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A daughter reminisces…

By January 15, 2019No Comments

Source : DNA – JBM


On the eve of centenary celebrations of noted Urdu literatteur and poet-lyricist Kaifi Azmi his five-time National Awardee daughter actor-activist Shabana Azmi pens an exclusive piece extolling the legend, his worldview and work.

As I look at the feverish activity around me in preparation of the year-long celebrations for the Kaifi Azmi centenary, I pause to think what Abba’s reaction might have been. It would, of course, please him to see all the work being put in by Namrata Goyal (youth president of the Mijwan Welfare Society and Jet Airways heiress) and her young team because he loved involving the young in all that he did.

What Abba would’ve said

He would love the idea of the drawing and painting competition for 11-15 year-olds on his poem Pyaar Ka Jashn at the Kaifi Azmi Park in Juhu. He would be touched by the annual mehfil son Baba Azmi hosts at Janki Kutir (the Azmi residence off Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai’s tony Juhu neighbourhood) but the rest of it would make him go red behind the ears because he never exulted in praise. He would wonder what all the fuss is about. So many people coming together to celebrate him; what a waste, he would think. How much more productive it would be to instead use the energy to work in the trenches, join a rally or start a new programme! He was a man in a hurry and spent every minute of the day in pursuit of the task at hand. In the last 20 years of his life, this was decidedly the development of Mijwan, the tiny village in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh where he was born.

On February 8, 1973, Abba suffered from a brain stroke that rendered his left leg and left arm paralysed for life. It was a huge setback for one as active as him. He went through a spell of depression but soon pulled himself out of it. Mummy says that he started chanting the name Mijwan like a mother calls out to a child. Forty years after he had left it in search of a livelihood, Abba returned to find Mijwan exactly as he had last seen it – a village frozen in time. There was no electricity, no road, no school. It didn’t exist on the map of India. He decided he was going to dedicate himself to the upliftment of the village.

All for Mijwan

Mohsina Kidwai reminds me that when she was Union Telecommunications Minister, she received an application from Abba for a sub-post office at Mijwan. This application was different from the routine ones because it was written entirely in verse! She was so charmed that she cracked the whip on her bureaucrats till Mijwan got its sub-post office!

Baba (Azmi) and I were so busy pursuing our careers that we hardly knew what Abba was up to in the village. We would hear some fleeting accounts from Mummy but never from him.

Khorason Road railway station in Phulpur, Allahabad, UP, was the lifeline of Mijwan’s farmers. All their produce would be carried from this tiny railway station to the market. The government in its wisdom decided to demolish the station. There was a huge outcry among the farmers and they turned to Abba for help. He joined the rally, parked himself on his wheelchair and sat on the railway tracks refusing to move. The speeding train was forced to come to a screeching halt, there was pandemonium, the police tried a lathi charge but Abba didn’t move. CK Jaffer Sharief, who was the then Union Railway Minister, heard about the dharna and requested Abba to come to Delhi with his petition. Abba went with a delegation and explained how this stoppage would spell a death knell for the farmers.

“The police lathi-charged our peaceful rally and some of us were badly injured. I have brought their blood-stained clothes in my briefcase. Let me show you.” A chastened Jaffer Sharief rushed to stop Abba and said, “Please don’t Kaifi Saheb. I’m immediately giving instructions to reverse the order.” The jubilant delegation came back to Mijwan with the good news. After everyone had left, Abba and Mummy sat down and chuckled because both knew there were no blood stained clothes in his briefcase! Wily Kaifi had borrowed his wife’s talent convincingly to win the minister’s sympathy! In time, the narrow gauge was converted into a broad gauge and now all trains between Mumbai and Delhi stop at Khorason Road in Phulpur. I didn’t learn about this till years later when his friends from Mijwan told me about the incident.


Self-effacing to a fault

When I told Abba how amazed I was by his guts, he brushed it aside like it was of no consequence. I have always taken him for granted as a father but as a poet, I continue to be overwhelmed by his work. Aurat (Woman), Makaan (House) and Bahuroopini (Chameleon) have been my biggest source of inspiration in the work that I do with women, homeless people and against communalism. The imagery is striking and very visual, almost like a film scene. In Bahuroopini he personifies communalism:

In Behroopini he personifies communalism:

Ek gardan pey sainkdon chehreAur harchehre par hazaaron daaghAur hardaagh bund darwazaRaushniinsey aa nahin saktiRaushniinsey jaanahin sakti

(On one neck, a million facesOn each face, a thousand scarsEach scar a closed doorThrough which light can neither enter Nor go out)

Modest to a fault

I once asked Abba how he rated himself as a poet. He tried to dodge the answer but when I insisted, he said, “Kabhi kabaar koi acchi nazm ho jaatihai lekin zyadatar kaam bas theek hai aur kabhi mamooli (Once in a while, I write a good poem. Most often they are average and sometimes, just plebian).” When I protested his undue modesty about his work as if it dropped from heaven without him playing a part in it, he added, “Badey shayar toh Ghalib aur Mir thhey main toh bas kalam ghis deta hoon(Ghalib and Mir were the great poets. I just scribble a bit).”

But he was quick to praise others. Many a young poet would receive a lot of encouragement from him. 25 Janki Kutir was a haven for such artists. My mother Shaukat and Abba kept an open house for theatre persons, budding poets, aspiring dancers and my FTII colleagues. There was always food on the table. How Mummy miraculously produced such delicious meals when most times money was scarce remains a mystery.

Even after I started working in films and Mummy suggested we keep a security guard, Abba quietly said “Mere ghar ke darwaze agar kisi ke bhiliye bandh ho gaye toh mujhe taqleef hogi (I’ll be hurt if anyone is stopped at my door).”

There was never any dichotomy between what he said and what he did. I often read accounts of public personalities who are large-hearted and generous with the public but difficult to deal with in their private lives. But not Abba. He didn’t inconvenience his family for the ‘larger picture.’ He was always available to us. I could barge into his room when he was writing, to ask some banal question and he would put his pen down and answer without a trace of annoyance at being disturbed. He would patiently sit with Mummy giving her cues for a play she was rehearsing. He got Baba a job as an intern with Chetan Saheb (director Chetan Anand) — normal things that fathers do but are exempted from when they are committed to ‘the greater common good’ and are celebrities.

Kaifi’s companion

Even so just like Baba did, I too firmly believe that had it not been for Mummy’s robust support he wouldn’t have been the person he was. When I asked Abba how he would best describe Mummy he said, “Woh bahutachchi saathi hain (She is a great companion).” That she was beyond any doubt. But what is interesting about their relationship is that it would vary and the roles could be reversed seamlessly without any fuss.

Abba was once in hospital for a carbuncle operation. Two days after the surgery, whilst he was still in the hospital, Mummy accompanied me for an outdoor schedule because she had spent herself as his primary caregiver and needed a break. There was no admonition from his side.

Another time, when she was undergoing a bypass surgery, Abba was with her till the previous night. But on the day of the surgery, he left for Patna because he had a commitment that he didn’t want to break. And she was okay with it! Really and truly. Today, when young men and women measure love almost by legislation, I wonder if there is any place for such empathy and understanding?

Art with a social heart

In celebrating Kaifi we celebrate the times in which he lived. We celebrate Sajjad Zaheer, Sardar Jafri, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Ismat Chughtai, Shailendra and many such stalwarts. They were tuned to the sound of a different drummer. They believed art should be an instrument for social change. They were deeply invested in the society around them and knew that an artist’s best resource base is life itself.

Abba’s centenary celebrations carry the message that art has the possibility to create a climate of sensitivity in which it is possible for change to occur. In his words:

Honton ko seeke dekhiye pachtaiyega aapHungaameinjaag uthate hainaksar ghutan ke baad

(Seal your lips and see, you will regret the act, If a lull is enforced, a storm will thence arise)


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