A Sufi Celebration Of Life, Inspired By Urdu
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Allah-re Us Gul Ki Kalai Ki Nazakat
Bal Kha Gai Jab Bojh Pada Rang-e-Hina Ka
— Ateeya Janab Aslam Bhatti
Oh dear God, that gorgeous flower’s delicate wrists
Sprained under the weight of the color of Hina*
*A kind of a temporary tattoo
For starters, that translation is a disservice to that beautiful, beautiful couplet. Partly because of my woefully limited poetic reach, and partly because there is no other language that can possibly do justice to that Urdu gem.
Essentially, this couplet is an extended complement, and the poet is saying that his lover, who is as gorgeous as a flower, is so delicate, so sophisticated, their wrists can’t even bear the phantom weight of a tattoo and may get sprained.
It is understandable if the people unfamiliar with Urdu’s world of compliments are baffled. After all, when put literally, it sounds more like a snarky observation about someone’s evidently incompetent, spoiled and sloth like existence.
It is anything but. In terms of poetic intent, anyway.
It is, at least within the realm of Urdu poetry, one of the finest expression of one’s absolute, unquestionable admiration (tinged with a little protectiveness) towards someone.
Literally, it means sophistication, mingled with a little bit of delicate and a whole lot of desirable.
But as has been an oft repeated lament in this series, even with a combination of several, all absolutely beautiful and meaningful English words in their own right, I cannot possibly convey the whole expanse of what Nazakat means and implies.
There is a story, the kind of anecdote that are whispered down the generations but which no history books shall ever corroborate. And that story is perhaps one of the best ways to understand the context and roots of Nazakat.
The last Nawab of erstwhile Awadh (now Lucknow), which is also the city I call home and the first love of my life, was Wajid Ali Shah. While his administrative capabilities were rather questionable, he was, arguably, one of the greatest patrons of art and culture this country has ever seen. From art to music to dance (his contribution to the development of Kathak, an Indian Classical Dance is well documented) to food (he is said to be the reason why half of the now legendary Mughlai cuisine was invented, specifically the Galawat Kebab, the culinary equivalent of heaven in your mouth), Wajid Ali Shah’s impression is ubiquitous and remarkable.
There is a reason behind this unwarranted history lesson. It is essential to both the story as well as the idea of Nazakat.
Wajid Ali Shah was captured by the British and the Awadh (preposterously spelled as Oudh by the British) was merged into the then rapidly expanding British Empire in India. From an Indian history and freedom struggle perspective, it was a tragic chapter.
The story related to Wajid Ali Shah, however, is hilarious. As the legend goes, the one that echoes in the alleys of Lucknow, says that one of the reasons why Wajid Ali Shah could not escape before he was captured by the British was because — (*insert dramatic pause*) — the attendant who was in charge of bringing Nawab’s footwear ran away before he could attend to his master’s needs and provide him the footwear. Without the attendant, the Nawab could not or rather just did not go get his footwear — because he was the Nawab, goddamnit!, and Nawabs did not fetch their own footwear even in the face of imminent arrest. And of course, Nawabs did not step on the bare floor, never mind the carpeting, without their footwear, let alone run.
And thus, fell the great empire of Awadh, right along with one of the last true Nawabs, and all because of the freaking footwear and one scared attendant.
And that my dear friends, is Nazakat for you. Sophistication stretched to its limits, and almost crossing into the territory of stupidity.
Well, you can ignore the almost.
Jokes apart, and minus the stupid, Nazakat is an absolutely beautiful idea. It is a celebration of good, old fashioned aesthetics and lost values like politeness. Nazakat is as much about a lover’s doe-eyed, shy gaze; as it is about food so sophisticated, it melts in mouth and a language so sweet, so polite, so delicate, it is like words soaked in honey and sentences woven like silk strands.
You will be forgiven to find that imagery difficult to wrap your head around. For like the Nawabs, Nazakat is also a value slowly fading away in the blur of changing times and a terribly fast moving world.
The echoes of Nazakat, however, still find a cherished place here in Lucknow where Lakhanavi Tehzeeb (Lucknow’s own brand of refined culture and edification) still persists in its crowded back alleys laden with the aroma of Kebabs and Biryani; and in the language of its people (or as they say in Urdu, Zabaan) which still manages to drip a crisp, clarity of diction (Talafuz) and an essence of well honed politeness.
Of course, that kind of generalization can hardly be realistic for any number of humans exceeding one. However, what is true is that Nazakat (and Nafasat, another word that means a combination of sophistication and excellence) have been a hallmark of Lucknow and continue to linger in the city’s atmosphere like a pulsating emotion. It doesn’t mean that every person in Lucknow is a walking epitome of Nazakat, but it does mean that the fragrance of Nazakat lingers in Lucknow and among its people, and is hard to miss for anyone who happens to experience this city.
It is no wonder that people, strangers and first time visitors often comment on how laid back and easy Lucknow is, complete with a distinct old world feel. And that is perhaps also the best way to summarize Nazakat.
Nazakat is a good, old fashioned value with just a hint of Nawabi elitism that are its roots. Because ultimately Nazakat is a luxury — not just in literal, material terms but also in more intangible sense. Nazakat is sophistication born out of riches — the swim in gold kind of riches; the astonishing, drop dead beauty kind of riches; the superior intellect kind of riches; the artistic, musical, dancing aesthetics kind of riches and of course the riches that are the languages, the perfect, beautiful, well spoken, poetic linguistic delights that sustain cultures and civilizations.
Each of those riches is where Nazakat dwells; each of those riches at their most extravagant, filthy rich best, are deserving of the compliment that Nazakat is.
Nazakat is a cultural force. It is also extremist by nature. The soft, delicate, tantalizing texture of Nazakat belies the kind of extremes that it stands for; the kind of punishing perfection it demands. No wonder, the Nawabi Nazakat that spurred unparalleled artistic and cultural revolution in its times was also the idiotic extreme that led to the downfall of one of the finest, richest provinces in the country. Because even if that anecdote about Wajid Ali Shah is a joke passed down the generations, there is no denying that Nawabi Nazakat prevented them from becoming the warriors that were needed to save their empires from invasion.
So what, you will ask, is the point?
The point is that maybe Nazakat is not a 21st Century success skill that can help you survive the cut throat world we live in. But Nazakat is an old fashioned value that if cultivated can teach you the art of taking a pause and smelling the roses. Nazakat is the flag bearer of a culture where conversations were long winded and meaningful; where taking it slow was an acceptable lifestyle choice; where honing culture (minus the dogma, of course) was given due respect and time; where people took time to create and admire art; where the idea of luxuries went beyond blind, pressed for time, materialistic chase and extended to finer aspects of life that enriched our very existence.
Nazakat is also a symbol of the times where people died on the altar of sophistication; where cultural egos trumped prudence. But I think we can all agree to leave that part far behind in the history and only stick to the good parts.
And the good parts of Nazakat include the art of incorporating the idea of sophistication, art and culture into our daily lives; it includes remembering that this world needs its artists as much as it needs its warriors; and that a little bit of politeness can sometime go a long way in uplifting the quality of your life, as well as of the others.
But of course, moderation is the key. As Oscar Wilde said, everything in moderation, including moderation. And Nazakat. And that may be the recipe of a good life that even Wajid Ali Shah would kill for!
Naaz Hai Gul Ko Nazakat Pe Chaman Mein Ai ‘Zauq’
Us Ne Dekhe Hi Nahin Naaz-o-Nazakat Vaale
— Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq
The flower in the grove is proud of its delicate sophistication
What a pity, it has never known those with sophistication par excellence
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