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Alexander ‘Azad’, poet of Urdu

Chance discovery of some 19th century paintings from Jhajjar throws light on an Englishman who was a poet of merit in his time

Alexander ‘Azad’, poet of Urdu

Nawab Abdul Rahman of Jhajjar sitting with his two sons and courtiers. Alexander ‘Azad’ is seated close to the Nawab. By Ghulam Ali Khan, dated 1852. British Museum, London.



‘So hot and passionate a sinner
am I on the course of life
That not a trace of moisture is left in
my garment of sin…’ — Alexander ‘Azad’

Azad, the poetical name of Captain Alexander Hiderley (sic), in the service of the Raja of Alwar. He was a good poet and left a small Diwan in Urdu. His father’s name is James Hiderley and his brother’s Thomas. He died on the 7th of July, 1861, Zilhajj AH 1277, at Alwar, aged 32 years.
— From Beale’s Oriental Biographic Dictionary

BN Goswamy

Every now and then, one is struck by the fact how little one knows about what was happening under the surface in our land, everywhere in fact, in the past. I was reminded of this when I chanced upon some paintings, middle of the 19th century, from the relatively small state of Jhajjar, a Nawab-dom really — once a pargana in the sarkar of Delhi in Akbari times, now a district in the state of Haryana — in which figured an Englishman who had evidently become well-known in his times, as a poet of merit writing in Urdu: Alexander Heatherly ‘Azad’ (1829-1861).

Portrait of Maharao Raja Binay Singh of Alwar, by the painter Baldev. India Office, London

I did not know much about Englishmen writing poetry in Urdu in the 19th century, and was a bit surprised. But then my reading directed me to a book: ‘European and Indo-European Poets of Urdu and Persian’ by Ram Babu Saxena. I did know the name of Saxena sahab, and had even dipped into his authoritative work on the ‘History of Urdu Literature’ at times, but this book I was unaware of. So, I dug it up: only to be put in my place. Here was a work running into more than 700 pages, published in 1941 from Lucknow, filled with detailed accounts of poets — as also short excerpts from their works in Urdu — who were active in India: not only Indo-British poets but also Indo-Portuguese, Indo-French, Indo-Armenian, Indo-German, Indo-Italian. It was a work of dedicated scholarship, and painstaking research.

Eagerly, if embarrassed by my own ignorance, I began to leaf through the work, my mind staying focused on Alexander ‘Azad’ and finding several pages on him. However, what turned out to be of equal interest was the fact that there were a host of names, civil servants and judges and generals, who had all adopted a nom de plume — takhallus as it is called in Urdu — and were writing in Urdu. Surprisingly, there were names which one knew from the study of history or art history, but had never associated them with any knowledge of Urdu: Charles Metcalfe, Thomas Metcalfe, David Ochterlony, James Skinner, William Fraser, among them. All or most of them were contemporaries of great poets like Ghalib, Momin, Sauda, Zauq. Alexander ‘Azad’ was just one of them. But the fact of how much connection, how much intermixing of people was there, when we were part of, or were becoming so, British rule in the 19th century, came as a surprise. One becomes suddenly aware of the hordes of young men eyeing opportunities in India, arriving from England and Europe, curious and expectant, moving about offering their services, seeking jobs, wanting to attach themselves to patrons with means, if not exactly with the powerful East India Company.

The poet Alexander ‘Azad’. Detail of the painting of the court of Nawab Abdul Rahman.

But back to ‘Azad’ who was of special interest to me since he had figured in paintings from Jhajjar, and was spoken of in connection with the princely state of Alwar. Jhajjar, small as a state as it was, had suddenly become, under the last of its Nawabs, Abdul Rahman Khan, a man of small means but great taste, a cultural hub, attracting men of talent — painters, musicians, poets — to itself from all over. Jeremiah Losty has, with characteristic care, drawn attention to this centre, writing in particular about painting there. That painter of great abilities — Ghulam Ali Khan — who was willing to move about from court to court, patron to patron, now that, in the first half of the 19th century, the imperial atelier of the Mughal court had virtually broken up, showed up at Jhajjar and produced some splendid works, celebrating the court of Abdul Rahman Khan. We see, through Ghulam Ali’s eyes, the Nawab moving about within his estate, riding — literally — his pet tiger; hunting with a retinue behind him; holding a soiree at his court with musicians and poets in attendance; sitting down with his senior staff, deliberating, or going over accounts.

It is in one of these courtly paintings, magnificent hangings framing an open space, men of talent seated all around in an arc, each one identified by a name and designation discreetly described in a neat inscription, that we see Alexander ‘Azad’. Seated very close to the richly attired Nawab who is seen smoking a huqqa with a mile-long smoking pipe, just past one of the Nawab’s young children, we see the young poet: European style cap with a brim on head, cravat around the collar, buttoned-up western style blue coat, engaged expression on the face. Above him is inscribed his name in neat Persian characters, each part of it separated: alak zander hadarli sahib. The close positioning is not to be missed.

‘Azad’ came from a family members of which were serving at the nearby Alwar court — Jhajjar and Alwar shared a boundary; his father, James Heatherly, had married, apart from his first European wife, a Muslim girl who was most likely ‘Azad’s mother. The young man — sadly he died very young at 32 years — had taken to poetry in his growing-up years under the tutelage of a pupil of Mirza Ghalib — Nawab Zain-al Abidin Khan ‘Arif’ by name — but earned a name for his work on his own, taking part in mushairas at the imperial court, producing a whole Diwan which had poetry of every genre: ghazals, qasidas, qat’as, marsiyas, chronograms and so on. Undoubtedly, he was also close to the Maharao Raja of Alwar, Binay Singh — a man of great taste, again, and a serious patron of the arts — to whom poetry mattered a lot. The times were troubled — one recalls the Great Uprising of 1857 — but there was little let-up in interest in the arts. Praising his own work — this was not uncommon as a device in Urdu poetry at one time — ‘Azad’ wrote:

Ai deeda waro tum isey diwaan na samjho

Haalaan-ki ziyada hai gulistaan sey

phaban mein

Diwan ameeron key hua karte hain par yeh

Azad ka takiya hai bayabaan-e sukhan mein

Pay attention, those of you who have eyes and hearts to see:

Do not see my work as a Diwan even though it excels rose-gardens in beauty!

Diwan-s (meaning collections of poetry as also rich interiors) belong to the rich,

But this is poor ‘Azad’s resting place in today’s wasteland of poetry.

There is much that remains to be said about this young firangi who took to Urdu. But it might be best to turn to Ram Babu Saxena’s work to get close to him, and savour some of his work. I do not know enough.


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