Mohammad Shafi Khan: Presenting the idea of India in Hindustani verse


By Vikas Datta

Focusing on the nature and vistas, poetry has, in the past century at least, become a largely urban phenomenon – both in subject and location of poets – and Urdu poetry is no exception. But there are still those who look beyond urban settings and preoccupations to incorporate pastoral rhythms, songs of the seasons and festivals, and other patterns of rural life in their verse. This veteran, for one, bears the distinction of receiving his pen-name from India’s first prime minister.

Familiar to those attending prominent ‘mushairas’ (poetry recitals) as a stately, bespectacled man with a distinctive white streak running diagonally down the left side of his beard Mohammad Shafi Khan ‘Bekal Utsahi’ (1930-) is one of India’s pre-eminent poets. Lauded by his peers from Raghupati Sahai ‘Firaq Gorakhpuri’ to Ali Sardar Jafri to Bashir Badr, he has been prolific across all genres of Urdu poetry spanning ghazals, nazms, geet, dohas as well as naats and salaams – his kulliyat (collected works) is over 1,100 pages long.

Born in Uttar Pradesh’s Balrampur town, he started off his career as a poet in the mid-1940s as ‘Bekal Warsi’ taking his pen-name from a comment about him at a visit to Dewa Sharif, the dargah of Haji Waaris Ali Shah (founder of the Warsi order of Sufis) in Barabanki. But this did not remain for long. In 1952, he was reciting his geet “Bharat ka Kisan” at an election rally addressed by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru who too was so impressed – as the story goes – and quipped this was “one of our ‘utsahi’ (enthusiastic) shayars”. And hence, ‘Bekal Utsahi’ it would be.

The name set the tone for his poetry, which reflects the Ganga-Jamuni” tradition of his birthplace (a part of the Avadh region) and is the best example extant of Hindustani, featuring copious use of Hindi words, and at times, Avadhi dialect, with chaste Urdu. And ‘Bekal’, though at his best with rural themes, is not confined by them and can also deal with complex issues of the human condition and society in a deceptively-simple manner, with some very distinctive imagery.

“Tere hai sab rang-tarang jawaani ke/’Foothpathon’ par bhooka bachpan kiska hai” is from one famous ghazal beginning “Pyaase chehrah tapta sawaan kiska hai/Hijr ka mausam bheega daman kis ka hai”.

“Jo mera hai woh tera bhi afsana hua to/Mahaul mohabbat ka begaana hua to” is one of his most known ghazals, in medium ‘behr’ (meter) and an unusual “qafiya-radif” (rhyming) scheme. The few shers of the version I quote were heard in a mushaira, and differs somewhat from the printed version – it is possible he may have subsequently amended it.

“Tum qatl se bachne ka jatan karo ho/Qaatil ka jo lehza shareefana hua to”, “Kamzarf to itni mohabbat na pila/ Labrez zeesht ka paimana hua to” and finally “‘Bekal’ ne tujhe dushman-e-jaani bhi kaha hai/Tujh se bhi achanak yaraana hua to”.

He can use a much shorter meter too: “Jab se hum tabah ho gaye/Tum Jahanpanah ho gaye”, “Husn pe nikhar aa gaya/ Aaene siyah ho gaye” and ending “‘Bekal’ ek hamen saza mili/Log begunah ho gaye”.

‘Bekal’ is equally deft in using the longer meter, of the classical tradition, but in his unique style. “Kahin ret ko sagar saunp gayin kahi pee gayin khud apna jal nadiyan/ Kahi ranaiyan raaj haveli mein hain kahi jogan ban gayi chanchal nadiyan” or “Kab tak haath ki rekhaon mein dhoondega taqdeer re jogi/Kya jaane kan nagin ban kar dass le koi lakeer jogi”.

He also used the old form of ‘doha’ too: “Panghat se gori chali bhare gagriya neer/Ghazal bhajan sabb tyag den ‘Ghalib’ aur ‘Kabir’ “, or he advises himself: ” ‘Bekal’ ji dohe likho geet ghazal ke naam/ Abhi samae hai kaam ka phir karna bisraam.”

But geet, in the native dialect, is his speciality and his focus was unusually wide – be it the Holi festival: “Nachi hai ithaas ke angaan mein Holi ki yaad/Jhul raha hai hai aag ka jhola phool bana Parhalad…” or Eid: “Har taraf rahmat-o-anwar ki ranaiyaan hai/Ham nasheen Eid ke din…” patriotism as in “Vaqar-e-Vatan” or elegies to Lal Bahadur Shastri (“Subh-Tashqand”) and Rajiv Gandhi.

Ever the experimenter, he was one of the first to adapt the refined sensibility of the Japanese haiku. “Jeevan dhoop aur chaaon/Sailabi nadi ke tat par/Mere piya ka gaon” or “Kya kya hai sansar mein/Ghar se bahar nikal ke dekh/Saude sab bazaar mein”, or even “Sansad bhitar shor hai/Bahar dahshatgard ka zor hai/Kursi par hi zor hai” and many more.

Bringing varied colors and sensations of our composite civilization in his poetry, ‘Bekal’s work is a veritable Idea of India in verse – and deserves a wider audience and recognition. Anyone keen to translate or even transliterate?