Sunday, May 19, 2002
THE radical and the poet do not always occupy the same personality with ease. The rival personae can contradict each other, so that the poetry is pulled one way and the other, between the extremes of sterile formalism and sloganeering. It takes a poet of extraordinary gifts, like Kaifi Azmi, to craft a poetic idiom capable of projecting grief, anger and exaltation while also maintaining a high degree of stylistic vigour. For Azmi, who died in Bombay on May 10, poetry was a form of resistance, an articulation of the self’s protest against the dominance of stifling orthodoxies and the pathologies of power.
The celebrated Urdu poet, who also reached a wide pan-Indian public through his contribution as a film lyricist of distinction, was a member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, which also included his contemporaries, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Ali Sardar Jafri. Urdu poetry had made a transition from the courtly Mughal era into the epoch of colonial modernity after the Great Uprising of 1857; but it received a vital shock of contemporaneity with the advent of the Progressives, who brought into their writing an awareness of the sufferings of the colonised masses, an empathy with a proletariat oppressed by the triple yoke of feudalism, colonialism and industrialism.
The background from which Azmi emerged would seem, at first sight, to be an unlikely matrix for a poet of resistance. He was born more than eight decades ago as Syed Athar Hussain Rizvi, into a zamindar family at Mizwan, Azamgarh, in what was then the United Provinces (the nom de plume that he adopted celebrates his birthplace). His early education followed the traditional pattern laid down for male children of his class: he studied Arabic and Persian with a maulvi at a madrassa, a training in the classics that was to serve his writing as a bed-rock, even though he was to depart widely from Urdu classicism in terms of his choices of subject and tone.
The Quit India movement of 1942 was a formative experience of political radicalisation for the young Azmi. He was fired equally by the nationalist zeal to oppose the British colonial regime and the socialist desire to overturn the deep-rooted feudalism of Indian society and redress the poverty of the Indian masses. Not surprisingly, he joined the Communist Party of India at the age of 19, and wrote for its organ, Qaumi Jung (People’s War). Moving to Bombay in the 1940s, he lived, at first, in communes in Andheri and Nagpada, before shifting to Janki Kutir, in what used to be the garden suburb of Juhu, where a number of poets, artists, film and theatre people lived.
The Bombay of 60 years ago was on fire with the Communist labour movement, which formed, alongside the Congress-driven nationalist movement, an important strand in the widespread unrest that confronted the British in the last decade of the Raj. Bombay’s Communist labour movement was later systematically destroyed by the city’s Congress politicians and the regionalist-communitarian thugs they created, but the 1940s were years of boundless optimism. Azmi and his fellow poets took active part in rallies and marches, agitating shoulder-to-shoulder with the workers to whose cause they lent intellectual support. When the Leftist Indian People’s Theatre Association was set up, the poet was one of the earliest members.
Azmi’s immediate audience, in this period, was the Urdu-reading public of Bombay, especially the residents of the inner-city areas of Madanpura and Nagpada. Many inhabitants of these enclaves, wedged between the markets and the docklands, were descended from refugees from the United Provinces, who had escaped famine, poverty and the British reprisals after the Uprising of 1857. The only link these people had to the lifeworld of their ancestors was their language.To these readers, Azmi spoke in the voice of immediacy, honing a poetic sensibility that would challenge the demons of injustice, bigotry and exploitation in a series of collections, including Jhankar, Aakhri-e-Shab, Awara Sajde and Sarmaya.
We may observe, parenthetically, that one of Bombay’s tragic narratives is the story of the shrinkage and disappearance of Urdu as one of that cosmopolitan city’s languages. A variety of factors have conspired to bring about this disappearance, not least of which is the ghettoisation effect that brands Urdu as a language for Muslims alone (which has not, historically, been true). On the other hand, the felicities of Urdu poetry and prose entered the consciousness of a vast, national audience through the medium of the popular Hindi cinema; for which masters of Urdu prose, such as Sadat Hasan Manto, wrote scripts, while many of the Progressives, Azmi included, provided lyrics.
While necessity may have led Azmi to compose lyrics for the movies, this did not result in a dilution of his adherence to literary standards. His lyrics, especially those written for films directed by the legendary Guru Dutt, endure in the mind and on the tongue: among these memorable songs are “Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam” (from “Kagaz ke Phool”) and “Kar chale hum fida jaan-o-tan saathiyon” (from “Haqeeqat”).
The last decade was shadowed, for Azmi, by the double violation of the values that had been integral to his life. The globalisation process brought with it an unprecedented consumerism, an insensitivity of privilege towards dispossession, an abdication of social responsibility towards those without opportunity and entitlement. Neo-tribalism, in the form of the savage forces of Hindutva, mounted a systematic assault on the secular charter of the Republic.
Like a great many Indians of sensitivity, Azmi was shaken by the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, and was prompted to write a deeply moving poem, “Doosra Banwas” (Rama’s Second Banishment to the Forest). Ayodhya marked the beginning of the end of the secular Republic, as envisaged by the Constituent Assembly, a process that has culminated in the hideous triumph of the murderers and rapists who have challenged Constitutional order with impunity in Gujarat.
No film has captured the predicament of the Indian Muslim after Partition as compassionately as M.S. Sathyu’s film classic, “Garm Hawa” (with which Azmi was associated), did. The film ends with the young son of a Muslim family electing to stay on in India; symbolically, he joins a protest march, marking his participation in the wider national public sphere outside the community. After Ahmedabad, many Muslims must wonder what place they have in a future national public sphere dominated by the Hindu Right; and it is heart-breaking to think that such questions must have confronted Kaifi Azmi in the final months of his life.
This article was first published on The Hindu.