Mujhko iska ranj nahi ki log mujhe fankaar na maanein/ Fikr-o sukhan ke taajir mere sheron ko ash’aar nahi maanein (I do not regret that people do not consider me an artist/ That the traders of thought and words do not consider my poems as poetry). Speaking at a panel this year on “Urdu mei Hindustan” at the Jaipur Literature Festival, this verse of Sahir Ludhianvi came to my mind. In the boldness of this verse it appears that the poet announces he will not cater to the whims of the critics, that he will define his work, his poetry, which in turn, will define his philosophy and ideology.
The title of the panel was a curious one as pointed out by the retired-bureaucrat, poet and scholar Ashok Vajpeyi, who said “Why Urdu mei Hindustan, why not Marathi mei or Tamil mei!” One obvious reason could be that Urdu has had so many social and political underpinnings to it. Though it is a language that brought in soul and nuances of other kinds of traditions to enrich the Indian culture, it unfortunately gets associated only with one religious community, ie, the Muslims. This, in fact, even plays out stereotypically in the visuals. So, you see in most Urdu television channels the Mehraab (arches), the dripping candle, and so on. This, perhaps, is not surprising given that Partition and now communalisation of languages have only further created this absurd and linear association — an unfortunate turn of development given that languages in our cultural history have never been victimized so. Even Tulsidas — Vajpeyi says — has used more than a 1,000 Arabic and Persian words in the Ramcharitmanas.
But the same events in history have also created the perfect opportunity to use the lyric as a powerful tool in the articulation of anger, inequality, and also peace and love. Music and lyric have reflected on issues of displacement and uprooting. These ideas, even if expressed centuries ago, still continue to be relevant. This tradition continues to be part of our conscious cultural inheritance, our carefully evolved culture of existence and co-existence. This, despite however much we forget to acknowledge its presence. These stand as important iterations of our shared cultural achievement in the subcontinent as attempts to induce and to inject feelings of a gentler, humane society — ones which should not be trapped in violence alone. This space to express one’s politics clearly through song has reduced in today’s times. Majaz Lucknawi wrote: Dair o kaabe ka mai nahi qaayal/ Dair o kaabe ko aashiyaan na bana (I believe neither in a temple nor in a mosque/ Don’t make them my home) It is almost scary to think that this kind of lyric, and there is so much of it, that was written to provoke, to question, is becoming more and more marginalised and obscure.
This movement, this cultural expression of resistance in fact, has historically been a refrain in our part of the world. Even among the medieval mystic poets for instance it resonates in Kabir’s Sadho! Dekho Re Jag Baurana! And, of course, more recently several of the progressive poets were committed outright to this cause. The voice of the progressive poets, especially when it resonated against the anti-colonial struggle attempting to forge a togetherness, has become a thing of the faint past. Sahir Ludhianvi is only a film lyricist. The passion and anger of Josh, Majaz, Kaifi and the others about equality and justice are largely forgotten.
The world of Urdu poetry, particularly of the Progressives, is indeed more than a column on its own. But my engagement with it has largely been from the point of view of its “singability”. As someone who comes from a South Indian background, but sings in North Indian languages, including the ghazal in Urdu, I have often been nervous, curious and excited about clinching the ‘nuktas’ and such pronunciations. But what attracts me even more is the sheer beauty and power of the language to articulate an idea, a philosophy, an ideology, succinctly.
A couple of years ago, in Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s centenary year when I had the opportunity to research, compose and sing some of his poetry, I felt I was able to fulfil this desire to say something I believed to be relevant and urgent.
It also brought to mind the prolific interpretations that Faiz’s poetry offers. When Iqbal Bano sang her Hum Dekhenge and the Inquilaab Zindabaad that emanated from the audience in the recording still made listening to it a thrilling experience; or her rendition of his dua (prayer) — perhaps the most radical prayer ever written.
As I became more drawn to the poetry of Faiz, I also saw a distinct musical style in which several singers sang his work. There is always scope to bring in Raagdari — a classicism. I do enjoy composing some of his work and the fact that he loved classical music encourages me to explore various raagas — including Shahana, Khamaj, Malhar, several of which lend themselves beautifully to his poetry. Every time I perform in Pakistan, the love and appreciation from the audience that I receive seem ironical, especially when I sing Faiz. And that I should come across the border to sing remembering a man who fought these boundaries all his life.
Singing Faiz gives me an opportunity to address a void that has come to be linked to the understanding of cultural protest, of raising a concern, of being angry or anxious, within the context of my own musical framework. Culture has always been an important tool defining the socio-political framework of society. But it has increasingly been thrown into the domain of “soft stories” or “entertainment”. Perhaps this kind of soft peddling will only ensure collective dumbing down, and general dilution of cultural sensibilities.
I am reminded of a powerful sequence in Ritwik Ghatak’s iconic Komal Gandhar where a man acting in a play exclaims in disbelief as to how, really how, could he be termed a Mohajir, a refugee in his own land! Hopefully, we will not do the same to Urdu.
The author is a musician