Kaifi Azmi: The Poet who would die in Socialist India

(The play Kaifi aur Main based on the memoir written by Shaukat Azmi, and played by Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar is currently on tour in India)

Kaifi Azmi was part of the fiery triumvirate of the Urdu poets in post independent India. Along with Sahir Ludhianvi and Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi wrote “red poetry” when the appeal of socialism among the intelligentsia in India and the world at large was substantial.

Two names that should belong to the list are Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Makhdoom Mohiuddin.

Makhdoom gave priority to politics over his poetry- representing the Communist Party of India as an MLA in Andhra Pradesh while Faiz Ahmed Faiz in a metaphorical sense, and in a reversal of roles, substituted the lack of the political Left in Pakistan with his poetry. Sahir Ludhianvi wove magic with his uncanny, and unsurpassed ability to lyricize complex ideas, including ideological, into a brilliant tapestry of words making films his terra firma.

Kaifi Azmi and Ali Sardar Jafri together tread the path of literary activism, practically being the official poets of the Communist Party of India.

It would be futile to look for Kaifi Azmi, the man, in his film lyrics. They represent him only partially and those that do, bring out only the personally romantic side of him, specially in those sung by Mohammad Rafi in his mellow, bass elegance. Kaifi lacked the lyricism of Sahir that appealed to Bollywood movies and also the great literary sweep of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

What Kaifi excelled at was the nazm, marking as he did, the break from the classicism of the ghazal form. As one of the angry young men thrown up in the aftermath of the Civil Disobedience Movement, at the time when it was very heaven to be young- the time of Jawaharlal Nehru’s youthful swerve to socialist ideas, the formation of the Congress Socialist Party and the radical appeal of the Communist Party of India under P.C. Joshi who made culture as one of the ‘fronts’ on which the party had to fight in its struggle for socialism- much before Antonio Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony came to be known and gain credence.

Kaifi was one of the major activists of the Indian People’s Theater Association in his younger days and in 1986 made a valiant effort to revive the movement as its president. He was known for his closeness to the CPI, and even once had a spat with Sahir when he accused the latter of compromising his lifestyle while proclaiming his leftist political commitment.

I remember Kaifi Azmi, Comrade Kaifi to us youngsters, reciting his famous nazm Naujawan, after a spate of street dramas enacted by various groups in the IPTA troupe. His recitation was the last one as night crawled around us and a mild March breeze began to blow. His voice boomed in the pin drop silence, what a voice he had !

Raah agyaar ki dekhain yeh bhale taur nahin
Hum Bhagat Singh ke saathi hain, koi aur nahin.

Zindagi humse sada shola e jawaani maange
Ilm o hikmat ka khazana humdaani maange
aisi lalkaar ke talwaar bhi paani maange
aisi raftaar ke dariya bhi rawaani maange

(That we would wait for others to take lead, does not suit us,
We are the comrades of Bhagat Singh, and none else

Life beseeches us our burning youth
The treasures of knowledge and courage
A cry so sharp that the swords may cry out
Such an electric flow that the oceans may look to us for inspiration)

At its most sensitive turns, Kaifi Azmi’s poetry was meant to highlight the life of the poor and the suppressed, and at its most inspired movements, meant to inspire the young cadre of the communist movement to go out and work for upliftment of the “insulted and the humiliated”. Kaifi Azmi had once proudly declared: I was born in colonial India, I have lived in an independent India, and will die in a socialist India.

Kaifi lived to see the dreams of his youth smothered as fort after fort of existing socialism collapsed in East Europe and its citadel, the Soviet Union. He was shell shocked.

And even in his silences he spoke for the grim silence of all those who had been inspired by the message of the October Revolution. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he did not speak for many months, and neither did he write.

It was the attack on Indian secularism on 06 December 1992 that awoke the activist poet in him and he wrote the nazm invoking Lord Rama.

Towards the end of his life, he returned to his roots, the small mofussial town of Azamgarh, building a high school for girls and a hospital. He had written:
Woh mera gaanv hai, woh mere gaanv ke chooleh
Ke jinme shole to shole, dhooan nahin milata

(That indeed is my village, and those indeed are the ovens of my village
In which, not to speak of the fires, even the smoke is not seen)

In the more famous matla of this ghazal, he had expressed the restlessness that inspired him:

Main dhoondta hoon jise woh jahan nahin milta
Nai zameen, naya aasmaan nahin milta

(The world that I search for, I do not find,
The New World, the New Heavens I do not find)

To look for Kaifi, is to keep on searching the for new, better, more egalitarian worlds. And heavens that are more just. To remove this search from his poetry would be to take away its soul.

On a personal note, I had the opportunity to meet with “Comrade Kaifi” at Ajoy Bhawan in New Delhi in 1986. On seeing a bunch of youngsters from the Punjab, he gave me a pointed look, the tuft of hair on his forehead falling over his eyes, and asked me, referring to the Khalistanis: Why are these young men angry?

I did not have an instant answer. And perhaps the question in that context has become irrelevant. But then, perhaps Kaifi was also referring to his own younger days, and asking: What is it that makes young men (and women) angry?

He had spent a lifetime in poetry trying to answer this question.


Thanks to Alok for having revived memories of Kaifi and for the link to the “Kaifi aur Main” site.

Image Source


Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

16 thoughts on “Kaifi Azmi: The Poet who would die in Socialist India”

  1. Wow Bhupinder, You had personally met him? 🙂

    I am not too familiar with his nazms, have read just a few quotes from here and there. What I like best about him, and what also comes out very well in the play, is that his political idealism and the desire the change the world and make it a better place fit so well with his poetic and artistic vision.

    Thanks for the quotes and translations. And also for putting up your thoughts.

  2. Thanks for noticing the “subtle” hints that I dropped 🙂

    There were so many of his generation who are not so well known. One person whom I have lot of respect for, and had the opportunity to meet once or twice was the late Girish Mathur, a journalist who always wrote for small time left wing papers but had a very incisive pen. I am also yet to write about Mohit Sen too.

    Kaifi is lucky to have Shabana Azmi, he is today known better as her father and she helps to keep alive his memory. Till around the eighties, he was known as the flagbearer poet of the Left and not so much as Shabana Azmi’s father.

    There were so many brilliant people whose lives were so closely tied to the Party that when it collapsed, their existence has also receeded from public memory. Someone said (Kundera?) that writing is a struggle against forgetting.

  3. thanks for the brilliant write-up on Kaifi!

    i really enjoyed your translation as well…”life beseeches us…”. inspiring. it brought out the soul of the original. you’ve got to do more of these! (small point: i wonder if ‘daryaa’ = rivers would’ve worked instead of ‘oceans’…but you might have considered this anyway)

    Now I wish there was some way to see the play, “Kaifi aur Main” on video or something. Jaswinder Singh sounds amazing. Finally Javed Akhtar is trying to do something useful rather than writing inane lyrics for remakes.

  4. As you indicated, Urdu doesnt have different words for river and ocean, I intuitively felt ocean as more appropriate. Maybe it was the Old Man’s “ghista hai jabeen darya mere aage” at the back of my mind 🙂

    I have heard Jaswinder Singh’s first album where he fused few sheyrs from Daag and Ghalib together as a single ghazal (obviously with the same qaafia and radeef).

    About Javed Akhtar- I would rather not comment.

  5. I too noticed that you chose oceans for daryaah and felt that it was a great choice, rivers wouldn’t have conveyed the effect.

    this also reminds me, sometime back I read an essay which discussed Nabokov’s controversial translation of Eugene Onegin. Nabokov used lots of obscure english words, words which are found only in the dictionary, to approximate the original russian usage. He defended it by saying that English had a far richer vocabulary than the russian and the poet in russian has to take a roundabout route to create effect, what in english can be created just by using an exact word.

    English vocabulary is indeed vast and affords lots of space for wordplays but somehow I always feel that musicality of the original is impossible to translate. And it is specially true for Indian languages, I dont know may be it is because hindi is my mother tongue and I learned to speak English only in my early adolescence?

    Hope to see more translations in future… 🙂

  6. Siyaah:The verses in this post were translated impromptu and no particular care was taken- sorry about that. I know you are very careful in your translations but I wanted to get this post off my chest. So don’t take the translations too seriously.

    I have been reading translated fiction for years (indeed, 95% of what I read is translated from other languages), and find it pretty much ok.

    This is not the case in poetry, specially when when understands the original language and can see the disjoint very clearly.

    I think it is because the structural aspect (synchronic if I remember my Sausaurre correctly) is very important and often the selected word in verse lies on an intersection of the diachronic and the synchronic. Because of the former being specific to the language, it becomes very difficult to re- create the original.

    Which incidentally, leads me to inform you that I was once a small time translator myself, having translated a book of verse from Punjabi to English and then subsequently translated about 50 of Sahir’s nazms and ghazals and geets from Urdu into English.

    I realized that translating poetry is an excruciating job, and a perpetually unsatisfying one.

  7. I have no words to express my gratitude for this post. A truly remarkable tribute to the firebrand poet. Thanks for making me a bit more familiar with his poetry (terrific translations), as well as with the poetic styles of his peers. Great insight.

    I wish they would bring Kaifi aur Main to Delhi. After reading this post, I won’t miss it for anything.

  8. Brilliant post.
    I wonder what an era it must have been for poetry in the 40s and 50s. On one hand Majaz, Faiz, Jazbi, Wamiq, Makhdoom, Akhtarul Iman, Jaanisaar, Majrooh, Kaifi, Makhdoom, Sikandar Ali Vajd, Ahmed Nadim Qasmi, Ali Sardar Jafri and umpteen others.
    kya daur raha hoga. Jigar, Josh, Firaq, Jamil Mazhari were alive and the new generation of Rashid, Meeraji and rest was also coming up.

  9. Bhaswati: glad to see you back here and hope that you soon get to see the play. It seems to be on the lines of Tumhari, Amrita (I saw it few years back)with Shabana Azmi and Farooq Sheikh

    Indscribe: It was certainly a great era, the post independence years were suffused with hopes and specially in Urdu poetry, it was the very heavens, and an era that is unlikely to be equalled again.

  10. Have you read the article by Javed Akhtar in the July-Aug ’06 issue of Sahitya Akademi’s journal ‘Indian Literature’ ?

  11. Suparna: No, in fact I haven’t seen ‘Indian Literature’ for years. It doesn’t seem to be available online either.

    What does it say? (Incidentally, I am not exactly an admirer of JA, if you noticed my comment above)

  12. well yes – the article is titled “Progressive Writers’ Movement in Urdu Literature”..

    Do have a look if u can arrange to get a copy. Am frankly not qualified to comment on it myself!

  13. Bhupinder, nice post. I have never read much of Kaifi Azmi’s poetry but the piece is a great profile and really brought out the earnest essence of his personality. I am personally not much of a fan of many of the “progressive” poets. Much of this poetry lacks subtlety and wears its emotion on its sleeve (of course there are plenty of creditable exceptions).

    BTW, was a bit confused by your comment that Urdu does not have different words for ‘river’ and ‘ocean’. In fact the common Urdu word for ‘ocean’ is ‘samundar’ and of course even the hindi ‘saagar’ is commonly used in urdu poetry. ‘River’ is of course ‘darya’.

  14. You are right on the samundar being used for ocean, I was mistaken. I am not sure about ‘darya’ though- I think it can be used either way.

    On progressive poets- I would like to write separately on this, not all progressive poetry was good, of course. But it is very interesting that there was so much radical poetry in Urdu.

    As a former activist whose staple diet were Faiz, Sahir, Kaifi and Ali Sardar Jafri, I cannot be critical of them, specially since the political movement that they spoke for is undergoing difficult times.

  15. I was recently introduced to the Progressive Writers’ Association through the book ‘Anthems of Resistance’. Prior to the introduction, I never appreciated the revolutionary force of poetry. After reading Sajjad Zaheer’s ‘Roshnai’, my respect and love for the progressive poetry increased manifold. I also had the chance to read Shaukat Kaifi’s ‘Yadoon ke rahguzar’ few days back, which is a very interesting book.

    Progressive writers and poets dominated the literary scene of a whole generation, and continue to inspire millions. Thanks for the good post.

    Also join:
    groups. yahoo.com/group/cmkp_pk

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