Laced with irony and subtle satire, tanz-o-mizah, the art of humorous poetry in Urdu, is drawing appreciative crowds across India. This Mehfil-e-Sher is named as a fastest growing industry in India.

Back in the 1960s, several top stars in Hindi films refused to act with Mehmood because he was a scene stealer. Popular Meeruthi and Kaleem Samar, two humour heavyweights in Urdu poetry, too have Mehmood’s advantage -they often corner far more applause than serious A-listers at mushairas.

Meeruthi and Samar are among the top practitioners of tanz-o-mizah (satire and humour), an important genre of Urdu poetry . At a time when even pedestrian stand-up comedy in English draws huge hype, the two are like kings of an alternative world of entertainment. Listening to their shayari is like watching a laughter challenge show: a gag and a guffaw every second.

From Uttar Pradesh to Maharashtra, from Jammu to Punjab, mushaira organisers compete for their presence.Even in the US and Middle East, they are premium box-office draw. They do about 100 mushairas every year -some of them drawing audience over 5,000 -charging anywhere between Rs 25,000Rs 50,000 per appearance. And their side-splitting acts are often shown on television channels.

“In Jashn-e-Bahar, we ensure that humour and satire are always featured alongside the serious nazm and ghazals.

The audience loves it and connects immediately with it because it comes with a contemporary touch,“ says Urdu activist Kamna Prasad. She is also the founder of the Jashn-e-Bahar Trust which hosts Delhi’s biggest mushaira every year.

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A quatrain by Samar, laced with biting irony , brings out the minorities’ fear of bigotry. Keh raha tha kal daroga thane mein diwan se Aa gaye Kallan ke paise, chhod do samman se Shukra maula ka ada karke Kallan ne kaha Ho bhala rishwat ka, warna maar dete jaan se. (The daroga was telling the diwan in the police station yesterday Kallan’s money has arrived, let me go with honour Kallan thanked the Almighty and said What a great thing bribe is it saved my life). It is not just these two. Syed Mustafa Kamal, editor, Shugoofa, the Hyderabadbased Urdu humour magazine says there are several other major exponents of tanz-o-mizah. He talks about Ghaus Khamakha, the ageing funny poet from Hyderabad. Mustafa Ali Baig, from the same city , was wildly popular till he was laid low by a freak on-stage mishap in Chicago two years ago. Mukhtar Yusufi from Malegaon is also an established exponent of the genre. “And Zafar Kamali from Siwan in Bihar is also a fine poet of humour though he doesn’t read in musharias,“ says Kamal.

Evidence of humour and wit in Urdu poetry dates back to Amir Khusrau’s Hindavi verses, according to the Encyclopaedia of Indian literature by Amaresh Dutta. But it was Akbar Allahabadi (1846-1921) who gave the genre its modern identity. Allahabadi wrote against colonialism and westernisation.But his pen also attacked hypocrisy: Qaum ke gham mein dinner khate hain hukkam ke saath Ranj leader ko bahut hai magar aaraam ke saath (Concerned about the nation, they have dinner with the rulers Leaders are really worried, but with the comforts).

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The high standards he set became benchmarks for poets such as Dilavar Figar (who later migrated to Pakistan), Suliman Khatib, Hilal Rampuri, Hilal Seoharvi and Saghir Khayyami -all sought-after practitioners of the comic genre.

Their classic work attracts youngsters like Samar, who also owns a small carpet business, to the craft. “A few lines by Khayyami recited in his easy relaxed style changed my life. I became a poet,“ says Samar. The lines were: Aankhon mein aansoo, labon par haai hai Main jise chahun wohi mar jaye hai Umra saari rote rote kat gayee Zindagi kya hai, Nirupa Rai hai. (Tears in the eyes, sorrow on my lips whoever I love dies I spend my life sobbing what is life…Nirupa Rai) Samar, now 49, often performs in the Middle East. “Once in Bahrain I heard a group of Pakistanis say during lunch that tanz-o-mijah in India lacks quality . I got a lot of satisfaction when everybody cheered my performance,“ he says.

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Meeruthi, 59, has been attending both mushairas and hasya kavi sammelans for nearly four decades. He enjoys doing tajmeen (mixes), where he fuses one line from a famous poet such as Ghalib or Zafar or Mir with three of his own lines. A tajmeen that earned him plenty of bahut khoobs was Zafar’s poetry “remixed“: Mehboob wada karke bhi aaya na doston Kya kya na yaaron humne kiya uske pyaar mein Murge churakar laye the jo chaar Popular Do aarzoo mein kat gaye do intzaar mein (My beloved didn’t turn up after promising to I did everything I could in love I even stole four chickens I chopped two of them in desire, the other two in wait).

Some tanz-o-mizah has also been accused of being crude. But Kamal insists that vulgarity was part of a tradition in Urdu poetry and was called haju (derogatory verses). Humour has, in fact, become more sophisticated now, he says. “The old humour was mainly directed at women.But new poetry is often against the political and religious leader. Today words are used more intelligently and there’s situational humour too,“ says Kamal.

For a country constantly swinging between hope and gloom, laughter is therapy . Poets like Meeruthi, Samar and others ensure that healing sessions are available in plenty. #KhabarLive

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