Couple & the couplet

Couple & the couplet

Couple & the couplet
Though I am the Laila of romances, My heart loves like the ferocious  Majnun...

Princess Zebunnisa, the eldest daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb, wrote that. She was a poet and a scholar of renown. Her poems — lyrical, intense and passionate — were hardly in keeping with her father’s puritanical tastes! She wrote freely on love and mystic experiences under the name ‘Makhfi’ (the invisible one).

According to popular belief, she did have a lover (or lovers) — said to be Ashraf (and Aqil Khan Razi) — both poets. But there is no historical record of these relationships. What we do know is that, like most Mughal princesses, Zebunnisa was not destined to be married.

Like her uncle Dara Shikoh, Zebunnisa was devoted to studies — learning Arabic, Persian, mathematics and astronomy from famous scholars. According to her biographers, she was once the most favourite daughter of Aurangzeb. But his feelings for her changed drastically after he seized his father’s throne. He turned stricter, became more conservative, and was extremely severe towards her. Waking up to the dangers of free thinking, he disapproved of Zebunnisa’s talent, her scholarship, her fame, and even her desire to become a Sufi like her aunt Jahan Ara.

Being the eldest daughter of the reigning king, Zebunnisa had acquired Tees Hazari, an imposing garden house, as her personal property (jagir). Here she built an excellent library, and employed scholars to compose and translate famous literary works. Others were employed to copy manuscripts. Being a poet herself, she was the special patron of poets. She attended and participated in literary and cultural events, where her poems were  appreciated. But she was very careful about keeping her face hidden under her veil.

Aurangzeb, who had never approved of her writing poetry, resented her fame in the world of scholars and tried to put an end to it. He was convinced that nothing short of public humiliation would make it possible. He invited Nasir Ali, a handsome Persian noble, to challenge Zebunnisa to a poetry contest. Nasir was asked to compose the first line of a sher (couplet), which Zebunnisa would have to complete within three days. If she failed, she would have to renounce poetry for life.

Nasir, a poet of renown and an admirer of the princess, accepted the challenge. Aurangzeb had commanded that he should compose such a tough line that none in the kingdom, let alone Zebunnisa, should be able to complete it. The first line composed by Nasir was:

Rare it is to find a pearl that is both black and white...
Zebunnisa was distressed when she heard the line. She had never heard of a pearl that was both black and white, so how could she possibly complete the couplet? When three days rushed by and she could not think of a suitable line, she decided to kill herself rather than live in disgrace. Her attendants were greatly upset and one of them cried bitterly when she heard of her decision. Zebunnisa looked at her face and then said, “Don’t cry, dear. I have found my line!” she said triumphantly. Aurangzeb was hoping to find a crushed and defeated Zebunnisa. But she looked up proudly and said, “I have completed the sher, your majesty.”

The couplet now read:
Rare it is to find a pearl that is both black and white, Except in the surma-mingled teardrops in the beauty’s eyes. Zebunnisa never gave up writing poetry. According to another legend, Zebunnisa and Nasir fell in love, and Aurangzeb had Nasir put to death for having dared to love the princess. And he accused Zebunnisa of supporting her younger brother Akbar, who had rebelled against Aurangzeb, and had her imprisoned for life.

Zebunnisa died on May 26, 1702. She was buried in her favourite Tees Hazari, just outside the Kabuli Gate. But when the railway track was set there later, her tomb was destroyed and her coffin was shifted to Akbar’s mausoleum at Sikandra. Nearly 400 of her poems were published in Persian as the Diwan-i-Makhfi after her death. Many of these are ghazals (lyrical love poems). Others express her devotion to God. Latif, a famous poet of the time, describes Zebunnisa as “a fountain of learning, virtue, beauty and elegance.”

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