An indefatigable poet-activist

Print edition : May 25, 2002
Kaifi Azmi, 1919-2002.

THE last of the titans of progressive Urdu poetry has fallen. Kaifi Azmi, who died on May 10, 2002 at the age of 83, belonged to the pantheon of socially and politically committed shayirs that rose in the mid-1930s and consisted of the now legendary Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Majaz, Sahir Ludhiyanvi, Makhdoom Muhiuddin, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Josh Malihabadi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Ali Sardar Jafri. Individually and collectively, they rescued Urdu poetry from its decadently romantic cliches of languid love, sighs and tears, coquetry and complaint, flowers and nightingales, comb and coiffure, and tavern and barmaid, and its feudal ethos, and made it modern, intimate and responsive to the sufferings and struggles of a larger humanity.

Kaifi Azmi (correctly spelt, his takhallus should read Qaifi Azami) was the nom de plume chosen by the young and aspiring poet Syed At'har Husain Rizvi, the fourth son of Syed Fat'h Husain Rizvi, a small yet traditionally cultured Shia zamindar of the little village of Mijwan in Azamgarh district of the then United Provinces, now Uttar Pradesh. It was sibling rivalry that drove the young boy to poetry, for all the elder brothers wrote and recited ghazals with much glamour and glory, exposed as they were to urban, modern, English education. When the pre-pubescent Kaifi recited his first lines in a household poetry evening, the audience snickered, convinced that one of the elder brothers had lent more than a helping hand. Deeply hurt, the fledgling one day accepted the traditional challenge of instant poetry from Shauq Bahraichi, a senior regional shayir, who gave him a theme line, misara, to compose an on-the-spot ghazal. Out came the famous first lines: itana to zindagi mein kisi ki khalal pade/Hasne se ho sukoon na rone se kal pade (May there be at least so much turbulence in one's life/ that laughter should give one no comfort nor crying any solace). It remains a mystery how this ghazal reached the great singer Begum Akhtar; she immortalised it in her voice, making it a piece de resistance even to this day. When he composed and recited it, Kaifi was only 11 years old.

-SAHIR RAZA

Meanwhile, his father, sensing the changing times, left his zamindari and joined the revenue service as tahsildar. Kaifi looked forward to an exciting school and university education but his four sisters died of tuberculosis in quick succession and his god-fearing father concluded that the calamity was the divine punishment for allowing his three sons to pursue foreign education. He decided not only to send Kaifi to a traditional Shia school but to have him educated as a maulvi.

A distraught Kaifi found himself in Sultan-ul-madaaris, the most prestigious seat of Shia divinity education in Lucknow. But Allah seemed to will otherwise, and Kaifi became the leader of his fellow students, agitating against the mismanagement of the madrassa. In this role, he began writing hortatory verse besides the usual romantic juvenalia. Soon he joined Mahatma Gandhi's Swadeshi movement. A romantic pursuit brought him to Kanpur where he took part in an industrial workers' movement and was exposed to Communist literature and ideology. The would-be maulvi became a card-holding party member and a Marxist poet. He was to remain devoted to these commitments for the rest of his life.

Although like all committed Urdu poets Kaifi also reserved for himself the right to personal and "confessional" poetry, he was different from them in being a staunch, indefatigable activist. His poetry and his political activities are inseparable. Lines like "The insignia of injustice and torture are trembling/ the flags of the rulers are trembling/ the steps of slavery are trembling/ slavery is now departing from the nation/ arise, look, the storm is rising" ("Aandhi" or "The Storm"), or "How long this tortured living in gradual death/ the ways of the rulers are changing/ the blood seethes the forehead perspires/ the veins throb the breast burns/ It only means O Rebellion that I am prepared" ("Bekari" or "Without a job"), denote the anger, passion and commitment of a maturing Kaifi. And then there is the prophetic vision of Fascism: "They pride in robbing the possessions of the workers/ not mere possessions but the honour of the women/ smashing the skulls of children with boots in the playgrounds/ waving the bodies of infants on the bayonets/ hating the learned, despising the artists/ wrecking schools, setting libraries to fire/ digging up and destroying with pride/ The graves of poets, the mausoleum of the story-tellers" ("Istiqlal" or "Resolve").

In his lyrical ghazals like "Pahla Salaam" (The first greeting), "Shabad" (Youth), "Awara Naghma" (Way-ward Song) and several other later ones titled simply as ghazal, Kaifi comes up with a modern kind of romanticism, pensiveness and tender emotion. But women in his poetry are never an object of sensual desire - in "Shanti van ke Qarib" (Near Shanti Van) he visualises democracy as a woman riddled with darts. "Jel ke dar par" (At the Gate of a Jail) gives us a moving picture of two women and a child visiting the jail for a glimpse of their incarcerated bread-winner. In "Bewa ki Khudkushi" (The Widow's Suicide) Kaifi graphically narrates the heart-rending tale of a young widow killing herself, but the much-celebrated poem "Aurat" (Woman) invites his own beloved to rise and even forsake her love in a united fight against mental and political bondage, obscurantism, inequality and injustice. "Saanp" (Snake), "Somnath", "Bangla Desh", "Lenin", "Moscow", "Tashqand", "Ibne Mariam" (Mary's Son), "Nehru", "Telangana" and "Fat'h Barlin" (Berlin Liberated) are some of his other popular, engage poems. But "Doosra Banwas" (The Second Banishment), written on the demolition of the Babri mosque, is perhaps his most moving testament: "When Ram returned home after his banishment/ He remembered the jungle sorely as he entered the city/ When he looked at the dance of insanity in his courtyard/ Ram must have wondered on 6th December/ how could so many lunatics enter into my house/ Barely had Ram washed his feet in the Sarayu/ that he witnessed there dark stains of blood/ Without washing his feet Ram rose from the banks abandoning his abode he said/ the clime of the capital didn't take kindly to me/ on 6th December I got my second banishment."

KAIFI was a striking figure and his style of rendering his poetry could put the greatest thespians to shame. As is the wont with many renowned Urdu poets, he also became a film lyricist. Beginning with the evergreen hit "Rote rote guzar raat re" (Buzdil, 1951), he wrote nearly 240 songs for almost 80 movies, which included Kaagaz ke phool, Shama, Haqeeqat, Aakhari Khat, Anupama, Pakeeza, Arth and Chand Grahan. For Heer Ranjha, he wrote not only Punjabi-flavoured songs but also the entire screenplay in verse, an audacious achievement. He also did a cameo screen role in Naseem, wrote dialogues for Garam Hawa, the M.S. Sathyu classic, and the screenplay for Shyam Benegal's Manthan. A compact disc album of his ghazals, set to music by Khayyam, was released recently. Kaifi was perhaps drawn to the film world because of his wife Shauqat who acted on the stage. Later his son Baba became a cinematographer. His daughter Shabana, of course, remains an internationally acclaimed actress, honoured with a Rajya Sabha membership.

It comes as a pleasant revelation that Kaifi, who strode the world of Urdu poetry like a colossus, has published only four collections of poetry - Jhankar (1943), Aakhir-e-shab (1947), Awara Sijde (1973) and the collected poems Sarmaya (1992) - which consist of not more than 125 poems. Surely, many of his verses remain uncollected but the fact remains that on the one hand he wrote for films and on the other he remained active on the social and political fronts despite a cerebral stroke that left him partly paralysed for 25 years - an affliction that could have broken a lesser man. Most of his admirers seem hardly aware that he was a master of prose as well. As a columnist on socio-political affairs, he wrote a weekly piece in the Urdu Blitz, simultaneously published in the Hindi edition, between 1964 and 1972. Now collected in two volumes entitled Nayi Gulistan, the articles, interspersed with his own or others' verse, reveal a playful, witty yet politically aware and vigilant figure with a cosmopolitan outlook.

He could be perhaps the most-honoured of all contemporary Urdu poets. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award for Awara Sijde in 1976. He was conferred the Fellowship of the Akademi, pathetically late though, in April when he was on his death-bed in Mumbai's Jaslok hospital. The Central government decorated him with the Padma Shri and for the dialogue scripted for Garam Hawa, he received the prestigious Afro-Asian Lotus Award and many other honours and prizes from various State governments and private institutions. But he deemed the community service he was engaged in in his ancestral village, Mijwan, for the last several years, his most satisfying reward. The Uttar Pradesh government has named the approach road to the village Kaifi Azmi Marg and the Sultanpur-Phoolpur highway Kaifi Azmi Rajmarg.

For his socialist and secular views he earned the ire of both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists. "I was born in an enslaved India, I grew old in a free India, and I shall die in a socialist India," he used to assert. But he passed away at a time when socialism is declared a lost cause and the nation is haunted by a fascist spectre. Kaifi Azmi was well aware of the conspiratorial, cynical Weltschmerz of post-modernism but he lost none of his hope and conviction. He will always be present in his poetry as a bulwark against despair and defeat, a beacon of courage and hope.

Vishnu Khare is a poet and critic who writes chiefly in Hindi.

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