What's Urdu for Poetry Slam? Mushaira!

Rocking the mic at the Mughal court, circa mid-1800s: Mushaira scene from the film Mirza Ghalib (1954).

One of South Asia's major literary traditions comes to life in New York this Saturday, April 30, when Asia Society, in collaboration with Poets House and City Lore, hosts a mushaira, a group reading by poets writing in Urdu.

With roots stretching back several centuries in Pakistan and North India, the mushaira is distinguished by a deep reverence for language and intense audience participation that makes for an intimate, lively, and even rowdy atmosphere — one that sometimes lasts as late as two or three in the morning.

Asia Society's April 30 mushaira will take place in Urdu with English translations and spotlights such leading contemporary Pakistani poets as Iftikhar Arif, Fahmida Riaz, and Ifti Nasim. It follows an earlier reading and discussion centered on the new anthology Modern Poetry from Pakistan, part of Asia Society's day-long series Word from Asia. (Riaz is joined by fellow poet Hasina Gul for a second Asia Society event about Modern Poetry from Pakistan in Houston, Texas on May 3.)

The following clip of Fahmida Riaz gives a sense of the interactive nature of a mushaira. Note how audience members signal their appreciation by calling out "Wah, wah" at the end of each couplet:

Meanwhile, for a glimpse of an old-school mushaira, try this clip from the 1954 film Mirza Ghalib, a Bollywood biopic about the last great Urdu/Persian poet (1797-1869) of the classical era. Watch Ghalib and his fellow poets throw down in the Delhi court of Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II:

Click here to learn more about Asia Society's mushaira and Word from Asia.

Related links:
Modern Poetry of Pakistan: An Introduction
Interview with Waqas Khwaja (translations editor, Modern Poetry of Pakistan)
Muslim Voices: Dastangoi Storytellers

About the Author

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Jeff Tompkins is New York Content Manager at Asia Society.