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The red rose of Urdu poetry

By January 21, 2019No Comments

Source : The Pioneer – THE SUNDAY MAGAZINE


Words fall short to describe the preciousness of the contribution made by Kaifi Azmi to the worlds of Urdu literature, Indian cinema, and even the Indian society. Perhaps only Azmi could have done justice to it, writes Madan Lall Manchanda


The birth centenary celebrations of Kaifi Azmi were recently announced. Actress Shabana Azmi and lyricist Javed Akhtar had proposed to stage a play Kaifi Aur Main based on Shaukat Kaifi book Kaifi and I: A Memoir. The play has already proved to be a hit as they have successfully done 300 shows. While Azmi is the kind of poet who needs no special occasion or day to be remembered on, let’s use this opportunity to celebrate this rare gem of a poet.

Kaifi Azmi was once described as the red rose of Urdu poetry by Sajjad Zaheer, a prominent Progressive writer and one of the leaders of the Communist Party of India. Kaifi is no more, but  the fragrance of his creative thought and artistic abilities continues to linger in the minds and hearts of poetry lovers. His meaningful poems turned into songs continue to make people fall in love with music.

In this light, the title that has been informally awarded by Sajjad Zaheer to Kaifi Azmi needs to be pondered over so that one can grasp its meaning in entirety. Yours truly would like to believe that Zaheer’s intentions were not to merely congratulate Azmi on the beauty of the way he uses language in his poetry. Undoubtedly, Azmi had a way with words like very few people do. But he also embodied many other rare qualities. And these were the traits that made “the red rose” a befitting description for him.

Let’s consider this: What is the significance of the red rose as a symbol in our culture? One needs to peel through the layers of meanings of this symbol in order to get the point. A fresh red rose has been a part of image of India’s first Prime Minister, Pt Jawaharlal Nehru. Through this unique addition to his trademark bandhgalas, Nehru had managed to add a Kashmiri twist to European tradition. Kashmir, where Nehru’s family came from, is one of the few parts of India where roses grow easily and in abundance. Also, red rose has been associated with the socialist school of thought as it has been used as a symbol for the same. It’s also common knowledge that in the 15th century, red roses and white roses were used as symbols to represent opposing parties in England’s Wars of the Roses. It’s important to note that ‘Bread and Roses’ is an iconic socialist song. It had originated from a speech given by American socialist and feminist Rose Schneiderman. A famous line in that speech was, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” This song emphasises the contribution of women to society.

All these meanings become relevant to the celebration of the said Urdu poet when one looks at what all he managed to accomplish with his craft. Kaifi spoke about women empowerment, social justice and harmony before these ideas had become as popular as they are today. He promoted these ideals some 70 years ago! That was a time when it was believed that women should stay at home and look after the kitchen while men should go out and struggle. He puts across the point precisely and powerfully in his works. He writes:

Uth meri jaan, mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe

(Rise my love, you have to walk with me)

The Progressive Movement in Urdu literature was going strong at that time. More importantly, Kaifi’s concept of women as forward looking individuals in their own right who deserved to be treated as equals and as partners had captured the imagination of young college girls.  Kaifi also engaged himself in working towards the welfare works of peasants. Such was the impact of his words that even just his poem “Aurat” (quoted above) would be sufficient to keep Kaifi alive for centuries to come.

Kaifi’s personal life mirrored the ideas that he talked about through his poetry. His wife ‘Shaukat’ has always been seen as an equal partner who walked alongside him in the struggle to make both his ends meet in just Rs 40 a month.

It is believed that once after having boarded a bus, Kaifi discovered that his pocket was empty. The conscientious man quickly got down at the very next stop and walked to the destination. Despite his hand to mouth existence, Kaifi never deviated from the ideals he held dear. What he preached, he practised.

Kaifi was not only an adorable father, but also a devoted one. Actress Shabana Azmi was deeply impressed by both her parents. It was probably because of the environment she grew up in that she does not seem to be powerless even when she plays the role of a woman who was deserted by her husband in Mahesh Bhatt’s 1982 movie Arth. Another factor that makes this particular movie of hers special is the fact that it had a remarkable song penned by the actress’ father. The song was turned into a melody by Jagjit Singh. The lyrics are:

Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho

Kya gham hai jisko chhupa rahe ho

(As you keep on smiling to that extent

What in fact is the grief that you are hiding?)

Those who knew the poet believe that Kaifi’s face never revealed what storms blew in his mind. He fought the battle of his life valiantly and never gave way to despair even in the worst of times. Always full of hope and courage, his words still have the power to infuse a new spirit and confidence in others. Also, he had a unique way of saying things. Commenting on his sketch made by Maqbool Fida Husain, he had said, “This is the first time ever that I like my facial contours.”

He was a firm believer in “Art for art’s sake”. His poetry and writings are purposeful. Though the mould is traditional, yet he infuses his poetry with new sensibility. His first collection of poems — Jhankar — was published in 1941. Akhir-e-Shab, too, was published prior to 1947. By and large, these poems are in protest against the barbarism perpetuated by Nazi Germany.

Kaifi, a great advocate of socialism and a trusted friend of Russia, eventually finds himself on crossroads in the wake of a big global divide on Communism. The attack  by Communist China in 1962 came as a big jolt to the Progressive Movement in Urdu literature. Kaifi gives vent to his feeling of resentment in his poem ‘Awara Sajde’. His collection of poems with the same title had later given rise to controversy and agitation. But today, it is considered to be a valuable contribution to Urdu literature. It reflects the maturity of his outlook and the breadth of his vision. Kaifi could create an amazing effect with utmost economy of words.

Kaifi had received the Soviet Land Nehru Award for his two creative writings. He was also honoured by the Government of India with the title of Padma Shri. And, he received three Filmfare Awards and a National Award for his work.

Kaifi has made timeless contributions to movies like Shaheed Latif’s Buzdil, Guru Dutt’s Kagaz ke Phool, Ramesh Saigal’s Shola Aur Shabnam, Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat and Heer Raanjha (which is wholly in verse), Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth, and MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava. He is also known for his contribution to the TV serial Ghalib. Equally significant is Kaifi’s logical exposition of the connection between music and poetry as revealed in his talk of great literary merit which is often still broadcast by All India Radio. The talk was originally with Malika-e-Ghazal Begum Akhtar. Hopefully, it is preserved in the archives of Akashvani.

Kaifi has left a strong imprint of his personality in his poems, writings and songs which continue to echo and re-echo. He was a powerful orator. Once, Sarojini Naidu before whom had the chance to recite his poem, smilingly inquired “Have you any idea about your voice or have you ever heard it?”

Kaifi Azmi belonged to an orthodox religious Muslim family from UP. But he rebelled against the old shibboleths of religion. He was all praise for Pt Nehru, whom he saw as the architect of Modern India who made ceaseless efforts to build India. True, China, the world’s fastest growing economy may have been ahead of us. But their progress is a result of regimentation.

Contrarily, Nehru has given India a democratic setup, a socialistic pattern of society and bestowed it with gifts of liberty, fraternity, fellow feeling, tolerance and freedom of expression. Kaifi believed that Nehru never gave up on building the India of his dreams. He respected the fact that Nehru was a firm believer in international socialism and worked for global peace. A vivid  picture of the luminary emerges in Kaifi’s couplet:

I have never ever seen him alone/Yet, whenever I saw him, I found him alone

It would be an understatement to say that Kaifi Azmi gave expression to the socio-political urges of his time. Because it can be argued that he was one of the powerful human influences that helped define these urges. His undying influence can also be traced in the works of his contemporary poets notably Salam Machhlishehri, Sahir Ludhianvi and a host of other young poets.

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