Kaifi Aur Main

(Background post on the play “Kaifi aur Main”)

“Kaifi aur Main” is played out by Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar reading selected texts from Shaukat Azmi’s recently published memoir read by Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar reading out from Kaifi’s writings.

The major part of the narrative recounts the days of Kaifi and Shaukat Azmi till the early fifties when they lived in the famous Bombay Commune of the Communist Party. As others who lived through those days have also recounted, it was a time when it was “the very heavens to be alive.” The Party was young, most of the leading cadres were in their twenties or thirties, and there was till hope- the dissensions that were to begin with the exposure of Stalin’s crimes were yet to emerge.

Both Shaukat and Kaifi describe how the life in the commune was, and both recollect the late CPI Gen Sec P.C. Joshi. I specially liked the bit when he instructed the other members of the commune that Kaifi be allowed to get up late. It was also a revelation that the Party had initially decided that Shaukat Azmi not have her baby when Kaifi was in jail. It was only on her persistence that the Party agreed to let Shabana be born !

There is much of history well peppered with humor and though the music is nearly all from Kaifi’s films, it perhaps enhanced the popular appeal of the play.

Shabana Azmi undoubtedly carried the day, her performance carried the soul not only of Shaukat but also Kaifi Azmi. Javed Akhtar’s performace is a constant let down, his lisp making his rendition all the more labored, except in the end when in an inspired moment, he stands up and recites his own nazm on Kaifi Azmi.

Ramesh Talwar, the veteran IPTA director who has directed this play as well, would have suited better with his sonorous voice and amazing command over the language.

Jaswinder Singh had a confident and melodious start with “Meri Awaz Suno” though the remaining ones did not hold onto the promise established in the first one. Only “Tun jo mil gaye ho”, rendered with uncharacteristic flamboyance brought life to the songs, though a few others were good too (specially “Waqt ne kiya”).

A few short clips from the play. I did not expect them to come out so well, and should have carried more memory in my camera.


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

The Child Prodigy of Indian Music- Master Madan

Among the early popularizers of music in India was Master Madan, a child prodigy who died at the age of 15 in 1942. Few of his recordings survive, though he was a precocious and prolific performer.
Among his famous renditions Hairat se taq raha hai jahan-e-wafa mujhe and yun na rah rah kar hamen tarsaiye can be heard online.

It is impressive to see the mastery of classical music and the command over the Urdu language for someone so young and one can admire the rich texture of his voice even seven decades later.

Pran Nevile on the child prodigy.

… when K.L. Saigal was working with Remington Typewriter Company in Shimla he often visited their house to meet Master Mohan, Madan’s elder brother. Saigal would bring his harmonium and both of them had long singing sessions with Madan (who was only two) attentively listening to them.

Shanti Devi has mentioned an unforgettable train journey from Kalka to Shimla with Saigal, Mohan and Madan. They had kept singing all the way, much to the amusement of the passengers. Later after Saigal had joined New Theatres Calcutta, he always looked after Master Mohan and Madan whenever they visited Calcutta. In fact, Saigal became very fond of Master Madan and admired his instinctive knowledge of music and his mastery in singing intricate classical compositions with perfect ease in his heavenly voice.

Update: Fawad has more information on Master Madan and the 8 recordings that have survived.

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Be Near Me…Tum Mere Paas Raho

This verse in Alfred Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam‘ is uncannily similar to Faiz’s ‘Paas Raho‘.

Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal
Faiz seems to have transcreated the verse in Paas Raho:

tum mere paas raho
mere qaatil, mere dildaar, mere paas raho
jis gha.Dii raat chale
aasamaano.n kaa lahuu pii kar siyah raat chale
marham-e-mushk liye nashtar-e-almaas chale
bain karatii hu_ii, ha.Nsatii hu_ii, gaatii nikale
dard kii kaasanii paazeb bajaatii nikale
jis gha.Dii siino.n me.n Duubate huye dil
aastiino.nme.n nihaa.N haatho.n kii rah takane nikale
aas liye

aur bachcho.n ke bilakhane kii tarah qul-qul-e-may
bahr-e-naasudagii machale to manaaye na mane
jab ko_ii baat banaaye na bane
jab na ko_ii baat chale
jis gha.Dii raat chale
jis gha.Dii maatamii, sun-saan, siyah raat chale
paas raho
mere qaatil, mere dildaar, mere paas raho

An English translation of the above nazm by Agha Shahid Ali:

Be Near Me

You who demolish me, you whom I love,
be near me. Remain near me when evening,
drunk on the blood of skies,
becomes night, in the other
a sword sheathed in the diamond of stars.

Be near me when night laments or sings,
or when it begins to dance,
its stell-blue anklets ringing with grief.

Be here when longings, long submerged
in the heart’s waters, resurface
and everyone begins to look:
Where is the assasin? In whose sleeve
is hidden the redeeming knife?

And when wine, as it is poured, is the sobbing
of children whom nothing will console–
when nothing holds,
when nothing is:
at that dark hour when night mourns,
be near me, my destroyer, my lover me,
be near me.

English translation by Agha Shahid Ali from The Rebel’s Silhouette.

Via Streetphotos

A related post on Sahir’s nazm ‘Khoobsoot Mod’ and the 17th century English poet Michael Drayton’s The Parting

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Anti War Poem Parchaiyaan by Sahir Ludhianvi

Since long has the polemic of politics decreed
That the child that flowers into youth is ripe for slaughter
Since long have the rulers decreed
That poisonous weeds be sown in far- off lands


bahut dinon se hai ye mashgala
siyasat ka
ke jab jawaan ho to bachche katl ho jayain
bahut dinon se hai ye khabt hukamranon ka
ke door door ke mulkon main kehat bo aain


Here are the last few stanzas of Sahir Ludhianvi’s taveel nazm Parchaiyaan that is reminiscent of Faiz’s Mujh se pehli si mohabbat meri mehboob na maang – Faiz juxtaposed romantic love with revolution, Sahir does the same by juxtaposing romantic love with a call to oppose war.

The Shadows

Since long has the polemic of politics decreed
That the child that flowers into youth is ripe for slaughter
Since long have the rulers decreed
That poisonous weeds be sown in far- off lands

Since long are the dreams of youth vacuous
Since long love seeks refuge
Since long, on the trampled roads
Life, like a maiden’s honor, seeks a sheltering roof

Let us call upon all suffering souls
To give voice to their wounds
Our secrets are not only ours
They belong to the entire world
Let this entire world, henceforth, be our confidant

Let us tell these political gamblers
That we hate their ways of war and destruction
Life that is draped in hues of only the colour of blood
Is repugnant to us

Let us declare that if a murderer comes this way
Each road shall turn narrower
Each waft of breeze shall turn around viciously
Each delicate branch of every tree
Shall harden into veins of stone

Arise and tell the war mongers
What we need are tools to work
It is not other’s lands that we crave
We need ploughs to farm our own land

Declare that no usurper
Shall turn his eyes towards us
No maiden’s honour shall be sold again
The vast lands have arisen
The crops are shoulder high
No strip of land now shall be sold

This is the land of Gautam and Nanak
No spoilers shall stride on these sacred lands
Our blood belongs to the generations to come
Swords shall not sprout from our blood

Declare that if even today we remain silent
This throbbing world shall cease to be
A world engulfed in atomic furies
Shall not last,
Nor shall the skies be

During the previous wars
only the homes and hearths were razed
But this time it will not be surprising if even our solitudes remain no more
During the previous wars
It was only bodies that were lost
But this time, it will not be surprising
If even the shadows are forever gone

The mind begins to conjure shadows of imaginations


Picture acknowlegements here, and here

I had translated these stanzas in the wake of the nuclear blasts by India and Pakistan in May 1998 but find them as relevant now as they were then, or when they were written.

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Mohib reminds us of a verse by Faiz on Beirut “aik nagma karbala e beirut ke liye” that he wrote on the eve of the invasion of Lebanon by Israel in 1982. History has turned a full circle as it were.

Here is another excerpt from “sar e vadiye seena” written after the Arab- Israel war of 1967:

har aik aula il umr ko sada do
ki apni farde amal sambhale
uthega jab jam e sarfaroshan
padainge daar o rasan ke lale
koi na hoga jo bacha le
jaza, saza, sab yahin pe hogi
yahin aazaab o savaab hoga
yahin se uthega shor e mehshar
yahin pe roz e hisaab hoga

Pictures and coverage on the devastation in Lebanon. More pictures (link via AmLeft) on Israel’s “liberation” of Lebanon.

While on Faiz and Lebanon, one cannot but help recall the late Eqbal Ahmed as well. An article on Lebanon at a site devoted to his life and works.

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Urdu, Muslims and Others

Jawaharlal Nehru was pulled up by an elderly conservative member of the Constituent Assembly when Jawaharlal described his mother tongue as Urdu: Brahman hoke Urdu ko apni mathribhasha kehte ho, or words to that effect (recounted in Hindi Nationalism by Alok Rai).

It pains one today when only Muslims are identified with the Urdu language, as if they are seeking to have a separate identity for themselves by asserting Urdu as their mother tongue.

While Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) students across the country celebrated their success recently, for some in the Muslim community there was absolutely no reason to rejoice.

Why the report has to mention only Muslims that have “absolutely no reason to rejoice” is seemingly very “natural”- few others study the language in India.

Urdu is a language that symbolizes the syncreticism of India- the script and much of vocabulary derived from Persian/Arabic/ and the grammar that is from Hindi.

If Muslims retain Urdu as their language, they are not assering separateness, but are only upholding the syncretic, secular and a beautifully poetic Indian tradition.

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A tribute to Shanul Haq `Haqqee’

A tribute to Shanul Haq `Haqqee’, the grand old man of Urdu lexicography.

He had translated the Bhagawad Gita and Kautilya’s Arthshastra into Urdu, but first mastering enough Sanskrit to read the works in the original. For me, oneof the most memorable moments of our friendship came one bitterly cold afternoon. The sun was streaming through the bay window in his son’s living room, its light reflecting on the snow piled shoulder-high outside, as he read his translation of Shakespeare’s “Anthony and Cleopatra”, with me following the text in English. The scene described the intrigues and jealousies inside Cleopatra’s palace, and he could recite most of it just from his phenomenal memory. The Urdu vocabulary is not only more colourful and versatile, but its idioms are far more effective for describing the banter of slave girls in a harem.

Link via Urdu Ke Naam.

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Mir Taqi Mir

Mir wrote more profusely than Ghalib and much of it, like Kabir and Insha, in simple words. There are a number of ghazals in the long behr, but the most memorable ones are in the short.His stress on feminine beauty (or, in other words, formalism) unlike in Ghalib, lead the late Ali Sardar Jafri to observe that Mir had one foot in modern and another in what in Urdu poetry is derisively called kanghi choti ki shayari.

Some of Mir’s sheyrs are hauntingly simple and touching:

nazuki uske lab ki kya kahiye
pankhadi ik ghulaab ki si hai

yeh jo mohlat jise kahain hai hum
dekho to intzaar sa hai kuch

And my favourite ghazal (rendered memorably by Mehdi Hassan- and according to me the finest ghazal ever sung):

dekh to, dil ke jaan se uthta hai
ye dhuan sa kahan se uthta hai

gor diljale ki hai ye falak
shola ik subha yaan se uthta hai

khana e dil se zeenhara se na ja
koi aise makaan se uthta hai

yoon uthe aah us gali se hum
jaise koi jahan se uthta hai

Mir could cast aspersions at the mullah, but is rarely as caustic or as direct as, say, Ghalib or Iqbal could be.

mazhab se mere kya tujhe, tera dayar aur
main aur, yaar aur, mera kaarobaar aur

He employs a mesmerizingly mystic, almost surrealitic imagery in these couplets:

bikhre hai zulf, us rukh e aalam faroz par
varna, banaav hove na din aur raat ka

uske farog e husn se, jhamke hai sub main noor
sham- e- haram ho yaan ke diya Somnath ka


I took to Mir Taqi Mir after I had (I trust) picked some finer nuances of Urdu poetry- but I did not read Mir in the same manner in which I read Ghalib and Faiz, whom I devoured in states of frenzy, torment and tempestuousness.

Mir brought calmness.

He was Beethoven, not Mozart. Chekov, not Dostoevesky.

Ghalib’s certificate of greatness that he gave to Mir may also have led me to Mir, though. My first copy of Diwan e Ghalib is dated 24 Nov 1991. That of Diwan e Mir is over a year later, 14 June 1993.

raikhte ke sirf tumhi nahin ho ustad Ghalib
suna hai agle zamane main koi Mir bhi tha

The dramatic shift in the times may also have played a part. The ferocity of hatred post Babri Masjid demolition lead one to Mir and Kabir. Nida Fazli started writing dohas at that time. Poetry sought to become a balm on the times, and we turned to Mir and Kabir.

The “Low Tradition” that Mir represented consisted, among others, of Kabir and Ibne Insha in contrast to the “High Tradition” represented by the Trinity of Mirza Ghalib, Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz- that often chose a more Persianized and more philosophical idiom.


Here are a few random selections, that have been marked on my copy of the Diwan, whose pages are now turning brown on the sides, much as my own hair is turning gray on the edges.

haath daman main terey maarte jhunjla ke na hum
apne jaame main agar aaj gharebaan hota

mir bhi dair ke logon hi ki si kehney laga
kuch khuda lagti bhi kehta, jo musalmaan hota

khula nashe main, jo pagdi ka peych uski mir
samand e naaz ko ik aur taaziyana hua

dekhiyo panj e mishgaan ki tuk aatash dasti
har sahar khaak main milte hain dur-e-tar kitne

hum mast ho kar bhi dekha, aakhir koi maza nahin
hoshiyari ke barabar koi maza nahin

And finally, a self description. Note how bombastic, arrogant and loud (nevertheless lovable) Ghalib sounds when he declares:

hain aur bhi duniya main sukhanwar bahut achche
kehte hain ki ghalib ka hai andaaz i bayan aur

as compared to Mir who submits much more subtly, softly:

Mir dariya hai, sune sheyr zabaani uski
allah allah re tabiyat ki ravani uski


The reason for this Proustian excursion into Mir today? Mohib’s insightful post on a beautiful couplet by Mir that is also his epitaph.

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Remembering Majaz

This year is the 50th death anniversary of Asrar ul Haq or Majaz. Today he may be better remembered as an uncle of Javed Akhtar, but he was one of the most powerful Urdu poet that the Progressive Writer’s Movement produced in the thirties and forties. His alma mater still sings the tarana penned by Majaz, and the rendition of ae gham e dil kya karoon can still be heard in the shimmering, silken voice of Talat Mahmood. Unfortunately, Jagjit Singh’s last memorable singing (for the serial Kahkashan) is not popular or easily available- it had included some excellent renditions of Majaz’s poetry.

Majaz’s life was short, he rose like a star but collapsed soon in his unrequited love for a married woman and alcohol.

Majaz’s poetry, in my humble opinion, was very rich in metaphor and his poetry was embellished with some of the finest metaphors in Urdu poetry after Mirza Ghalib. Sample the following from his most famous verse awaara:

ik mahal kii aa.D se nikalaa vo piilaa maah_taab
jaise mullaah kaa amaamaa jaise baniye kii kitaab
jaise muflis kii javaanii jaise bevaa kaa shabaab

Some of his qalam is avalable here.

One of my favourites is the ghazal with the following maqta:

is mahafil-e-kaif-o-mastii me.n is anjuman-e-irafaanii me.n
sab jaam-ba-kaf baiThe rahe ham pii bhii gaye chhhalakaa bhii gaye

His poem on a little girl visiting the temple with her mother is another favourite. Even as the five year old girl bows her head in prayer, her mind is occupied by the toys in the house. It is a beautiful poem striking in the portrayal of a child and her pre occupations amidst the life guided by older people. It is reminiscent of Tagore’s numerous poems on the theme in Gitanjali.

Majaz was one of the poets in the famous scene in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa along with Majrooh and Jigar Moradbadi. In fact, he recites one of his ghazal (roodade-gham-e-ulfat), as does Jigar recite a couplet as well (kaam akhir jazba). Guru Dutt captured both art and life in that one memorable scene.

Some of his poetry, or at least his radeefs were used (plagiarized?) by other lyricists like Hasrat Jaipuri. This may remind you of a popular Rafi number Chalkey teri aankhon se sharaab aur ziyada.

He drank himself to death, and in that he was typical of a generation of Muslim Urdu poets who found themselves lost in the decades that brought about the partition. Most of them were typically leftists and found themselves kafirs in Pakistan and their language treated as that of the mlechhas in India.

Today, Majaz is remembered merely as an uncle of the lyricist (and an average poet) Javed Akhtar. Whether that is heartening or merciful is difficult to say. Some people are just born on the wrong side of history.

You may like to read this English translation of Madhav Moholkar’s memoir as well.

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ULFA and Iqbal

Paresh Barua, the self- styled ULFA c-n-c, is an admirer of Allama Iqbal, as the Axomiya writer Mamoni Raisom (Indira) Goswami states.

Reminds me of a similar interest in literature that sub- commandante Marcos expressed in an interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Talking about self-styled ULFA c-in-c Paresh Barua, Ms Goswami said that Barua had a soft corner for literature.

According to Ms Goswami, the ULFA supremo takes inspiration from the revolutionary poems of Ikbal. “He has been reading a lot, and his favourite author is Ernest Hemingway, apart from the Assamese authors like Jatin Dowerah, Nalinibala Devi, Rajanikanta Bordoloi and others,” revealed Ms Goswami.

Full Story

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Urdu in West Bengal

Over a hunderd years after Mirza Ghalib travelled to Calcutta and, referring to the sweetness of the native language, remarked that the Bengalis had a penchant for putting a rasgulla in every word and sentence, Bengalis seem to be returning the compliment with a renewed interest in learning Mirza Ghalib’s beloved Urdu.

It is notable that it is primarily the Indian Muslims who have carried forward the syncretic tradition of the Urdu language after Indian independence. Bengal is the inheritor of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore but also of Kazi Nazrul Islam and is also one of the most secular states in the country both politically and culturally. The renewed interest in Urdu is a logical continuation of this tradition.

But there seems to be another dimension, indeed some strange, magical connection between Calcutta and Urdu.

I have always wondered, for example, why the character of Vijay, the Urdu poet in Pyaasa, was a Bengali (his mother in the movie actually calls him ‘Beejoy’, the Bengali pronunciation for Vijay.)

Then, Gulzar, the lyricist who writes in the Urdu language, has had a long affinity with the Bangla language but more so, its sensibilities. This is rather unusual for one who was born a Sikh in West Punjab and grew up in Delhi, far away from Bengal.

Something does seem to draw the Urdu language to Calcutta and Bengal. Perhaps, as the writer suggests, the reasons are historical:

“Calcutta evolved as the primary centre for learning, research and enrichment of Urdu due to a number of reasons,” says Urdu scholar Fayez Ahmed Khan. “The Fort William College gave a boost to Urdu and many scholars settled here from various parts of the country. This was the capital of British India till 1911. Also, when the families of Nawab Wajed Ali Shah and Tipu Sultan settled here in exile, exponents of Urdu literature in their courts followed them. Bengalis, be they Muslims, Hindus or Christians, were great lovers of art and culture and patronised the language. Calcutta was known as a centre of excellence for Urdu and many prominent Bengali Hindus were renowned scholars in the language.”

Sahir Ludhianvi and Kabir

Sahir is well- known to have picked up verses and poems from other poets and either parodied or transcreated them so effectively that the resulting poetry is a new piece of creation itself.

One of the lesser known songs of Sahir is the one from the movie Kajal ‘Kabira nirbhay raam jap’. It is unfortunately not so well known and is not included by Sahir himself in his collection of film songs ‘Gaata jaaye banjaara’.

‘Kabira nirbhay’ was sung by Asha Bhonsle (the odd stanzas- which I believe are Kabir’s) and Mohammad Rafi (the even ones that are clearly Sahir’s). The dialectic between the two is poignant and while listening only the intervening music between the stanzas is somewhat jarring.

kabiraa nirbhay raam jap
jab lagadii me.n baati ?
tel ghaTaa baatii bujhii
sovegaa din\-raati

mahafil me.n terii yuu.N hii rahe
aa.Nkho.n me.n hii ye raat
Guzar jaaye to achchhaa

saach baraabar tap nahii.n
jhuuTh baraabar paap
jaa ke hiraday saach hai
taa ke hiraday aap

jaa kar terii mahafil se
kahaa.N chain milegaa
ab apanii jagah apanii
Kabar jaaye to achchhaa

jab mai.n thaa tab hari nahii.n
ab hari hai mai.n naahii.n
sab a.ndhiyaaraa miT gayaa
jab diipak dekhaa maahi.n

jis subah kii taqadiir me.n
likhii ho judaa_ii
us subah se pahale
ko_ii mar jaaye to achchhaa \-2

(Acknowledgement for the lyrics above)

Sahir’s couplets alternate here with Kabir’s dohas, and it is interesting to see how the spiritual quest and redemption that Kabir seeks in an almost mystical manner is countered by Sahir by taking off from where Kabir leaves, to a melancholy reality- the overarching theme in Sahir’s poetry.

There are other aspects of Sahir that are related to Kabir. I believe that Sahir has a split personality as an artist. He was a poet- lyricist. As a poet, in his selection of words, for example, he borrows significantly from Persian, which is much like Ghalib, Iqbal and also Faiz. In this, he belongs to the ‘high tradition’ of Urdu poetry with its high faultin philosoplical discoursing. He , however, remained at the fringes of 20th century Urdu poetry and very rarely does he seem to come out of the shadow of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

As a lyricist, on the other hand, he shifts to a more popular idiom and tends to be closer to the tradition of Kabir, Mir and Ibne Insha that uses simpler words and even simpler structures- the usage of the short behr in Mir, for example, contrasts with the more often used long behr in Ghalib. As a lyricist Sahir occupies a central place in Hindustani cinema.

Sahir is not averse to simplifying his poety to meet the popular or lyrical elements of a film song. ‘Sanaa-khawaaney-takdeese-mashaariq kahan hain, for example in ‘Chakle’ (from ‘Talkhiyan’) easily becomes ‘Jine-he naaz hai hind par vo kahan hain’ (in ‘Pyaasa’), ‘teergi’ in Kabhi Kabhi becomes ‘siyaahi’ and so on.

In his popular lyrics Sahir dominates over his contemporaries and occupies a place that is probably accorded only to Kabir. Their verses are at the lips of the multitude.

The difference between the two being that Kabir was primarily a social reformer and used poetry as a mechanism to transmit his ideas. Sahir, on the other hand, might very well have been a romantic poet much in the mould of traditional Urdu poets had he not belonged to the post- 1930s generation that was strongly influenced by socialist thought and for which Marxism was the contemporary face of humanism.


Sahir’s Khoobsoot Mod

I once boarded a bus in New Delhi, it was a very hot evening and as I waited for the bus to start so that a breeze, albiet of hot air, may come in, someone threw in a Hindi evening newspaper through the window. The headline covered the break- up of an alliance between two political parties in Uttar Pradesh. The reporter illustrated the break- up with the following words:

jaisa Ghalib ne kaha hai:

chalo ik baar phir se
ajnaabi ban jaain hum dono

The interesting point in the anecdote is not that the lines from a nazm by Sahir Ludhianvi (‘Khoobsoot Mod’) have been quoted very aptly and appropriately and it seems almost intuitively by the reporter, but also that the authority of Ghalib is invoked to qualify the inclusion of the lines. This is not uncommon, and many a verse from any Tanvir, Dilbagh and Hari is recited under the shady protection of Chacha Ghalib’s benign name.

There is an insighthful post by Sheetal Vyas on this nazm and the discussion there which led me on writing this post and also the one on the relationship between Kabir and Sahir. She points to the similarities between a poem by Michael Drayton and Sahir’s ‘Khoobsorat Mod’.

It is very uncanny that ‘Khoobsoot Mod’- a nazm that is so unique in Urdu poetry should be so similar to an English poem ‘The Parting‘ by a 17th century English poet. Thematically and even idiomatically they are almost identical and the more one reads ‘The Parting’, the more convincingly it seems to have been transcreated by Sahir

See, for example the similarity betwen the following stanzas:

(A) Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
(B) And when we meet at any time again,
(C) Be it not seen in either of our brows
(D) That we one jot of former love retain.

(a) na mai.n tumase koI ummiid rakhuu.n dilanavaazii kii
(b) na tum merii taraf dekho galat a.ndaaz nazaro.n se
(c) na mere dil kii dha.Dakan la.Dakha.Daaye merii baato.n se
(d) na zaahir ho tumhaarii kashm-kash kaa raaz nazaro.n se

Notice the similaries betwen (A) and (a) and the ‘Be it not seen in wither of our brows’ in (b), (c) and (d). Though the two poems seem to go in different directions subsequently:

Now at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And innocence is closing up his eyes,
–Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou might’st him yet recover.

taarruf rog ho jaaye to usako bhuulanaa behatar
taalluk bojh ban jaaye to usako to.Danaa achchhaa
vo afasaanaa jise a.njaam tak laanaa naa ho mumakin – 2
use ek khuubasuurat mo.D dekar chho.Danaa achchhaa
chalo ik baar phir se …

While Sahir speaks of this as a ‘rog’ and gives a twist in a different direction taking the parting to its culimination, I am not sure if Drayton also means the same thing and indicates a ‘return’ when he says:

Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou might’st him yet recover.

Incidentally, ‘Khoobsoorat Mod’ was immortalized in a popular Hindustani movie of the sixties in the voice of Mahendra Kapoor- the poor man’s Rafi and where nevertheless he came closest to emulating the latter.

I still wish that Rafi should have sung it though.

Review of The Famous Ghalib by Ralph Russel

The Famous Ghalib
Selected, Translated and Introduced By Ralph Russell
Roli Books, New Delhi Rs. 295 (HB), Pages 192

Ralph Russell came to India as a British soldier during World War II and went on to join the Department of Oriental Studies at Cambridge. His previous works over the years, mostly written along with Khursidul Islam, have made him known as an authority on Urdu literature especially on Mirza Ghalib.He remarks that, “If his (Ghalib’s) language had been English, he would have been recognised all over the world as a great poet long ago. My translations are an attempt to present some of his poetry in English so that English speakers may be able to judge the work for themselves.” However, the book caters well even to those already familiar with the poetry of Ghalib, this is so both in the selection and translations of the poetry and in the accompanying essays.

The sheyrs and ghazals translated into English are followed by the original in Urdu and the transliterated versions in Roman and Devnagari. An essay on ‘Getting to Know Ghalib’ serves as an insightful introduction to Ghalib, his poetry and the milieu that it grew on. Another essay ‘On Translating Ghalib’ brings forth the problems and techniques of translating from Urdu to English. These essays help to supplement and explain the translations. They weave together the translated sheyrs into a cohesive whole.

The current translations are marked by a stress on the literal meaning of the sheyrs, though there are some sheyrs and ghazals where the translator has tried to practically recreate both the meaning and the form in English. This is not a mean achievement and as compared to the other two significant translations (one by Qurrat-ul- ain Haider and another edited by Aijaz Ahmed), Russel has attempted -and achieved- much more. One hopes that it will encourage the reader to read the original.


Ghalib roars over and above his predecessors as well as contemporaries, he rarely whimpers. He is a lively, even a gregarious character. For a long time and especially till the age of 25, Ghalib refused to consider any criticism of his poetry. Consider the following sheyr:

Bandagi men bhi vuh azada o khud-bin hain ki ham
Ulte phir ae dar I kaba agar va na hua.(We serve You, yet our independent self regard is such
We shall at once turn back if we would find the Kaba closed)

This assertion of the self was to reach its crescendo in Iqbal (with the development of the concept of khudi) and still later metamorphosed into the collective individual in the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz:

Aur raaj kareygi khalaq-e-khuda,
Jo main bhi hoon, aur tum bhi ho(And the Creations of the Lord, which is you and me,
Shall rule the world)

Russel’s selection rightly brings forth this aspect of Ghalib’s poetry. One cannot stress this enough as the traditional ghazal form does not facilitate presentation of the poet’s world- view in a systematic form. Each sheyr is a complete poem in itself, and it is not necessary for a ghazal to express the same mood in all the sheyrs- in that sense it can be said that the form tends to dominate the content. The exposition is, therefore, disparate and scattered in sheyrs across different ghazals. One has to wade through to pick and choose and then reconstruct- a difficult and onerous task.

Understanding Ghalib requires that one understands not only the literal meaning of a verse, but also the allusions that occur in them. Ghalib wrote from within the Muslim tradition and it is therefore necessary to understand that tradition, the religious concepts, references to aspects of the Muslim way of life and so on. Russell explains some of these and illustrates the usage in some sheyrs.

Ghalib himself, however was hardly a ‘good’ Muslim. For one, he drank wine, as is famously known. He did not keep fasts or say his prayers or go on pilgrimage. In this he follows other Urdu poets who stand on the verge of transgression or beyond. For instance, Mir had said:

Mir ke deen-o-mazhab ko, ab poochtey kya ho, unney toh
Kashka khaincha, dair main baitha, kab ka tark islam kiya

(Do not ask what Mir’s religion is, he has
Put on the sacred mark on the forehead (tilak), sits in the idol house, and has given up Islam)

Ghalib wrote much that ridiculed and often put to serious cross-examination many of the religious and Islamic concepts. One of his somewhat cryptic posers is:

na tha kuch, toh khuda tha, na hoga kuch toh khuda hoga
duboya mujhko hooney ney, na hota main, toh kya hota?(When nothing was, then God was there; had nothing been, God would have been,
My being has defeated me, had I not been what would have been? )

Regarding the references to idol- worship and Hinduism in Ghalib’s poetry, Russell observes that Hinduism was the nearest religion outside Islam known to Ghalib. He points out that the practices of Hinduism afford a vivid symbol of the worship of God through the worship of beauty. “The idol is the symbol of the irresistibly beautiful mistress you ‘idolise’ and adore… All these concepts make ‘Hinduism’- that is, Hinduism as a symbol rather than actual Hinduism- the expression of one of the mystics’ key beliefs.”

Ghalib was aware that the milieu in which he grew up was in its twilight and was being replaced by a more advanced civilization. At the same time, he saw the emerging world from the framework of ‘medieval ways of thought and shared many of the attitudes of his eighteenth century predecessors in poetry.’ Hence, the conflicting pulls in the following sheyr:

Iman mujhe roke hai, jo khainche hai mujhe kufr
Kaba merey peeche hai, kalisa merey aagey(My faith restrains me while the lure of unbelief attracts me,
That way, the Kaaba, and this way, the Church before my eyes)

It was the spirit of transgression, of crossing the accepted norms of society that excited Ghalib. “If you are to experience life to the full, you must not confine yourself to actions approved by the virtuous”, remarks Russell. This recalls to mind a Punjabi Sufi couplet:

Jo had tapey so auliya, behad tapey so pir
Jo had, behad dono tapey, us noon aakhan fakir

(The one who crosses all boundaries attains the exalted title Auliya, the one who crosses non- boundaries becomes the Pir,
The one who crosses both boundaries as well as non- boundaries, becomes a Fakir)

And Ghalib, of course, prided himself on being a fakir. He remarked:

Banakar fakeeron ka hum bheys ghalib,
Tamasha-e-ahl-e-karam dekhtey hain(Taking on the garb of a fakir, Ghalib
I watch the goings on of the world with a detached air)

Russell points out that Urdu poetry, unlike poetry written in English, is meant to be primarily recited and not read. “It is significant that in Urdu idiom, you don’t write verse; you say verse; and the poet who ‘says’ it presents it to his audience by reciting it to them. Only later does it appear in print… Clearly, poets who compose in this tradition need qualities which those who compose for a tradition of written transmission do not need at all….”

“The mushaira is a long- drawn out affair and the poet’s main enemy is monotony. If they are to participate effectively in a mushaira, which will perhaps last for hours together, they cannot hope to do so without resort to variety. The audience knows as soon as the first couplet has been recited what the metre and the rhyme scheme are. Unless the ghazal is one of quite exceptional force, uniformity of tone and emotional pitch are likely to pall.”


The present selection has a number of sheyrs from what is considered to be one of the finest ghazals that Ghalib wrote in Urdu and whose matla is:

Muddat huee hai yaar ko mehmaan kiye hue
Josh-e-qadah se bazm chiraaghaan kiye hue

Russel has translated this as:

(An age has passed since I last brought my loved one to my house
Lighting the whole assembly with the wine- cup’s radiance)

One would only have appreciated if the author had included the ibtidaayi (first) ghazal of Diwan-i- Ghalib. It provides the poet’s own introduction to his diwan, despite it being a little complicated for a beginner:

Naqsh fariyaadee hai kiskee shokhee-e-tehreer ka
Kaaghazee hai pairhan har paikar-e-tasveer ka

Ali Sardar Jafri wrote that visionary is the one who sees and speaks to the future. It is to this exalted group of remarkable men that Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib belonged. In his own time, he had rued:

Today none buys my verse’s wine, that it may grow old
To make the senses reel in many a drinker yet to come
My star rose highest in the firmament before my birth
My poetry will win the world’s acclaim when I am gone

Urdu poetry, Kaifi Azmi once remarked once in an interview, will keep the Urdu language alive. In the last one-decade or so, interest in Ghalib’s poetry has seen something of a revival with the increasing presence of audio and visual mediums in addition to print. While the TV serial ‘Mirza Ghalib’ and the rendering of his poetry by a variety of singers have increased the reach of his poetry, one still has to turn to the written word to drink deep and not merely taste the Pierian Spring. This is clearly illustrated by the book under review- a masterly introduction to the Urdu language’s greatest poet.

April 3, 2001
Published: The Tribune 20 May 2001

Sahir Ludhianvi- by Parkash Pandit

Sahir Ludhianvi
By Parkash Pandit

I have seen Sahir from close quarters- in 1943 when he was less of Sahir and more of a college student and had come from Ludhiana to Lahore for publication of his collection of poems- Talkhiyaan (Bitterness).

In 1945- when with the publication of Talkhiyaan, his popularity soared. He became the editor of the famous Urdu magazines- Adab-e-Lateef (Culture of Ideas) and Shahkaar (The Great Creator) of Lahore. Devendra Satyarthi introduced me to him.

In 1948- when he had reached the zenith of his fame. He had left the film world of Bombay to settle in Lahore. I was staying with him for a couple of days as a member of an unofficial delegation to Lahore. Despite these meetings , I would not have had an insight into his personality and through that into his poetry if I had not met him in Delhi in 1949.

My encounter with Sahir was unexpected, but yet not surprising. In the two days that I had spent with Sahir in Lahore, I could make out that he could not have remained happy there. That was because there he was surrounded on all sides with people of same belief and religion. There was freedom of neither the pen nor of speech and he was intensely missing those whose names were evidently Hindu or Sikh and with whom Sahir had spent his entire life and I had also noticed that his venerated mother too was elated to find us Hindus in her house. So, when I unexpectedly ran into Sahir in Delhi, I was not unduly surprised and when in his usual naughty style, he informed me that the Pakistani government had issued warrants against his name, I did not even feel the need to ask him the reason. Later, when I went to Lahore to bring his mother back to India I came to know that his pen had dripped a few drops of poison and venom on the new State in the fortnightly Savera.

Delhi was not Sahir’s final destination, but a mere foothold on the way. He wanted to reach Bombay at the earliest where, he imagined, the film world lay in wait of him. But perhaps thinking that even the wayside that Delhi was had a right on him, he gifted one full year to it. Though I have met Sahir often after that, I got the chance to understand him and his poetry only during that year. During those days we not only worked together for the Urdu magazine Shahraah (The Royal Road) and Preetlari (The Beads of Love), but also stayed under the same roof. I also had the opportunity to stay in his house for four years in Bombay when I was a guest in the house for months together during the course of my treatment for throat cancer.

Sahir has just got up from sleep (generally he does not get up before 10-11 a.m.) and as always, he is lying with his tall frame curled like a jalebi, his long hair spread out and his large eyes open as if mesmerized by some unseen sight. During this meditation, he cannot tolerate any kind of disturbance. Even his mother, whom he holds in high esteem and whose only support he is after her separation from his zamindar father, cannot dare to enter his room. Suddenly, he gets delirious and shouts “Tea !”.

And after this, for the entire day and if he gets the chance even during the night, he continuously keeps on speaking. He cannot sit in one place for more than half an hour and even as the gathering of friends is not less than worshipping a goddess. He presents cigarette after cigarette to them. As a precaution for his throat, he splits a cigarette into two but often smokes them together ! He offers them endless cups of tea and even helps himself to a cup or two. He regales them his own nazms and gazals and with hundreds of couplets from other poets also, which he has memorized just like his own poems. He recites them with interesting anecdotes and backgrounders. He remembers every small and significant details in his life. He remembers the letters of his friends and articles from magazines word by word. So much so, he remembers entire dialogues from the movies Indrasabha (The Court of Lord Indra) and Shaabharram which he saw as a child.

The interesting thing is that whether he starts making a point about Lata Mangeshkar’s melodious voice or the strange taste of the dosa, the underlying theme is that if this age has produced a great Urdu poet, it is Sahir- Sahir Ludhianvi, whose collection of poems Talkhiyan has seen 21 editions in Urdu and 11 in Hindi. And he makes this point in such a way that the listener is not even aware of the slow brain- washing he or she is being subjected to.

And around 10, 11 or even 1 o’clock in the night when his friends part from him promising to return the next day, and when at least one brave warrior remains with him, he experiences a very vile feeling of being alone and from somewhere the germs of Bohemianism engulf him, and everyone in the world appears small, even like an insect as compared to himself. At that time, the day- long jocular and easygoing Sahir is transformed. The conversations of the day (of which he has memorized each word), he recounts and makes fun of the mannerisms of his friends whom he had admired during the day.

But the next day, he invites those very friends to partake whiskey and food at his own expense. He begins to praise their qualities of head and heart and becomes an enigma in himself.

His enigmatic personality manifests itself in strange ways. It is in his nature to quickly get fed up, feel ashamed and scared on a trivial issue. Another characteristic is his indecisiveness. He cannot decide what to recite in a poetical symposia or gathering. It is impossible for him to decide matching shades for his dress- so much so that he needs a friend to decide the dish to eat, perhaps that is the reason why he remains a bachelor. He does not want others to look for a wife for him and there is no question of looking for one himself.

I sometimes felt that all this is a pretense and sometimes we would flare up on this. I often felt that he is trying to make me an undeserving hero and I was not at all ready for this, hence I would lose no opportunity to make fun of him and play him down. He would still be trying to prepare the grounds to prove the greatness of a new nazm of his, that I would tell him the plot of a long new story of mine, comparing myself with Chekov, Gorky or Guy de Maussapaunt. With mock seriousness, I would recommend those clothes which made him look funny and many a time I made him have ice cream for his breakfast. Then it slowly dawned on me that he was more to be pitied than to be made fun of. He has not deliberately inculcated these habits, instead they have grown around him like weeds and within the folds of these habits are the unfortunate circumstances in which he was born and brought up and which along with other traits- both good and bad- became a part and parcel of his personality.

Abdul Hayee ‘Sahir’ was born in 1921 in a jagirdaar family. Besides his mother, his father had a number of other wives too. But being the only son in the family, he was brought up with a lot of love and affection. But he was still a child when the doors of prosperity were closed on him. Fed up with the depravity of her husband, Sahir’s mother separated from him and since Sahir had given preference for his mother over his father, he was no longer the heir to his father’s property. And with this started the long and arduous phase of struggle of his life.

The days of an easy – going life were over. However, the desire for those luxuries remained. Even his mother’s jewelry had to be sold off but the will to live on remained. On top of this, his father had threatened to eliminate or at least have him separated from his mother. Frightened, his mother put him under the watchful eyes of bodyguards to protect him. So along with hatred, a strange sort of dread also began to gnaw at him. As a result, his mind was beset with a number of problems. He fell in love and failed due to poverty, lack of courage and social consequences. Against his desire and nature, he was forced to do small time jobs to make ends meet. He passed his days in great melancholy. There was a struggle between the desire for fulfillment and his sorrowful present. The dialectic worked between the mind and the heart as well as between life and death. It was this very dialectic that transformed an ordinary student to Sahir. And the bitterness of the heart and mind began to resound in his poetry.

As a poet, Sahir came of age when after Iqbal and Josh, Firaq, Faiz and Majaz reigned. It is evident that any new poet could not have remained impervious to the influence of his towering contemporaries. Consequently, Sahir came under the influence of Faiz and Majaz. In fact, so much so, in his early poetry, Sahir was suspected of echoing Faiz- the same soft soulful voice, the same careful weaving together of beautiful words and the same sleep- inducing ambiance. But soon, his own personal experiences came to influence his poetry, a deep sense of revulsion and revolt against the class one of whose representatives was his own father and the other the father of his beloved, and his conscience tempered in the heat and fire of worldly sorrows, showed him the way and it became evident that instead of Faiz and Majaz, Sahir’s creations bore the stamp of his personal experiences and they had hues of their own. It was Sahir’s very own experiences that could make him cry out-

I come of those whose ancestors have always
Supported the shadows of alien rulers
Since that cursed moment of the Revolt
Have served the authorities in difficult times
No road, no aim and no trace of light either
In deep darknesses does my life tramp
In these vacant spaces shall I remain forever lost
I am ever aware of this, my beloved

But sometimes it just does cross my mind
That if I could have lived under the soft shadows of your tresses
I could have been happier
This all- engulfing darkness, which has become the fate of my life
Could have also spent itself in the splendors labyrinths of your eyes.

And I feel the reason why Sahir, who earned a place much higher than that of his contemporaries lay precisely in his unique personal experiences which he presents shorn of any sheen, except the necessary creative ornamentation. Besides the sorrows of love, the venom and bitterness for soceity that his poetry spewed forth is also not borrowed- it voices his own life experiences.

Sahir is essentially a romantic poet. Failure in love left such a deep scar that the other sorrows were shadowed out. Finding silken dresses swaying around him, he could not do anything else except suffer a hundred heartaches. He found his beloved’s lowered eyes in front of him and he began to ask her in pain-

O the one who lights up my fleeting dreams
Do I ever cross your dreams ?
Search from within your eyes and tell me
Whether the future holds a glimmer of dawn at the end of my long nights ?

and it is possible that he could have kept on asking such questions and not finding a satisfactory answer would have succumbed to the dark and dense shadows whose flow started from the love of a woman and would have remained confined and limited to love poetry. But when he found no answers to his persistent questions, frightened of this constant dialectic he began to develop a habit for deep thinking. Why did this happen ? Why does it happens thus ? And he came to the conclusion that it should not happen as it does. And thus did his personal love, after crossing many a milestone, converged on this little dot where the love of the beloved transforms itself into the love for the entire world and –

You are unaware of this, my beloved,
That two days that I did love you, transformed this simpleton forever.

leads to his whispering in his beloved’s ears-

How can I ever think of forsaking your love, my beloved
The sorrows of this world have been enough to break me.

And then goes on to proclaim in so many words-

I have other cares too besides yours, my beloved
Even a moment’s relief I cannot find from them
Under the very chins of these high rise buildings
At every step screams the cry of a hungry beggar
Cries of hunger from every house
The noise of a seething humanity from every direction
In the din of the humming factories,
Are submerged the thousand cries of poor folk
Youthful faces being sold in every street
Sorrow drawn over enchanting eyes
This unending war- and the coquettish young men of my land,
Whose blosssoming youth is it consumes
On every protest, the long winding arguments of law
Humiliations, sufferings in this era of forced servility
These sorrows are enough to destroy me,
Do not inflict more pain on me with the sadness in your eyes.

And he did not just stop here. As his wounded conscience continued to torment him, he developed a persistent will to continuously fight these sorrows, to subdue them and transform them into happiness. And in doing so, he came to grips with those issues that confront this Age. It is true that in presenting some of these themes, he has not been as successful as in his handling of the love theme, it is sometimes astonishing to find that he has allowed himself to be first and foremost a poet, begins to plead that people should not consider him a poet and when he pledges-

From this day onwards, O workers and peasants
My ragas are yours
Hungry folks! From now on my sorrowful tenors are yours

From this day onwards,
My poetry shall exist to melt the chains that bind,
From this onwards,
I shall spew not dewdrops, but sparks of fire.

This twist in his poetry makes one suspect whether Sahir actually meant what he said and whether he would be able to stick to his pledges? Will his poems now never ever –

Contain longing and hope
The sound of the steps of death
Of life sensuously stretching itself out
Rays of a future and the darkness of the present
The sound of furies and the deep notes of dreams

-in other words, shall his poetry reflect the thousand other hues of life and not just the red colors of a radical political movement ?

Fortunately, Sahir proves himself to be the classical beloved of the Urdu poetry- and he goes back on his words. At least, he does take a step backwards, and after displaying a few sparks he comes back into the safe havens of his idol- house. He realizes that his job is not to wave the red flag, but to sing songs from the rostrum.

While discussing Sahir’s poetry, one of Urdu’s foremost poets- Kaifi Azmi who has been proclaimed by one responsible Communist Party leader as the Red flower of Urdu poetry, has observed that Sahir’s decision to sing songs from the stage and distance himself from the comrades who carry the flag shows the disparity between Sahir’s thought and action and this contradiction has brought anarchism in his life and pessimism in his poetry. He also drew some other similar conclusions and though he recognizes Sahir as being essentially a progressive poet and a friend of the progressive movement, he nevertheless calls upon Sahir to recite his poetry as well as wave the red flag. It appears that in Azmi’s views, reciting poetry is not so important as keeping the flag aloft.

While the flag has its own significance, the rampart too has an import of its own. History is witness to the fact that when the composers of poetry have tried to wave the flag also at the same time, either the rampart has collapsed or the flag could not remain flying. And it is absolutely incorrect to say that only by writing about workers and peasants can one get admitted to the portals of the progressive ranks. Our society is divided into many classes and our artists come from different social backgrounds. Because of certain conditions, if a writer is not able to transcend these class limits, he can very well continue to write healthy, idealist and progressive literature while remaining within the constraints imposed by his class origin. Writers from a bourgeois or upper classes can very well depict the aimlessness and irrelevance of their classes and render as high a service as a peasant or a worker through direct participation in class- struggles.

In contrast to this, if a poet or a writer, while remaining within the confines of his social class, and without being aware of whether a worker works on a lathe machine standing or laying down, and without knowing what time of the year a crop is harvested begins to write about workers and peasants; his words shall not carry the same convictions as those which are based on his own experiences and which are the foundation of great literature. Fortunately, on the whole, Sahir gives us what he has received in life in the form of his verse.

Since the last few years Sahir has been in Bombay and according to Kaifi Azmi, he is a afflicted with all the crassness that film industry is beset with today. One does not know if while writing lyrics for films, he might decide to become a producer or a director himself (because today he owns a fleet of expensive cars and bungalows and has by and large stopped writing nazms), but like Kaifi Azmi, when I first met Sahir, he was only a poet and when I shall meet him last, he would still be a poet because till today he cannot decide for himself what clothes to buy and the more popularity he gains1, he realizes that as a poet his fame is receding.

……the last I met Sahir was in 1978 when his mother, who considered me her son, died and Sahir suffered his first stroke and he was contemplating giving up the film industry and move to a life of relaxation and poetry.

……and the last news I heard about him was on 26th October 1980, when at 5:30 am in the morning, the phone rang and I came to know that the previous night he had sufferred another heart- attack and my beloved friend was no more.

May God shower all his Graces on him,
For the one who has passed away had many a deserving qualities

1 He has been honored with a Padma Shri and his new book of poetry Aao Ik Khawaab Bunain has been awarded the Soviet Nehru Award, Urdu Academy Award and the Maharashtra State Award. During the Indo- Pak war, Indian soldiers had named one of their posts after his name and many of his poems have been translated into English, Russian, Arabic, Persian, Czeck and many other foreign languages.

From Sahir and His Poetry Ed. By Parkash Pandit (Hind Pocket books, 1987)
(translated from Hindi by Bhupinder Singh*)

*: My thanks to Anand Mohan Sharma for helping to get this translation started, and for helping out with some of the more difficult Hindi words- bhupinder

Review of: The Ardent Pilgrim: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Mohammed Iqbal by Iqbal Singh

IqbalThe Ardent Pilgrim: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Mohammed Iqbal
By Iqbal Singh
Oxford University Press, 1997
Pages: 183, Price Rs. 295/-

In the Great Trinity of Urdu poetry, that is, of Mirza Ghalib, Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Iqbal forms a crucial link between the poetry of Ghalib and Faiz. This is both at the level of time as well as in the space of ideas, that is, from the mysticism of Ghalib to the thundering declaration of communism in the verse of Faiz.

The book under review is one of the latest to be published after the celebration of Iqbal’s birth centenary in 1977. Though largely still largely ignored in this country, some of the books on Iqbal to hit the market in recent years have been Khushwant Singh’s translation of Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa, Rafiq Zakaria’s Iqbal: Poet and the Politician and Ish Kumar’s Ghalib and Iqbal. Iqbal Singh’s revised edition of the book he wrote in 1951 comes as a welcome addition to the contemporary literature on Iqbal.

The strength of the present work lies in the tracing of the philosophical ideas of Iqbal. The son of a tailor, Iqbal won fame early in life while still a student of Government College, Lahore. At this stage his poetry was under the heavy influence of Sufi mysticism. It was only when he travelled abroad later in life to study at London and Heidelberg that he underwent a metamorphosis. Specially in Germany, he was thunderstruck, as it were by the considerable body of philosophical thought he encountered. Specially notable is the impact of Hegel, Bergson and Nietzche. Later in life he was to spurn the entire idealist tradition in Western philosophy. It was in London, too, that he started writing in Persian, which afforded him a more versatile form as well as sophistication for his ideas to find expression. Indeed, all the great writers in Urdu, have like Ghalib, either written extensively in Persian or like Faiz, made extensive use of Persian expressions. In the case of Iqbal, however, this switchover to Persian for some of his most mature poetry was to be a great loss for the development of the Urdu language.

It was at this crucial period of his stay in Germany that Iqbal was to be faced with serious misgivings regarding nationalism. It was the decade before the First Word War and the undercurrent of the conflicts between the European nations were already present. These rivalries were based on greed- and Iqbal was repulsed by these developments. The culmination of these into the First World War was to confirm his misgivings. Iqbal’s response to come to terms with the question of nationalism led him not towards socialist internationalism, but, on account of his psychological make up and instinct, towards early Islam, which for him had subsumed various tribal loyalties into a powerful spiritual movement. The Bolshevik Revolution was yet to take place and the ideas inspired by Bolshevism were yet to sway the intelligentsia.

He quoted with proud approval the well known remark of the famous Arab conqueror, Tarik, who, when he led his forces from Africa across to the coast of Andalusia, asked his soldiers to burn the boats in which they had crossed and cheered his homesick followers with the declaration:

Every country is our country because it is the country of our God.

Iqbals’ self perception as the harbinger of Islamic revivalism was beginning to show its contours. His entire life subsequently, and his poetry too, was to be directed towards this goal.

The militant mood of the young Muslim intelligentsia that was asserting itself at the time of the Khilafat movement was reflected in the Al Hilal, the paper edited by Maulana Azad. Iqbal remained politically unmoved, but his writings now began to have a definite and pronounced anti- modern and anti- Western bias.

The alternative that Iqbal now started espousing was that of pan- Islamism, and in the development of this doctrine, he was considerably influenced by the ideas of Saiyad Jamal-ud- din Afgani whose lectures and travels in the 19th century across the Muslim world had deeply influenced the intelligentsia in the respective countries. This positive ideal, as opposed to Iqbal’s denouement of nationalism, became his leit motif and became the cornerstone of his poetry.

This was also the time of the progressive disintegration of the Ottoman hegemony and it was soon after Italy grabbed Tripoli from the Turks that Iqbal’s anger found its vent in Shikwa where he blamed Allah for the misfortunes of the Muslims on earth. The poem was read and recited all over the country. In it the Muslim intelligentsia found its words. Iqbal now attained popularity and above all came to be recognised as the most eloquent voice of Muslims in the country. With his brilliant academic background- in philosophy (Cambridge), philosophy and poetics (Heidelberg) and a bar at law , also from England, his firm grounding in Arabic and Persian, his inborn gift as a poet and finally his insatiable intellectual thirst and prowess all ensured that he would be among the towering and most eloquent personalities that modern India was to throw up in the first half of this century. He was the poet- philosopher, if ever there was one in this country.

Iqbal now went through a process of catharsis and self- purification starting with Asrar-e- Khudi . Influenced by Rumi, he turned away from the Sufi mysticism of Hafiz and western idealist influences, essentially the Greek influences on Islamic thought between 9th and 13th century. This logically led to his repudiating Sufism in general and the Hafiz tradition in particular.

As part of his critique of Sufism, he began to stress on the development of the ego or self. While Sufism emphasised the need to merge the self into the whole, Iqbal took a diametrically opposed stand- that of the development of the ego. Thence:

Tu shab afridi, charag afreedam
Sayal afridi, ayagh afreedam
Man aanam ke az sang aina saazam
Man aanam ke az zahar naushina saazam

(God, You created the night, I made the lamp
You created the earth, I made earthen pot out of it
It is me who created the mirror out of stone
It is me who made elixir out of poison)

In tracing the evolution of Iqbal’s thought, Singh also devotes considerable space to link his evolution to the specific social, political and cultural development in the early twentieth century. Peppered with insights and keen observations accumulated over half a century, Singh is at the very best, his treatment of the subject scholarly and his critical faculty acute. His zest for the subject finds expression in the book- which is impassioned and dispassionate at the same time.

This said, there is at least one point that the present reviewer feels that Singh falls short of “brimming over”. In th enature of things, the philosophy of Iqbal overwhelmingly overshadows his poetry and the author too has concentrated more on the philosophy of Iqbal at the expense of his poetry .

This leads to two problems. One, the poetic milieu in which Iqbal’s poetry arose is at best understated, and at worst ignored. Specially, Iqbal’s inheritance from Ghalib is completely left unmentioned- besides that of contemporary poets. The second result is that while Iqbal emerges as a poet of Islamic Revivalism (which undoubtedly he was, just as Vivekanand was for Hindu Revivalism), he was also the poet who captured the hearts and minds of the non- Muslim intelligentsia as well, specially after the strongly leftward turn that came over in the 1930s. The intrinsic humanistic appeal, specially relevant for the “awakening Asia” , and which transcended Islam, fails to emerge.

That, unfortunately, continues to be a major cause for Iqbal’s relative ignorance this side of the border. This ignorance also reflects what MN Roy had in 1939 in his small but illuminating book The Historical Role of Islam had observed- the Hindus are perhaps the only people, who despite the advent of Muslims in India, never tried to understand and learn from the revolution of Islam, unlike the Europeans, whose Renaissance was borne from the encounter with Islam.

Published: The Tribune July 1997