Urdu’s first woman poet remains unsung

Though her life was shrouded in a veil of secrecy, Lutfunnisa Imtiaz had remarkable ability to capture nature in all its manifestations and express any sentiment in a telling way

By Author  |  Published: 26th May 2019  12:30 amUpdated: 25th May 2019  4:17 pm

The first woman poetess of Deccan remains unsung and uncrowned. Not many are familiar with her name either. In fact, many think it is Mah Laqa Bai Chanda, the famous poet courtesan, who is the first woman poet. The debate persists. But, the fact remains that it is Lutfunnisa Imtiaz who is the first Sahibaan-e-Diwan (woman poetess).

Well-known scholar, Naseeruddin Hashmi, has done extensive research to show that Lutfunnisa clinches this honour by a whisker. Her book of poems was published in 1796 while Mah Laqa’s works were published a year later in 1797. The Deccan region, where Urdu took deep roots, has the distinction of being home to the first male and female poet of Urdu — Muhammed Quli Qutb Shah and Lutfunnisa Imtiaz respectively.

Sadly, not much is known about Lutfunnisa. Like many famous personalities, her life is shrouded in a veil of secrecy. The little that is known is also drawn from her poems. The takkhalus Imtiaz confounded many in believing the poet to be a male. But, the word kaneez (maid) figuring in one of the masnavis gives away her gender. Lutfunnisa was a contemporary of poets like Tamanna, Tajjali, Shouq, Ihsan and Shadan who ruled the roost those days.

Interestingly, her husband, Asad Ali Tamanna, was also a poet. Many believe that Lutfunnisa took initial guidance from him. Born in 1761, she lost her mother when she was just a year old. Unfortunately, she was also deprived of paternal affection. An affluent family, which had no children, adopted her. Thus, Lutfunnisa was brought up with love and care, and given the best of education.

As per the customs those days, Lutfunnisa was married off at an early age. But, her marital life lasted for just 36 years. A devotee of Shah Ataullah, she went on Haj pilgrimage and turned a devout Muslim. No wonder, her later day poems carry a spiritual touch. Sample these verses:

Tu ishq-e-haqeeqi se madhosh hai
Sharab-e-mohabbat se be-hosh hai
Ata wo kiye marifat ka kalam
Ataullah sach mere murshid ka naam

Unlike Mah Laqa Bai Chanda who wrote only ghazals, Lutfunnisa tried her hand in all genres of Urdu poetry — ghazal, qasida, rubaiyat, khita, masnavi, and maqmas. Another distinguishing feature is that while Mah Laqa penned just 165 ghazals comprising five verses in each ghazal — totalling 625 verses in all, Lutfunnisa’s verses run into thousands. Her shayeri captures different aspects of life. But, her poetic abilities come to the fore in ghazals.

Aankhon main tere husn ki ab jalwa giri hai
Deedar ke wade ki bhi kya wada giri hai
Hai yehi insaaf saqi ab tumhare daur main
Hum sisakte hi pade hain aur sub pi kar uthen

The Salar Jung Library has a manuscript of Lutfunnisa’s works which gives an inkling into her poetic thought and contributions. Her diwan includes 184 ghazals, 15 rubaiyat, 5 khitat besides a few maqmas, naat and hamd.  She also wrote a long masnavi titled Gulshan-e-Shura containing 8,000 verses. It mirrors the life and times of her period and highlights the social issues. The masnavi also gives ample proof of Lutfunnisa’s perceptive mind and mastery of craft. The poem revolves around the fictitious story of King Feroz Bakht and how he withdraws into himself one night and the efforts of his four ministers to revive him. Each of them tells interesting narratives interspersed with magic, fairies, devils and what not. Lutfunnisa follows the ancient pattern of telling such narratives, but she makes it appealing with her unique style and eye for graphic details.

Lutfunnisa turned poetic at an early age. In one of her masnavis, she says how she had got a ‘shayerana mizaj’ right from childhood.

Ladkpan se ye shouq dil ne kiya
Ye kuch sher-o-ashaar ka mashgala
Liyakhat to kya sher khene ki thi
Havas yun hi chup khene sunne ki thi

Lutfunnisa composed verses both in short and long meter. She possessed the ability to capture nature in all its manifestations. She expresses sentiments of love, pathos, pleasure and pain in a telling way.

Ansoo ki jagah lahu barse hai ye aankhon se
Darta hoon ke in se hi toofan nikalte hain
Seene se jab aahon ke mehman nikalte hain
Ankhon se meri ansoo har aan nikalte hain

Like Quli Qutb Shah, one can see the social milieu and local flavour portrayed in Lutfunnisa’s poems. She wrote verses on the Basant festival and a nazm on the Holi. Steeped in colours of Holi, the poem captures the spirit of the carnival and the ecstasy of revellers in a fascinating way.

Dikhlai kis maze se ab ke bahar holi
Khele hain sub jama hokar gulzar holi
Sone ki thalion main rakh kar abeer-o-abraq
Upar se qum-qumaon ke hai mar mar holi

Lutfunnisa may not rank among the top Urdu poets, but, she deserves appreciation for breaking the taboo. She wrote poetry at a time when wielding of the pen by women was considered a sin. Perhaps, that’s the reason why she adopted the male pen name.