible effect on the culture of the mushaira. But this has been more to do with metaphysical and mystical themes rather than a set of “dos and don’ts” as it were. In other words, the aesthetic aspects of sacred tradition cannot be separated from the culture of the mushaira and so it would be foolish to see it purely as a religious, anti-religious or as a secular space. Of course, like with everything else politics also pervaded and continues to pervade the culture of the mushaira. It was perhaps keeping this in mind that in pre-Independence India, the Congress Party, the Progressive Writers’ movement and even the colonial government patronised and tried to use the mushaira to disseminate their message.

Q. Do you think mushaira culture is vanishing from contemporary India?

A. Far from it, I think the mushaira and indeed the Urdu language is in the throes of a new awakening. Sanjiv Saraf’s Rekhta; Rana Safvi’s shair; Javed Akhtar’s poetry readings for Tata Sky; Sukhan, an effort of Marathi students to experiment and bring Urdu to wider non-Urdu speaking audiences; and many other such efforts are testament to the lasting power of Urdu, and indeed poetry continues to be crucial to political resistance.

Q. What were the challenges involved in researching and finally coming out with this book?

A. We live in a time when books, especially those about the period between 1850 and 1950, seek to provide large and broad arguments about how to understand the run-up to Partition. All I try and do is highlight how important public figures from across sectarian lines sought to address the political exigencies of the time and indeed how they, as individuals, resolved issues, often through poetry, issues we are still grappling with today. One difficulty had to do with making sure the book does not fall prey to the normative binaries that are so prevalent when looking at the politics of the time, while at the same time making sure that the rich complexity, not only of the works used but of the minds and personalities of the authors, came through.