In years past, the fountain at the intersection of Fawwara in Chandni Chowk rarely worked. Yet few complained. Most people came to Fawwara for their daily news, because here sat a newspaper seller who sold practically all the language newspapers in the country.
Apart from daily newspapers in English, Hindi and Urdu, one could also obtain newspapers in Punjabi, Marathi and Bengali. He didn’t sell many magazines, the only exception being Shamathe Urdu monthly which presented a heady cocktail of Urdu literature, Indian culture and Hindi cinema. Shamalike water, traces its own path.
Founded by Yusuf Dehlvi in 1939, some bought Shama read urdu writers. The who’s who of Urdu literati including Rajinder Singh Bedi, Sahir Ludhianvi, Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai and Qurratulain Hyder have graced its pages. There were also pieces from connoisseurs of Indian culture, talking about traditions, big and small, and values, changing or timeless.
Shama was popular in literary circles at a time when Delhi had a lively literary circuit with its mushairas, book readings, debates and even street theatre. Yet it would have remained a niche publication had it not been for a few masterstrokes from the sons of Yusuf Dehlvi – the widely read Yunus Dehlvi and the widely popular Idrees Dehlvi – who transformed what was otherwise a halo literary publication into a family magazine.
Literary Love 1960 cover Shama and Editor of Urdu Magazine | Photo credit: special arrangement
Idrees had strong film connections. In a column he wrote under the pseudonym Musafir, he talked about the little things in the lives of movie stars: the movies they’ve signed on to, the movies they’ve pulled out of, the flops they’ve had. given or the successes of the jubilee they have achieved. He also spoke of their relationships, of their stolen moments of pleasure. He backed it all up with photographs from film sets, film scripts and lyrics from popular songs.
Readers swallowed it. In no time, fans of Meena Kumari and Madhubala, Sadhana and Sharmila Tagore, Sridevi and Jayaprada started collecting their idols’ matinee photos.
On the strength of success, Shama kicked off its own annual film awards with a gracious function in the convention hall of the Ashok Hotel. Soon, top Hindi movie stars started dating Shama Kothi on Sardar Patel Marg in New Delhi, the residence of the Dehlvis named after the magazine. From Dilip Kumar and Sunil Dutt to Dev Anand, Rajendra Kumar, Rajesh Khanna and Dharmendra, they would all come.
The Rise and Fall of Shama Shashi Kapoor and Sadia Dehlvi | Photo credit: special arrangement
Once, as Vaseem Dehlavi, son of Yunus, recalls, “Sunil Dutt and Sanjay came shortly after Nargis Dutt passed away to share their grief.” Often the staff photographer of Shama clicked on the photos of the stars here. They were then shared with readers as exclusive photos.
Based on mostly abstract illustrations and photographs from the 1940s, Shama in the 60s began to have movie stars on the cover. There were also movie quizzes where a hundred tapes of songs from a new movie were given away as prizes in the 70s and 80s. Each issue sold at least a lakh of copies. People would go to newspaper stalls to pick up their copy if their seller was late delivering it to them.
Passion for crosswords
The other big boost came from Yunus Dehlvi who had joined his father at the magazine as a young boy of 14-15. He started an Adabi Muamma (vaguely cultural crossword). It was in many ways the first venture of its kind in an Urdu magazine. Men with claims to knowledge of various kinds were so hooked on Adabi Muamma that the magazine began to receive hundreds of thousands of responses to each crossword. They all competed to win the exceptional prize of two kilograms of gold each month in the 1980s.
As Vaseem Dehlavi reveals, “It was a completely honest exercise. When my father started assembling the muamma, he locked himself in a room for two days and didn’t allow any family members inside.
The Rise and Fall of Shama The Magazine Crossword | Photo credit: special arrangement
Newsboys matched its enormous popularity with their innovation. They started selling forms for the puzzle and photostat copies of the original crossword puzzles separately. There was a time in the 70s and 80s when the magazine cover price was ₹5 but muamma photocopies were sold separately by some vendors for ₹10!
There was a pickle vendor in Old Delhi making hay while Shama was shining. He started selling muamma, in addition to his pickle delicacies. Then there was a bookseller in Nai Sarak who mixed the books with the puzzle. The children came for the books, their parents for the puzzle. “We used to get at least 2 lakh responses every muamma. If more than one person had the correct answer, the prize money was split between them. If in an issue no one got the correct answer, it was carried over to the next issue. The prize money for the following month was added to it. There was that level of integrity in the whole thing,” says Vaseem Dehlavi, who is now based in Mumbai.
All good things, however, come to an end. In the 90s, Urdu wasn’t such a popular language anymore. And the Internet provided access to films. The heady days of longing for photographs and movie star interviews are consigned to history. Add to that the ups and downs of the family business. In December 1999, Shamameaning the flame of a candle, went out, leaving many parvana (moth) with happy memories of years past.