Bleeding Ink

A pre-Independence Urdu library in Bhopal struggles to stay afloat

Sanjana Choudhary
30 June, 2024

Down a dozen stairs from the Iqbal Maidan, usually crammed with a sea of children playing gully cricket, amid the jampacked traffic of the old city of Shahjahanabad, in Old Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, lies the Iqbal Library. Built atop an eighteenth-century drain, the library was once an iconic institution in Bhopal, an emblem of the city’s history as a centre of Urdu literature. It houses an extensive collection of literary artifacts and close to seventy thousand Urdu and Persian manuscripts, first editions, signed copies and historical documents. Noteworthy among the library’s holdings are the works of prominent Urdu poets and writers, whose contributions have shaped the course of Urdu literature. The library also preserves the earliest history of Bhopal, chronicling the city’s evolution through the lens of its literary and cultural achievements.

But when I visited the library earlier this year, I found it held no indications of its yesteryears. What was once populated by the city’s avid readers of the Urdu dailies, periodicals and books, is now quiet and empty. In the eerie silence, one could almost hear the echo of rustling pages from decades past.

The library and the maidan were named after Muhammad Iqbal, the twentieth-century poet-philosopher, who is often referred to as Allama—the learned—or just Iqbal, the poet of the East. He wrote the popular song, “Saare jahaan se accha Hindustan humara” and was among the leading intellectuals behind the movement to form Pakistan. Iqbal visited Bhopal in the 1930s and was said to be greatly inspired by the serenity of the walled city. One particularly significant artifact at the Iqbal library is the Diwan-e-Iqbal, a first-edition compilation of Iqbal’s poetry, written during his stays in Bhopal. These works, 14 in all, were composed in the peaceful environs of Shish Mahal, the home of the nawab of Bhopal, whose patronage the poet enjoyed.

The rich literary tradition of Bhopal is steeped in the Persianate culture that flourished under the Delhi sultans and, later, the Mughal emperors. The librarian and scholar Omar Khalidi notes in a 2011 paper that these rulers were avid patrons of poetry and scholarship, and laid the ground for upright print cultures in the subcontinent. The Mughal emperors, who were renowned bibliophiles, amassed extensive collections of manuscripts, many of which were dispersed or destroyed after the Revolt of 1857. “Like the Mughals, the sultans of Bengal, Deccan, Gujarat, and Malwa were also notable book collectors, as were their own successors the Nawabs of Avadh, Arcot, Bhopal, Rampur, and Tonk, as well as the Nizams of Hyderabad,” Khalidi writes.