Veils and verses

Print edition : May 18, 2012

PAKISTANI POET ZEHRANigah on her recent visit to New Delhi: Her words do not compromise the decorum of speech at public forums, yet shame those who are responsible for inhuman indulgences.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Zehra Nigah, a powerful voice on Pakistan's poetic horizon, shines brighter in her twilight years.

ZEHRA NIGAH, lovingly called Zehra Aapa, is Pakistan's most beloved woman poet and is among the most sought-after names in India's prestigious mushaira circuits. Now 76, she has not lost any of her charisma in her verses. She is in India on a month's visit a journey she has undertaken every year since 1953. Her itinerary includes participation in Jash-e-Bahar, the historic India-Pakistan mushaira carried forward by Kamna Prasad; paying obeisance at the shrines of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aaulia and Bakhtiyar Kaki; meeting close friends like Javed Akhtar, the lyricist, and Rakshanda Jaleel, who translates her verses into English; and buying a dozen cotton saris for a year.

Zehra Aapa became Pakistan's voice of progressive feminine poetry (not feminist) in the 1950s, at a time when women poets were few and far between and turning a shayra was taboo. Worse, it was unthinkable on the male-dominated poetic horizon that women could have the skill to write poetry. So much so that if a woman recited her verses at any mushaira, it would be automatically assumed that they were ghostwritten. Earlier this year, Anwar Maqsood, the poet's brother, a noted satirist, said during a CD launch of Zehra Aapa's poems in Pakistan that even he, when young, used to think that his maternal grandfather (who was a poet and a pupil of the eminent poet Daagh) ghostwrote for her. It was when grandfather passed away that I realised my sister was a good poet.

Zehra agrees: Yes, it was considered that someone might have ghostwritten for women poets, but after Ada Jafri [pioneer of feminine poetry in Pakistan] and I started presenting on the stage and publishing our creations, the scenario started changing.

Women and poetry

It took Pakistan a long time to come to terms with the fact that women could publicly recite their verses. The reason was a conservative mindset. The poet explains, In our country shayri has been unfortunately associated with bazaar because most of the earlier women shayras [poets] were either courtesans or tawaifs [from the bazaar]. But the fact is they were the pioneers of feminine poetry in Pakistan.

When the British started ruling parts of India, while invading princely states, they would abduct women. So, to preserve the women's dignity, the royalty and even commoners would either throw their women in the wells or march them to the forests. But among the thousands of women, there were a few who did not want to drown or die in the jungle. They went to the chowk or bazaar, which means they began to perform in public places where women from decent families would not go. Armed with natural poetic excellence, many of them were able to impress the royalty with their shayri. The kind rulers arranged for their taaleem (higher education) in poetry and its presentation through classical dance forms and tarannum (song). They were also taught the royal and delicate mannerisms of hosting guests ( aadab-e-mehfil). They were given the title of tawaif, in recognition of their ability to present poetry and dance with skill and style, or ada, and implying no association with the flesh trade. Under the patronage of kings, many girls became courtesans. Umrao Jaan Ada was one such. These girls, with their impeccable poetry, were now able to please young British soldiers. That was how shayri among women came to be associated with the bazaar.

Says Zehra: Such was the impact of feminine shayri on the British soldiers that many of them stayed back in India. They made their small riyasats [states] and became angrez nawabs'. They dressed like Hindustani kings and spoke Urdu. Their greatest weaknesses were the tawaifs and their poetry. Rambabu Saxena's book [ European and Indo-European Poets of Urdu and Persian, Naval Kishore Press, Lucknow, 1941] documents that young British soldiers learnt Urdu and adab [language and etiquette] from tawaifs and their weakness for these women alarmed their wives back home. So much so that some of them came to India after learning their husbands had fallen for the charms of tawaifs and their poetry. Here, they learnt the Urdu language and even shayri. Some British women even started doing shayri in Urdu. One British woman had used 'Shareer' [mischievous) as her nickname [takhkhalus]. Also, ghazals, nazms penned by these courtesans, were published with their new names and their identity in brackets.

Zehra Nigah recalls: In 1952, a famous book of poetry in Pakistan, called Nuqoosh [meaning Imprints], published my poem along with Ada Jafri's. We were the only two shareef [decent] women poets represented in it; the rest of the ghazals/nazms were by tawaifs. Those were published under their nicknames, with the word tawaif written in brackets. For instance, Nazuk Jaan ( tawaif)'. Publishing poetry was so risky that one poet from a decent family used to send her poems under her nickname expressed with her initials in Urdu, that is, Ze Khe, Shey', to hide her identity.

Family background

Hyderabad-born Zehra went to Pakistan during Partition. Her father was a civil servant with a keen eye for poetry. Her elder sister, Suraiyya Bajiya, is hailed as an exceptionally talented writer in Pakistan's television world. One of her brothers, Anwar Maqsood, is a noted satirist and public speaker and another brother, Ahmad Maqsood, a civil servant, was formerly Secretary to the Government of Sindh. He is learnt to have translated William Blake into Urdu. And the poet's late husband, Majid Ali, was a civil servant with a keen interest in Sufi poetry. Javed Akhtar says that he has seen few individuals who could understand and remember Ghalib's shayri as eloquently as Majid saab did.

Around 1922, the living room in Zehra's family home used to serve as the centre stage for historic meetings of poets of the stature of Iqbal, Firaq, Makhdoom, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Majaz. Academics, poetry and music completed my home, she says, adding, My mother used to learn music from her ustaad [teacher] from behind a purdah. My maternal grandfather used to encourage us children to revise tough poets like Haali and Iqbal with correct meanings, pronunciations and reading style. He would tempt us by saying, If you memorise Iqbal's Jawab-e-Shikwa or Musaddas-e-Hali, you will get five rupees.' And we would wield all our energies to memorise them. Such was my training that at four I had learnt the correct recitation style and pronunciation and by the time I was 14, I had learnt the masterpieces of most big poets by heart.

She recited her poem on the stage for the first time when she was 15. She was in the 10th standard then. Her class teacher asked her to read her poem in a mushaira in Delhi. It was an august gathering with giants such as Makhdoom, Firaq, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Kaifi Azmi and Majrooh Sultanpuri. It was a women's mushaira where women were at the forefront and men behind a curtain! I read my poem and sat quietly. All these poets were benevolent. They praised me large-heartedly, she recalls.

Her popularity at times overshadowed that of eminent poets. It is recorded that in a mushaira held in Jacob Lines (Karachi), the poet Jigar Muradabadi made an appearance. The public wanted to hear Zehra Nigah after Jigar had finished. Despite being so senior, Jigar sahib graciously allowed me to recite my poetry, she recalls. Majrooh Sultanpuri is known to have often persuaded her parents to allow her to travel beyond the country for more exposure. Slowly, she became a regular at prestigious mushairas. Her musharias have been attended by the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Zakir Hussain.

Reason for popularity So, what makes Zehra Nigah so popular?

It is her effortless storytelling, employing domestic imagery, with which she makes powerful social and political comments. Her poetry speaks through kitchen appliances like the earthen stove and tawa, meals and milk, toys and ornaments, henna, kohl and the Quran.

RECITING ON STAGE. Zehra Nigah's early verses show the strong influence of feminism. But she opines that that kind of feminism does not mean arrogance. "Feminism is fine till it doesn't smell of haughtiness."-

The most powerful aspect of her verses is the dignity of the words with which she veils even the most brutal act of humanity or nature and still conveys her message in a very effective manner. Her words do not compromise the decorum of speech at public forums yet shame those who are responsible for inhuman indulgences. And, most interestingly, her subjects a mother, an unborn girl child, a teenage soldier, a blind girl serving a sentence under the Hudood Ordinance speak out their hearts, transforming her poems into very short but immensely engaging ballads.

For instance, her poem Bhejo Nabi Ji Rehmatain is about the victim of a rape in wartime in Pakistan. It tells the disturbing tale of a young mother who is making roti on an earthen stove while swinging the cradle with her infant. Nearby, on a stack, is kept a Quran, the book of her faith. She is teaching her caged parrot to invoke God and seek His mercy by repeating Bhejo Nabi Ji Rehmatain (O God bestow us with kindness), when an attacker breaks open her door. While her roti burns, the cradle falls and the Quran is covered with her flowing drape, the parrot helplessly keeps on chanting Behjo Nabi Ji Rehmatain.

Similarly, her Qissa-e-Gul Baadshah is a heart-wrenching narrative of a 13-year-old Afghan soldier, Gul Badshah, who tells his life story how he lost his parents to the war of peace, how his sister was rendered disabled by the brutal forces, and how his brother's limb was blown away. Gul Badshah sarcastically adds that despite all such acts of cruelty on his family, the soldiers, when they left, threw some food packets to him as a mark of mercy.

Kal Sar-e-Sham, Dushman nay jatey huay mujh par barsa diye peelay thailay Jin say mujh ko milay Gol Roti kay tukray, aik makhan ki tikiya, aik Sharbat ki Botal, Murrabey ka Dibba! Isskay badlay main wo lay gaye Meray Bhai ka Dast-e-Mushaqat Jis main Mannat ka Dora Bandha tha aur meri choti behan ka woh paon Jis say Rang-e-Henna Phot-ta tha.

(Yesterday evening, the outgoing enemies threw some yellow bags towards me; they had pieces of round chapattis, a tiny butter pack, a bottle of sherbet and a box of pickle.

In lieu, they blew away my brother's arm on which was tied a sacred thread of blessings and my kid sister's feet which would emanate the fragrance of henna (mehndi).)

This heart-rending poem was a result of a news report in which she saw a young boy carrying a gun on his shoulder during the Afghan war when [there was] rampant use of landmines in Afghanistan.

The poet's emotions for the unborn girl child come alive in the heart-warming Main Bach Gai Maa. It is a sardonic attack on female foeticide and those who cause it. In this poem, the baby in the womb convinces her mother how and why she is lucky not to be born. Similarly, in Hudood, the girl serving a sentence under the Hudood Ordinance is left alone in a dark room without food. While her brothers go to the mosque and read the Quran, her mother, who has become insane, feeds her food to the sparrows and keeps on muttering that these sparrows shall, one day, make heaven fall on earth for the injustice done to her child.

(The Hudood Ordinance, a Pakistani law that was enacted in 1979 as part of the military ruler Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's Islamisation programme, said a woman found to be guilty of extramarital sex or zinah would be punished with death by stoning. It said that a woman victim of rape would be prosecuted if she was not able to produce two eyewitnesses to prove the crime committed on her.)

Says the author Rakshanda Jaleel, The Hudood Ordinance, despite the repressive regime of Zia-ul-Haq, invited strong reaction from across the country as it was misused by many. It forced further atrocities on women. For instance, helpless/poor women would be accused of zinah and their property would be confiscated. The staunch feminist poet Fehmida Riyaz also wrote a poem, Hum Gunahgaar Auratain, to protest against the law.

The infamous case of the blind girl Safia Bibi, a rape victim, who was prosecuted for the crime of zinah because of her illegitimate pregnancy while the rapist was acquitted, resulted in Zehra Nigah's poignant poem Hudood. This poem, too, evoked a strong reaction in her country. It was instrumental in labelling her a feminist poet. Her other magical creations such as Samjhaute Ki Chadar, Daku and Bohot Dino Se Zehra Ne Kuch Nahi Likha Hai are on compromises a woman makes in the family with the spouse, the rebel child and the pain of witnessing changing family/blood relationships for practical reasons. Dildar Begum Yahan Dafn Hai, Cheenti, Hawwa ki Kahani, London mein Sherzade and Ruko are her other moving poems that reflect the excruciating agonies of life and the hypocrisy of society.

Zehra Aapa's early verses show the strong influence of feminism. But she opines that that kind of feminism does not mean arrogance. Feminism is fine till it doesn't smell of haughtiness, she says, breaking into a relevant couplet:

Ye kya tareke safar ke hum rahain peeche Jab aik sath rehna hai to sath-sath chalain

(Why should women remain behind [men] in the poetic journey/journey of life

Why not walk together, when our destination is the same?)


Zehra has imbibed the large-heartedness of her predecessors. She praises the women poets of Pakistan profusely. In Pakistan, women poets are doing very well. Kishwar Naheed, Fatema Hasan, Fehmida Riyaz, Yasmin Nawed and Shahda Hasan are excellent writers. I am deeply impressed with Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, who is the first woman to say couplets in Punjabi.

But she clarifies in the same breath: If women poets in Pakistan have been successful, it is because our male counterparts have been extremely supportive. Marxist philosophy also played a great role in taking poetry to greater heights. Zehra Aapa, however, feels that Urdu shayri, other forms of literature, and cultural programmes on Pakistan television are receiving fewer audiences these days than before.

These days, people in Pakistan want to watch more of political news and discussions on their television channels because our media achieved freedom only four-five years ago after 64 years. Earlier, people were never privy to the political happenings in the country, so now 99 per cent of the viewers' focus remains on political news. So much so that even [the] domestic help wants to watch political discussions. Our literature-based programmes are no less in content, but politics has overshadowed them, she says.

As long as Hindi is alive in India, Urdu too will live. We can't separate the two. At the Indian airport, a notice read Lawaris [unclaimed] cheezain'. Lawaris is an Urdu word. As long as we use Urdu words in the language of daily use, Urdu will stay. I feel regional languages are no less important than national languages, and associating a language with a particular community is tantamount to racism. Urdu in India has often been associated with Islam. This has done great disservice to both Muslims and other Hindustanis.

Zehra does not mince words when she says that in Pakistan the condition of Urdu is not any better. When local dialects are attacked, it leads to an adverse effect on the official language and the mother tongue, she says.

Indian favourites

In India, Kaifi Azmi, Jaan Nisar Akhtar and Sardar Jafri have impressed me immensely. The death of Shaharyar affected me a lot. Of that league, only Nida Fazli is alive. I pray to God for his good health.

Among contemporary poets, she has a great regard for Javed Akhtar. She says, Javed's parents [Jaan Nisar Akhtar and Safia Akhtar] filled poetry in his blood, but, interestingly, he has made his own separate space in the poetic world where he reads neither like Majaz, his maternal uncle, nor like his father. His shayri reflected in his songs has the philosophy of life. When I read his simple poems like Kuch na kaho, or Mere man ye bata de tu or Vo kamra baat karta tha, I am filled with joy, thinking that India's poetic future is in safe hands.

Zehra does not believe in writing thick volumes. She has to her credit three slim books of poetry: Shaam Ka Pehla Taara (with an introduction by Faiz Ahmad Faiz), Warq, and Firaq.

These days she is busy penning a poem on the atom bomb and also a personal memoir. I will not publish my memoirs. These will only be for my children to read when I am no more. It will tell them what pain I have lived through. It is too personal for public display, she says.

Sang-e-Meel, a publisher in Pakistan, however, is compiling all her poems in a forthcoming edition. A CD on her verses ( Sukhan-i-Zehra) in her own voice was launched early this year in Pakistan.

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