Remembering the Legends : List of top 20 Evergreen Urdu Poets One Must Not Miss On

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Urdu- a language of royalty, poetry, and traditions that are passed to future generations. Urdu has given us legendary poets over the years whom we recall every now and then. Their words have become a part of our life. The lovers quote their Shayari to impress their beloved, the textbooks quote them to teach the art of writing and inspire budding writers. While the citizens sing their revolutionary poems in the protest, a common man would talk to them over a cup of tea. Undoubtedly, there have been many Urdu poets in the history who have mastered this craft and become eternal. Here we bring to you the list of twenty evergreen Urdu poets whom you should definitely not miss:

1. Mirza Ghalib

Obviously, this list had to begin with him! Does he even need an introduction? Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, widely known as Ghalib, wrote in Urdu and Persian. He was one of the greatest poets of the Mughal Era. Bahadur Shah Zafar II had given him the title of Mirza Nosha. In addition to this, he was bestowed with the title ‘Dabir-ul-Mulk’ and ‘Najm-ud-Daula’ in the court of emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II. He had written his first verse at the ripe age of 11. Apart from being an incredible poet, he was also a remarkable conversationalist. For instance, when one of his pious friends told him that God won’t reply to prayers of a person who consumes alcohol, Ghalib replied- “Jis ke paas sharab ho, usey kis cheez ke liye dua karne ki zaroorat hai?”( The one who has alcohol, what else does he need to pray for?). His house in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk is famously known as ‘Ghalib ki Haveli’ which is a heritage site under the Archaeological Society of India. It gives a peek of the poet’s life and his work.

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2. Sheik Ibrahim Zauq

Zauq was a laureate poet in the royal court of Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. His pen name was ‘Zauq’. He was bestowed with the title ‘Khaqani-e-Hind’ (The Khaqani of India) by the Emperor. Under the guidance of Shah Naseer, his poetry skills developed and he was praised in Mushairas. Sheik Ibrahim and Ghalib were considered as rivals. He was famous for writing a eulogy and using complex meters in his poetry. He was a religious man and hence his ghazals could come off as verses of a preacher. It can be witnessed in the following couplet:

haq ne tujh ko ik zaban di aur diye hain kaan do
is ke ye maani kahe ik aur sune insan do

(the lord did on our face one mouth and two ears array
to listen twice as much as we are wont to say)

He was conventionally known for writing qasida. He used a polish language with an exquisite diction in his work. Today, the grave of Shiek Ibrahim Zauq lies in Paharganj, Delhi.

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3. Mir Taqi Mir

Mir Taqi Mir is yet another exceptional Urdu poet. Syed Amanullah Meer Taqi was a 18th century Urdu poet. He was known as Khuda-e-Sukhan (God of Poetry). He grew up in an environment where Sufism was practiced. Hence, his poetry reflects the significance of love and compassion. He was deeply distressed due to the invasions and looting that took place in Delhi during 1740s. Mir was a bold poet who frankly shared his opinion on religion. His couplet
below reflects his beliefs.

“Mir ke deen-o-mazhab ka, poonchte kya ho unne to,
Kashka khaincha dair mein baitha kab ka tark Islam kiya.”
( What can I tell you about Mir’s faith or belief?
A tilak on his forehead in a temple he resides, having abandoned Islam long ago.)

Furthermore, Mirza Ghalib himself praised his poetry and called him the ‘Master of Urdu’. ‘Kulliaat’ is a compilation of his work consisting of 13,585 couplets.

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4. Amir Khusrau

The father of Urdu literature, Amir Khusrau’s contribution to the language itself is magnificent. A Sufi musician, a disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, born in 1253 A.D., gets the credit for the inception of qawwallis. His love and devotion for Nizamuddin Auliya is echoed in his couplets too. For example, his couplet, Bahut Kathin hai indicates his relationship with Nizamuddin Auliya.
He was a prolific poet who had served in the courts of Malik Chhajju to Alauddin Khilji and Mohammad Tughlaq. He is widely popular as a Rekta poet. Abul Hasan Yaneenuddin wrote on varied themes like patriotism, liberalism, folklife, and integration. Additionally, he has also written verses conveying his love for Delhi. ‘Tuhfat us-Sighr’ and ‘Ghurrat ul- Kamaal’ are a few of his works. His pahelis are intriguing and popular even to this date. The first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru had also mentioned Khusrau in his book ‘Discovery of India’ (1961). Khusrau was the mastermind behind the invention of Tabla and Sitar, instruments that characterize Indian Music. His crematory is placed next to Nizamuddin Auliya’s in Delhi.

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5. Daagh Dehlvi

Dehlvi’s real name was Nawab Mirza Khan. He belonged to the royal Mughal family and was interested in poetry since his early days. He lived in Hyderabad for a major part of his life. He wrote primarily on love. However, his description of love wasn’t based on philosophical lines solely, he wrote about the sensous side of it too.

Vo qatl kar ke mujhe har kisi se puchhte hain
Ye kaam kis ne kiya hai ye kaam kis ka tha.

( After having slain me, she, from each one, seeks to know                                                                                                                           who’s to blame for this dark deed, this blood is on whose brow?)

This is a couplet from Daagh’s ghazal ‘Tumhare khat mein naya ek salam kis ka tha’. His poems and ghazals were simple to comprehend and were admired by people from all walks of life. He impressive usage of words made him a distinct poet. Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Mahbub Ali, had bestowed Daagh with several titles prestigious titles like ‘ Dabeer-ud-Dawla’, ‘Faseeh-ul- Mulk’, and ‘Jahan Ustad’ among others. It’s awful to see that such brillant poets are remembered only by few now.

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6. Faiz Ahmad Faiz

Jab arz-e-Khuda ke kaabe se
Sab but uthwae jaenge
Hum ahl-e-safa mardood-e-harm
Masand pe bethae jaenge
Sab taaj uchale jaenge
Sab takht girae jaenge.

( From the abode of God
When icons of falsehood will be taken out,
When we-the faithful- who have been barred out of sacred places
Will be seated on high cushions
When the crowns will be tossed
When the thrones will be brought down.)

Does this ring a bell? Well, these are the lines from ‘Hum dekhenge’ written by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, which was sung all over India during the CAA protests in 2019. Faiz , a 20th century Urdu poet. He belonged to a privileged family and hence had exposure to literary works since childhood. Faiz was a prominent figure of the progressive writer’s movement. Apart from being a poet, he was a journalist, teacher, and an army officer. In his early days, he wrote simple poems based on love and beauty. However, later his poems were fierce. He combined romanticism with revolution. ‘Naqsh-e-faryadi’ and ‘Dast-e-saba are compositions of his poetry. His poetry remains immortal even today. His words have become a universal anthem of protest.

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7. Firaq Gorakhpuri

The real name of Firaq Gorakhpuri was Raghupati Sahay. He was born in Uttar Pradesh and was involved in the freedom struggle of India. His father, Munshi Gorakh Prasad, was a celebrated poet himself. Thus, his father played a vital role in his journey as a poet. Moreover, Firaq was an Englis professor at Allahabad University. Firaq Gorakhpuri had written more than 40,000 couplets in his writing career spanned over 60 years. He was felicitated with the prestigious ‘Padma Bhushan’ award. His loveless marriage reflected in his poetry. His pain and melancholy were visible in his couplets. For example,

ab to un kī yaad bhī aatī nahīñ
kitnī tanhā ho ga.iiñ tanhā.iyāñ

(Now they don’t even remember
How lonely have you been.)

Firaq’s contribution to modern Urdu poetry was tremendous. One can also find traces of Vedanta philosophy in his work.

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8. Sahir Ludhianvi

Abhi na jaao chhod kar
ke dil abhi bhara nahi.                                                                                                                                                                                                    Abhi abhi to aayi ho                                                                                                                                                                                                       Bahar ban ke chaayi ho                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (Please don’t leave yet                                                                                                                                                                                                 my heart isn’t satiated yet,                                                                                                                                                                                     you have just only arrived                                                                                                                                                                                         you have spread like the spring)

Have you started singing this song already? Is Mohammad Rafi and Asha Bosle’s voice playing in the background? Well, while most of us recall the singers, do you know who wrote this beautiful lyrics? It was Sahir Ludhianvi. We might know him as a Bollywood song writer but he was also a renowned Urdu poet. His real name was Abdul Hai Fazal Mohammad. While his pen name Sahir means magician. He has written the lyrics of popular songs like ‘Wada karo nahin chhodogi’, ‘Kabhi kabhi’ and ‘Mein pal do pal ka shaayar hoon’ amid others. He lived with his mother for a major part of his life. His poetry connected with the common man. It demonstrated their sorrows, joy, angst, and love. He was an active member of the Progressive Writer’s Movement too. ‘Talkhian’ ( bitterness), was the first published collection of his work. His poetry has definitely left a mark in all our hearts, perhaps, through his songs or his poetry.

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9. Majrooh Sultanpuri

His real name was Asrar-ul Hassan Khan. His takhallus name was Majrooh Sultanpuri, literally meaning ‘a wounded soul’. Majrooh Sultanpuri said he was a poet first and then a songwriter. Lovers of 90s song would definitely praise Majrooh’s writings. He has written exceptional Bollywood songs like ‘ Phela Nasha’, and ‘Papa kehte hain bada Naam Karega’ among many plenty of other melodies. He was the first lyricist to have received the Dadasaheb Phalke award. On the other side, Majrooh was even jailed for writing poetry against Nehru.

Aman ka jhandaa is dharti pe
Kisne kaha lahrane na paaye
Ye bhi koi Hitler ka hai chela
Maar le saathi, jaane ne paaye!
Commonwealth ka das hai Nehru
Maar le sathi jane ne paae!

(Such unease with our flag of peace! Is it some protégé or Hitler, or a mere slave to the Commonwealth? It’s Nehru, my friends. Take him by the collar lest he gets away.)

He was a revolutionary poet and worked persistently during the Progressive Writer’s poet. Truly, the diversity of his work will never be forgotten.

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10.  Jaun Elia

Jaun Elia is one of the most googled Pakistani Urdu poet. His birth name was Syed Sibt-e- Asghar Naqvi. His father himself was involved in art and literature and perhaps, this could have modeled his personality. Jaun Elia started writing at the age of eight, howbeit, his first poetry collection ‘Shayad’ was published when he was 60. He was a well-read man. Generally, people regarded his poetry full of pain and suffering. Nonetheless, his writings also reflect his communist and Marxist views. For instance, the following couplet reflects the class consciousness

Kal ek qasr-e-aish me bazm-e-sukhan thi Jaun
Jo kuch bhi tha wahan wo ghareebo ka maal tha.’

(Yesterday there was a poetry symposium at a royal palace,
Everything there belonged to the poor.)

Such writings make us realize that beyond the beautiful pieces a writer can present, they also feel the misery of the world and that demands equal attention from the readers.

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11. Muhammad Iqbal

Alama Iqbal, a lawyer, scholar, politician and poet-philosopher known for promoting the philosophy of self-hood. He is regarded as the ‘Spiritual Father of Pakistan’ and also the writer of ‘Saare Jahan Se Achaa Hindustan Hamara’. The poetry and philosophy of Manwala Rumi, Alfred North Whitehead, Goethe, and Friedrich Nietzsche influenced him. Most of his works are written in Persian where he has written about ‘khudi’ (self). Bang-i-Dara ( The Call of the Marching Bell) was his first published work in Urdu. His religious passion for Islam can be felt through his ghazals, Poems and Shayris.

bāġh-e-bahisht se mujhe hukm-e-safar diyā thā kyuuñ

kār-e-jahāñ darāz hai ab mirā intizār kar

(Why did you bid me leave from paradise for now,
My work is yet unfinished here so you will have to wait.)

He is not only known regarded as an incredible poet in India and Pakistan but also in Iran and other Muslim nations in the Middle East.

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12.  Kaifi Azmi

Athar Husain Rizvi, aka Kaifi Azmi, was a remarkable Urdu poet of the 20th century. He was a principal figure in the Progressive Writers Association who had quit his formal education during the Quit India Movement. Initially, when he moved to Mumbai in 1943, he worked with ‘Qaumi Jung’, an Urdu newspaper by Communist Party. At the age of 11, he wrote his first ghazal ‘ Itna to zindagi mein kisi ki khalal pade’.

Itna to zindagi mein kisi ke khalal pade                                                                                                                                                                Hansne se ho sukun na rone se kal pade

(There should be a hindrance in one’s life
When laughter will not bring peace, crying will not solve ills.)

His work ranges from love poems to activist verses which call for an egalitarian society. Kaifi Azmi had done a great deal of work for the development of his village Mijwan. Besides, writing the lyrics of famous movies like ‘Kaagaz ke Phool’, ‘Bawarchi’ and ‘Razia Sultan’, he was the subject of the documentary film ‘Diksha’. ‘Yadon ki Rahguzar’ is a play based on his life, written and performed by contemporary Urdu poet Javed Akhtar and his daughter Shabana Azmi.

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13. Praveen Shakir

Praveen Shakir, a renowned Shaira from Pakistan was a teacher, news correspondent, and civil servant. At the youthful age of 24, she had published her first collection of poetry ‘Khushbu’. Her poetry threw light on the women’s world. She wrote extensively on pregnancy, marital problems, sexuality, and love.

Kaise Kah duun ki Mujhe chhod diya hai us ne
baat to sach hai Magar Baat hai rusvai ki

(How can I say that I have been deserted by my beau
It is true but his will cause me to be shamed forevermore.)

She was a single mother even during conservative times. She was indeed a strong woman who had received prestigious awards for her poetry. Her notable works include’ Sad barg’ (Marsh Marigold), ‘ Inkaar’ (Denial), and ‘Mah-e-Tamaan’ (Full Moon). After her tragic demise in a car accident, the ‘Praveen Shakir Urdu Literature Festival’ has been held every year in Islamabad.

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14. Ameer Minai

Ameer Ahmad Minai wrote under the nom de plume of ‘Ameer’. He was multi-talented and wrote proses along with poetry. Additionally, he was a Sufi, lexicographer, musicologist, and studied Islamic law and philosophy. He was well versed with Urdu, Persian, and Arabic and would write in all the three languages. First, he had served in the royal court of Awadh but later, after the revolt of 1857, he moved to Rampur, where he was at the court of Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan. He had published an Urdu Dictionary ‘Ameer-ul- Lughaat’ before his death. Though only two volumes of this doctionary could be published. He recognized himself as a member of the Mushafi’s school of poetry. He is also considered as the pioneer of ‘naat’ poetry ( poetry in praise of Prophet Muhammad) . His famous ghazal ‘sarakatee jaayey hai rukh se naqab ahista ahista’ was sung by Jagjit Singh. Here are a few lines from the famous ghazal:

sarakti jaae hai rukh se naqab ahista ahista
nikalta aa raha hai aftab ahista ahista

javan hone lage jab vo to ham se kar liya parda
haya yak-lakht aai aur shabab ahista ahista

(the veil slips from her visage at such gentle pace,
As though the sun emerges from a cloud’s embrace

As she came of age she started to be veiled from me
Shyness came to her at once, beauty then slowly)

He is buried in the city of Hyderabad.

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15. Ahmad Faraz

ranjish hi sahi dil hi dukhane ke liye aa
aa phir se mujhe chhod ke jaane ke liye aa

kuchh to mire pindar-e-mohabbat ka bharam rakh
tu bhi to kabhi mujh ko manane ke liye aa

(Even if you are annoyed, come just to give me pain,
Come even if you have to then leave me yet again

The notion of my love’s self-pride please do pacify,
You should surely come one day and try to mollify)

If you follow coke studio, this song would play in the melodious voice of Ali Sethi. Isn’t it? The irresistible lyrics of ‘Ranjish Hi Sahi’ were penned down by none other than Ahmad Faraz. His real name was Syed Ahmad Shah. He was strongly against the autocratic rule and was jailed for criticizing the government in a mushaira. He was a radio producer in Radio Pakistan, a lecturer, and a natural poet. While he was alive, he wanted a peaceful relationship between India and Pakistan. On one hand, he was considered as a rebellious poet, while, on the other hand, he wrote romantic and lyrical poems that are engraved in the hearts and minds of the reader.

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16. Akbar Allahabadi

‘Akbar’ was the pen name of distinguished Urdu poet ‘Syed Akbar Hussain’. He had worked as a clerk in the railway department and became a sessions court judge. He was an outspoken poet who used satire to criticize the hypocrisy of Indian political leaders. Interestingly, he used English words in his Urdu poetry. The following lines depict it:

coat aur patlun jab pahna to mister ban gaya
Jab koi taqrir ki jalse men leader ban gaya

(Donning fancy clothes became a gentleman avowed,
And turned into a leader on speaking to a crowd)

He was honored with the title ‘Lisan-ul-Asr’ ( Voice of the Times). ‘Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa’ is a ghazal written by him, popularized by the singing of Ghulam Ali. In addition to this, a few of his lines were even used in the Hindi film ‘Masaan’ starring Vicky Kaushal, Richa Chadda, and Shweta Tripathi. Unfortunately, people misunderstood the poet ‘Akbar’ with the individual ‘Syed Akbar’ and criticized his work.

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17. Ibn-e-Insha

Sher Muhammad Khan, an accomplished Urdu poet, writing under the takhallus ‘Insha’. He had held numerous positions in government services. He had served in Radio Pakistan, Ministry of Culture and National Book Centre of Pakistan. He enjoyed traveling and had written travelogues too. As a poet, Insha was humorous and a satirical writer. One can find classical references in his poetry. His poetry was simple yet thought-provoking. Furthermore, he was a part of the Progressive Writers Movement too along with his contemporary poets. He wrote vastly on ‘Shabab’ and ‘Inquilab’ (romance and revolution). For instance, the following sher by him leaves a mark on our minds:

kuche ko tere chhod kar jogi hi ban jaaen magar
jangal tire parbat tire basti tiri sahra tira.

(I should leave your street and go, become a dervish, though
Forests, mountains, deserts, towns are your so where do l go.)

The usage of words and dialects in his poetry is reminiscent of eminent poet Amir Khusro. ‘Ye baatein Jhooti Baatein Hain’ and ‘Inshaji Utho’ are two of his iconic ghazals. Unfortunately, he passed away at the age of 50 due to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

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18. Ehsan Danish

‘Danish’ was the pen name of ‘Ehsan-Ul-Haq’. He couldn’t complete his education due to financial constraints. However, he was a vigorous reader. Before he became a prominent poet, he was involved in minial jobs. Initially, he wrote romantic poetries but later his words reflected the miseries of the laborer. This earned him the title ‘Shayar-e-Mazduur’.

ehsan aisa talkh javab-e-vafa mila
ham is ke baad phir koi arman na kar sake

(I, to my troth, such a bitter response did obtain,
After that I could never hope to hope again.)

His language was easy to comprehend. His autobiography is called ‘Jahan-i-Danish’. He had even set up his own publishing hous called ‘Maktaba-e-Danish’. His other prominent works include ‘Tashrih-e-Ghalib’, ‘Urdu Mutaradifaat’, and ‘Dard-e-Zindagi’. He is often compared to Josh Malihabadi.

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19. Naseer Akbarabadi

Syed Wali Mohammad, popularly known as, Naseer Akbarabadi, was a distinguished Urdu Poet during the Mughal rule. He was a people’s poet who composed about the daily events of ordinary people. He described their life in a subtle manner coupled with humorous wit. Besides, he is regarded as the ‘Father of Nazm’. It is believed that he had written over 200,000 verses but now only 6000 are found in the printed form. His nazms were about the basic things like a fan, flour and lentils, and cucumber. His nazms were so diverse that every reader could find something for himself/herself in it. Additionally, he mentioned the diverse festivals of India like Diwali, Holi, Eid etcetera in his nazms.

Aa dhamke aish-o tarab kya jab husn dikhlaya Holi ne
Har aan khushi ki dhuum hui yuun lutf jataya holi ne.

(What delights and cheer can compare with the beauty of Holi
Every moment has joy and celebration when Holi displays her delights)

Since he chose to miss the ‘elite’ factor in his writings and write in an everyday language, he wasn’t recognized as early as his contemporaries. He was probablythe first poets who started writing in Hindustani. ‘Banjaranama’ (Chronicles of a Nomad) is one of his most acclaimed works.

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20. Gulzar Dehlvi

Anand Mohan Zutshi wrote under the takhallus of ‘Gulzar’, meaning a bed of roses Both his parents Allama Tribuvan Nath Zutshi and Brij Rani Zutshi were poets themselves. He was one of the last Urdu poets left who had witnessed the partition and saw the transition of Urdu language in India. He had penned down the infamous song ‘Saare Jahan se achha hindustan hamara’ ( India is better than the whole of the world). He was the editor of the only science magazine published in Urdu ‘Science ki Duniya’ in 1975 by the Government of India. He was one of the last followers of Ganga-Jamani tehzeeb. He was a lover of the Urdu language. He had met and performed in front of legends like Saa’el Dehlvi, kaifi, and Allama Iqbal. In the following quartet, he pays respect to his mentors:

Sa’el ki zaban zar ki boli meri
Sa’el ne sikheye hai adab ke usloob
Kaifi se talammuz ka sharaf rakhta hun
Urdu ke sewe kuchh nahin mujko matloob

(My language is the language of Zar and Sa’el
I have learned the literary style from Sa’el
I am honored to be a pupil of Kaifi
I do not seek anything other than Urdu)

He was a secular and revolutionary poet who abhorred communalism. His renowned work includes ‘Gulzar-e-ghazal’, ‘Chahar-Soo’, and ‘Kulliyat Gulzar’. He had recovered from Coronavirus but passed away five days later, on June 12, 2020, at the age of 93 due to cardiac arrest. With his demise, we not only lost a legendary Urdu poet but also, it marked an end of an era.

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This list might end here but however, there are many wonderful poets that aren’t included in this list and have been lost in the books. Nonetheless, the poet and their poetry shall persist with us.

Happy Reading! Do let us know about your favourite poets in the comment section.

Note: The translations in this blog weren’t done by the author. It has been taken from newspapers, rekhta, and various other online websites.

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