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Remembering Kaifi saab

By January 14, 2019No Comments

Source : The Hindu – Sunday Magazine

Shabana Azmi talks about the great Urdu poet-lyricist and the plans for his centenary this year

A singular aspect of Kaifi Azmi, the doyen of Urdu poetry, was his indifference towards material things. “He was born in a zamindar family in Mijwan, Azamgarh, but considered himself a kisan (farmer),” recalls Shabana Azmi, his actor daughter, with a fond smile. “The only things he valued were his Communist party card and a collection of Montblanc fountain pens. He would take them out every now and then, clean them, look at them lovingly and even send them for maintenance and repair to a fountain pen hospital in New York.”

Such was his “greed” for them that once, when Shabana’s friend gifted her a pen, Kaifi happily pinched it and wrote her friend a beautiful letter explaining why the pen was in much better custody with him.

Only fitting then that a pen festival, conceptualised by fountain pen collector and Kaifi admirer, Vishal Singhi, is among the various events lined up to celebrate the poet’s birth centenary this year. “A hundred pens will be brought out in Kaifi’s name,” says Shabana of the festival which will be held in Mumbai’s Nehru Centre next month.

Tribute show

The festivities kick off today with an evening of music and poetry, Raag Shayari, at NCPA. Conceived by Javed Akhtar, the programme will have Shankar Mahadevan singing Kaifi’s work, Zakir Hussain interpreting it on the tabla, Akhtar reciting the poems, and Shabana reading the English translations. Theatre director and writer Feroz Abbas Khan directs the show while architect, filmmaker and founder of Mumbai’s G5 Foundation for Contemporary Culture, Anuradha Parikh, is the production designer.

Other events that are part of the year-long celebration, to be held across India, Pakistan, the U.S. and the U.K., are a documentary film, Kaifinaama; Shabana and Akhtar’s play, Kaifi Aur Mein; mushairas, retrospectives and seminars; and a 300-seater auditorium to be inaugurated at Kaifi Azmi Kala Kendra in Lucknow.

It’s difficult to contain the multifaceted man under one label. Kaifi was also a lyricist, an activist, and a member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. As a screenwriter, Kaifi had the unique distinction of penning Chetan Anand’s Heer Ranjha(1970) entirely in verse. He also wrote the script, dialogue and lyrics of M.S. Sathyu’s Garm Hava (1973), and played the key role of the ailing patriarch in Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s Naseem (1995). The latter two are among the most significant explorations of the Muslim psyche in Indian cinema.

Kaifi was also a catalyst for change, and he went about it without much fuss or fanfare. He believed that if the country had to make real progress, it needed to turn towards its villages where 70% of the population lives.

In 1993, he set up Mijwan Welfare Society for the girl child and women in rural India, and made education and skill training its fulcrum.

My meeting with Shabana becomes a nostalgic, languid recollection of several such memories of Kaifi, and of the times, the culture of those days, and of the artists who believed that art should be used as a tool for social change without getting propagandist.

Like movie stars

Then there are personal memories. His love for arhar dal, gosht (meat) and bathua; how he liked Shabana’s voice and would have wanted her to become a singer; attending mushairas as a child, with him and her brother, cinematographer Baba Azmi. “We would go to sleep behind those bolsters at the mushairas,” Shabana recalls. “The popular poets were kept for the end, so his [Kaifi’s] turn never came before 2 a.m.”

She recalls how poets like Kaifi, Jan Nissar Akhtar, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Ali Sardar Jafri were revered like film stars. Her mother, Shaukat, saw Kaifi for the first time at a mushaira in Hyderabad in 1947. She was fascinated with his looks, his voice and the beautiful poem ‘Aurat’ that he recited. “In those days, when it was considered a woman’s lot to stay at home and raise children, and for the man to go out and struggle, Kaifi wrote ‘Rise my love, you have to march shoulder to shoulder with me.’”. After the mushaira got over, college girls surrounded him like flies. Shaukat looked at Kaifi and then mischievously turned towards Sardar Jafri for his autograph. When she eventually went to Kaifi, he returned the favour by writing some gibberish in her book instead of the expected sher. And thus a love story was born.

The Azmi home was a tiny cottage in Juhu’s Janki Kutir, where poets like Josh Malihabadi, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Firaaq Gorakhpuri and singer Begum Akhtar were frequent house guests. Later, Guru Dutt, S.D. Burman and Chetan Anand would visit often. The family celebrated all festivals. “The Kaifi centenary is a way of reminding ourselves of those people and those times. How important it is to reclaim it,” Shabana says.

Kaifi had once told his son in passing that it would be nice if a film were made in his birthplace, Mijwan. This week, Baba begins shooting Mee Raqsam (I Want To Dance), the story of a father and daughter, in the U.P. village. It stars Aditi Sharma, a 14-year-old Mijwan resident, in the lead and is expected to be ready for release by the year end, in a fitting finale to the Kaifi year.

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