“The Last Candle of Delhi,” by Farhatullah Beg, is a semi-historical account of a royal musha’arah attended by 59 poets, including the masters Ustad Zauq, Mirza Ghalib and Momin Khan, and their student followers. Zauq was court poet of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah II, who himself wrote fine ghazals and under whose auspices the musha`arah convened. Farhatullah’s account was based on an actual 1845 musha’arah recorded by Karim-ud-Din Maghfoor, who collected the ghazals recited that night in a volume called a guldastah (“bouquet”)
Early in Bahadur’s reign, musha’arahs were held twice monthly at the Red Fort in the Diwan-e-‘Am, or Public Hall. They lasted from 9:00 in the evening until dawn— a time known as “the aristocratic hour.” Invitations specified the tarah, or meter-and-rhyme pattern, for each evening’s ghazals.
“At the word of the heralds,” the account begins, “all present settled down on folded knees and lowered their heads. The Emperor’s page took out Bahadur’s ghazal from a silk cloth, kissed it, touched it to his eyes and began reciting in a resonant melodious voice. The audience was too entranced to applaud. They swayed in rapture of delight at every couplet. Occasionally phrases like Subhan Allah! Subhan Allah! [“Glory to God!”] escaped underbreath from their lips. Otherwise the room remained silent, spellbound and completely lost in itself.”
More worldly moments occurred as well: Although one recitation was gem-like, it was considered out of place, for it was recited in Persian, and this musha’arah was a celebration of Urdu. A ghazal by Indian Army Captain Alexander Heatherly, born of an English father and Indian mother and attending that night’s performance in uniform, was roundly applauded. A failure by an otherwise senior poet is doubly mocked, first by the thunderous silence of masters, and then by the inane cheering of sycophants.
The account goes on to follow the highs and lows of both magisterial and pedestrian versifying in ghazals, and all of it—from grudge matches and artistic slights to the flare-ups of past feuds, tactical alliances between rivals and catty asides—speak to the passionate vitality of the form. It is the master Ustad Zauq who ends the musha’arah as dawn breaks: His recitation of a wistful elegy—pointedly not a ghazal—serves to bring the evening to a close and with it, unbeknownst to him, an era.