Syed Fateh Husain Rizvi enjoyed Urdu poetry and it was common practice at his home in Mijwan to hold a ‘Nishast’ (small mehfil of poets). On one such occasion Fateh Husain’s son Athar who was eleven years old ventured to recite a Sher. Nobody believed Athar had written it himself so he was put to test. He was given a ‘Zameen’ (same metre and rhyme) by the poet Shauq Bahraichi ‘Itna hanso ki aankh se aansu nikal padey’ and asked him to write a Ghazal to this metre right there in front of everybody. The young lad rose to the challenge and this is what he came up with :
Itna tto zindagi mein kisi ki khalal padey
HaNsne se ho sukoon na roney sey kal padey
Muddat ke baad usne jo ki lutf ki nigaah
Jee khush tto ho gaya magar aaNsu nikal padey
Jis tarah haNs raha hooN maiN pee pee ke ashk e gham
YuN doosra haNse tto kaleja nikal padey
This ghazal marked the emergence of Athar Husain Rizvi as ‘Kaifi Azmi’ at the tender age of eleven! This particular ghazal was to become all the rage in undivided India and was sung by the legendary ghazal singer Begum Akhtar.
Poet and Lyricist Kaifi Azmi was born as Athar Husain Rizvi in the small village Mijwan, in the district of Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. He belonged to a family of landlords. His father, Syed Fateh Husain Rizvi, though a landlord, took up employment first in a small native state called Balharah as a Tahsildar and later, he worked in other areas of Uttar Pradesh. Kaifi’s father was broadminded and modern in his thinking and wanted his sons to receive a modern education and send them to a school which taught English. Unfortunately by the time it was Kaifi’s turn to get admission in the English school, three of his sisters had succumbed to tuberculosis. It was believed that this was because the brothers before Kaifi had received English education which had invited the wrath of Allah: So it was decided that Kaifi would be sent to a madarsa to study Theology. Succumbing to family pressure Syed Fateh Husain Rizvi enrolled his son to the Sultan-ul- Madarsa seminary in Lucknow.
From a young age Kaifi had the traits of a leader and a nonconformist nature, which led him to question the rights and wrongs prevailing in society. While in the seminary he soon ran into trouble with the authorities there. He formed a students’ union and asked all the students to go on strike for getting their demands fulfilled. The strike continued for one and half year. Though the strike was called off he was expelled from the seminary. Ayesha Siddiqui a member of the Progressive Writers Movement had an interesting comment on this, “Kaifi’s elders sent him to a madarsa in the hope that he would learn how to recite a fatiha on their graves..Kaifi instead recited the fatiha on religion itself and left..!”
This was the end of his modern education but he passed various examinations of Lucknow and Allahabad Universities that helped him learn the languages – Arabic, Persian and Urdu.
Being from a family that had a literary background, Kaifi was born with the gift of languages. He also had a natural talent for writing. Due to his keen interest he was drawn to the Progressive Writers’ Movement pioneered by Sajjad Zaheer. This movement was led by intellectuals and was concerned with issues of social justice, freedom from oppression and freedom of speech. The leading progressive writers noting his immense poetic talent and leadership skills began to encourage and guide him. As a result Kaifi began to gain fame for his illustrious verses.
It was a time when the nation was going through deep civil and political strife. The homeland was struggling for independence from the British Rule and was torn between the philosophy of non-violence of the Mahatma and the rising commotion of communal hatred and violence. And caught in the midst of all this were several brave and idealistic young men and women. Kaifi Azmi was one of them. He abandoned his studies of Persian and Urdu during the Quit India agitations in 1942 and got totally involved in the freedom fight. This movement was influential in forming the political fundamentalism of young Kaifi. Not only did he oppose the British regime but also wanted to overturn the deep rooted feudalism of Indian society and address the poverty of the Indian masses.
He joined the Communist party at the young age of 19 and was invited by Comrade Sajjad Zaheer to Bombay to take care of “Qaumi Jung (People’s war), an Urdu newspaper published by the Communist party. Kaifi’s writing had found a purpose.
In Bombay Kaifi lived in communes in Andheri and Nagpada and later shifted to Janki Kutir which used to be the garden suburb of Juhu, where a number of poets, artists, film and theatre people lived. This was the time when Kaifi and his comrades took active part in rallies and marches agitating shoulder to shoulder with the workers to whose cause they lent intellectual support. The British left India, but not without sowing the seeds of communal hatred which eventually lead to the partition of the country. The partition of the subcontinent came as tumultuous shock to all those who had fought for the freedom of the nation. Seeing the country break- up was an event so momentous, so distressing that no one who was caught in the furore of that moment could escape unscathed. To top it all, the city’s politicians and their regional communalist thugs later systematically destroyed Bombay’s communist labour movement. Several of the progressive writers gave in to cynicism and despair. But a few like Kaifi never lost their idealism. He continued on his chosen path.
He continued working as a poet for the masses. His audience consisted of descendants of 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 life and world of their ancestors was their language- Urdu. To these readers, Kaifi spoke in the voice of propinquity about injustice and exploitation, in a series of collections, including Jhankar, Aakhir-e-Shab, Awara Sajde and Sarmaya. His poetry was rich with emotion and empathy towards the disadvantaged sections of the society.
Kaifi Azmi’s foray into Hindi cinema might have been for reasons of bread and butter but his contribution to it cannot be underestimated. He made a name for him self as song writer storywriter, scriptwriter, and dialogue writer of exceptional merit. It was a time when the usage of Urdu was increasing in Hindi cinema and many members of the Progressive Writers Movement, which also included his contemporaries, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Jan Nisar Akhtar and Ali Sardar Jafri were writing for films. The language had evolved from its traditional courtly style into a more modern contemporary style. Kaifi Azmi reached a vast audience through his contribution as a film lyricist of distinction.
Kaifi Sahab, as he is respectfully known, worked as a storywriter in Nanubhai Vakil Films like “Yahudi ki Beti” (1956). “Parvin” (1957). “Miss Punjab Mail” (1958) and “Id ka chand” (1958). In the all-time classic, Guru Dutt’s “Kaagaz ke Phool” (1959), Sahir Ludhianvi the lyricist walked out of the film following differences with master composer S.D. Burman. In stepped Kaifi, in style and wrote the unforgettable songs like; “Waqt ne Kiya Kya HaseeN Sitam Tum Rahe Na Tum Hum Rahe Na Hum” which beautifully expresses the anguish of two people who had loved each other but had changed over time. This song is one of Kaifi Azmi’s most remembered numbers.
When Kaifi Azmi wrote the verses for Chetan Anand’s “Haqeeqat” (1964), India’s greatest ever war film he made the whole nation cry with his patriotic and pathos-filled “ Kar Chale Hum Fida Jaan O Tan Saathiyo” Who can forget “Hoke Majboor Mujhe Usne Bhulaya Hoga” and “Zara si Aahat Hoti Hai” rendered in the voices of Rafi and Lata to the tunes to Madan Mohan.
Even though necessity may have led Kaifi to compose lyrics for film, in no manner was his literary standard less than excellent in this field and his words remain testimony of that. This is exemplified by Lata’s “Kuchch Dil Ne Kaha Kuchch Bhi NahiN” and Hemant Kumar’s “Ya Dil Ki Suno Duniya Waalo” in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s “Anupama”. Kaifi’s creations in association with Hemant Kumar are legendary. Among them the most prominent being Lata’s “O Beqaraar Dil” and Hemant Kumar’s “Yeh Nayan Dare Dare.” Kaifi Azmi, Hemant Kumar, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Guru Dutt and Chetan Anand were all men with a certain literary awareness, thus it was natural that their creations are timeless.
However the foremost aspect of Kaifi Sahab’s work is his understanding of the mindset of the masses. He had this amazing ability to know what would work with them.His lyrics never compromised on quality and yet had the simplicity to strike a chord with the audience. Who can forget “ Jeet Hi LeNge Baaz Hum Tum” or “Jaane Kya DhooNdti Rehti haiN” in the mellifluous voices of Lata and Mohammad Rafi in Ramesh Saigal’s “Shola Aur Shabnam” set to music by the incomparable Khayyam? Lata Mangeshkar has gone on record to say that “Bahaaro Mera Jeevan Bhi SaNwaaro” from ‘Aakhri Khat’ is one of her favourite songs.
Azmi’s vivid verse could portray wide spectrum of emotions and fans all over have appreciated this. The passing of Jawaharlal Nehru in May 1964 had Kaifi reflecting the agony of a whole nation as he teamed up with Madan Mohan to create “Meri Awaz Suno Pyaar Ka Raaz Suno” in “Naunihal” in the sonorous voice of Mohammed Rafi. The same movie has the lyrical “Tumhari Zulf Ke Saye Mein” again in Rafi’s golden voice. The Kaifi-Madan Mohan combination has given us some of the finest numbers in Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar’s voice. This is exemplified in “Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho” from “Hanste Zakm”. This film also has a mesmerizing solo by Lata- “Aaj Socha To AaNsu Bhar Aaye”.
However, it was Chetan Anand’s “Heer Ranjha” released in 1970 that was one of the ultimate works of Kaifi Sahab. It is considered one of the greatest feats in Hindi Film writing. The entire dialogue of this film was in verse. The songs of this film are legendary with Lata’s “Do Dil Toote Do Dil Haare” and Rafi’s “Ye Duniya Ye Mehfil Mere Kaam ki NahiN” being two of the all-time favorites. It’s obvious from Kaifi’s range that his priority was to enrich the caliber of the tune and take the story further by encapsulating the quintessence of the character’s sentiments. Be it the Madan Mohan composed “Tum Bin Jeevan Kaisa Jeevan” from “Bawarchi” in Manna Dey’s voice or the famous “Do Din Ki Zindagi Kaisi Hai Zindagi” from the film “Satyakam” composed by Laxmikant Pyarelal.
On the other hand if you ask his fans to pick their favorite more often than not it would be “Chalte Chate Yun Hi Koi Mil Gaya Tha” from “Pakeezah”. This nazm is poetry personified in Lata’s unparalleled voice and immortalized on celluloid by Meena Kumari’s sensitive performance. It’s a precious gem of old world charm and poignancy and a significant number in the history of Hindi Film music. Kaifi’s unmatched brilliance shines through this number. Kaifi’s gifted pen has churned out numerous priceless songs.
His versatility is evident in songs as diverse as “Simti Si Sharmai Si” from “Parwana” and “Hai Tere Sath Meri Wafa” in “Hindustan Ki Kasam”.
The same magic can be seen in the songs he wrote for “Arth” in 1982, a film starring his daughter Shabana Azmi and Raj Kiran. “Tum Itna Jo Muskura Rahe Ho Kya Gam Hai Jisko Chupa Rahe Ho”, “Jhuki Jhuki Si Nazar Bekaraar Hai Ki Nahin” and ” Koi Yeh Kaise Baataye Ki Woh Tanha Kyon Hai” are beautifully written ghazals composed and sung by Jagjit Singh. These ghazals also popularized Jagjit Singh and gave him a foothold in the industry.
Kaifi Sahab also worked with Bappi Lahiri, to give us elegiac numbers like “Mana Ho Tum Behad Haseen” sung by Yesudas and “Mere Dil Mein Tu Hi Tu Hai” rendered by Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh. He also wrote the lyrics for the epic film “Razia Sultan” coming up with a sensuous but wholesome “Jalta Hai Badan” again sung by Lata under the baton of Khayyam.
Kaifi Azmi was a multi-talented persona. In 1973, he received tremendous critical acclaim for the script, dialogues and lyrics of M.S. Sathyu’s “Garm Hawa” based on a story by Ismat Chughtai. The Film chronicles the plight Muslims in North India and is set in Agra after the first major partition exodus. Balraj Sahni played to perfection the central role of an elderly Muslim shoe manufacturer who must decide whether to continue living in India or to migrate to the newly formed state of Pakistan. 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. This film remains one of the most poignant films ever to be made on India’s partition. Kaifi Sahab also wrote the dialogues for Shyam Bengal’s “Manthan” (1976) for which he won thw national award for best dialogue and MS Sathyu’s “Kanneshwara Rama” (1977).
In 1992 after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Kaifi was shaken to the core like many other Indians and was prompted to write a deeply moving poem “Doosra Banwas” (Rama’s Second Banishment to the Forest).
In 1995 Azmi Saab acted in Saeed Mirza’s film- “Naseem”, which was based upon the same subject. He played a memorable old man in the touching film centered on the destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. The film is set in June-December 1992, the days preceding the demolition of the Masjid on December 6, 1992 by Hindutva fanatics. Naseem (Mayuri Kango) is a schoolgirl belonging to a middle class Mumbai based Muslim family. She enjoys a warm relationship with her aged ailing grandfather (Kaifi Sahab), with increasing horror the family watches on their TV, the news of the build up at Ayodhya while the grandfather regales her with stories of life in pre-independence Agra. The grandfather dies on December 6 coinciding with the news of the destruction of the mosque. Kaifi Sahab’s brilliant performance reflected his personal pain.
Whatever Kaifi wrote for films was accepted and rarely was he asked to change anything. He never used cliched phrases and imagery. He did not work with too many people as they had the impression that he was a revolutionary and would not be able to write romantically. However his work is proof that he did total justice to romantic numbers. Take the number “Jhuki Jhuki Si Nazar Beqaraar Hai Ki Nahin” from “Arth” which is soft and romantic. He worked best with people who recognized the strength of his poetry such as Guru Dutt, Chetan Anand and Kamal Amrohi.
Kaifi Sahab never shortchanged his film work for his non-film poetry. There was no difference between them. All poetry had the same amount of power, be it for films or for ideology. It takes a poet of extraordinary gifts, like Kaifi Azmi, to craft verses capable of projecting, anger and exaltation while also maintaining a high degree of stylistic verve.
Another one of Kaifi’s achievements is that he got Ustad Amir Khan to sing a ghazal for a documentary made by M.S. Sathyu on Ghalib, which is a tremendous feat.
Kaifi Saab has won various awards and accolades and various national and international institutions have honoured him. These include
- Uttar Pradesh Urdu Academy Award,
- The Soviet Land Nehru Award
- The Sahitya Akademi Award for his collection, Awara Sajde,
- Sahitya Akademi fellow ship for the entire body of his work
- The Maharashtra State Urdu Academy’s Special Award for his contribution to Urdu literature
- Awadh Ratan from the government of U.P.
- The Maharashtra Gaurav award
- The prestigious Afro-Asian Writers’ Committee’s Lotus Award.
- National Award for screen play and dialogue for MS Sathyu;s ‘Garm Hawa’
- National Award for dialogue of Shyam Benegal’s ‘Manthan’ amongst countless others.
Kaifi Sahab has been the subject of many documentaries such as Raman Kumar’s ‘ Kaifi Azmi’ 1979, Santosh Valmeeki’s ‘Kahani Kaifiyat Ki’ , NCERT’s ‘Kaifi Azmi’.
There was not a single materialistic bone in this artist’s body and he never spoke about money terms to anyone. He took whatever he was paid. This master of letters had many talented artists like Ustad Amir Khan, MF Husain and Pandit Ram Narayan as his close friends. After the funeral, Pandit Ram Narayan came to his house and played out his grief on the Sarangi for 45 minutes.
Kaifi Azmi was family to few, friend to some yet an inspiration to all, not only through his words but also through his life. This was one man who believed in his ideology till the very end. This literary genius has taken poetry to the masses and will always be remembered for his gifted pen. He has left a legacy in rhyme in the form of beautiful, lyrical songs.