Wednesday December 13, 2017

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?


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Arzoo Lakhnavi: Poet for every class of people


By Vikas Datta

One problem a layman has with appreciating Urdu poetry is that their vocabulary may not encompass its ornate richness drawn from a variety of languages. Many gems are thus fated to remain mysterious to them unless decoded – and like jokes, poetry needing to be explained tends to lose its effect. But there is also the kind its creators wanted to be intelligible to a wider section – like by this poet who not only wrote in simple Urdu but also pioneered his craft’s enduring tryst with the Hindi film industry.

Much before the likes of Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi or Shakeel Badayuni arrived, he was responsible for crafting lyrics for the earliest superstars – K.L. Saigal (“Karun kya aas niras bhayi”; “Dushman”, 1939) and Kanan Devi (“Lachhami murat daras dikhaaye”; “Street Singer”, 1938) as well as some of the earliest featuring emerging stars like Madhubala (“Aayi Bhor Suhani”; “Beqasoor”, 1950), and more.

Among the first mainstream poets to write lyrics for the fledgling film industry – beginning with Calcutta’s New Theatres in the 1930s before shifting to Bombay in 1942, Syed Anwar Hussain ‘Arzoo Lakhnavi’ (1873-1951) was an outstanding representative of ‘Dabistan-e-Lakhnau’ or the Lucknow School of Urdu poetry. However while retaining the tradition’s motifs and focus, he chose a straighter style over its intricate flourishes, and use only Urdu without recourse to Arabic or Persian – despite his considerable knowledge of both.

With both father Mir Zakir Hussain ‘Yas’ and elder brother Mir Yusuf Hussain ‘Qayas’ poets, Arzoo had his path set out for him and took to it with gusto. Like his father, he was a ‘shagird’ of Syed Zaman Ali ‘Jalal Lakhnavi’ (1831-1909) but went much further, guiding the other disciples during his mentor’s lifetime and becoming their ‘ustad’ after his death.

In his poetry, Arzoo acknowledged his work was reminiscent of Mir and Ghalib but also his desire of being different from them, or his contemporaries like Dagh Dehlvi and others. And as his work shows, he did succeed in stiking his own distinctive course – take the opening lines of his collection “Sureeli Bansuri” which are one of his most famous couplets: “Jis ne banayi bansuri, geet usi ke gaaye jaa/Saans jab tak aaye jaaye, ek hi dhun bajaaye jaa”.

Even when dealing with beauty, love and courtship – a staple though not the sole focus of the Lucknow School or the whole tradition itself, he could be different: “Dafattan tarq-e-taaluq mein bhi rusvaai hai/Uljhe daman ko churhate nahi jhatka de kar”, or, “Kis ne bheegi huye baalon se jhatka pani/Jhoom ke aayi ghata, toot ke barsa paani” or even “Allah Allah husn ke ye parda-daari dekhiye/Bhed jis ne kholna chaha voh deewana huya”.

Arzoo too could create some unique imagery in those familiar settings, be it the tavern: “Haath se kisi ne saghir patka mausam ki be-kaifi par/Toot ke itna barsa badal dhoob chala maikhana bhi” or the mehfil: “Awwal-e-shab voh bazm ki raunaq shama bhi parvana bhi/Raat ke akhi hote hote khatam tha yeh afsana bhi”.

But it was not these pleasant diversions only and he, like Mir, could touch a note of melancholy and loneliness too: “Dil hai voh ujdaa huya ghar bujh chuka jis ka chiragh/Aankhen kuch dekhen to batlayen ke kya kya lut gaya” or “Jab koyal kook sunaati hai to pati pati lahrati hai/Ham kisi se kahen aur kaun sune, hamdard hamara koi nahi”.

This could also extend to a sort of hopelessness towards life and its purpose: “Hamari zindagi to ek guzar gah havadis hai/Ajab hai shamaa ka aandhi ke jhonkon main basar karna” or: “Har gul ko is chaman mein kya zarq barq paya/Dekha to ek jana sungha to farq paya” and “Koi hasrat mein dil ka sarmaya/Kuch kahi kuch kahi padha paya” or even maybe: “Hasti ki haqeeqat ko gar bad fanaa jaana/Ab soche to kya soche ab jaana to kya jaana”.

There is all this and much more in the 25,000 ghazals attributed to him and collected in seven ‘divans’ of which the one cited above as well as “Fughan-e-Arzoo” and “Jaan-e-Arzoo” are the most known.

In his film career, he was as versatile. If in Saigal’s “Street Singer”, he could pen “Jeevan been madhur na baaje jhoote padh gaye taar/Bigde kaath se kaam bane kya megh baje na malhaar”, he could also compose ghazal “Sukoon dil ko mayassar gul-o-samar mein nahi/Jo aashiyaan mein hai apne vah bagh bhar men nahi”.

Conferred the title of ‘Allama’ – restricted to less than half-a-dozen literary giants, Arzoo and his poetry epitomise the Indian ethos – and deserves we continue to give him his due. (IANS)

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Existentialism’s genesis in 19th century Urdu poetry


Debates on man’s purpose in life have been as old as his existence and, at some phase, call in question the role of the world – is it friendly, hostile or supremely indifferent? Taking the last position was a school of thought, predominantly European, where the individual’s start is marked by “the existential attitude”, or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless, absurd world.

But do the angst-ridden quartet of writers and philosophers – Kierkegaard (Dane), Dostoyevsky (Russian), Nietzsche (German) and Sartre (French) – who are acknowledged as Existentialism’s pioneers deserve all the credit or should we look closer to home?

A consistent but concise definition of Existentialism has been difficult to frame, but Sartre came the closest in describing it as “the attempt to draw all the consequences from a position of consistent atheism”.

Also among its key features is the notion of the Absurd, which is not the dictionary definition but rather that there is no meaning in the world beyond what humans give it.

It is not very difficult to trace these sentiments expressed in the 19th and 20th century Europe, earlier in time and space to Asia – 12th century Persian astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), in one of his quatrains, translated and popularised by Edward Fitzgerald, says: “Into this Universe, and why not knowing,/Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:/And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,/I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.”

And on the inexorable, mechanistic workings of destiny and the futility of imploring divine intercession, the Sage of Naishapur says: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,/Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit/Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,/Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it” and “And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,/Whereunder crawling coop’t we live and die,/Lift not thy hands to IT for help–for It/Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.”

But there was a poet from the Indian subcontinent itself who excelled in transmuting the mysterious absurdity of life and the human condition into verse – verse which is still popular and heard, though most of the hearers may not know anything of its antecedents.

His most famous couplet is on the ineffable paradox of life – and death: “Ab to ghabra ke ye kahte hai ke mar jaayenge/Mar ke bhi chain na paaya to kidhar jaayenge“, while another famous ghazal, immortalised by both K.L. Saigal and Begum Akhtar, is the one beginning: “Layi hayat aaye qaza le chali chale/ Na apni khushi aaye na apni khushi chale” – and what could be a more poetic expression of Existentialism.

These are among the few surviving examples of the corpus of Sheikh Muhammad Ibrahim ‘Zauq’ (1789-1854), the most popular poet in an era which boasted Ghalib, Momin, Shefta, Azurda and the poet-emperor Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’ himself among many others.

The son of an ordinary soldier who educated himself to rise to poet laureate at the imperial court when just a teenager, the poetic preceptor to the emperor himself and was titled “Khaqani-e-Hind” after the fabled 12th century Persian poet, ‘Zauq’s fame has unfortunately dissipated after him.

But circumstances were against him – as the emperor’s Ustad meant he never had enough time for his own work, of which a major segment was anyway lost in turmoil Delhi went through in 1857.

Contemporary accounts also played a part – while film “Mirza Ghalib” was ambivalent, the TV serial on Urdu poetry’s most recognised poet was slightly more partisan in favour of its hero, who is shown thinking aloud in one scene, that poetry should not merely be esteemed on the basis of usage of wordplay, polished language and skilled rhyming, but on content and style – as exemplified in his own oeuvre!

But even if only the second of his ghazals cited above had survived, it would have been enough to cement his reputation. Succeeding couplets, including those not featured in Saigal and the Begum’s renditions, go: “Behtar to hai yehi ke na duniya se dil lage/Par kya karen jo kaam na bedillagi chale”, “Ho umr-e-Khizr bhi to kahenge ba vaqt-e-marg/Ham kya rahe yahaan abhi aaye abhi chale”, and “Naazaan na ho khirad pe jo hona hai vo hi ho/Daanish teri na kuchh meri daanishvari chale”.

Most superlative are the last two deeply imbued in a pessimistic resignation: “Duniya ne kis ka raah-e-fanaa mein diya hai saath/Tum bhi chale chalo yun hi jab tak chali chale” and “Jati havaa-e-shauq mein hai is chaman se ‘Zauq’/Apni bala se baad-e-saba kahi chale”.

The ghazal seems a primer for a contemplative soul – and we can only bemoan other gems lost in ‘Zauq’s unpublished work!

(Vikas Dutta, IANS)

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Book on Firaq: Oasis in parched land


51-CPKO7vjL-1In my current pre-occupations with the depressing state of world affairs, the arrival of a book, ‘Firaq Gorakhpuri’ for review, provided relief. The author, Ajai Mansingh claimed to be a relative of Firaq. This was intriguing. Raghupati Sahai Firaq, was a straightforward Kayastha from a distinguished family of Urdu poets. It turns out that Mansingh claims descent from one of Firaq’s sisters.

Oddly, Mansingh has lived in Canada for over decade teaching subjects unrelated to poetry. He then settled down in Jamaica which I associate with Rastafarians, Ocho Rios and fast bowler Michael Holding, not Firaq.

All information is not necessarily knowledge. Mansingh’s painstaking compilation of the great poet’s family and relatives does not shed even a shaft of light on a genius who spent his life in poetic gatherings, mushairas, intellectuals, artists, students and teachers of Allahabad University.

The book has triggered a procession of personal memories.

Once when I was visiting my cousin Mushtaq Naqvi in Allahabad, the great Urdu critic, Saiyyid Ehtesham Hussain dropped by. He had to meet Firaq Sahib and asked me to accompany him. Firaq Sahib held forth on a book by Prof. Aijaz Hussain, head of the Urdu department and Firaq’s regular companion. Ehtesham Sahib, a man of few words, was mesmerized. Returning home, Ehtesham Sahib muttered mostly to himself about Firaq’s “incisive” mind, how he had shed light on aspects of the book only a genius can discover. This admission was significant because Ehtesham’s critique of the book had created waves in literary circles. Firaq’s observations were novel and fresh. Throughout the journey back home, Ehtesham kept shaking his head in silent admiration.

My cousin Mushtaq was close to Firaq on two counts. Firaq’s youngest brother, Yadhupati Sahai, was the head of department, English literature at Allahabad University where Mushtaq was a lecturer. Also, Musthaq’s maternal grandfather, Mir Wajid Ali, had been a much respected senior in Naini jail where Firaq too had spent a term during the freedom movement.

The day after Ehtesham Sahib’s visit, Mushtaq visited Firaq.

“Ehtesham Sahib was terribly excited about your fresh insights into Prof. Aijaz Hussain’s book.”

“Which book?” Firaq rolled his eyes mischievously. “I know Aijaz so well, I don’t need to read his book.”

This was just one example of Firaq’s perceptive, razor sharp mind. He had sent away the greatest critic in the land deeply impressed by his insights into a scholarly book he had not read. He had anticipated his friend Aijaz’s mind with stunning accuracy.

In his book Ajai Mansingh expresses unhappiness with the way Firaq has been projected. Most of the writings on Friaq, he alleges, were based on gossip.

At the very outset the author, lists four generations of Firaq’s family as sources for the book. In this list the Mansinghs are prominently inserted. Firaq would have torn his hair. He was not a family man at all. One of the unhappiest events of his life was his marriage. The language he sometimes used to describe his wife is almost unprintable.

Firaq was one of Urdu’s greatest poets, but he was not what you would call a nice man. He says so himself.

“Munh se hum pane bura to naheen kehte ki Firaq,
Hai tera dost, magar aadmi achcha bhi Naheen”

(I will not call him names because Firaq is your friend. But let me warn you, he is not a good man.)

He could be self centered and insincere. Many flattering stories about himself were half truths. Firaq passed the ICS examination. Not true. He got into the provincial civil service but, under the spell of the Nehru family, joined the national movement. He was a professor in the English Department. Incorrect. He spent his life as a lecturer. Yes, he was one of the most popular teachers the university ever had.

He had all the contradictions great men are sometimes endowed with. In full flight of his imagination, he could, in one moment be with the stars, clouds, the milky way. In the next moment he touches deep emotions with rare delicacy. He is probably the most sensuous poet since Meer Taqi Meer.

Shabe wisaal ke baad aayina to dekh I dost. Tere jamal ki dosheezgi nikhar aayee

(Look at the mirror after a night of love. You look more chaste and maidenly)


Woh tamam rooe nigar hai, Woh tamam bos o kanar hai

Woh hai ghuncha, ghuncha jo dekhiye, Woh hai choomiye to dahan, dahan.

(She is all beauty to behold. She is all entangled arms and lips. She is a rose bud for eyes to dwell on in a kiss she is all mouth.)

Did Firaq dominate the literary scene even though contemporaries like Josh Malihabadi, Jigar Moradabadi and Yaas Yagana Changezi were also on the stage? Such an assertion would be fiercely challenged by partisans. Josh was unparalleled in the boom and vigour of his diction; Jigar in his unsurpassed lyricism; Yagana in the startling novelty of ideas.

Firaq derives his sensuousness from Behari as well as Keats. As a teacher of English literature, he had allowed the Romantic movement to influence him greatly. He was to that extent much more cosmopolitan than his contemporaries. A few decades down the line Faiz Ahmad Faiz emerged as a poet with a mind truly in the modern idiom. His personal friendships extended from Edward Said to Louis MacNeice.

Faiz was quite considerably helped by the fact that he lived in Lahore, the liveliest cultural centre until 1947. Lucknow and Delhi never quite recovered their élan after 1857. Majaz possibly the finest talent of the century, languished in Lucknow’s decadence. His dozen or so ghazals and long poem, Awara, rank with the best in Urdu poetry.

It is in this galaxy that Firaq shines incomparably. He courted controversies, including the one which caused Oscar Wilde to be jailed by Victorian England. Like Wilde, Firaq was a scintillating conversationalist, whose company was sought by all ages.

Ajai Mansingh’s plaint is that most of the Firaq stories were “unethical, mischievous and libelous,” as they were based on “gossip”. He says all the writings were based on Firaq’s “last twenty five or thirty years when he had become mentally deranged and morally bankrupt”.

Here is a clear case of libeling the dead. Firaq attended Mushairas until the 70s. He died in 1982.

What a genius like Firaq needed was a Boswell, to record the public record of his wit and erudition, not a tedious compilation of relationships the great poet would have had difficulty recognizing.

(Saeed Naqvi, IANS)