From Mahmud of Ghazni's first raids, Muslims ruled over the Indo-Gangetic Plain for 8 centuries, ruling over millions of souls and presiding over a mixing pot of Hindu, Persian, Turkic, Arab, and Mongol cultures. Ghaznavid, Ghurid, Mamluk, and Mughal rulers left their imprint upon the subcontinent, but nowhere more than the jewel of the crown — the coveted tulip, the protected garden whose bazaars were so vibrant, kings so kingly, monuments so spectacular that even holy Mecca was said to be jealous of Delhi, the centre of the world. But the world created by a raid from Khurasan would be ended by the same, as the armies of Nader Shah would leave Delhi in 1739 bearing the Peacock Throne back to Persia. An Empire weakened from the heights of Augranzeb's day by weak emperors and brothers war had now had its very heart torn out. The seat of the Shadows of God had been taken, the kings favoured by God had been forsaken. Kings only in name extended their blessing to new rulers in Lahore and Lucknow and Bengal and Mysore, and the poets that had once writted qasidas in praise of the Shahanshah followed the blessing of their old patron to the homes of their new. For as the world they ruled collapsed around them, while some aristocrats of Hind turned to their swords, others found new life in their pens. The Ghazal genre, taken back from the Deccan by conquering Augranzeb, captured the mood of the time. Line after line rhymed upon established metaphor, cupbearers and nightingales, gardens defiled by lovers seductive and cruel, poets maddened by a love that can never be made real. A love for a lover of indeterminate gender, a love perhaps not even that of a human, but an expression of the Sufi longing for god. Regular Mushairas allowed the gentry to gather and hone their craft and even emperors tried their hand at poetry, though their attempts never matched the sophistication of Sauda, Mir Hasan, and above all Mir Taqi Mir. These poets expressed more than love lost, but also their longing for the city they had lost, repurposing the Persian Shahr Ashob (praise of the city) to recall in lengthy epics the suffering their beloved Delhi had experienced. As the the century turned, the emperors rule became paper thin, and that paper was written in English. The encroachment of the British East India company turned the gentry from temporarily embarassed rulers to functionaries of a broader power. Whatever delusion of rule existed was shattered in the failed uprising of 1857, as the sepoys who nominally answered to the last Poet-Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar were crushed under the British yoke, and the garden of Delhi was trampled and burned, inspiring a mourning the bordered on the religous. The old world had ended, the sought beloved now gone beyond the veil of death, and the greatest poet of the old tradition, Mirza Ghalib called out to its emptiness. There were some who believed that rot had set in far before the fall of Delhi, hidden beneath the circumlocutions of the poets. The British had merely kicked the door in, and a new homeland could be built from the ruins. The Aligarh Movement, Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan the educator, Altaf Hussain Hali the poet, worked to build a new India. India was the new beloved, Urdu (no longer scattered Persian) the tongue of its lover, Islam its motivating spirit, free of confusion, full of clarity, as the English did in the Tennyson the British deemed more suitable than Mir. The universities would fill the children with English knowledge, the madrasahs with Islamic wisdom. But as the Imperial tide rolled further, and broadsheets and literacy brought poetry out of the mushaira and into the public square, poetry showed its subversive strength as a weapon against humiliation. The Khalifat movement was the first to harness this tool, attempting to preserve the Ottoman Caliphate, one of the few remaining symbols of Muslim power in modernity, a power destroyed under the force of British arms. From this movement arose the "Bard of the East" Muhummad Iqbal, who would articulate a vision of Indian Muslim society that was consistent with modernity while also presenting independece from the ideology of the colonizer. Those ideas would form the basis of the Pakistan Movement and the nation it birthed, which would continue the Urdu poetic tradition through decades of poets facing new societal upheavals as the world continued to change.
As you click through this exhibit, viewing various documents digitized by the Internet Archive and Pakistan's Iqbal Academy, be sure to look deeper to our translated excerpts and annotations. Witness the way in which the poets of the time processed their world's ending. Seperate apart the cupbearers of heaven from the drinking women of earth, find where faith ends and the world begins. Tear apart the linguistic knot where a bird in its cage is at once a lover kept away from his beloved, a soul trapped within imperfect flash, a revolutionary trapped beneath the imperial yoke. Reckon with words and worlds scattered in time and space. Reckon with Rekhta.